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

| August 3, 2010

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System” has been one of the most talked about books around Teachers College this summer. Having finally digested what this work has to offer, I can understand why. Diane Ravitch writes with the rigor and clarity of a fine historian, about issues that are all too often buried among opaque data sets taken at will to serve political ideology rather than foster understanding of complex issues. Ravitch pinpoints the contemporary rhetoric of choice and accountability in public schools and lays out their role as tools for reform in recent history. Her originality comes from her locating the causes of the current crisis in education in what the dominant discourse considers to be the solutions to it: the wholesale adoption of free-market policies and practices to the quintessential public good. Ravitch ends the book with a call for a set of holistic liberal arts curriculum standards at the state or national level.

I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the charter school phenomenon that’s sweeping the country’s educational system, as well as the increased use of national tests spearheaded by the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind”, and continued in an only slightly altered form with the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top.” Ravitch masterfully traces the history of the ideas behind charter schools and testing (i.e. choice and accountability), uncovering the startling ways their initial good intentions and even (limited) effectiveness were hijacked by political interests that aren’t usually found on the same side of a debate. Her analysis makes two things extremely clear: (1) the free market mentality is fully embraced as the best route to educational reform and (2) because of the nature of charter schools and testing standards- and how they fit into larger themes in American politics- they have strong bipartisan support. The issue at hand is the following: it has become politically uncontroversial and even commonplace to suggest that the best route to reforming public schools is to privatize as many of them as possible, and to do away with teachers unions and tenure.

Many of you are probably already familiar with this phenomenon, but in an economic environment where deregulation has clearly brought about one of the worst recessions in decades, it is still unbelievable to me that privatizing a public service is the best idea we have for reform. Ravitch gives a wonderful overview of how this argument came to be so acceptable. It seems more apt here to focus on what privatization has actually done to public schools however. Business interests informed by statistical and economic research have become the most powerful voices in the leadership ranks of public education. “Performance” (i.e. test scores) in education has become the equivalent of the “bottom line” in business. It’s not that test scores are heavily weighed, but they are the only weight. As Ravitch points out, “this is akin to putting a lawyer in charge of evaluating doctors, or a corporate executive in charge of evaluating airline pilots.” Numbers are important, but peer review is even more important. That said, what if those standing over the teachers in the ranks have little to no experience actually teaching? What if the leaders are not also the peers? I closed this book wholeheartedly convinced that the leadership of public education has simply fallen into the wrong hands. When I say “wrong” I don’t mean that school management personnel have bad intentions for schools, only that a great number of them simply aren’t qualified to make informed decisions on teacher effectiveness or school quality.

While the criticism that Ravitch levels on the public education establishment is certainly something new, her proposed reforms are not. She essentially advances your garden-variety “back to the basics” argument. This entails a more rigorous set of state or national curriculum standards for every subject (not just reading and math) that includes reading actual books and primary documents, not watered down textbooks. While I think I would have been less enthusiastic about this argument before reading her criticisms of public education, a deeper understanding of what is really going on in American public education has led me to realize that quibbling over what exactly should be taught is important, but not the primary issue in education politics. The subject matter of the classroom is no longer subject to local democratic debate; it has been hijacked by corporate interests. This is not public education; it is private enterprise.