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The Death and Life of the Great American School System

The Death and Life
of the Great American School System

Diane Ravitch, the nation’s foremost historian of education, warns that national education policy is on a path to wrecking our cherished tradition of public education.  In this remarkable book, she describes how such strategies as accountability schemes based on questionable standardized tests, merit pay for teachers based on gains on the same unreliable tests, vouchers, and charter schools have been oversold as solutions for our educational problems. Ravitch explains why she became persuaded by accumulating evidence that policymakers are on the wrong track in pushing a market model of reform that ignores the realities of the classroom. The more they push these policies, she writes, the more they will harm our nation’s school system and undermine the quality of education.

Ravitch shows how President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program (“NCLB”) has failed to improve education. The main result of NCLB has been to turn our schools into testing factories. While children are trained to take standardized tests, they do not gain the knowledge and skills that are necessary components of a good education.  The federal “sanctions” and “remedies” now mandated across the nation have unfairly stigmatized thousands of schools and put them at risk of being closed and privatized. The Obama administration has now adopted the same approach as the George W. Bush administration, despite the lack of evidence that these “reforms” will improve the quality of education.

Ravitch reviews the record of districts that claim to have achieved “miracles,” and finds that the alleged “miracles” vanish on close examination. Not only are test scores in many states and districts inflated by statistical game-playing and lowered standards, but the over-emphasis on testing has all but eliminated the essential elements of a solid education, including history, civics, science, the arts, geography, literature, physical education, health education, and foreign languages.

Ravitch shows that privatization and deregulation of schools solve no problems. Charter schools choose their students in lotteries, then have the freedom to exclude (or “counsel out”) those who don’t test well. Many do not accept a fair share of students with disabilities and those who are English language learners. The regular public schools, by contrast, have to educate everyone. Meanwhile, many charter managers pay themselves handsomely for their services.  Ravitch demonstrates that charters on average do not get better results than regular public schools.

The currently fashionable idea that teachers should be evaluated by their students’ test scores, Ravitch finds, is wrongheaded. She explains that the  research for this proposition is deeply flawed. The main consequence of this approach, now a keystone of the Obama administration education plan, will be to drive good teachers out of public education.

Ravitch argues that what is at stake is nothing less than the future of public education, especially in our urban districts. Every student should have a solid, well-balanced education that prepares them for the future. A democratic society, she concludes, needs a healthy, vibrant public education system, with good public schools in every neighborhood. On our current course, the schools will be privatized, deregulated, and turned over to entrepreneurs. Based on a careful review of the evidence, Ravitch says that this course of action is unlikely to improve American education.

This is a classic and riveting story of good intentions gone terribly wrong.
Copyright © 2010 by Basic Books