Trevor'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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's review
Jan 16, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: education, economics, social-theory

There is one of those psychological experiments that they do on people that involves giving one person some money and they get to decide how much of that money they are going to give to a complete stranger. One person gets to decide on the split, but the other person gets to decide if the deal goes through. If they say no, no one gets anything. Standard economic theory suggests that as long as you offer even the smallest amount possible – one cent to a million dollars, say – the other person ought to take what they are offered, as they will be better off with however little than they would be with nothing.

Naturally, that is not how the experiment turns out. Most people offer a 50-50 split (or thereabouts) and those who offer grossly unfair splits (say $2 to $8) often find the other person rejects the offer altogether and they both get nothing. Rational economists underestimate the irrational pleasure we get from punishing a greedy person – something worth two bucks any day.

There are only two classes of people who don’t play this game the way the rest of us do. One group are people suffering from autism. I don’t know enough about autism, but the myth is that they struggle to read how other people might feel, don't get the emotional heat in the room – and so don’t understand that offering an unfair split might really upset the other person. The only other group of people who predictably offer and accept disproportionately low splits are undergraduate economics students. But then, in being educated into the positive science of economics, a world where greed is good, the individual is all and 'democracy' and 'free markets' are synonyms you could hardly expect anything different. An undergraduate education in neoliberal economics causes autism – who would have thought? Oh yeah, everyone…

This is a book about the devastation that happens to society when neoliberal economic principles become normative within an education system – when education becomes a playground for fanatical ideologues.

The writer was once a true believer – but she has since watched the horrors of what her true beliefs have wrought on the education of US children and has had the courage to admit she was wrong. Such people are rare and are golden souls – after spending eight years representing people who had done wrong I know just how rare it is to hear someone admit to their errors. So, bonus points right up front.

This book probably didn’t need to be quite as long as it is – but that might be because I already agree with many of the conclusions, so didn’t need commonsense hammered into me for quite as long as some readers might. This is a story of the destruction that simple solutions almost invariably cause when applied to complex problems – a story of unintended consequences.

The first myth that needs to be dispelled is that what is worth learning is easy to measure. This perfectly fits the neoliberal paradigm as they have always thought that if it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist. I’m not as hard on assessment as I once was – mostly because I think that there is always assessment and I would rather the criteria for assessment be up front rather than hidden and therefore subjectively judgemental. The American and Australian education systems are premised on assessment – and not any kind of assessment, but summative assessment. It doesn’t need to be this way and that fact it is this way says something really interesting about our view of what education is. For example, what sort of education system would we have if there was as much emphasis on formative assessment as on summative (that is, working out what kids don’t know before we start teaching them as finding out what they haven’t learnt from us after we have finished teaching them)? What sort of education system would we have if we cared as much about pedagogy (how we teach) or curriculum (what we teach) as we do about assessment? The word ’better’ springs to mind, unbidden.

The history of American education (and ours is following in lock-step) is one where assessment has become king, where the whole system is gauged towards teaching ‘the basics’ (mostly of reading and maths) and all other subjects get ignored as they aren’t tested in the same high-stakes way (and if it ain’t tested it ain’t taught). The results of these tests are not to find ways to improve schools that do not meet the standards, but to close them down. Invariably these schools tend to be in poor suburbs with socially disadvantaged kids, the special needs kids, the poor, the botched, the bungled as Nietzsche would have it. The neoliberal preference for punishing the poor in the name of helping them lives on.

However, due to the history wars in the US (what do you teach in history? Well, none of that liberal nonsense that leaves our kids noticing some blemishes in our nation – God no) it has proven impossible to agree on a curriculum (on what should be taught and to what standard) so the states have a free hand in deciding both what is taught and to what standard. The result has been that test scores improving by the expedient of decreasing the standard expected. Cheating (either literal or effective) is ignored and encouraged so that everyone can take the credit for ‘improvements’ that are mostly illusionary.

This all comes from a culture of blame – and the blame is mostly levelled at teachers and their unions. The cry is: If only we had a free education market – where bad teachers could be sacked and replaced by great teachers (with or without qualifications) then the Promised Land would be now. Everyone knows that the only cause of poor learning is poor teaching. As if kids living with drug addicted parents, mental illness, poverty, lack of food, lack of access to books and paper and pens, lack of role models and and and and – as if any of this would have any impact at all on their ability to learn. No, it is all and solely the fault of poor teaching and unions that stop the arbitrary dismissal of teachers.

And small schools – particularly Charter Schools in the US, which are effectively poor private schools – are seen as the way forward.

The writer is much more conservative than I am. She offers one solution to the problem of declining standards and that is an improved curriculum. I’m not as convinced as she is that that is enough. Rather I have a much less likely solution (no matter how much better it would be). Greater equity. I don’t mean more resources, I mean greater equity.

Effectively , the US and Australian systems are seeking to increase the inequity of their education systems. They are doing this by encouraging more people to leave the public system and end up in better resourced private or semi-private institutions (e.g. Charter Schools in the US). This will leave an underclass left in increasingly underfunded public schools. This is the wrong way to go. Educational attainment for everyone goes up when there is more equity – not less. I would close down all private schools and force everyone into the same school. Then middle class people (generally the only people who really care about education – the rich being too rich for it to matter and the poor finding it comes too far down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) would then ensure schools provide equality of opportunity by forcing schools to meet the needs of their children. The sad truth is that if we can leave people disadvantaged and feel it leaves us no worse off, we probably will. Putting middleclass kids into schools for all would benefit all.

I’m surprised this book became a best seller in the US – it has a very important message and that message is that education is too important to leave to the 'greed is good' generation – or to the Bill Gateses of this world who use their money (in what is beautifully referred to in this book as ‘venture philanthropy’) to push their ideology of free markets – and damn the cost to our kids.
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Reading Progress

January 16, 2011 – Started Reading
January 16, 2011 – Shelved
January 16, 2011 –
page 20
January 16, 2011 –
page 47
January 17, 2011 –
page 145
January 19, 2011 – Shelved as: education
January 19, 2011 – Shelved as: economics
January 19, 2011 – Shelved as: social-theory
January 20, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 2: by Greg (new) - added it

Greg Wonderful review Trevor. Agree, agree, agree.

Trevor She's something of a hero of mine Greg. Here's a link to her blog

The US is about to pay dearly in education - Betsy DeVos, sister of the Mr Erik Prince of Darkness (or Mr Blackwater - Jesus, you couldn't make this stuff up Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army) will do whatever is necessary to destroy the public education system there. I can only watch on in horror from afar.

It is Liberal Party policy to introduce Independent schools to Australia - our version of the US Charters and the UK Academy schools. We need to start screaming this stuff from the rooftops - this is evil, stupid and socially destructive.

Thanks for commenting Greg - when people do others get to see these reviews again and this book is one I would highly recommend to anyone - it is a catalogue of crimes against the poor in the US - other books on the topic that are likewise almost too hard to read are: Stop High-Stakes Testing: An Appeal to America's Conscience and The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.

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