Will Byrnes'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
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Oct 31, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, the-bush-administration, economics, brain-candy
Read from October 31 to November 04, 2010

This book should be required reading for every person with a child in public school, for every person who was educated in public schools, for every person who offers an opinion on what should be done with our public schools, for every politician who offers criticisms of public education or solutions to educational challenges, and for every person who has the right to vote in the United States. The author has drilled down beneath the quotidian sound bites of educational policy discourse to offer a hard-hitting, fact-rich examination of what has happened and what is happening in and to American public schools.

Ravitch’s background is as an education historian. She had been a player in designing a history curriculum for the state of California, and in 1991 was offered a position in the Bush (the 1st) Administration Department of Education. She became a supporter of much of the Republican policy view of the time, tilting toward things like vouchers, charter schools, privatization, reducing the power of teachers’ unions.

The author

She has a lot to say about No Child Left Behind, market-based school models, accountability, and the impact of billionaire-based foundations that have become players in the national discussion of what to do with our public school system. She reports on many studies that examined outcomes. Where did the notion of charter schools originate? What was their original purpose? Are charter schools better than regular public schools? Are there downsides to downsizing? How important are credentials for teachers? Do academic outcomes differ when unionized systems are compared to systems where there are no teachers union? What is the impact of the increased focus on testing?

Although she does mention some of the crazies who infest our educational system with outlandish, anti-scientific notions, and faith-based demands, they do not get all that much attention. I thought their toxicity merited a bit more of a look, particularly those in Texas who have such a major impact on textbooks nationwide, but that is a minor beef. I also found it a bit hard to swallow that she claims the NCLB proponents did not intend for the program to destroy the American public education system, but she offers plenty of evidence that indicates it was designed from the start to do exactly that.

Your homework for tonight is to read Ravitch’s informative, thoughtful, insightful look at where our public schools stand and how they got there. It is highly educational. There will be a quiz.

==============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, blog, Twitter and FB pages

NY Times Gail Collins had a wonderful column re all this on May 11, 2011, Reading, ’Riting and Revenues

5/17/2011 -
The headline of this short NY Times article, does not actually capture the larger picture, namely that the state was overriding local wishes and forcing charter school on localities that did not want them and has now met with resistance in the form of a court decision saying it was not ok to do that.
In Georgia, Court Ruling Could Close Some Charter Schools

A Washington Post Op Ed dealing with the issue of How Important is Class Size After All?

"Charter School Battle Shifts to Affluent Suburbs" - in an affluent New Jersey suburb, a battle looms because some locals want to create a Mandarin-immersion charter school, using public money for what seems pretty obviously a private party.

A very intriguing piece in Smithsonian Magazine Smithsonian Magazine about the world's most successful school system

Jeb Bush's advocacy of on-line learning offers another example of a right-wing desire to privatize education, from Mother Jones. Also from this source, how the ever-present unscrupulous are cashing in on the charter movement

Lee Fang, of The Nation has written an amazing article on the nuts and bolts of how our public school system is under attack by the profit sector. Of perhaps the greatest interest here is how the electoral process is being routinely undermined so that voters are distracted by issues A, B, and C, while the real goal, D, slips under the radar. This is a must read. How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools

This NY Times article tells how a Chicago Charter School network is finding new ways to pad it's income and push out students it does not want

This NY Times article by Michael Winerip shows that a high profile charter school advocate has based her rep on success with schools in DC when she was in charge. There is only one problem. There is a strong possibility that the improved numbers were fake. So why is the head of the Department of Education appearing at events with her? The same sort of cheating appears to be happening in Atlanta. Amid a Federal Education Inquiry, an Unsettling Sight

4/20/2012 - Teach the Books, Touch the Heart, By Claire Needell Hollander - A New York City middle-school teacher talks about the value of teaching literature instead of solely teaching to mandatory multiple-choice literature-challenged tests.

4/27/12 - In A Very Pricey Pineapple, an op-ed by NY Times columnist Gail collins, she points out who has not been left behind by NCLB.

5/22/12 - This NY Times article Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools shows how the religious right has found a way around the legal, separation-of-church-and-state, impediments to vouchers for religious schools, and come up with a tax-code-based workaround, neo-vouchers. This is a compelling example of the religious right nursing at the public tit while decrying the existence of breasts

1/1/15 - I just came across this article by David Sirota, even though it came out in June 2013. Definitely worth a look - New data shows school 'reformers' are full of it

2/13/16 - A brief piece on how teachers are blamed for the ills of society - Stop Humiliating Teachers - by David Denby

6/28/16 - A substantial piece in the New York Times on Detroit's experience with large scale charter schooling - For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools - by Kate Zernike -- Must-read material for any interested in the subject
86 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

02/13/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 91) (91 new)

message 1: by Teresa (new) - added it

Teresa Lukey I've been having several issues with the public school system and its impact on my 9 year-old, so I'm going to have to jump on this one. Thanks for the great review.

Will Byrnes There is an all out assault on public education in our country, from the creationist nut-jobs in Texas who wield such influence on state selection of textbooks, to the attempted evisceration of the public sector that is at the heart of both NCLB and the charter school movement. We are heading toward feudalism. The latest Chris Hedges book (see these pages for an upcoming review) goes into some detail re a significant piece of how this has become possible. Dark times indeed. I am so happy that my youngest is graduating from HS, so I will not have to cope with this personally. As for potential grandchildren, and the future of our society, I despair.

Will Byrnes Brian wrote: "Sounds very informative. Great review."

Thanks Brian. This should be required reading for the entire population.

message 4: by Jill (new)

Jill Will, my sister is a teacher and goes rabid when anyone talks about "how wonderful No Child Left Behind" is. I'm DEFINITELY recommending this book to her!

Kaethe Great review, Will. I'm going to have to get to this sooner.

Will Byrnes Thanks K and J. This is one of those books that makes my absolutely-must-read list for every American. And news articles keep emerging that add to the knowledge base.

Elizabeth Will, just posted a link to your review on FB for a group of parents who are trying to make sense of our school district's decisions. I also put a copy of this book on reserve at the library. Thank you! -ec

Will Byrnes Thanks E. This book really is must-reading for everyone! Our national commitment to educating all our kids, not just the wealthy ones, is under major assault across the nation. NCLB, charters and other arenas are the front lines of a critical battle for the future of America. Will we be a nation of opportunity for all, or revert to the sclerotic, royal society we rejected in the 18th century? While not everyone may be able to make the most of educational opportunity, the opportunity should not be denied because of the class/race/religion/politics/orientation of one's parents.

Kaethe It saddens me, how far we've come from the idea of equal opportunity for all. Will, it's everything you said it would be. Thanks.

message 10: by Barbara (new)

Barbara I bought this book when it was first published for the professional collection of my high school library, primarily for the curriculum principal. Now I’m going to have to dust it off and read it myself. You’re certainly correct that public schools are under attack. We have a new evaluation system in place this year in TN as part of a devil’s bargain to obtain Race to the Top money. It has demoralized teachers and overwhelmed administrators. In our district, librarians are being evaluated on a classroom rubric, which is only a small portion of our jobs. The governor is calling for larger average class sizes, and my school is slated to lose an additional 5 faculty positions next year. The library has effectively been converted into a testing center because most of the new mandated tests are now online. Teachers who are able to retire are doing so. I’m so sick of hearing “It’s all about the kids”, when it’s about anything but. Like you, I’m thankful that my youngest child is in college now. Thanks for the reading list of articles, too.

message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes The whole race to the top seems like yet another cover to justify privatizing public education. Democrats are just as misguided as Republicans re education policy from what I can see.

As for the Republicans, instead of accepting responsibility for devastating our economy, they are attempting to distract us with attacks on public employees as the cause of our economic woes. It ain't so. The causes are largely tax cuts for the rich, unwarranted wars (well, I think the Afghanistan war was justified when it began) and a religious need to leave feral traders and businesses to do their stuff unmonitored. Don't try to blame teachers and public employees for that, you lying sacks of ... Ok, I'll calm down now.

Yes, Ravitch knows of what she speaks, presenting her case in an accessible, information rich manner.

As for "it's all about the kids," I coached baseball and softball for many years and one thing that alway stuck in my craw was when some jerk of a manager, coach or umpire, would say "just let the kids play," which translates to "I know what's best and you don't know anything. Do what I want." Just like the "it's for the kids" line. It reminds me also of the "it's not about the money" trope. For anyone who says that, we know that that is exactly what it is about. Or when someone you do not know calls you "friend." I am sure there are more, but I am rather beating this one to death. So, RIP.

Kaethe Let us know what you think, Barbara. I'm with Will in my bilateral disgust.

message 13: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane Thanks for this review. I've been a teacher for years and I hate NCLB and all the high stakes testing we have to do while trying to teach classes of forty or more. The articles are great too.

message 14: by Betty (new)

Betty This is a HORROR story which sadly is true. Like Barbara, I'm in TN which is running (pant-pant-huffa-puffa) in the Race to the Top. I recently retired, every time I see my former colleagues they tell me I'm so fortunate to have left when I did.

switterbug (Betsey) As my husband the teacher says about No Child Left Behind: No School Left Standing. It is completely ludicrous.

We live in Austin and fortunately the textbooks here are creationless. :--)

switterbug (Betsey) Oh, must retract that. My husband just told me that the schools here who do use textbooks are required to include both theories. Fortunately, my daughter's school doesn't use a textbook to teach!

Kaethe My daughters are in the annual quarter of misery devoted to testing. They learn nothing in class, take stupid practice tests, can't read on their own, can't even nap, for heaven's sake. Forty-five days of misery at the end of every school year, and somehow this is supposed to improve education? Gah, adding insult to injury, their already-overcrowded school is losing teachers and will lose more due to upcoming budget cuts.

I am so angry I could spit. If only I could find the right people to spit on.

message 18: by Les (new) - added it

Les Wonderful review and further commentary, Will. I also appreciate and will be reading your many update links. I just started this and love her intelligence, reasoning, and honesty. Seeing your review of this popup occasionally has forced me to get this read ASAP. If all goes according to plan, I am back in the public schools next year to substitute (fall) and then student teach (January). Obviously, a must read for me.

message 19: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Les. I did a stint as a sub in Brooklyn middle schools. Clearly this is not a career for which I was well-suited, even though I did have some moments of teaching ecstasy. The job seemed to require a pachyderm-level hide, or else a chair, whip and gun. Point being that I admire folks like yourself who take on this challenge, particularly as society makes it increasingly difficult for teachers to actually teach.

message 20: by [deleted user] (last edited May 17, 2012 04:56PM) (new)

Will wrote: I did a stint as a sub in Brooklyn middle schools. Clearly this is not a career for which I was well-suited"

I watch “Dan Rather Reports” on HD Net. He has had a series of hour-long documentaries devoted to various models of public education: 2 episodes devoted to Detroit Public Schools (highly dysfunctional and probably among the worst in the industrialized world); 1 devoted to Singapore (highly regimented, arduous, with a top-down hierarchy from the Ministry of Education, but highly successful); 1 devoted to Finland (very laid back, short-school day, lots of arts and play, no standardized testing, with probably the best standardized test results in the Western World).

As a pragmatist, I suspect that there are any number of different ways to achieve success in public education. It can be done with regimentation or it could done with Scandinavian tolerance.

I am not sure why Americans are so resistant to experimentation within the public model. (I am not advocating the privatizing/outsourcing of education to corporate America. Terrible idea that is.) The typical objection Americans have to trying a foreign model is “Well, those other systems only work because they are small countries with homogenous populations.” Yet, many of our states have fewer people than Singapore, less area than Finland, and are more homogenous than either. I do not understand why some energetic state governor does not convince his/her legislature and voters to try something radically new. For instance, North Dakota or Rhode Island might be perfect places to implement one of these models. Let's see how it works.

One big problem for American education, as I see it, is that countries with success in education devote resources to a safety net, whereby all kids have health care and nutritious meals. So kids more or less start on an equal footing with their peers. In America we have a patchwork system wherein lots of kids fall through the cracks.

The other common denominator of successful systems is that they pay their teachers more and teachers have the same status as doctors. Moreover, their universities are full of individuals who want to become teachers and only the top ten percent of applicants get selected for a career in education.

I certainly don’t have the expertise to solve this perplexing problem, but I just don’t understand the passivity and defeatism that most Americans seem to accept regarding our public schools, which used to be the envy of the world.

message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes For all the talk to the contrary, I do not believe that we in the USA really value education. At least not public education. There are voices on the right who even question the value of educating children through high school. NCLB has reinforced a model of public schools as factories churning out standardized product. The right has gone out of its way to make schools both a battleground in areas like sex education, evolution and prayer in schools, and an overt target, demonizing teacher unions, and defunding schools by insisting on caps on property taxes. The rich feel no compulsion to educate the children of their servants and employees. While some children in wealthy neighborhoods attend public schools, the well-to-do have a whole range of private school options unavailable to most of us. And now schools are becoming yet another means by which private enterprise can nurse at the public tit, while decrying the existence of breasts.

So many Americans have been sold a bill of goods about taxes that they eagerly reject, almost every time, tax increases needed to fund education. As a nation, we would rather save a few bucks than contribute a little more to invest in and help secure our future.

The Smithsonian article of 9/14/11 that I linked to in the review update addresses the school system in Finland, for any who might want to look at that experience a little closer.

It would certainly be fascinating to see really alternate models, such as the ones you mention, tried out. I am sure that many in the charter school movement would claim that they are doing just that, but when those experiments are done at the cost of public education, it is leading in the wrong direction.

message 22: by [deleted user] (new)

And now schools are becoming yet another means by which private enterprise can nurse at the public tit, while decrying the existence of breasts.

I tell people about corporate welfare and they look at me as if I believe in UFOs. I assure you that I will employ some of your marvelous phraseology as exemplified by the above.

message 23: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes I would be thrilled were it to be put to good use

Cathleen Thanks for your latest link. I'm looking forward to reading it.

message 25: by Tracy (new) - added it

Tracy Wow, brilliant review. I definitely need to look at this one. Here in Ontario we do have standardized tests but only grades 3, 6 and 10. Even that is too much. We do have religious schools but only Catholic schools are publicly funded. I read some of the articles you posted and they were fascinating and scary. Wonder if I could persuade my kids to move to Finland to educate their kids (when they have them).

message 26: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Tracy. They would probably get a better education than they would get in most public schools in the States. I am sorry to learn that religious schools receive state support up north. The merger of church and state is a particularly onerous joining, and state support of religious schools is a significant step along that dark path.

message 27: by Tracy (new) - added it

Tracy In 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War, the British and the French signed a treaty that guaranteed the French settlers religious freedom and language rights which are still argued over to this day. One of these rights guaranteed the right to aCatholic education. Full disclosure, I went to Catholic schools and so did my children. I think the education I received was more than adequate (I did graduate from a public highschool). The education my daughter received at her Catholic all-girls highschool was excellent. My son went to a different highschool and didn't particularly care to study so I can't honestly say his education was excellent but it was ok. I find it ironic that you lament the merger of church and state when you live in a country where the religious right exerts so much influence over the political system. Our elections are never about religion, although I do recall one election where the leader of the Alliance party (now called the Progressive Conservatives) was a Fundamentalist Christian who was derided widely by everyone (including myself). Despite our Catholic schools Canadians are not a particularly religious people. The Catholic curriculum is the same as the public schools. As far as I was ever able to tell the biggest difference between public and Catholic was that we had to go to mass once a month. But the French and English kids threw rocks at each other.

message 28: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes I attended Catholic school from elementary through HS, or 12 years in total. I believe that I got a decent education overall, although I did see evidence of considerable ignorance particularly during my elementary school years. Clearly we in the USA have a different constitutional history from our northern neighbor. A bunch of founders who were regarded as crazy radicals saw to it that our Constitution was amended with some insanity known collectively as the "Bill of Rights." It included such things as guaranteeing one's person against unwarranted search and seizure, the right not be forced to incriminate oneself, the right not to be tried twice for the same crime, and so on. Clearly madness. The first amendment goes like this
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
As with most things legal it has come in for a wide range of interpretations, but basically it codifies the separation of church and state. Ultimately, this is a good thing, IMHO. I have no objection to folks attending parochial school, but I do object to public funds being used to support the enterprise, whether through direct grants or the ability to reduce one's tax obligations by paying tuition to such a school.

There are many of us here in the States who are alarmed at the religious ferocity of so many of our countrymen. Clearly we have not had the numbers to outvote them. And they seem determined to turn the nation into a theocracy. One particularly alarming book on the subject, with a focus on one particular group, but which also offers considerable history of religion in the US, is The Family, by Jeff Sharlett. A scary but important book. The religious right wants to turn our public schools into tools for preaching their ideology, anti-evolution, anti-science, anti-gay, and so on. They are not content to spew their forms of ignorance and hatred in their own schools, but want to infect the entire system. And I seethe that the RC gets tax-free status when it uses its revenue to fund anti-gay-marriage and ant-abortion ballot measures. So, I suppose the differences between our public and private (that is, religious) schools might be lessening, but not in a good way.

message 29: by Tracy (new) - added it

Tracy Oh yes. My sister in law is American and we talk about this a lot. I do agree with you about the separation of church and state. And I think it would be better if we had one school system ( there are four in Ontario, English separate and public and French separate and public). Religious zealotry is frightening to me and I honestly don't know what to do about it. I haven't gone to church in about fourteen years. Sometimes I miss it but every time I think of the crappy way the catholic church treats women I get pissed off and get over it. And while Canadians don't have many of the problems exhibited in American politics our system is far from perfect and we can't afford to be smug.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) OK, I'll add it to my list but isn't it just going to make me mad? Does the book talk of anything we can do to make it better?

message 31: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Not buy the snake oil

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Well I've already done that! I've always thought that if everyone had to go to public school and all that money put into a private education went to public schools, we'd have the best schools anywhere.

message 33: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes We will always have the rich with us, so will always have private schools. And the rich do not want to share with the rest of us. But we can try to keep our public schools from becoming just another business. Sadly the national trend is toward privatization, via charter schools and vouchers. And the result will be a hugely weakened public school system. But even with adequate funding, it makes sense to look around for the best models for education going forward. The charter movement has value,but not as a broad-based movement, only as a highly targeted and small set of projects. There is plenty of room for diverse approaches, but the one-test-fits-all silliness currently in vogue is destroying not only the schools themselves but the public view of public school as a good thing.

Kaethe The broad-based movements we need are in funding and curricula. I attended a lot of different schools in a lot of different districts, and no child should have to sit through the same textbook in elementary and middle school. And if people want to move to the suburbs to avoid too much integration, I'll suck up my ire as long as they're still funding the urban schools.

Am I weird that I think anyone running for public office, particularly on any sort of education platform, should be laughed off the ballot if their kids don't attend public schools?

message 35: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Am I weird that I think anyone running for public office, particularly on any sort of education platform, should be laughed off the ballot if their kids don't attend public schools?
No, it should be a prerequisite. But hang on to the weirdness anyway.

Kaethe Okay, let's try this one: is it weird that all of our presidential candidates attended Yale or Harvard? Sarah Palin notwithstanding, it is possible for someone to have a fine mind and receive a first-class education at public universities. Isn't it?

message 37: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes More likely is that, despite the potential for getting just as good an education, the contacts one makes at places like Yale or Harvard grease the paths to power.

Kaethe True, that.

message 39: by Tracy (new) - added it

Tracy This is a fascinating discussion. I think Will Is right that it is the contacts made in Ivy League universities more than anything else that seems to grease the wheels towards the Presidency.

Kaethe I just hate that as our country goes on it gets more aristocratic, rather than less.

message 41: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Also, the Harvards and Yales, while they do bring in gifted students like Obama and Clinton (Yes, i know he went to Georgetown), remain enclaves of privilege. I would expect that the vast majority of students there come from well-to-do families. Encouraging legacy students like W is another way in which our nation is becoming increasingly feudal. Which potentially great leader was denied a space because GHW's problem child was given it because of who his father was?

Kaethe Exactly.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) In re, politicians kids and public schools, I agree mostly but unfortunately in this country the children of the powerful are often at high risk for kidnapping and coersion and only a private school can provide the security that is needed to protect them. There is no way the Obama kids could attend public school now although I think they did when he was a senator, didn't they?

message 44: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes I do not know how those decisions are made. I would guess that the secret service might have a list of institutions that were acceptable from a security standpoint, but then again, I suppose it is just as possible that the president and spouse decide where to send the kids and the Secret Service copes.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Who knows. But at least the kids are fairly normalized: educated around other children without being surrounded by gobs of secret service people. Plus I'm sure there's a way to keep media away along with other unwanted insane killers visitors.

But I agree that most politicians should send their kids to public school. I think most people should. And I should also stop beginning sentences with conjunctions.

message 46: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes But what's wrong with that?

Kaethe And why would you want to?

Actually, I'd have to say that the real risk of a politically-motivated kidnapping in the US is quite low. While the Secret Service does have to consider the possibility, that simply doesn't happen here. Whatever the considerations may be, I think that's the least likely. I just think it's hella easier to throw the kids into a school filled with the children of well-off and well-educated peers rather than into a public school less than a mile away that has 75% of its students receiving free or reduced lunches.

Maybe the reason so many public schools are struggling is that we expect anyone who can will choose a private school?

Kelly H. (Maybedog) I meant financially as much as anything but in this new era of bizarre terrorist plots and the everlasting hatred of the US I think it's more likely than ever before. one of the founders of a adobe was kidnapped many years ago by two idiots who thought he was a multimillionaire. (He probably is now but wasn't then.) His daughter went looking for him while evetyone se was panicking and found him somehow as he was trying to escape over the back fence. He obviously succeeded. I don't know why that would be relevant but it's interesting. People are stupid.

And you're right. Conjunction junction, what's your function? Connecting two thoughts really.

Kaethe Kelly wrote: "Conjunction junction, what's your function?"

The most charming earworm of all time.

« previous 1
back to top