Monday, April 30, 2018

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education Paperback – June 28, 2016 by Diane Ravitch (Basic Books)

Everyone has an opinion about K-12 education. Maybe that's because everyone has been a student, a parent, or both; has sat in a classroom, has studied with a teacher--a good one or a bad one. But it is in the nature of education that it will be as imperfect as the humans who teach and learn, as the parents who raise the students. It will never accomplish everything, be all things to all citizens. Over time there have been a million utopian projects to reform education, to make it fit the politics, the economic and technological plans of as many different "stakeholders" as there have been generations of students. The one thing that all these plans share is their overweening comprehensiveness, the arrogance of their belief that those with the political power or the money know better than the professionals--their sheer contempt for what the American public school system has accomplished in spite of its warts and blemishes.

Near the end of this powerful book, Diane Ravitch, one of the premier educational historians of our time, makes this somewhat understated observation -- "American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas" -- and asks the question "Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?" Ravitch may mean this as a rhetorical question, but the answer is obvious: Diane Ravitch will stand up to them. And that is what she does in this magnificent book.

Because our country has not had the stomach to thrash out WHAT should be taught in our schools -- to work our way through to a basic curriculum -- the focus of reform has been on the HOW: on high-stakes testing of limited basic skills, on accountability and results without understanding of what those results signify, on school size, vouchers, school choice, on "blueprints" for improvement informed by fads like "balanced literacy" or "whole language." Such focus on form over content leads to cynicism and gaming the system to achieve mandated results, however unrealistic, to teaching to the test, and to the micro-management of education professionals by outsiders qualified only by political office or wealth. Chapter by chapter Ravitch tells the story of one after another such fiasco. Not only do these grand plans turn into pitiful, predictable flops but, in the most tragic cases, they destroy viable community schools, both public and private (see the evisceration of a Catholic private school system that was an avenue to the middle class for generations of urban children). Both right and left are guilty, and no political party nor entrenched interest escapes Ravitch's wilting exposure.

My favorite chapter is "What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?" We all remember the extraordinary teacher, the one whose passion turned on whole classrooms--the teachers who became the voices in our heads that set standards of logic, grammar, accuracy, integrity for all our lives. For Ravitch, one of these was her English teacher "Mrs. Ratliff." I remember Miss Jans and Miss Schultz. My children were ignited by the purple pen of the amazing Mrs. Goddard. Like Ravitch, and in the name of Mrs. Ratliff, we must all square off against educational reforms that make it harder for the wonderful idiosyncratic brilliance of the master teacher to flourish in the neighborhood school. Those schools can take only so much abuse from the arrogant do-gooders, the reformers who think they know more than the parents, the uninformed hard-liners. The virtue of this book is that it is not a "blueprint." But it should give courage to all of us who truly love our children and our schools: the courage to resist and to speak "common sense" to power.

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