Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

by Diane Ravitch
 Basic Books     2010
335 pages     Nonfiction

I had the opportunity to read Diane Ravitch's provocative book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, while I was helping a student write a paper for an education curriculum class. As an Undersecretary in the Department of Education, Ravitch was early advocate for charter schools, vouchers, firing incompetent teachers and operating schools as businesses, but she has made a radical shift in her understanding of what needs to be done in America's schools. This book, the first since her major shift in thinking, outlines how and why her thinking has changed. She places the blame squarely on poverty, testing, the agendas of legislatures and what she calls "the billionaires' boys clubs." 

I really have to admire her work. In a world where politicians and policy-makers won't compromise--no matter what--she has publicly come out saying that what we have been doing isn't working and that now she sees that the reforms she formerly advocated are the major part of the problem. She has turned against standardized testing and schools of choice. She has become an advocate of neighborhood schools because they promote democracy and community. She reminds us that the three major events that shaped our current educational dilemmas happened in the 1960s and 1970s. Those are desegregation, the mainstreaming of disabled students, and massive amounts of immigration.She is particularly outspoken about the private foundations that are pouring money into public education advocating charter schools, among other things. This would include the Gates, Walton and Broad Foundations.

She says: "School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss's Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land 'where they never have troubles, at least very few.' Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. . .In this case I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures; I too had drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems."

Two things that I especially appreciate about her conclusions
are that she believes that students need well-rounded curriculum, including history, the arts and science. She suggests that children who receive well-rounded educations do well on standardized tests--perhaps better than those children who are taught to the test. I also appreciate her comments about the value of teachers and that the mass firings of teachers do nothing to enhance education.

Ravitch has a new book called Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. It came out in September, and in it she continues her onslaught against the further education reforms since The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Believe me, she is no fan of Arnie Duncan, Secretary of Education!

A review of The Death and Life of the Great American School System in the New York Times:

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