Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Diane Ravitch: The Death and Life of the Great American School System

The following are some highlights from a new book by Diana Ravitch entitled "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" (the title an homage to the 1961 book by Jane Jacobs about American Cities). In this new book, Ravitch repudiates positions that she once fiercely defended. Evaluating broadly popular ideas for restructuring schools, she explains why they have had no positive impact on the quality of American education.

Drawing on over forty years of research and observation on education, Ravitch also offers prescriptions for improving our schools. This book represents a radical change of heart from one of conservative America’s best-known education experts. I believe it is a must-read for teachers, parents, administrators, and bureaucrats—invested in the future of our schools. Later this week I will post some reflections on my experiences in the Hoboken School District and how a political group attempting to control a local school board violated many of the cautions that Ravitch warns us about in her new book.

According to Ravitch:

“Our schools ...

... will not improve if we continually reorganize their structure and management without regard for their essential purpose

... will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators

... will not improve if we value only what tests measure

... will not improve if we rely exclusively on tests as the means of deciding the fate of students, teachers, principals, and schools

... will not improve if we continue to close neighborhood schools in the name of reform

... will not improve if we entrust them to the magical powers of the market

... cannot improve if charter schools siphon away the most motivated students and their families in the poorest communities from the regular public schools

... will not improve if we expect them to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises

... will not improve if we continue to drive away experienced principals and replace them with neophytes who have taken a leadership training course but have little or no experience as teachers

... cannot be improved by blind worship of data

... cannot be improved by those who say money doesn't matter

... cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn

... cannot be improved if we use them as society's all- purpose punching bag, blaming them for all the ills of the economy, the burdens imposed upon children by poverty, the dysfunction of families, and the erosion of civility. Schools must work with other institutions and cannot replace them.”

Skeptics, most on the pedagogic left, have been complaining for years about the obsession with bubble tests and the neglect of liberal arts disciplines that can't be reduced to simple test scores. What is new is that Ravitch is saying these things, and saying them in terms as tough and with a bill of particulars as persuasive as in her former dissections of progressive education.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University. Ravitch has written or edited more than twenty books, including The Language Police,The Great School Wars, The Troubled Crusade, The American Reader, The English Reader, and Left Back. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.