ON THE BOOKSHELF – THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM
ON THE BOOKSHELF
By Virginia Kirsch
THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM
(How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education) by Diane Ravitch
This book is a must-read for all of you concerned with public education. In Ravitch’s recent blog, she reiterated that the aim of legislators across the nation is to privatize public education. To prepare for the fight to protect our public schools, you will want to read this book.
Ravitch is the Research Professor of Education at New York University. From 1991 to 1993 she was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush. She worked on the National Assessment Governing Board under President Clinton.
Ravitch is the author or editor of over twenty books. She is a native of Houston and graduated from Houston public schools, Wellesley College and Columbia University.
The Death and Life of the Great American School System was written in 2010 and will give you important background for the debates over public school. Ravitch chose the title from “The Death and Life of the Great American City” by Jane Addams, which strongly influenced the development of our cities. Ravitch hopes that her book will help shape American education.
The first chapter “What I learned About School Reform” is very helpful. It gives the history of education in the USA. Ravitch shows how American education is full of fads. Each decade a new approach is found and is claimed to solve all problems. As a retired teacher, I can testify to that.
Ravitch writes: “School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss’s Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land “where they never have troubles, at least very few.”
Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. In my writings, I have consistently warned that, in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets. For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly.”
Ravitch, an education historian, has always been a registered Democrat. However, she did agree to work for the first President Bush. From that experience, she thought that certain managerial and structural changes (choice, charters, merit pay and accountability) would help to reform our schools. However, she has since reversed her decision. She realizes that those structural changes were headed toward privatization of public schools.
No Child Left Behind was complex and contained many programs. A large part of it was testing. All states were required to establish timelines showing how 100 percent of their students would reach proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2013 – 2014. We now realize that was an impossible mission. But testing took over the schools. Teachers had to teach to the test. They taught students HOW to take a test. Parents have since organized to protest the amount of testing in schools.
What happened in San Diego from 1998 to 2005 was unprecedented in the history of school reform. A non-educator was hired as superintendent. The management style was heavy-handed and fast-paced. Decision making was centralized and did not wait for a buy-in from teachers.
Ravitch concludes: “Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves? Can principals be inspiring leaders if they must follow orders about the most minute details of daily life in classrooms? Can a school system survive without trust?”
If we had the best curriculum, the best assessments and the best teachers, we would be well on our way to renewing our schools across the country. But that would not be enough. Schools are part of a larger society and are influenced and need support of families, public officials, local organizations and the larger community.
Trust is needed throughout our education systems and communities. We have a long road ahead of us re-building that trust and focusing on the common good.