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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 03/23/2010

Ravitch's NCLB book an unexpected best seller

By Valerie Strauss

Books about education policy are normally not bestsellers. But education historian Diane Ravitch’s new ”The Death and Life of the Great American School System” has sold out at many bookstores. The book was No. 1 on Amazon's list of books about education policy/education reform and was recently No. 14 on its nonfiction list.

The book was also No. 28 on the New York Times bestseller list in its first week out, and No. 10 on The Washington Post politics list.

I wrote about the book recently, saying that I wished President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan would read it because they might lose some of their affection for standardized tests. Their vision for the rewritten No Child Left Behind includes some of the practices with which Ravitch takes issue.

Ravitch, a professor at New York University, once worked in the administration of President George H.W. Bush and was a supporter of No Child Left Behind, the key education initiative of the second President Bush.

She changed her mind, and the book explains why she became a vocal critic who thinks that the initiatives she once supported are destroying public schools and why she no longer believes that public schools should be operated under a business model. The book is compelling and easy to read, mixing data with personal stories.

I have been receiving e-mails from people asking why they can’t get a copy of the book at their local bookstore, and one woman said:

“My local bookstore simply can’t get it, and apparently there’s a shortage everywhere. I have a copy because I preordered it on amazon.com. If I didn’t know better I’d wonder if there was some kind of conspiracy ... ”

There's no conspiracy. Ravitch's publisher, John Sherer at Basics Books Group, wrote in an e-mail to my question about why people were having trouble finding the book:

"The short answer is that we didn’t print enough books fast enough. Your reader asks if it was a conspiracy, but the way we make our printing decisions is that we have a team of sales people that solicit orders from all the major booksellers and we print for them. Our first printing covered all those requests plus an additional 20% of safety stock so it’s not a number we determine in isolation. Once it became clear that stores started reordering, we ordered enough reprints to triple the available stock. Those copies are only now starting to hit the marketplace and I’m confident that in a week, the supply will begin to outpace the demand.

"The people who can give you the best answers here are the individual booksellers. I’d encourage you to speak with a couple of the key people at top stores and get their take. My hunch is they’ll say this is exactly what happens when a book strikes a major chord and takes them by surprise. There’s a brief period initially when it’s very tough to find the book. But one of the great things about a book like this is that it’s an enduring subject, and I’m confident booksellers will be supporting it for a good long time."

I know it is hard to predict the purchasing proclivities of the American public. But come to think of it, Ravitch’s last book, in 2003, “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn,” was a big seller too.

In any case, get the book when you can find it. You’ll learn a lot.

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 23, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch, President Obama  
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Comments

Diane Ravitch's book is selling like hotcakes because it's received unprecedented media coverage from Jim Leher's News Hour to the New York Times and Washington Post, to Education Week to the Core Knowledge Blog.
It's been talked about everywhere in its first three weeks on the market.

And good for her. This woman is clearly no fly-by-night education wonk. She is a student of the history of public education in this country comparable to Doris Kerns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss in their study of the American presidency.

The book deserves all the attention it's getting and then some. Diane is an extraordinary individual who has devoted her life to chronicling public education in America.

Posted by: phoss1 | March 23, 2010 8:24 AM | Report abuse

The art of teaching has been over-simplified and put down for 10 years.

From what I have heard from Diane Ravitch and about the book, she actually makes sense.

I plan to buy the book and read it as soon as I can.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 23, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

It was sold out at my book store too. The sales clerk was stunned and had it for me a couple of days later and I read it right away. I think it's not just all the good plugs it's gotten, but that it's incredibly timely and incredibly well done and full of empirical evidence.

If the high book sales means this gets read and understood by those who need the knowledge (not me - I mean Obama and Duncan) then it's worthy of its raging success.

Posted by: efavorite | March 23, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Please remember that there are now electronic copies available, for most newly printed books, for easy reading on laptops or other electronic devices. It can be downloaded immediately. That is what I did when I found it would take three weeks to get a printed copy. It was certainly worth reading!

Dr. Ravitch and her book represent light at the end of a long and dark educational tunnel.

Posted by: bbetzen | March 23, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

FACT CHECK:
Ravitch's book is NOT no. 1 on Amazon, if you include Doug Lemov's "Teach Like a Champion," now at no. 42 overall. As of 5 pm on 3/23, Ravitch is at no. 77.

I'll go with Amazon readers' verdict on which book is worth my time. I think they know which author is thinking of children first.

Posted by: ladygigi | March 23, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

It is interesting, reading the comments left by folks, most of whom never taught or worked in a public school system or if they did it was so far in the past that they have no understanding of what it is like to teach kids who are not like students of 40 years ago, Diane Ravitch a classic example at best of out of touch “educator” who harkens back to the good old days when teachers could cut and paste, and have no required rigor in their lessons.
Her book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," ---she states that few parents have taken advantage of the opportunity provided under NCLB to escape bad schools. and few students have leapt at the chance to get free after-school tutoring. She states few failing schools have been able to turn around. Well guess what, when parents are not informed ,discouraged and at times face out right hostility if they ask for assistance they don’t used the tools given to them. Ravitch as are may so called “experts” are unable and unwilling to actually experience the front line, they like the arm chair generals would rather make observations “through heavy lens”, the day these pundits actually teach 186 middle school kids in one day in the poor neighborhoods of this country and not drop in to “observe”, is when they might have some credibility and actual knowledge to comment until then take the counsel for what is worth, nothing.

Most of the 8th graders I taught, if not all did not have the basic math skills they should have learned in the 3rd grade.

Oh, lets not blame the teachers or the district, no its Bush and Kennedy fault for attempting to hold schools accountable.

Lets not recognize that China and India are kicking our butts and they don't worry about testing hurting self esteem, or “teaching to the test”. A shinning example is one high school in India (no not a private, elite school but a public one) that got G.R.E. by mistake instead of S.A.T. and the kids still had a 80% passing rate.
Accountability is required of students and guess what you test kids (show me any teacher that does not TEST). The problem is that the administrators and some teachers don’t like using validated tests /assessments that are actually measuring student skills by grade level. The educational establishment does not want really standards /expectations by grade level. Don’t believe it, check out the number of basic skill classes offered at the College level.

Instead, should go back to the “good old days “ of unlimited tenure rights, meaningless "new math" and "whole reading", lack of standards for both

Posted by: amarcks | March 24, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

"Lets not recognize that China and India are kicking our butts and they don't worry about testing hurting self esteem, or “teaching to the test”.

Many children in India and China don't go to school. Not only that, but I believe they weed out the students who don't do so well. So by the time they are old enough to take tests like the G.R.E. or S.A.T. only the very top students are still in school. The rest are working by then.

Posted by: jlp19 | March 24, 2010 8:11 AM | Report abuse

"She changed her mind, and the book explains why she became a vocal critic who thinks that the initiatives she once supported are destroying public schools and why she no longer believes that public schools should be operated under a business model. The book is compelling and easy to read, mixing data with personal stories."

It's good to hear she changed her mind. I hope Arne Duncan changes his mind also. He closed many public schools in Chicago and let charter schools open in their place. I recently visited on of those charter schools in Chicago and it was awful. There were many students in the halls and bathroom when they should have been in class. The classes were out of control. The place was dirty. All the windows were sealed closed and the air was stale. I wonder if when he was the CEO of CPS if he ever checked on the conditions of those schools?

Posted by: jlp19 | March 24, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

Here is one of my favorite lines from ravitch's book:

"“What was the compelling evidence that prompted me to reevaluate the policies I had endorsed many times over the previous decade? Why did I now doubt ideas I once had advocated?

The short answer is that my views change as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality. The long answer is what will follow in the rest of this book. When someone chastised John Maynard Keynes for reversing himself about a particular economic policy he had previously endorsed, he replied, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’ This comment may or may not be apocryphal, but I admire the thought behind it. It is the mark of a sentient human being to learn from experience, to pay close attention to how theories work out when put into practice.”

Amarcks - let's face it, you don't know if the commenters here ever worked in a public school system any more than it's possible to know if you currently work for a standardized testing firm set to lose a lot of revenue if people pay attention to what Ravitch has to say.

Posted by: efavorite | March 24, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

@ladygigi

Valerie never said it was #1. She said it was a best-seller.

Read whatever book you want, they both sound good.

How can you tell without reading them which one puts children first?

Diane Ravitch's book is more about national policy. The other book you mention sounds like it is written for classroom teachers.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 24, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

ladygigi

Oops! You're right she did say it was #1.
My mistake. Maybe I should be reading the books! :)

Posted by: celestun100 | March 24, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Ravitch as are may so called “experts” are unable and unwilling to actually experience the front line, they like the arm chair generals would rather make observations “through heavy lens”, the day these pundits actually teach 186 middle school kids in one day in the poor neighborhoods of this country and not drop in to “observe”, is when they might have some credibility and actual knowledge to comment until then take the counsel for what is worth, nothing.

amarcks | March 24, 2010 7:48 AM
.........................
At some point this nation will recognize that there are two public school systems in this nation.

One for the poor, and one for the middle class.

The one shoe fits all policies of NCLB and teach to the test do not work for both of these two public school tests.

The recently released results of national testing in Reading indicates that in Reading there is no way to teach to the test.

The comments of amarcks indicates that writer may understand the public education system for the poor but does not understand the public education system for the middle class.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 24, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

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