Chris'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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May 22, 11


In The Death and Life of The Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, education historian Diane Ravitch presents a multifaceted portrait of the American school system in peril. She describes the No Child Left Behind as a purely punitive accountability system with impossible-to-achieve goals. She argues that NCLB has not nor will not produce improved outcomes for our country’s most underserved children. She contends that the current education reform climate has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum, reducing many classrooms to test-prep factories, and has weakened the social fabric by closing long-time community schools.

The Death and Life… is more than a simple repudiation of NCLB. Ravitch takes the entire en vogue model of school reform head on, decrying the current fixation on accountability via standardized testing as unsupported by a close scrutiny of the empirical evidence. Through a series of case studies and topical reviews, Ravitch constructs a narrative in The Death and Life… that contends that the trends dominating education reform—indeed, the trends most often considered “silver bullets”—will, in fact, jeopardize the most basic foundations of our education system: to provide an equal education for all students, regardless of income, education, or race. More ominously, she suggests they may possibly spell the end of public education altogether.

Yet I question whether Ravitch’s reports of public education’s death are in some ways exaggerated. Her conclusions appear to be based on a one-sided reading of the evidence or a selective presentation of that evidence. This does a great disservice to a book that otherwise raises many important issues on the effects of so-called reform efforts. It is important to note that her work successfully calls into question the corporatization of the public school experience, the effects of the standardized testing on the long-term educational outcomes of students, the potential ravages of school choice on communities. However, Ravitch does not spare equal opportunity to acknowledge the nuances of the issues she raises, especially in regard to the successes of urban “no excuses” charter schools. Ravitch heaps ample criticism on the corporate orthodoxy that has invaded the public schooling sphere while sparing virtually no words towards well documented excesses, corruption, and underperformance that mar many urban school systems in the country and have allowed charters in the areas to become magnets for parents and children disenchanted with public education.

In my estimation, Ravitch has allowed her political leanings to distort the nuances of the subject she attempts to address, which makes The Death and Life… a compelling but one-sided read. Certainly, her work helps name today’s era of market-force school reform and cast copious doubts on its promises of meaningful change; however, the absence of a full accounting of all the factors contributing to the struggles of education reform gives The Death and Life… the feel of a partisan account, one closely aligned with teacher union interests.
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