Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Book Review: THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM, by Diane Ravitch
There was once a time when evolution and refinement of one's thinking, even the changing of one's views, was considered the mark of a cultivated mind. Ongoing observation, collection and synthesis of information, formulation of new (or revised), experience-based theories and conclusions -- all were respected as the rightful path to truth for the well-trained mind. In more recent years, particularly in today's hyper-partisan America, such intellectually commendable behavior as come to be considered a sign of weakness, of a craven caving-in to "the other side," sometimes viciously castigated as cowardly, traitorous, or just "selling out." It was Billy Joel, however, who wrote (in "Shades of Grey") that "...the only people I fear are those who never have doubts."
Given this current state of affairs, Diane Ravitch opens her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (link to Amazon.com) with a defense (bordering on apology) of her evolved thinking on the subject of public education in America. An education historian of national repute with a deep background in the Bush/Clinton/Bush era of school reform, Ms. Ravitch freely confesses that many of the reforms she had enthusiastically espoused and supported in the 1980s and 1990s -- "testing, accountability, choice, and markets" -- are simply not working. Her present assessment is actually rather worse than that, as evidenced by her book's subtitle: "How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."
The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a simply masterful work: articulate but highly readable, addressing complex subject matter with depth and clarity, authoritative but not dryly academic. Ms. Ravitch combines historical perspective with the results of numerous foundation studies and judiciously constrained use of statistics to argue her case that American public education has gone seriously off-track since roughly the time of the first Bush Presidency in 1989. She faults both Democrats and Republicans for this situation, relegating much of their behavior to political posturing around quick fixes coupled with an under-informed infatuation with corporate business models and free market thinking as the answer to the country's education issues. As a result, the ideal of a liberal education, encompassing not just multiple subject areas (science, math, history, geography, English writing and literature, foreign language, art and music) but also such traits as curiosity, passion, persistence, risk-taking, self-learning, empathy, and tolerance, has been supplanted by "measurables," especially test scores in math and reading/English.
Ms. Ravitch's book follows a loosely chronological arc from NYC's District 2 and San Diego in the 1990s to NCLB and the NYC business model for education implemented under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the early 2000s. She retraces her temporal steps somewhat to address school choice and its transformation from a Friedmanian espousal of vouchers to support for charter schools. In the latter third of her book, she addresses three other, important points of contention: the problems introduced by slavish devotion to quantifiable accountability as the only measure of school success, the definition of "great teachers" and how they are measured under current systems, and the role of publicly unanswerable major foundations (Walton, Gates, and Broad) and how they are almost single-handedly dictating the path of public education reform in the U.S. For this reader, the chapter on these foundations (aptly titled "The Billionaire Boys' Club") was the most revealing and disturbing one in the entire book.
In her final chapter, "Lessons Learned," Ms. Ravitch makes her case for what needs to be done at this point. She begins this exercise with the absolutely correct question, the very one that punches an enormous hole in NCLB: "What does it mean to have (i.e., offer to children) a good education?" She then proceeds to argue for a national curriculum (or alternatively, strong, state-defined curricula), assessments that are "as good as the curriculum," multiple measures of school quality, support for rather than closure of struggling schools, well-educated and well-paid teachers, increased family involvement, and increased expectation of civility in schools. Unfortunately, these prescriptions come across as vague and rather idealistic, not nearly forceful or specific enough to stem the current tides against which she herself has turned.
No matter one's political or educational persuasion, The Death and Life of the Great American School System is essential reading. Those who agree will find in this book a reasoned, history- and evidence-based justification of their views (and rejection of many current education reform initiatives). Those who disagree should, at the very least, consider the case being made and reevaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their own positions.
Hopefully, Diane Ravitch's book will give a few moments' pause for reflection to national leaders who seem swept up by the lavish promises of reform via data analysis, accountability, and free market (read, privatization) of our public education system. For anyone who wants to understand what has happened to American public education in the past two decades, The Death and Life of the Great American School System is an indispensable read.