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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch's well-researched, thought-provoking, and impassioned plea for an examination of current education reforms is a must-read for anyone who is concerned about the present state and future of education in the United States. What makes it all the more remarkable is that Ravitch was part of George W. Bush's administration and had an active role in his educational agenda and the development of the No Child Left Behind legislation. Ravitch's book explains her 180-degree reversal in attitude and how reforms that she once saw as the salvation of education in the U.S.--school choice, testing, and "accountability"--she now acknowledges as further weakening the overall quality of education.
Ravitch's books contains a great deal of statistics that may prove a little dry to the casual reader, but are extremely important nevertheless. She uses a wealth of research to debunk such myths as the idea that charter schools are superior at educating children. By citing studies that show that charter schools on the whole enroll fewer special education students, fewer English language learners, and "counsel out" lower-performing students, Ravitch provides a possible explanation of how they are able to post impressive gains in test scores. As Ravitch argues, the initial role of charter schools was to bolster the public schools by serving the neediest of the needy students. Instead, these institutions are using their autonomy to add to the burdens already suffered by public schools by skimming off top performers and leaving the lowest performers to the public schools, which must educate every student. Ravitch illustrates how, by attempting to run education like a marketplace, competition is actually hurting our public schools and our underserved students by placing a heavier burden on schools that already have trouble providing the necessary resources to these underserved students.

Illuminating chapters about the New York City schools and the San Diego schools show how the astonishing improvements reported in test scores are often no more than a product of data manipulation. The New York chapter in particular discusses how stripping elected school boards of their rights and responsibilities in favor of placing control of schools directly in the hands of the mayor is not necessarily in the best interests of the community and its parents and students. She illustrates how the top-down management style of such districts often leads to teacher dissatisfaction and increases in the rate of attrition of both teachers and administrators. Just as importantly, Ravitch uses these chapters to show how parents are stripped of their voices when they have no part in choosing who will be in charge of the decision-making in their neighborhood school districts.

The heavy emphasis on testing as inspired by NCLB is also taken to task. By placing so much emphasis on reading and mathematics, students are left with gaping holes in their education when it comes to subjects such as science and social studies. Ravitch provides plenty of alarming statistics showing just how little American students know about these subjects. She also takes the stance that this emphasis isn't even very effective at ensuring that students develop good reading and math skills, and she has the data to prove it. Gains in test scores are often due to the dumbing down of state tests and manipulation of data. Ravitch also argues that "teaching to the test" doesn't adequately prepare students, as they gain skills necessary to take a specific test rather than gaining meaningful knowledge. By contrasting state test results with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Ravitch proves that the successes reported by states are often inflated--and why wouldn't they be? States that fail to show progress are severely penalized thanks to NCLB, and Ravitch makes a very convincing argument that such punitive measures do little to increase the overall quality of education.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is the portion of the book in which Ravitch takes on those she dubs "The Billionaire Boys' Club". She argues that organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation sometimes do more harm than good for the schools they are attempting to save. Ravitch provides an alarming look at how these rich and powerful foundations sometimes use their clout to promote their own agendas and philosophies of education. Why is this allowed to happen? Because, as Ravitch's research shows, so many are beholden to these organizations that they lack the will or the courage to question them. What's worse, they are usually treated with kid gloves by media that are content to take the claims of these organizations at face value without pulling up the rug to see what lies underneath. I found it admirable that Ravitch risked black-listing herself with these organizations (after all, they often generously fund the kind of research that Ravitch conducts) in order to bring to our attention why we should be wary of their involvement in shaping educational policy.

Make no mistake, this book isn't meant to be an attack on the right or on Republicans. Ravitch is equally critical about educational initiatives that were pushed during the Clinton administration, as well as those that were considered during the Obama campaign and are being shaped during the Obama presidency. As Ravitch states, NCLB was bipartisan legislation, and the idea of frequent testing, tying teacher salary to student test results, and the push for more charter schools is being advanced by Republicans and Democrats alike.

I learned a great deal from this book. In an era when so much is at stake economically, the importance of education should never be undermined. As Ravitch says on page 223, "The nature of our education system--whether mediocre or excellent--will influence society far into the future." Considering the initiatives currently being pushed by President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, Ravitch's words couldn't be truer.

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