THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM by Diane Ravich
Reviewed by Alan Wolfe, New York Times
The Education Of Diane Ravich
By ALAN WOLFE, NY TIMES, May 6, 2010
THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM
How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education
By Diane Ravitch
283 pp. Basic Books. $26.95
Attending high school in Houston in the 1950s, Diane Ravitch came into contact with a teacher named Ruby Ratliff. A passionate lover of literature and a fierce editor of homework, Ratliff, following Tennyson, told Ravitch “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” The student evidently followed the teacher’s advice. Ravitch, a historian of American education and assistant secretary of education under the first George Bush, has long sought to find out what makes schools work. She has now found what that is, or at least what it isn’t: choice and testing. Her case against both is unyielding.
Ravitch was lucky to have Ratliff as her teacher — and we are lucky to have Ravitch as ours. Education was once considered purely a state and local matter. In the past 30 or so years it has become a national political football, with left and right fighting over various proposals, while nothing ever seems to get fixed. Meanwhile, many schools remain essentially segregated; how much you earn has a great deal to do with where you were educated; and even the best and brightest seem to know less geography and grapple with less history than when Ruby Ratliff discussed “Ozymandias” with her Houston class.
Ravitch’s offer to guide us through this mess comes with a catch: she has changed her mind. Once an advocate of choice and testing, in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” she throws cold water on both. Along the way she casts a skeptical eye on the results claimed by such often-praised school reformers as New York’s Anthony Alvarado and San Diego’s Alan Bersin, reviews a sheaf of academic studies of school effectiveness and delivers the most damning criticism I have ever read of the role philanthropic institutions sometimes play in our society.
“Never before,” she writes of the Gates Foundation, was there an entity “that gave grants to almost every major think tank and advocacy group in the field of education, leaving no one willing to criticize its vast power and unchecked influence.”
The trouble all started, in her telling, with Milton Friedman, whose 1955 article “The Role of Government in Education” advocated the idea that parents should be given vouchers that would enable them to purchase schooling of their choice. In the Reagan administration, Friedman’s essay provided the rationale for efforts to promote what Secretary of Education William Bennett called the three C’s: content, character and choice. Before long, support for school choice became bipartisan when urban public officials, many of them black Democrats, saw in vouchers a way to give minority parents the same options available to middle-class families who could afford houses in desirable school districts.
Testing, as Ravitch shows, also has something of a trans-ideological intellectual history. Though conservatives historically opposed a strong federal role in education, in the 1990s they began looking with dismay at evidence that schools were failing and turned to the idea of national standards as a way to overcome the problem. Liberals, meanwhile, hoped to see more money made available to the schools, and if testing was the price to be paid to identify schools that were failing poor and minority children, so be it. No Child Left Behind, passed in the fall of 2001, seems to belong to another political century: Edward M. Kennedy, a firebrand liberal, and George W. Bush, a compassionate conservative, were equally proud of it.
Choice never fulfilled its promises, Ravitch argues, because its advocates spent more time talking about how education should be delivered than examining what education is. With so little effort devoted to the promotion of a sound curriculum, voucher schools, like those established in Milwaukee, turned out to offer few if any gains for those who attended them. As for charter schools, they have skimmed off the most motivated students without producing consistently better results than traditional public schools. She is skeptical of the charter movement’s free-market model of competition and choice.
“At the very time that the financial markets were collapsing, and as regulation of financial markets got a bad name,” Ravitch points out, “many of the leading voices in American education assured the public that the way to educational rejuvenation was through deregulation.” Instead of treating markets as a panacea, she argues, we should look at the data, the latest of which shows that charter schools as a whole do not do better than traditional schools. Given that result, we should be working harder to preserve the benefits of community and continuity that neighborhood schools offer.
Testing experienced much the same fate as vouchers. Knowing that their students would be tested and that the results would be used to evaluate which schools would be rewarded, educators began teaching to the tests, at the expense of sound curriculum.
But educational testing, Ravitch shows, is inexact, roughly the way public opinion polling is. Far from holding schools accountable, testing resulted in massive cynicism. Meanwhile the level of education received by many students remained “disastrously low.” Ravitch points to a 2009 study sponsored by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago showing that the increases in the performance of the city’s eighth graders in math and reading were due mostly to changes in testing procedures, and that in any case such gains evaporated by the time those students reached high school.
Some may ask whether we should trust someone who was once widely viewed as a conservative but now actually says nice things about teachers’ unions. But for all the attention paid to Ravitch’s change of heart, she has always been less an ideologue than a critic of educational fads, whether the more touchy-feely forms of progressive education popular in the 1960s and ’70s or the new nostrums of choice and testing. Ravitch now supports ideas associated with the left not because she is on the left. She does so for the simple reason that choice and testing had their chance and failed to deliver.
Ravitch ends with a call for a voluntary national curriculum, and believes that a consensus around better education is possible. On this point I do not share her optimism: parents who want creation science for their kids are not going to accept the teaching of evolution, and any push to establish common curriculum is likely to raise an outcry similar to that surrounding the 1994 history standards, drawn up by a panel of left-leaning historians and vociferously denounced by Lynne Cheney, the former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other conservatives. (Ravitch writes that she was “disappointed” by the partisan nature of the standards, but “thought they could be fixed by editing.”)
I have always relied on Ravitch’s intellectual honesty when battles become intense. And her voice is especially important now. President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, seem determined to promote reforms relying on testing and choice, despite fresh data calling their benefits into question. I wish we could all share Ravitch’s open-mindedness in seeing what the data really tells us. Somehow, I doubt that’s what will carry the day.
Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College, is writing a book about political evil.
Updated March 3, 2010
Diane Ravitch is one of the most influential education scholars of recent decades. An education historian, she built her intellectual reputation battling progressive educators and served in the first Bush administration's Education Department.
Dr. Ravitch appears to be in the final stages of an astonishing, slow-motion about-face on almost every stand she once took on American schooling. Her turnaround has become the buzz of school policy circles and angered critics. Admirers say she is returning to her roots as an advocate for public education.
Once outspoken about the power of standardized testing, charter schools and free markets to improve schools, Dr. Ravitch has become caustically critical. She underwent an intellectual crisis, she said, discovering that these strategies, which she now calls faddish trends, were undermining public education. She resigned in 2009 from the boards of two conservative research groups.
Among the topics on which Dr. Ravitch has reversed her views is the main federal law on public schools, No Child Left Behind. She once supported it, but now says its requirements for testing in math and reading have squeezed vital subjects like history and art out of classrooms.