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Book Review

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education

Several times over the years I have been writing my “Teachers’ Lounge” column for this publication, I have written pieces defending the teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I send these columns on to Sharon Strean who was the peerless chair of the English department of my school during the last decade or so of my teaching career. Sharon was smart, an English teacher herself, and she consistently hired knowledgeable, capable teachers for our department. She retired from our school district a few years after I retired and has worked with the Detroit public schools and other schools since then. Most recently I sent her my column from September of this year.

Her response was chilling. She wrote, “Teachers don't inspire these days, Dudley.  They are simply disseminators of knowledge and skills, not teachers.  Their purpose now is to teach skills for a test score, not to teach students how to us their new-found knowledge to create a better world for themselves and others. Forget character, inspiration and creativity.  They are not tested, so they don't matter.”

“The English Department has had three administrators since I left two years ago.  The latest person in charge of the department is a 27 year old man who is a former math teacher--knows nothing about English.  Some administrators genuinely believe that content knowledge does not matter; all any administrator needs to be is a traffic manager.”

Diane Ravitch would absolutely concur with Sharon’s dismal assessment of what is going on in our schools today. Ravitch was Assistant Secretary of Education to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander from 1991 to 1993 in the administration of President George H. W. Bush, and she writes in this book that she was initially supportive of No Child Left Behind which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. After all, she writes, “Who could object to ensuring that children mastered the basic skills of reading and mathematics? Who could object to an annual test of those skills? Certainly not I.”

But, as time passed and Ravitch saw how NCLB affected the schools, she became disillusioned with the law. “In my writings,” she says in the introduction to The Death and Life…, “I have consistently warned that, in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets…. I realized I was turning skeptical [of NCLB] in response to panaceas and miracle cures. The only difference was that in this case, I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures…. I too was captivated by these ideas. They promised to end bureaucracy, to ensure that poor children were not neglected, to empower poor parents, to enable poor children to escape failing schools, and to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. Testing would shine a spotlight on low-performing schools, and choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for better schools. All of this seemed to make sense, but there was little empirical evidence, just promise and hope…. I wanted to believe that choice and accountability would produce great results. But over time, I was persuaded by accumulating evidence that the latest reforms were not likely to live up to their promise. The more I saw, the more I lost the faith.”

Ravitch says the movement to create educational standards was “hijacked” by the testing movement. Supporters of the testing movement claimed that it was a natural outgrowth of the standards movement. “[It] was not,” she counters. “It demanded that schools generate higher test scores in basic skills, but it required no curriculum at all, nor did it raise standards. It ignored such important studies as history, civics, literature, science, the arts, and geography.

“What once was the standards movement was replaced by the accountability movement. What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy.”

Ravitch writes that the groundwork for replacing curriculum and standards with accountability and testing was laid almost a decade before NCLB became law. She says, “The efforts [begun during the first Bush administration] to establish voluntary national standards fell apart in the fall of 1994 when Lynne V. Cheney attacked the not-yet-released history standards for their political bias…. Cheney lambasted the standards as the epitome of left-wing political correctness, because they emphasized the nation’s failings and paid scant attention to its great men.” This all seems remarkably similar to the history curriculum reforms that were recently passed in Texas.

There was an abortive attempt to establish academic standards with the Clinton administration’s Goals 2000 program that gave states federal money to write their own academic standards. But, Ravitch says, “It seemed the states had learned from the battle over the history standards that it was better to say nothing than to provoke controversy by setting out any real curriculum standards. Most state standards were windy rhetoric, devoid of concrete descriptions of what students should be expected to know and be able to do….

As an example of this “windy rhetoric,” she cites “a typical middle-school history standard that says ‘students will demonstrate an understanding of how ideas, events, and conditions bring about chance.’” She observes that, “Since these statements do not refer to any actual historical event, they do not require students to know any history. They contain no historical content that students might analyze, debate or reflect on.”

This didn’t have to be the case, and without Lynne Cheney’s lambasting the voluntary national historical standards in 1994, we might have some history standards that could actually help produce strong history curricula and provide teachers with meaningful guidance. The 1994 standards, Ravitch writes, “are intellectually challenging, because they expected students to discuss the causes and consequences of the American Revolution, the Great Depression, world wars, and other major events in American history. Without specificity and clarity,” she notes sadly, “standards are nothing more than vacuous verbiage.”

After Cheney’s broadside made genuine standards a political hot potato, politicians—Democrats and Republicans alike—quickly jumped on the testing and accountability bandwagon. And what did this new reliance on numbers produce? Ravitch’s assessment—“No Child Left Behind had no vision other than improving test scores in reading and math. It produced mountains of data, not educated citizens. Its advocates then treated that data as evidence of its ‘success.’ It ignored the importance of knowledge. It promoted a cramped, mechanistic, profoundly anti-intellectual definition of education. In the age of NCLB, knowledge was irrelevant.” Hello, Sharon Strean.

Part of the vision of NCLB was faith in the market. If your kids went to a school that consistently failed to make “adequate yearly progress,” you could pull them out and put them in a more successful school. Of course, if you lived in a large, impoverished urban area where school failure was endemic—Detroit, for example—you might have a hard time finding a good, alternative school. The market’s response to this dearth of good schools was the burgeoning charter school movement.

This brings us to the juggernaut that (along with political myopia and timidity) that Ravitch thinks represents the biggest obstacle to genuine educational reform: wealthy foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Ebythe Broad foundation. She calls these “the billionaire boys’ clubs,” and she is especially concerned about the Gates Foundation.

In 2000, the Gates Foundation decided that the primary obstacle to higher high graduation rates and college entry rates was the large, traditional high school, so between 2000 and 2008 the foundation “pumped about $2 billion…into its campaign to restructure the American high school.” This restructuring took the form of downsizing large, comprehensive high schools and creating charter schools.

The problem with this, Ravitch says is that “Although foundation officials regularly claimed that their decision to support small schools was based on research, most of the research available at that time was written by advocates of small schools, so the foundation had no warning signs of the difficulties it would encounter in pursuing its agenda. More importantly, perhaps, she says, “…the root causes of poor achievement lie not in the high schools, but in the earlier grades, where students fail to learn the skills they need to keep up with their peers and to achieve academic competence.”

But the real risk of the Gates Foundation, Ravitch believes, is its enormous wealth. She writes, “…never before was there a foundation that gave grants to almost every major think tank and advocacy group in the field of education, leaving almost no one willing to criticize its vast power and unchecked influence.”

Ravitch writes early inThe Death and Life of the Great American School System, “When we are too certain of our opinions, we run the risk of ignoring any evidence that conflicts with our views.” Her ability to change her mind is what makes this book so valuable. In it Ravitch explains clearly why she first believed in NCLB, why she changed her mind, and where she believes current school reform efforts are wrong. This is an important book. Ravitch has done us a great service. Policy makers ignore her at everyone’s peril.