Luther Spoehr, Review of Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education" (Basic Books, 2010)
“Scholar’s School Reform U-Turn Shakes Up Debate,” proclaimed the New York Times. Education Week ran a front-page story; Slate.com devoted many bytes to it. The Providence Journal’s op-ed section gave most of a page to the author’s own summary version of her change of heart about how to improve America’s schools. Seldom does a book about education receive such star treatment. The good news: it’s deserved.
Diane Ravitch, distinguished historian of education, former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, and longtime voice of reason in rancorous dust-ups like the history standards controversy of the 1990s, has changed her mind about “testing, accountability, choice, and markets.” Her highly readable new book combines the story of her own intellectual journey and the history of America’s efforts to improve its schools over the past quarter century.
While much is being made of Ravitch’s “U-Turn,” she rightly points out some “constants” in her viewpoint: “skepticism about pedagogical fads, enthusiasms, and movements,” a skepticism that informed her earlier histories, and “a deep belief in the value of a rich, coherent school curriculum, especially in history and literature.” The latter made it virtually inevitable that she would become disenchanted with NCLB, which focuses exclusively on basic skills. NCLB, she says, “hijacked” the standards movement of the 1990s and turned education into an assembly line of test preparation.
More surprising, and less persuasive, is her reversal on school choice, particularly charter schools, which she now sees as threatening to skim the cream from regular public schools. But a chapter on the emergence of the “Billionaire Boys’ Club,” headed by the Gates and Broad Foundations, gives credibility to her concern: they have a lot of influence these days, particularly when pushing their notion that schools can be run like businesses, with the principal as chief data-cruncher and the teachers held “accountable” mainly by test scores.
Some will find Ravitch’s call for a return to neighborhood schools merely nostalgic. But she is surely right when she says that her own inspiring English teacher, Miss Ratliff, “would be stifled not only by the data mania of her supervisors, but by the jargon, the indifference to classical literature, and the hostility to her manner of teaching that now prevail in our schools.” Politicians’ promises that schools will have “great teachers” will not make tightly scripted, narrowly focused, “data driven” test preparation more appealing to genuinely gifted instructors. Miss Ratliff will find other careers to pursue. Students who are merely literate, not educated, won’t become “lifelong learners.”
Even if one doesn’t fully accept Ravitch’s alarm about charters or her back-to-the-future prescription for change, it’s hard to argue with her conclusion: “The strategies now favored by the most powerful forces in the private and public sectors are unlikely to improve American education.” Leaving no child behind doesn’t mean much when you’re headed in the wrong direction.
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