Kathleen Hulser's Reviews > The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch
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Jul 17, 2010

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Ravitch eats crow. The queen of testing, bean-counting, charterism, and privatization admits she was WRONG. Is redemption possible? I guess it takes guts, since Ravitch has been the gruesome frontwoman for the deathforce that has in the name of reform smashed teaching, curriculum, school budgets and the public system in the last 15 years. But, in this book she attempts to redeem herself by actually looking at the results.
It is scary.

There is no content there. No one can answer the question: what are the kids learning now that they didn't before. Instead of higher standards, the testing movement has given us endlessly cooked results. She is particularly sharp on how NYC, a land of math whizes and credulity about business-like data, has been deceived about results. Indeed the Big Apple turns out to be the Culinary center of cooked testing. This comes as no surprise to public school parents who have opened Board of Education envelopes that announced that notorious bozo schools got high ratings, while solid achieving schools that were placing their graduates in top high schools and colleges received average or failing ratings. So what has been going on?

Primary insight is politics, politics, politics. There is no easy answer. Some charters are good and have success, but there is no panacea, and the charters are cherry-picking leaving a flotilla of struggling students with uninformed parents to sink or swim. The dirty little secret, is the word America can't bear to hear: class. It is not race. You can get great results with African American kids and Latino kids in Harlem with moderate incomes. You can very rarely do the same with low-income kids of any color in families racked by crowding, unemployment, drugs, eviction, mental illness and a host of other ills that make it unlikely that homework is done, school attendance is pristine, bedtimes are enforced and school readiness is superb. Even the scorned bottom three-quarters of teachers ALL know this. But then the school reform movement put MBAs in charge, demonizing the teachers and denying them even a seat at the table. One of the saddest features of this very sad book is how America has dishonored the dedicated, underpaid people who are in the classrooms day after day working to get some learning across.

Ravitch is hilarious and scathing as she asks how will a system have "only the top three-quarters of teachers teaching?" And when will the general public substitute achievable school reform goals for the absurdly unrealistic but politically seductive goals of all children becoming above average (the Lake Wobegone World so lacking in self-knowledge that it fails to realize it is satire)? One can suppose that the manifest edukatunal shortcomings of W's adminstration made No Child Left Behind a bipartisan political package -- I never understood the garbled and empty language of it. But Ravitch has visited the Potemkin Villages across the land, and we have but to weep.
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