Book Review: The Death and Life of the Great American School System

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

In this book, Diane Ravitch lays out the history of the major trends in education reform in the past 50 years or so and discusses the problems with many of those reforms.  She looks at how as a country we’ve gotten to the point of relying so heavily on testing and accountability, at the history behind the school choice movement (charters and vouchers) and at the growing influence of large corporate funded foundations in school reform.

As I read this book, I was reminded several times of how timely these issues are. Here in DC, the mayoral election centered around chancellor Michelle Rhee and the reforms she has instituted that are either very popular or very unpopular, depending on who you are.  I keep seeing references to the new documentary Waiting for Superman everywhere.  President Obama was on the front page of the Washington Post today for making the revolutionary statement that DC public schools are not as good as Sidwell Friends. It seems that school reform is the topic du jour.

The historical perspective that Ravitch outlines is very interesting and helpful in seeing how we got where we are today. I found her discussion of the current reliance on testing and accountability both fascinating and deeply troubling, especially after reading Making the Grades about the standardized testing industry earlier this year. It’s also interesting to realize that many of these trends are so ingrained that both sides of the political spectrum aren’t really that far apart. They may differ in the specifics but both tend to call for more testing and more “accountability” based on that testing.

Ravitch did a better job of pointing out what is wrong with the current trends in reform than in offering up solutions of her own. In her last chapter, titled Lessons Learned she offers this in answer to the questions “What is a well educated person?….What do we hope for when we send our children to school?”

Certainly we want them to be able to read and write and be numerate. Those are the basic skills on which all other learning builds. But that is not enough. We want to prepare them for a useful life. We want them to be able to think for themselves when they are out in the world on their own. We want them to have good character and to make sound decisions about their life, their work, and their health. We want them to face life’s joys and travails with courage and humor. We hope that they will be kind and compassionate in their dealings with others. We want them to have a sense of justice and fairness. We want them to understand our nation and our world and the challenges we face. We want them to be active, responsible citizens, prepared to think issues through carefully, to listen to differing views, and to reach decisions rationally. We want them to learn science and mathematics so they understand the problems of modern life and participate in finding solutions. We want them to enjoy the rich artistic and cultural heritage of our society and other societies.

Well. Amen to that. As a homeschooler, I can hear a lot of people who would read that and say “No school can do all that. It’s up to the family/the church/the community.” And while that is true for many kids, sadly, for many others the schools really are their only chance at education and all that word should mean.

I think what Ravitch succeeds in doing in this book is pointing out just how difficult this task of “educating well” is on a large-scale level. It’s one of the reasons we’ve chosen to homeschool. I believe that I can give my kids an excellent education. I have no illusions that I have answers as to how to do that for a roomful of kids, or even less for a school full or city/state/nation full. Just like in medicine it’s easy to heal the individual but not so easy to heal the system.

One thought on “Book Review: The Death and Life of the Great American School System

  1. Sounds like an interesting book. I enjoy reading those up to a point, and then I want the author to quit whining and start helping with solutions. I’ve been homeschooling for 19 years and those rose-colored glasses came off years ago. I *wish* there was the perfect solution. I’d embrace it wholeheartedly. I now have 3 school aged kids in three different schools settings – home, Montessori, and traditional private Christian school.

    I honestly don’t think much will ever change – especially in the public school system. There are too many players. I know people are very committed to the public school system, and it seems to have worked well for them but I would only enter it with a large dose of fear and trembling. We considered it very seriously for one of our kids and a public school teacher friend told us “Don’t do it.” It looks like we’re in the same metro area, and I live in one of the counties with some of the “best” schools (of course, I grew up here, so I’m not so easily swayed but such statements). As with anything – ps seems to work well when the child is bright and compliant. It seems to fall apart for those most in need of scholastic help. Of course, this is an issue with private and homeschoolers too, but it seems they seem to have more possibilities to address the issues.

    Well, I think I’ve rambled too long.

    I heard about the documentary a few weeks ago and it does sound very thoughtful.

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