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

This week, when I wasn't making cute chalkboard-painted cans, I've been dabbling in education policy issues.  I've been reading Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and on Tuesday night, Ravitch was in town to open this year's Hunter Lecture Series.  Ravitch is a historian and a major player in the world of education policy.  She has worked for past presidents and education secretaries and has recently developed a formidable blog presence.

Her address Tuesday night was great.  Ravitch sets herself up in opposition to the Michelle Rhee-types who are hollering about the demise of Public Education and who are fighting for such reforms as charter schools and merit pay for teachers.  Ravitch used data from national assessments to argue that education is, in fact, doing better than it ever has: graduation rates are up, college acceptances are up, test scores overall are up.  She also claims that the reformers often blame teachers, something that Ravitch stands staunchly opposed to.  In her address, she pointed out that there is a bipartisan consensus regarding the overall failure of American schools, even though the evidence doesn't support that claim.  She made such excellent points as "standardized testing will never be a tool for achieving civil rights or equity" and "value-added assessment relies on a statistical formula used to measure business productivity, but it simply doesn't work for education."  She held up the Peer Assistance and Review Program in Montgomery County, Maryland as an appropriate way to mentor and evaluate new teachers, and she insisted on the importance of good prenatal care for all mothers, a health clinic in every school, and low caseloads for social workers in high-need schools.  The bottom line: these kids need support on every front, and we can't just blame teachers for their low test scores.

In both her address and the book, Ravitch argues passionately against charter schools.  As a historian, Ravitch does admirable work tracking the recent history behind many of these current issues.  From the precursors to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) through the various efforts in big cities like New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Chicago to reform their public schools, Ravitch takes her readers through detailed examinations as she explains how she moved from supporting the accountability and testing movement to her current position against those efforts.  Ravitch builds substantial arguments to show how the current reform efforts have not been proven to actually improve student performance.  She fears we will allow test-driven data to so undermine our systems and teachers as to see privatization take over our schools.  Her concern for schools, teachers, and students is evident. The problem with the book is that it is unevenly argued.  Though she is clearly both passionate and learned, her passion sometimes drives her argument to weaknesses in rationale.

For instance, she insists that we should not allow systems to punish schools and teachers based on student test scores; however, she repeatedly argues that charters are not successful because their test scores aren't higher than traditional public schools'.  You cannot claim these are ineffective assessment measures on one hand and then use those same measures to assess on the other.  At other times, it feels the data are being manipulated to support an argument as opposed to the researcher allowing the data to lead to the conclusion.      This is especially true in the chapter on school choice and the Pennsylvania charter movement.  Another example of unevenness concerns the DC school system (Ravitch's disapproval of Michelle Rhee is obvious).  At many points in the book, she argues that test scores should not be used as indicators of teacher success because of external influences that affect student performance, specifically poverty.  Our low-poverty schools have very high scores, competitive with the top-performing nations in the world.  Our high-poverty schools are at the bottom.  It is an excellent point and one more people should be aware of.  But when addressing the DC public schools and their highly-successful charter system, she admits that those charters have very high percentages of poor students that are still seeing success.  There, she says they are doing well because they don't have very many ESL or special needs students.  It feels like she is unwilling to accept that  some products of the reform movement might actually be doing good work.

Ravitch has been and continues to be a prolific writer and an important voice in American Education.  I am glad she is doing the work she does, and I'm glad I had the chance to hear her speak and to read her book.  And regardless of how we get there, I will hope with Ravitch as she writes:
Our public education system is a fundamental element of our democratic society.  Our public schools have been the pathway to opportunity and a better life for generations of Americans, giving them the tools to fashion their own life and to improve the commonweal.  To the extent that we strengthen them, we strengthen our democracy. (242)

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