Book Review

Book Review: The Death and Life of the Great American School System

By Denebola
Published: April 2010

Amanda Sands

In a buzzing lecture hall at Harvard’s Ed School, an elderly lady whispered to her old companion “It’s wonderful¦to explain why she changed her mind. A couple of young men entered the room, nodding to seats in the last row. “Is that a good spot? one asked the other. “Yeah, the other replied, knowing they would need a place where they could discuss what they would hear, “we can kinda whisper to each other.

Professors, teachers, students, conservatives, radicals, young people, old people’€everyone gathered in anticipation of one influential woman, the face of conservative education reform in the United States for decades: Diane Ravitch.

But she looked altogether tame, her face, a visible battlefield of laugh lines and years of “spirited discussions, quaintly framed by her graying hair. When Dr. Ravitch approached the podium, the audience waited with baited breath, ready for her momentous confession.

“I was wrong, she said to the crowd of latent listeners. This sentiment, Ravitch’s newest conclusion, is expressed in her 20th and most recent book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

Ravitch, who served as the Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to the Secretary of Education under the administration of President H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, spearheaded the infamous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act through Congress in 2002. Since then, she has been a strong and vocal advocate of standardized testing to evaluate K-12 schools. NCLB intended to dramatically advance education for school-aged children, ultimately leading to all children’s “proficiency in subjects like math and reading by 2014. We are four years away from that initial goal, and from the looks of the past eight, as Ravitch puts it, “NCLB is not working.

So what was behind her sudden change of heart? According to Ravitch, the countless failures of NCLB were unpredictable back in 2002. She countered her inability to foresee these issues by suggesting that “maybe there are a lot of people smarter than [she was].

She now claims, contrary to popular belief, her opinion hasn’t changed as radically as the media like the New York Times has recently characterized. An avid supporter of testing eight years ago, now Ravitch says that she is “not actually opposed to testing, rather, she opposes testing for “accountability purposes.

These “accountability purposes are the basis by which, under NCLB, the government reserve the right to fire the teachers of poorly performing students, withhold additional funding from their districts, and even shut down “failing schools.

To many, the idea of a school “failing to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP), and subsequently losing its integrity, seems harsh, even counterproductive. Ravitch previously preached that it was best to teach these schools a lesson: yield higher test scores or suffer the consequences. The problem with this was schools teaching “to the test, producing better test-takers rather than kids who undertstood.

Naturally, enough states got the message, began “dumbing-down standards for children’s assessment in “proficiency to ensure that more kids passed to evade their schools’ penalization.

The gains, at first, were, as Ravitch said, “incredible’€but they were just that: wholly unbelievable. For example, the state of Mississippi leaped to an astounding 89 percent proficiency among elementary school children, while on closer examination, only 19 percent were adequately performing.

Cut scores were lowered, results became “inflated, teachers were trained testing skills, and the American education system went down rather than up. “We’re on the path to miseducating a generation of American children, Ravitch said.

Like most, she feels that this is not how education should be, despite the years she spent fighting for the passage of NCLB, paired with her support for increased standardized testing for so long. “All children in a democratic society should have a quality education, Ravitch said.

Now that we know and agree about how detrimental NCLB is to American schools, the next move is uncertain. Ravitch warned that people should “beware of miracle solutions to complex problems, but what ideas has she had?

Many argue that Ravitch dug the hole that we are in today with her own conservative activism. Some feel that trying to salvage our current approach would be better than overhauling the entire system. They argue that there are some benefits of NCLB that should be kept alive, but for reasons other than school evaluation. Dan Koretz, a speaker at the forum, mentioned that the test scores reaped yearly from mandatory NCLB testing are simply “incomplete, not inaccurate.

Others believe that education reform calls for a total renovation of the current system. As Koretz pointed out, we didn’t have to wait for the failure of NCLB to see that certain educating strategies don’t work. NCLB led us astray for years, leading us farther from alternative routes to a better education system that may have been more successful. These folks have absolutely no faith that tests possess one iota of truth, no matter how convincing the data are.

An example of this contentious data can be seen when comparing state-level numbers with federal numbers. While there may be a statistical significance in the difference between students’ education before and after NCLB at the federal level, the numbers may conclude to be statistically insignificant at the state level, even if the data, when pooled, is collected on the same 64 million kids in the American school system.

This statistical enigma is called “Simpson’s paradox, and it is one of the reasons for widespread confusion regarding the seemingly fudged levels of improvement among students before and after the implementation of NCLB. This stealthy practice has been used to twist information in favor of both parties, for and against the returns of the policy, allowing the deductions of conflicting conclusions from the same sets of data.

Something must be done. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s agenda has three main points, one of which specifically pertains to the immediate issues with NCLB: firing substandard teachers and hiring an “army of new teachers, rewarding educators who are “doing a great job, and aiding struggling schools “rather than punishing them.

Other factors in this ongoing debate include the role of charter schools, teachers’ qualifications and evaluations, and the potential business opportunities arising in the field of education.

Ravitch “believe[s] in the original intention of charter schools, which was to create an alternative to other public schools that has more freedoms than regular schools, established by the school’s charter. But she suggested that we not focus on the 3% of American children enrolled in charter schools for the time being. “Charter schools, she said, “are extremely variable in quality. She argued that more attention should be paid to the other 97% of students in regular public schooling.

The teachers’ adequacy in public schools, charter or not, is also an issue. If the system changes for students, it should change for teachers as well. Raising standards for teachers, requiring that educators major in the subject they teach, hiring principals and superintendents who are teachers themselves would greatly improve the current system.

The issue of profit-oriented goals linked to public education has people worried over the sincerity of such new programs. Primary and secondary education is virtually the only unexploited market left in the United States, and business people may look to reap the benefits of such a massive consumer base. “This dog-eat-dog mentality, Ravitch said of those who wish to capitalize on public schools’ needs, “is not appropriate. She also pointed out that “even business doesn’t operate that way.

Marshall Cohen

Dr. Ravitch’s latest book on education is a good one, I greatly enjoyed it, as well as her Harvard lecture.

She writes well, isn’t gimmicky, and doesn’t use that worn-out education jargon. She’s actually an historian, so she has a well-informed perspective. She gets to have opinions because she’s obviously read widely and just as obviously reflected upon it.

Before reading The Death and  Life of the Greeat American School System I remember hearing Ravitch on another occasion, I remember something so characteristic of her conservative values’€Something like, If kids need to have a role model, I would rather that they admired an Odysseus than a Rambo.

It might have been Achilles, but the point is she picked up on a classical Greek allusion, something much richer than the cartoon fluff we get in the media. Bentham remarked that “pushpin was as good as “poetry. It’s all the same. No, Ravitch says, it isn’t all the same. Utilitarianism doesn’t rule; some things are inherently more worthwhile and richer than others.

I read her work in the late 70s, perhaps The Troubled Crusade, about education reform efforts and how they seem to repeat themselves, and end up hurting kids. What struck me? First of all, she was certainly a conservative in terms of the spin she put on education and education reform. Even though I am not a conservative, it was a credible narrative. Some points I disagreed with but thought it a valuable book.

Reading her latest,the wonderful thing now is that we are in much greater agreement about what’s happening to schools, what they need.

How so, what do I mean by conservative? Well, people are conservative and liberal in different ways. Think about how one sees economic policy, personal values, interpretation of foreign policy, and you can see how a single individual can contain quite different attitudes, seeming contradictions.

Ravitch was on the E. D. Hirsch side of education. His work exemplified a slew of books that said certain things  are worth knowing, other things are less worth knowing.

This is certainly true in one sense but if you extend your inclusion/exclusion strictures too far, your belief in an absolute, ‘Ëœcanon,’ a list of books and personalities children should know, and often no more, you close off the present.

She tended more in that direction than liberals, who would argue there were many things of value in the present as well as past, that students could know. Ravitch would come down for what she called a rich, time-tested curriculum.

Again, if you cast the argument as content vs. experience, she came down on the content side but, quoting Dewey in her lecture, she’s never been an absolutist in the sense of entirely excluding experience. I am quite liberal in many ways but do not necessarily disagree with Dr Ravitch that one problem with education reform is a certain faddism, every few years a new idea that will be the Silver bullet.

Meaning? if everyone does just this one thing, follows this one process, like put purple in your hat, all schools will be OK. It ends being just trendy, and the question arises what really gets changed that produces a fundamental good in classrooms.

Before The Death and Life of the Great American School System appeared, I think she did drink the killer Kool-Aide in being such a powerful national advocate of this stuff about ‘Ëœaccountability.’ The Right in American social policy values increasingly relentless monitoring of schools, teachers, and students but has become exclusively concerned with it.

That’s part of the mania for testing, and the blind self-assurance that everything of value can be tested. Planning and policy has come to be governed by an obsession, that every penny spent must be reflective of a practice that will improve test scores and prove understanding. In the end, you only spend money for things that “work in the narrowest pragmatic sense.

Ravitch’s new narrative is helpful in explaining this kind of thinking from the start, from the “Nation at Risk criticism of the Reagan years, late 70s to early 80s, and how this policy developed today to our present with Bush and now Obama.

The assumption was high test scores meant solid understanding.

Ravitch says data no longer supports this assertion, and no test, certainly no one test should be used as though it were a perfect instrument. In both her book and lecture she argued one test to measure teacher performance, or student performance, in the absence of other measures, was ridiculous.

Although Massachusetts’ MCAS is touted as the best out there, I have had issues with it, and still feel this test does not report what it’s asserted it reports. The question is measuring skills vs. knowing stuff.

Few tests do either well, and certainly not both together. A student reads Catcher in the Rye, then does 30 questions, the test “proves they either got it or didn’t. But, what exactly did they get? Ravitch now says those tests simply don’t tell us enough about what young people learn, or, how they are learning it.

Ravitch has moved from the True Believer camp.

Chester Finn’€who never met a businessman or a number he didn’t like’€was a collaborator, now it’s the progressive Debbie Meier with whom she shares a blog. Earlier, it was apply this business model to schools to get better results. Set up target goals, do research and get data, go for “hard outcomes, reward and punish.

It’s the factory system, Grad grindism, whipping public schools into line, denying funds and punishing teachers and kids until they become the cartoon “state school, and then you close them, sell off the buildings, re-open with more efficient for-profit charters. Those Businessworld standards are here. I go to meetings where they say, If it can’t be measured, don’t talk about it.

Dr. Ravitch has looked hard at what several decades of this policy have “produced, her book argues those attitudes and polices have failed.

What now? Use tests for what they were intended, measures to guide policy. Stop using one or a few tests to punish teachers and kids. Principals aren’t running businesses, find and reward committed educators who aren’t moved one way or the other by the merit “carrot of a few thousand dollars one way or the other, and jettison the lawyers and CEO mentality that put admirals and widget makers into superintendent chairs’€people who have never been inside classrooms, never taught 30 or 40 kids.

Ravitch was questioned that she had gone 180 degrees, her book was a completely new tack. Not so, she replied. She had always argued schools were better if collaborative rather than competitive, that snap or uninformed judgments about what was “good teaching were wrong.

She has an important account of what went wrong with No Child Left Behind. The standards movement got captured by testing movement. Democrats signed on, because Bush was giving what appeared unprecedented amounts of money to schools to change.

What happened? no money. Or, just enough for the tests. People felt betrayed by this.

She hopes the country is coming to its senses about the value of testing. What she is doing now is returning to her original interests, the richness of the curriculum and training teachers who can make it happen. Testing has its place but if you don’t know where you are going, makes no sense. In her book, it all begins with good curriculum and practitioners who are supported who can deliver it.

Her book wants to be hopeful, we can save our schools if we get our house in order.

A huge question’€is Obama just continuing Bush education policies, how did Obama get hijacked? His Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s approach is just what Ravitch is criticizing, punishing bad teachers, so certain about what’s good and bad teaching.

Duncan completely misunderstands the motivation that moves people to teach. Ravitch goes back to basics: give teachers better materials and conditions. Don’t make teachers and parents fight over every nickel, every year.

I love her anecdote about economist John Maynard Keynes when he changed his mind, You used to say A, now you don’t say A? Well, Keynes replied, the facts have changed, what would you have me do?

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