The Death and Life of the Great American School System
by Diane Ravitch
(Basic Books, 2010)
Reviewed by Sarah Schumacher
Secondary Literacy & Social Studies (WA)
TLN New Millennium Initiative
Why would a powerful, successful advocate for what amounted to a revolution in our education system completely change her mind about the initiatives she once supported? And what happens when she does? What do we do next? Those were the questions on my mind as I picked up Diane Ravitch’s newest book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I had heard of Diane Ravitch and her ideas many times in my career and had heard rumblings about her so-called ‘mea culpa’, and so was excited to find out what her motivations were, what she had seen that so completely changed her mind.
There are no sacred cows in this book; Ravitch pulls no punches. She systematically goes after many of the initiatives and policies that have been held up in the last years as cure-alls for the ills of our education system: testing, tenure, charter schools, Teach for America, vouchers. . .the list goes on. As she says late in the book, “American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas.” As educators, we see so many initiatives rolling through that are promised to be panaceas that we often know will lead to nothing. So it’s refreshing to hear someone speaking so candidly and with so much depth. On the other hand, as you read the book you’re left wondering what else is there? If these things aren’t “magic feathers,” then what should we be doing instead? We definitely learn the ‘why’ of her transformation, but not so much the ‘what next?’
Her first chapter, “What I Learned About School Reform,” outlines Ravitch’s career as an educational researcher and writer and subsequent ascension to the position of assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration. One thing I respected immediately about her arguments is that she doesn’t let herself off the hook for the role she played. She admits that, “I began ‘seeing like a state,’ looking at schools and teachers and students from an altitude of 20,000 feet and seeing them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans.” The chapter then chronicles her change of heart as she realizes the initiatives proliferating education are not getting the results they should. She ends by beginning her argument that in the era of NCLB education was beginning to be viewed as an institution that could, and should, be run as if it were a private, for-profit enterprise. However, she emphasizes that she does not have clear alternatives of her own. More about that later.
The second chapter, “Hijacked! How the Standards Movement Turned Into the Testing Movement,” continues to set the context for NCLB. It is in this chapter that you learn three things about Diane Ravitch. First, she strongly dislikes NCLB and all its progeny: testing, so-called accountability, choice, etc.. Second, she appreciated the 1983 report A Nation at Risk and the prescription it gave the nation’s education system. Third, and most of all, she likes strong standards and curriculum, believing that they lead to more well-rounded, deeper thinking students. Take note, because that’s about the only thing she appears to like in the entirety of the book.
The book then becomes a whirlwind of detail in a House-That-Jack-Built layered style of argumentation. In other words: She really makes her case. The third, fourth and fifth chapters tell the stories of three different school districts and how fundamental changes to their organizations and policies in the mode of NCLB-era ideas led to uncertain outcomes. Those uncertain outcomes are a theme throughout the rest of the book. It seems that for every initiative there are a thousand studies, all of them reaching a different conclusion.
The next three chapters form the crux of her argument: “NCLB: Measure and Punish”, “Choice: The Story of an Idea”, and “The Trouble with Accountability.” In these chapters she outlines, detail by detail (by detail) the case against No Child Left Behind and its policies. In “What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?”, she talks about the growing movement to link teacher evaluations to test scores and wonders if her own favorite teacher, Mrs. Ratliff, would be considered a great teacher today, she of the red marking pen and nineteenth-century poetry. Sadly, she probably wouldn’t.
Finally, the next to last chapter, “The Billionaire Boys’ Club” is aimed directly at those large foundations and endowments that, Ravitch argues, are driving education reform with their own agendas instead of seeking out innovators already in the field. She talks at length about the Gates Foundation and its small schools agenda and how the Broad Foundation is supporting the movement to turn school administration into a business. This seems to be the core of her argument, that the more the powers that be have treated education as a business, the more detrimental it has been to our nation’s students. She makes this argument thoroughly and leaves no question marks about any of the major factors impacting education today.
Given that, what was unexpected for me was that there are many questions left unanswered at the end of the book. I finally reached the chapter I’d been waiting for, “Lessons Learned,” and found it pretty unsatisfying. Throughout this shortest of chapters, she uses the refrain “Our schools will not improve if…” to share what she thinks should be the priorities of our education system. She brings up national standards and common curriculum and talks about what the goals of testing and teacher evaluation should be, but gives very few specifics.
I guess I’d liken it to hearing a firebrand speaker and getting passionately excited about the cause only to be given a tin sword with which to go start the revolution. We need much more than lofty generalities to fix what is broken about our system. In all, though, I found this book incredibly well-argued, thought-provoking and interesting and would recommend it to anyone who wants to know the other side of the story of education in the last decade.
Sarah Schumacher is a secondary literacy coach and social studies coordinator in the Edmonds, Washington School District. She’s a member of the New Millennium Initiative teacher team exploring teaching policy issues in her state.