Matt'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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Oct 23, 10

bookshelves: education, nonfiction
Read in October, 2010

I really didn't like this book. Ravitch is a gifted writer and makes several interesting points, but the overall tone is really negative and repetitive. She really doesn't like standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, and philanthropy (at least when practiced by very rich philanthropists who target donations to policies and goals they prefer), and we're reminded of each of these points ad nauseum.
And her overall outlook is so bleak. She relentlessly (and sometime persuasively) demonstrates why various interventions have not worked, but then she fails to provide much of a potential solution other than a (needed) strengthening of curriculum.
Even more frustrating is her inattention to the glaring problems in American education today. For all her swelling paeans to the neighborhood school and public schooling, you could almost forget that half of low-income students don't graduate high school, or that those who do graduate often leave school with appallingly poor skills.
I don't like to reduce things to a "kids v. teachers" choice, and Ravitch clearly has genuine interest in good schools. But this book overromanticizes a past educational utopia that never existed and neglects the horrendous conditions in all too many schools. Ravitch worries frequently about the capacity of federal law or teacher evaluation to "ruin lives" and paint unfairly negative pictures of teachers or other employees. Personally, I'd rather (a) worry about the futures of students, much vaster in number and much more vulnerable than teachers and (b) work to make things better (bearing in mind many of her critiques) instead of decrying attempts to change while offering half-hearted caveats about how of course we need to do better. You can't do better if you discredit any attempts to change. So of course she's right -- not everything works -- but I'd much rather go down swinging. At least that way someday we might hit a home run.
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Kate I think you have missed the fact that Ravitch was a supporter of many of the "reforms" that are currently popular in education, and that she changed her mind after looking at the results of those reforms. She isn't "decrying attempts to change," she is decrying continuing to do things that have made things demonstrably worse. She uses facts to counter policies, it is not that she "doesn't like" them. If you can name an NCLB reform that increased student graduation rates or knowledge, she would be supportive of it.


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