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Posted at 1:00 AM ET, 02/26/2010

Why you should read Diane Ravitch's new book

By Valerie Strauss

Among the many important lessons in Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” this one keeps knocking about in my head:

“Reformers imagine that it is easy to create a successful school, but it is not. They imagine that the lessons of a successful school are obvious and can be easily transferred to other schools, just as one might take an industrial process or a new piece of machinery and install it in a new plant without error. But a school is successful for many reasons, including the personalities of its leader and teachers; the social interactions among them; the culture of the school; the students and their families; the way the school implements policies and programs dictated by the district, the state and the federal government; the quality of the school’s curriculum and instruction; the resources of the school and the community; and many other factors. When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors.”

Amen. The U.S. public school system would not be as troubled as it is if most of the reformers of the past few decades really understood this. They would have known that charter schools aren’t a silver bullet. Nor are high-stakes standardized tests. Nor is shaming teachers or reducing them to robots who repeat nonsense from bad textbooks.

These notions are not, of course, original to Ravitch. But she has put together a complete, compelling argument, and when she publicly advocates, her words carry far more weight than others.


If America has a leading education historian, Ravitch, an education professor at New York University, has long had a claim on the title.

For years, she was the darling of conservatives in education. She served as an assistant secretary in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and was a vocal backer of the second President Bush’s education effort. She was, in fact, at the White House as part of a select group when Bush first outlined No Child Left Behind, and she wrote, she was “excited and optimistic.”

She has written a number of education books that conservatives liked, one of them a scathing critique of leftist historians who attacked the public schools as “an instrument of cultural repression.”

Her credibility with conservatives is exactly why it would be particularly instructive for everyone--whether you have kids in school or not--to read “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

Ravitch, who has spent some 40 years in education, explains how she went from supporting No Child Left Behind and its testing and accountability regimes to becoming a vocal critic who thinks the very things she once backed are destroying public schools.

Marshaling a mountain of facts that she reported over years, Ravitch tells through riveting stories and sharp analysis why she no longer believes that public schools should be operated like businesses.

Perhaps she is the one person who can’t be ignored by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others in the Obama administration who are so far insisting on carrying forward with some of the most insidious aspects of NCLB.

It is an irony that Ravitch’s book has been applauded by Linda Darling-Hammond, a highly respected professor of education at Stanford University and founding executive director of the National Commission for Teaching & America’s Future. Darling-Hammond, who was Obama’s key education advisor during the transition, has long seen the world the way Ravitch views it now.

There had been hope in some corners of the education world that Obama would name her education secretary because of her clear understanding of educational excellence. He didn’t and instead selected Duncan, the former schools chief in Chicago who has become a frequent target of Ravitch’s wrath.

(Darling-Hammond, incidentally, also has written a new book which is a must-read; I’ll talk about it soon.)

Ravitch’s conversion was courageous; it is not often that you see someone in academia, in politics, or, frankly, in any arena, publicly admit they were wrong. Now she finds herself facing the powerful forces that have been arrayed against the kind of reform that she is proposing.

She wants teachers to be paid fairly and not earn “merit pay” based on standardized test results.

She wants public charter schools to stop competing with regular charter schools.

She wants a national curriculum that explains what every child in every grade should be learning.

And she wants people in the worlds of politics and business to stay out of education decisions.

Sounds good to me.

What do you think?


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 26, 2010; 1:00 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  Diane Ravitch, school reform  
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If somebody like Diane Ravitch can come around to a better understanding of schools, it is encouraging for some other players in the debate. Most of NCLB is a scam designed to siphon public tax dollars and place them in the hands of testing companies and for-profit school operators. A more focused approach on what makes the best schools great as opposed to a testing focus would be a welcome change in the school “reform” debate.

Posted by: Mostel26 | February 26, 2010 5:33 AM | Report abuse

Diane Ravitch is the educational historian of our time as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss are the presidential hisorians for all Americans to read. I am a huge fan of hers.

I've read "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" and while I don't agree with her on everything in the book it's difficult to fault any of her findings or debate her conclusions. She's accurate, thorough, and as well versed on these topics as any American today.

If you're interested in NCLB, merit pay, charter schools, and educational reform, this book is a must read. She chronicles all of these issues and more through the knowledge of what's come before and meaningful predictions of what might well lay ahead.

I encourage you to read the book. I'm especially challenging President Obama and Secretary Duncan here. You both might not agree with everything in there but it will certainly leave you thinking, and equally important, it will leave you unquestionably informed on what's going on in US education today and the direction(s) we should or should not be pursuing.

Posted by: phoss1 | February 26, 2010 7:26 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like a "must read" book. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

I believe that the intentions behind the NCLB were good, but we all know what paves the road to hell. Treating education like businesses and measurable results, has led to a narrow mindedness that does not serve students well.

I hope that President Obama, Ed Sec Duncan and our own (although I wish she would become someone else's) Chancellor Rhee take the time to read and reflect on Ms. Ravitch's book.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | February 26, 2010 8:11 AM | Report abuse

It sounds wonderful - it's research-based, which is always nice in any academic field and especially in education. It's written by a highly respected and well-known expert - not some fly-by-night with innovative ideas, a strong presence, an entrepreneurial bent and little else. It provides a fact-based, experience-based justification for her change of mind, which shows rationality, flexibility and humility –commendable features that our Commander in Chief says he values. Let’s see how far it gets her, or should I say how much it influences already-set national policy.

Obama, I’m counting on you and will be horribly upset if you press on in this futile course, eschewing empirical evidence and common sense.

Posted by: efavorite | February 26, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Whatever the final "Education Reform" contains, some level of accountability to assure CONSISTENT AND ACCURATE STUDENT ACADEMIC GROWTH AND CONTINUED ACHIEVEMENT needs to be placed within the reform.

As I've posted many times, the percentage of ILLITERATE Graduates has marginally decreased.

There were valid reasons that No Child Left Behind was despeartely needed in the first place.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 26, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I'd say there were and are reasons why improvements need to be made in education.

NCLB hasn't worked. We need to find out what the right improvements are and make them.

Posted by: efavorite | February 26, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Those in charge seem to make every effort to identify the right improvements.

ALL will not agree and highly unlikely the solution will be perfect for ALL.

What's most important are the children receiving what, by law, are suppose to receive.

It should not matter social background, income level, afluent or not afluent neighborhood, determining quality education being provided to these kids.

Children are not responsible for what they've been born or even "fostered familied." They didn't go through a selction process of selecting parents or community. But they are the ones who are suffering the most while "grown ups continue to fight" while determining what educational services need to be provided so they are assured abilities to survive.

Being poor is nothing new but now considered "major reason" for lack of academic achievement.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 26, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Last night, I was lucky to be able to attend the first-ever teacher talent show at my daughter's "failing" comprehensive high school (now Program Improvement - Year 5). About 1/4 of the school's teachers danced and sang and performed spoken word on behalf of the senior class. One of the older assistant administrators did a martial arts demonstration. The show was a fundraiser to compensate for the fact that, after decades of being able to have bake sales and food fundraisers, student groups in our district (Oakland) are no longer permitted to do so.

I'd guess that 1/3 of our student body attended the event and they absolutely loved it; that's a good turnout on a weekday evening. I am certain that those good mutual feelings will carry over to the school day.

As I sat there, though, I couldn't help but feel a bit of sadness. As a public school activist, who has been studying ed reform issues for a number of years now, I know for a fact that the importance of this type of community camaraderie and connectedness, isn't anywhere on the reformers' list. I grieve for the community of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island where all the school's teachers were fired by the board of trustees this week.

My daughters' school, our family's school, is, in fact, threatened by the same looming mentality, too. On the national level, Broad and Gates worker bees have been invited to infest the highest levels. My fellow parents, the students, and even most teachers are still unaware.

I thank Diane Ravitch for writing this profoundly important book, and I hope it has a huge impact with dramatically slowing down that mean-spirited, out-of-touch and destructive national ed reform train.

Posted by: pondoora | February 26, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

being poor is not "now considered a major reason" for poor achievement - it's a known fact based on empirical research that family socio-economic status in the main determinant of achievement. It's not just a theory and it's not meant as an excuse - it's a fact that must be dealt with if anything is going to change for these kids.

Posted by: efavorite | February 26, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

The Arne Duncan appointment has been the biggest disappointment of Obama's term so far, in my teacherly opinion. Maybe he too will have a conversion experience.

Posted by: pittypatt | February 26, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I'm not impressed with Ravitch's opinions and they are never a must read. She was a cheerleader for NCLB and the anti-public school crowd for decades and now she seems to have switched sides finally seeing the error of her ways.

Her schooling says she has a PhD in Education, so by her credentials, she is an expert. Real experts can be wrong when new knowledge, experiments confirm newer theories and disconfirm older ones -- that is the nature of real knowledge and science. But, the vast literature of psychometrics from the 60's and before, as real experts should have been steeped in, showed clearly the obvious flaws in the NCLB approach.

Ravitch is a fake expert -- but that pretty much covers the entire field of educational opinion makers. A field, like education, which swings from one emotion-ladened extreme to another every generation, and never converges to anything that resembles confirmed scientific theory is not a field for which the word "expert" can ever be used.

Those of us who actually took the time to understand the fundamentals of experimental design, statistics and psychometrics and to remain skeptical of false claims were never fooled. Ravitch will never be in that category.

Posted by: LarryW1 | February 27, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Those who think poverty doesn't effect the way children learn should spend some time in a poor school. I guarantee they would get a reality check. I've taught for 34 years, the last 20 being in a poor school with an extremely diverse student population. We spend a significant amount of time at my school seeing that our kids are fed and clothed as well as seeing that they receive a top notch education. It is challenging but very rewarding.

NCLB as done a lot to hamper good teaching practices and teacher creativity. Now it is scripted lessons with no creative thinking all done in the name of accountability. If teachers are to be held accountable, then give us a set of annual outcomes and give us the freedom and materials necessary to achieve those outcomes.

This book definitely sounds like a must read. I'll be making a trip to Borders today!

Posted by: musiclady | February 27, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Ravitch is contemptuous of parents. In none of her writings or many presentations before commissions, hearings or panels has she said that parents have, or should have, an instrumental role in education of their children. That is why she opposes any choice beyond the monopolistic funnel of the public school system.

She is a great spokesperson for the usurpers in education -- the whole establishment which presents a united front against parents. It is the parents, in most legislation I have seen, who are charged with the responsibility to “cause” their children to be educated. State systems are supposed to be there as a safety net, a backup, to parents who don’t fulfill their obligation.

The “system” has turned this ownership entirely on its head and taken over -- by stealth, fraud, lobbies, power, and misrepresentation -- and treats parents as second-class citizens.

I don’t mind the state providing funds for parents to fulfill their duty. That is why I agree with Elinor Ostrom, this year’s Nobel Economics winner, who says policy makers should reconsider the past reforms and recommend “charter schools, voucher systems, and other reforms to create more responsive schools.” See: “Policy Analysis in the Future of Good Societies”

What is Ravitch’s position on independent and private schools? What is her opinion of home education? If she is against choice, she’s against these successful, effective and efficient modes of education. They contribute mightily to the public good of an educated public.

I’m waiting to read the book to see how she treats parents -- the true, but displaced and usurped, owners of and advocates for children’s education.

Furthermore, her credibility is low with me. As long as she remains a Director of the Albert Shanker Institute which is funded and housed at the American Federation of Teachers HQ in Washington, DC, I will continue to see her as in the pocket of teacher unions. Albert Shanker, president of the AFT from ’74-’97 never, to my knowledge, disavowed being a Marxist.

(PS: I’m from Canada and feel our education systems are identical twins with identical issues, problems and threats.)

Posted by: tunyasez | February 28, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

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