05 April 2011

Book 13 of 2011

This was a hardcover edition my parents gave me as a gift for the holidays that I read during SSR.

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

To borrow a line from another blogger I enjoy, were both of us not already married, I'd like Diane Ravitch to be my girlfriend. Sure, there's a bit of a forty-some odd year age difference, but I like her grit and tenacity so much that it's something I'm sure our mutual affection could overcome. Ravitch has been a historian for education since the 1960's and served under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the Department of Education. Ravitch's central argument, if the subtitle doesn't already give it away, states that the so-called reform movement supporting charter schools at the expense of public ones and tying teacher pay to test scores is a move that will ultimately destroy the foundation of education much the same way that deregulation of Wall Street irrevocably damaged the economy.

While it's a dense 242 pages that relies heavily on facts, figures and studies to back up the thesis, I still found myself plowing through the book, mostly because I could relate so thoroughly to the subject matter. If a person is deeply invested in the American educational system, then this is the definitive look at its current state, what's being done and what needs to be changed. For most, it's going to be a dry read, and those uninvolved with education may find it difficult to trudge through. For those folks, I suggest reading the preface, opening chapter and the final concluding chapter to get the best overview because the specifics of each chapter are clogged with minutiae.

That minutiae, though, is fascinating to me, what with having the whole high school teacher thing going on. Teachers, especially recently, have shouldered plenty of undue punishment with many thinking that the way to fix an admittedly antiquated system is to make it more like a business. Take away regulation, pay attention only to the bottom line and let the schools compete for every last penny is the focus of society's latest pendulum shift as everyone waits for Superman.(*) Judging by the state of the economy and how well those fixes have worked in the private sector (read: not very), I'm surprised how well they're taking hold now in the debate on education. Ravitch explains how this turnaround in thinking has taken hold and goes into great detail about how it's damaged education.

(*) Can I just express how much I despise what that lying, biased work of fiction known as Waiting for Superman has done to the good Superman name? Superman is something to which everyone should aspire. He's not something for whom anyone should wait around. Each and every person should be working towards becoming Superman in their own life instead of waiting around for him to pull everyone out of the fire. That's the point of Superman. You look at all of the things he can be; dictator, absolute ruler, dominator of all he surveys; and know that he chooses to do good, to do the best he can, because that's the right thing to do. What better example can there be to aspire to? Instead, his name gets sullied by a film that complains that Superman hasn't come to save them yet. 

Look at the poverty rate, parental involvement (or lack thereof), and the fact that the focus of educational reform has only served to create a generation of test-takers. So much time and energy has been invested in making the various standardized tests the be-all and end-all for schools and teachers that we're now creating an environment that doesn't teach students to think for themselves, only how to eliminate the least likely answer of the four possible provided. And, don't forget, these students aren't accountable for the scores on these tests that measure a school and an individual teacher's effectiveness, but we have to make sure they try on them anyway.

And my absolute favorite thing in the world comes at the beginning of the book when Ravitch explains her position on testing. She was one of the chief proponents of No Child Left Behind, legislation she rails against over the course of many chapters that has led to the vaunted and valued test becoming the only thing used to measure the effectiveness of teachers and schools. Ravitch says she believed in testing and thought it would work as a way to properly measure all of those things, but then, over time, she saw that it didn't. So she changed her mind. She carried a position, saw its implementation, did not like the results, applied some rational thought and decided that her position was incorrect so she changed it. THIS IS AMAZING. When did we become a nation that allowed rational thought and the changing of one's opinions based on evidence to be a sign of weakness? More than anything, this idea of changing one's mind endeared me to Ravitch, so I'm glad she decided to put it at the beginning of the book.

The longer I let this get, the more trouble I feel I might be causing for myself as I write myself into a frenzy of "...and another thing!" type of statements. The fact is that Diane Ravitch has written a book that details the real problems schools, teachers, government, parents and, most importantly, students face should the reforms looming on the horizon take hold. It is important. And she's right.


  1. Mr. Talbot, this has nothing to do with your blog post, but do you think if I brought my own paper, the school would let me use the Duplo machiene? I have to make rediculous amounts of copies of this flyer for a project of mine.

  2. Bring the paper tomorrow, and we'll take care of it.