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280 of 297 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2010
No silver bullets. This is the simple premise of Diane Ravitch's new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," which is being brought out this week by Basic Books. Written by one of our nation's most respected scholars, it has been eagerly awaited. But it has also been, at least in some quarters, anticipated with a certain foreboding, because it was likely to debunk much of the conventional -- and some not so conventional -- wisdom surrounding education reform. This is a fabulous book that may well become the most widely read volume on education reform in memory.

Much of the publicity and controversy over the book has to do with changes in public policy positions Dr. Ravitch has taken recently - away from choice and testing. And while she has evolved in her thinking, to my mind she has been remarkably consistent. As she always has, Dr. Ravitch believes in high standards, a rigorous curriculum, treating teachers with respect and never straying from the truth - which is why she has become critical of testing programs that have fostered a culture of lies and exaggeration. And she backs up her positions - old and new - with convincing data and perceptive analysis.

"The Death and Life of the Great American School System" is a passionate defense of our nation's public schools, a national treasure that Dr. Ravitch believes is "intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy and to the promise of American life." She issues a warning against handing over educational policy decisions to private interests, and criticizes misguided government policies that have done more harm than good.

Ideas such as choice, utilizing a "business model" structure, accountability based on standardized tests and others, some favored by the left, others by the right are deemed as less, often much less, than advertised. Dr. Ravitch doesn't oppose charters, but rather feels that the structure itself doesn't mandate success. As in conventional schools, there will be good ones and bad ones. But charters must not be allowed to cream off the best students, or avoid taking the most troubled, as has been alleged here in New York City.

Her main point, however, is broader. "It is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing educational policy to be directed, or one might say, captured by private foundations," Dr. Ravitch notes. She suggests that there is "something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public educational policy to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people." However well intended the effort, the results, in her telling, have not been impressive, in some cases doing more harm than good.

These foundations are beyond the reach of the voters' will, and they themselves, "are accountable to no one," Dr. Ravitch writes. "If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power." Dr. Ravitch questions why we're allowing the relatively small financial contributions made by the foundations, dwarfed by the hundreds of billions America spends on public education, to leverage the entire investment? And she asks who, when there is no accountability, will take the fall if things go horribly wrong?

My experience, writing about public education in New York City, suggests that many of the prescriptions imposed by the foundations have indeed resulted in spectacular failures. But I can't recall a single press conference at which a somber foundation head, flanked by the local superintendent and mayor says, "Sorry, pupils, we really bollixed that one."

The Gates Foundation has pumped billions into the creation of small high schools, facilitating the destruction of hundreds of existing larger high schools. So unsuccessful has this strategy been that Mr. Gates has now abandoned it throughout the nation. Many experts, Dr. Ravitch among them, could have told Mr. Gates that the problem wasn't the high schools. It is that the students were arriving at these schools ill prepared to do high school level work.

What of the once-great comprehensive high schools, institutions with history and in some cases a track record of success going back generations? As time moves on, it is fast becoming clear that the new small schools, many with inane themes (how about the School of Peace and Diversity?), can never substitute for a good neighborhood high school, which can become a center of communal life and pride. Dr. Ravitch's report underscores the fact that the trick is to fix the neighborhood schools beset with problems, not destroy them.

The involvement of charitable foundations in education is familiar ground to Diane Ravitch. She came to prominence as the nation's leading historian of education with the publication of her acclaimed book, "The Great School Wars, New York City 1805-1973." The final chapters in that book are an account of the controversy over community control of the city's public schools that began during the 1960s, facilitated by the Ford Foundation, resulted in a bitter teachers' strike, and delivered a clunky, partially decentralized restructuring.

Had it not been for these events, her history of New York City's public education system might have quickly been forgotten, gathering dust on library shelves. But history is not just the distant past, but the news of yesterday as well. By putting events, still fresh in our memories, into relevant context, Dr. Ravitch demonstrated their importance in the larger historical context and made her reputation.

An article she wrote more than 40 years ago, entitled "Foundations: Playing God in the Ghetto," sounds like something from the front pages of today's news. No other observer of the events surrounding our schools brings such a deep perspective to the events of today in our schools, always different but so much the same.

If the Broads, Waltons and Gates really want to fix America's schools, a good place to start would be by purchasing a copy of Dr. Ravitch's book for every Washington bureaucrat, senator, representative, state legislator, mayor, school superintendent, school board member, and principal. That could set the whole system moving in the right direction.

It is not only the foundations that Dr. Ravitch blames for the current crisis: government has also failed in the attempt to reform the schools from above, lacking a clear perspective of how schools work on a day-to-day basis. Thus, the major federal initiative, No Child Left Behind, well intentioned as it may have been, ended up damaging the quality of education, not improving it.

While the federal government declares schools as "failing" and prescribes sanctions for schools not meeting its goal of "annual yearly progress," it is the states that are allowed to write and administer the tests. This has led to a culture of ever-easier tests and more test preparation rather than real instruction. More ominously, it led to such scandals as the New York State Education Department lowering the "cut scores" that define the line between passing and failing.

Dr. Ravitch suggests that the proper roles of the states and federal government have been reversed under NCLB. Maybe the standards for achievement should be set in Washington, which, after all, administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the solutions found at the local level, using the accurate data provided by Washington. Instead of moving in a different direction from the failed NCLB model of the Bush Administration, the Obama administration has adopted and expanded on them.

When appointing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the president cited Mr. Duncan's record of "improving" test scores in Chicago. Dr. Ravitch points out that these improvements were rejected as exaggerated and "not real student improvement" in a study by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. She notes that the Obama administration is linking increases in federal funding to mandated adoption by other districts of the same programs that have already failed Mr. Duncan and the children of Chicago.

Teacher-bashing, so in vogue among the "reformers" dominating the national discussion, is rejected by Dr. Ravitch. How could the unions be responsible for so much failure when, she asks, traditionally, the highest scores in the nation are posted by strong union states such as Massachusetts (best results in the nation) and the lowest scores in the south, where unions are weak or non-existent?

The mania for closing "failing" schools also comes under the Ravitch microscope. To her mind, closing schools should be reserved for the "most extreme cases." Virtually alone among those discussing educational policy, Dr. Ravitch appreciates the value of schools as neighborhood institutions. To her mind, closing schools "accelerates a sense of transiency and impermanence, while dismissing the values of continuity and tradition, which children, families and communities need as anchors in their lives."

I saw this at work recently with the closing of a high school in my old Bronx neighborhood, a school from which both my mother and wife were graduated. Will the replacement hodge-podge of a half dozen unrelated "theme schools" drawing conscripted students from all over the city, ever mean as much to the local community, or have the potential to contribute to its renaissance?

If there is no silver bullet to fix the schools, Dr. Ravitch reassures us that the public schools can be greatly improved, even without miracles, the heavy hand of government or direction from the mega rich and their powerful foundations. What does Dr. Ravitch suggest instead?

She advocates a clear vision of what we should expect our schools to accomplish for our children, and a "well conceived coherent and sequential curriculum" designed to fulfill that vision, declaring our intention "to educate all children in the full range of liberal arts and sciences and physical education." Dr. Ravitch notes that one state that has a particularly well-regarded curriculum, Massachusetts, routinely outperforms the other states on national and international measures.

Once a quality curriculum is in place, we can recruit and train teachers who fully comprehend what is expected of them, and develop programs to overcome the real deficits that many students in our most at risk communities bring to their academic careers. Similarly students must understand what standards of behavior and academic commitment are demanded of them. Testing should again be used as a device to help students in a diagnostic way, not to punish adults or stigmatize schools.

Public education is a tough enterprise. It won't be fixed overnight. But if we stick with a back to basics approach, saturated with the solid American democratic values that Dr. Ravitch advocates, we won't be so prone to fall for the silver bullets that never seem to find their mark. Read this book!
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168 of 181 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2010
This is a wonderful book. With precision and soul, Diane Ravitch shows why our present-day education reforms are likely to do more harm than good: they are based on ideas extraneous to education and too often ignore its content. Closure, breakup, privatization of schools, rigid pedagogical models, teacher evaluations based on test scores--none of these reforms addresses why and what we are teaching in the first place. No Child Left Behind gave us accountability without substance; worse, it gave us "a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States." Charter schools in themselves are no solution; they vary widely in quality and as a whole have not outperformed public schools. Small schools are no solution; they may lack many of the resources of larger schools, and some small-school initiatives have proven disastrous.

In chapter 1, Ravitch writes, "School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss's Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land `where they never have troubles, at least very few.' Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. In my writings, I have consistently warned that, in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets. For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly."

Through fascinating analyses, narratives, interviews, and descriptions, Ravitch shows how our education reformers miss the mark again and again. But the book is far from despondent. There is much we can do, Ravitch argues, if we honor the substance of education and give our schools the support they need. This book should long outlast the reforms criticized in its pages. Its prose and principles stand strong against the times.
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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 11, 2010
There was once a time when evolution and refinement of one's thinking, even the changing of one's views, was considered the mark of a cultivated mind. Ongoing observation, collection and synthesis of information, formulation of new (or revised), experience-based theories and conclusions -- all were respected as the rightful path to truth for the well-trained mind. In more recent years, particularly in today's hyper-partisan America, such intellectually commendable behavior as come to be considered a sign of weakness, of a craven caving-in to "the other side," sometimes viciously castigated as cowardly, traitorous, or just "selling out." It was Billy Joel, however, who wrote (in "Shades of Grey") that "...the only people I fear are those who never have doubts."

Given this current state of affairs, Diane Ravitch opens her latest book, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM with a defense (bordering on apology) of her evolved thinking on the subject of public education in America. An education historian of national repute with a deep background in the Bush/Clinton/Bush era of school reform, Ms. Ravitch freely confesses that many of the reforms she had enthusiastically espoused and supported in the 1980s and 1990s -- "testing, accountability, choice, and markets" -- are simply not working. Her present assessment is actually rather worse than that, as evidenced by her book's subtitle: "How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM is a simply masterful work: articulate but highly readable, addressing complex subject matter with depth and clarity, authoritative but not dryly academic. Ms. Ravitch combines historical perspective with the results of numerous foundation studies and judiciously constrained use of statistics to argue her case that American public education has gone seriously off-track since roughly the time of the first Bush Presidency in 1989. She faults both Democrats and Republicans for this situation, relegating much of their behavior to political posturing around quick fixes coupled with an under-informed infatuation with corporate business models and free market thinking as the answer to the country's education issues. As a result, the ideal of a liberal education, encompassing not just multiple subject areas (science, math, history, geography, English writing and literature, foreign language, art and music) but also such traits as curiosity, passion, persistence, risk-taking, self-learning, empathy, and tolerance, has been supplanted by "measurables," especially test scores in math and reading/English.

Ms. Ravitch's book follows a loosely chronological arc from NYC's District 2 and San Diego in the 1990s to NCLB and the NYC business model for education implemented under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the early 2000s. She retraces her temporal steps somewhat to address school choice and its transformation from a Friedmanian espousal of vouchers to support for charter schools. In the latter third of her book, she addresses three other, important points of contention: the problems introduced by slavish devotion to quantifiable accountability as the only measure of school success, the definition of "great teachers" and how they are measured under current systems, and the role of publicly unanswerable major foundations (Walton, Gates, and Broad) and how they are almost single-handedly dictating the path of public education reform in the U.S. For this reader, the chapter on these foundations (aptly titled "The Billionaire Boys' Club") was the most revealing and disturbing one in the entire book.

In her final chapter, "Lessons Learned," Ms. Ravitch makes her case for what needs to be done at this point. She begins this exercise with the absolutely correct question, the very one that punches an enormous hole in NCLB: "What does it mean to have (i.e., offer to children) a good education?" She then proceeds to argue for a national curriculum (or alternatively, strong, state-defined curricula), assessments that are "as good as the curriculum," multiple measures of school quality, support for rather than closure of struggling schools, well-educated and well-paid teachers, increased family involvement, and increased expectation of civility in schools. Unfortunately, these prescriptions come across as vague and rather idealistic, not nearly forceful or specific enough to stem the current tides against which she herself has turned.

No matter one's political or educational persuasion, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM is essential reading. Those who agree will find in this book a reasoned, history- and evidence-based justification of their views (and rejection of many current education reform initiatives). Those who disagree should, at the very least, consider the case being made and reevaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their own positions.

Hopefully, Diane Ravitch's book will give a few moments' pause for reflection to national leaders who seem swept up by the lavish promises of reform via data analysis, accountability, and free market (read, privatization) of our public education system. For anyone who wants to understand what has happened to American public education in the past two decades, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM is an indispensable read.
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71 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2010
In this unique and necessary book Diane Ravitch, the dean of historians of American education, offers new and convincing ways of looking at the received wisdom about how to remake our urban schools. With the courage of character and the understanding gained from years of both scholarly and government experience, she asks the simple question, "What works?" She takes a good hard look at the various paths followed by school reformers--policymakers, business leaders, foundations, and government--with their various emphases on markets, accountability and incentives, testing, charter schools, and voucher plans. These attempts, largely structural and managerial, have failed to address what Ravitch has come to see and convinces us her readers is the cornerstone of education in a democracy--the public school system that holds us all together in a common culture. Its subject matter, history and civics, literature and the arts, has been all but lost in the frenzy of test preparation that has taken over classrooms everywhere in the country.

Ravitch makes an illuminating case as she uses the experience of New York City to show how political aims trump real learning when test scores are used as indicators of educational progress by leaders looking to their own reputations as they misrepresent the meaning of the numbers that hide what really matters--what students are learning. Yes, it's the curriculum, stupid.

Ravitch's passionate belief in the importance of what we teach our children--what makes a full human life and a good citizen--is inspiring. No one can read this book without gaining a new understanding of how we have been failing and where we should turn now. This wise and lively book should be read by every parent, every teacher, and everyone who cares about the future of our country.
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45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2010
After reading a number of very positive reviews, I'm quite disappointed with this book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diana Ravitch). While there are many good ideas in the book, it's excruciatingly repetitive, poorly organized, and fails to persuade.

I bought this book after reading Dave Ellison's column in the Daily Review on Monday. Ellison's column about the book and its author led me to post a blog entry. Ellison wrote (in part) that Ravitch's "wrenching transformation" from supporter to opponent (of merit-pay based on high-stakes-testing, school choice, and performance-based business-like management of schools) was based on data, and certainly Ravitch does offer up some helpful data to support her conclusion that various "school reform" strategies have failed to produce improvements in education. But there's really nothing new here, and I don't expect this book to "convert" anyone who previously disagreed with Ravitch's views (which are clearly very similar to Dave Ellison's views and my own views).

In fact, I didn't really perceive a "wrenching transformation" by the author; perhaps the transformation was so complete that she wasn't able to clearly articulate her earlier views. While reading the book, I felt that Ms. Ravitch's earlier support of particular school reforms was not very strong, and she mostly "went along" with the views of others on the topics of high-stakes testing, school choice, and business-like management of schools. Her real passion seems to be curriculum and instruction, and her "transformation" seems mostly to be a realization that popular reform movements (specifically, evaluating teachers primarily based on student test scores) had ruined or eliminated the curriculum that matters so much to her.

Throughout the book, Ravitch repeats and recycles many of the same facts, analysis, and conclusions, over and over, again and again. Of course, it makes sense to "remind" or "refresh" readers when making a new connection to earlier material in a text, but that's not the problem. Instead, each chapter appears to be written to stand alone. (At times, I even wondered if the book was simply a collection of columns or essays that she'd written over the past year or two, but I can't find any support for this theory.) Perhaps Ravitch recognizes that many readers won't have time to read the entire book, and thus she wants each chapter to be meaningful and "complete," even if read in isolation from the rest of the book. (In fact, a number of logical and rhetorical contradictions are apparent when reading the entire book.)

I must stress: I agree with nearly all the ideas and arguments in Ravitch's book. And she makes many very strong arguments (but unfortunately, without much persuasive evidence or data). My frustration comes not just from the painful amount of repetition, but from frustration that Ravitch's arguments simply don't seem likely to persuade anyone who doesn't already share her views.

In the end, I simply found myself wishing for a much shorter, better-organized summary of the ideas discussed in this book.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2010
To start this review off in a moderately inflammatory way, I'll mention that I first heard of Diane Ravitch's new book when the head of the teacher's union in my school district recommended that the school board (which I'm on) read it. Our school district, which considers itself innovative, has seized upon many of the in vogue ideas that claim to promote student success and achievement: small school initiatives, charter schools, proficiency based learning, data driven teaching, amongst others. Here in Oregon, we are facing the duel specters of the worst financial crisis in the last seventy years, and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law grinding its inexorable way towards the consequences of setting laudable, but unachievable goals.

A bit of my background that may help frame my comments: I'm a family physician that raised four children (all now adults) with my wife. My wife has been a teacher since 1974, teaching (and loving) middle school for the last 15 years. I come from a conservative background, moderately paranoid of the intentions of unions, pro-innovation, and thoroughly frustrated with the expense and mediocrity of public education. I'm not someone to just complain and criticize from a distance, though: I've been a hard-working school board member for over six years. I've learned a lot. Diane Ravitch's book taught me a whole lot more, much of which I didn't want to know. I'm the better for it.

Ravitch doesn't unleash a focused salvo in her book, instead marshalling a more broad-based reexamination of some enormously popular (with politicians, the public, and business interests) concepts in public education. They also happened to be concepts very popular with me: teacher pay linked to performance, charter schools, consequences for schools, teachers, principals if they don't meet performance goals, data driven education based on test scores.

Ravitch is neither a reactionary, nor a radical. Though she has worked at a variety of highly influential jobs in education, her specialty is the history of education. All of us know what those who don't know history are doomed to do, and it behooves even skeptics (not just skeptical school board members) to turn an attentive ear to what is carefully laid out in The Death and Life of the Great American Education System.

It would be wrong, in this review, to take sides on the issues that Ravitch addresses. It isn't that I don't have opinions (my fellow school board members would howl at that notion), but that voicing them would detract from what I'd like others to know about this book. What I would like to hook a potential reader of this book with is this notion: whether you are an ardent supporter or a bitter opponent of charter schools, pay for performance, NCLB, rigid focus on the basics (reading, writing, math), you will turn the last past page of this book with a far more informed and thoughtful perspective than you had when you turned the first page.

And turn those pages you will, because if a non-fiction book about education can possibly be a page turner, this is the best candidate yet for that designation. It is not an overstatement to say that some of the history that Ravitch recounts about the upheavals in education that have occurred in New York, San Diego, Washington D.C., as well as the results of several billion dollars in grants by organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is gripping, even a bit mind-bending. Ravitch's careful walk through what the press SAID was happening during these upheavals, versus the actual cold hard facts that emerged when all the dust from the tornadoes of hype and opinion surrounding them settled to the ground, is instructive to all conservatives and liberals that lay claim to having an open mind.

My wife, the middle school teacher, says that one of her goals with every student is to make them into a lifelong learner. All of us that are interested in public education should aspire to that same goal for ourselves. Ravitch's approach to what she perceives as ailing in education is a finely crafted and highly personal one, personal enough that few readers are likely to find themselves in complete agreement with her. What almost every reader will acknowledge, though, by the end of the book is that their perspective has been broadened, and their understanding of the issues has been deepened. It is not too often that a book forms a bridge between a school board member and the head of the teacher's union, but this one is capable of doing so (and did).
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2010
THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM (HOW TESTING AND CHOICE ARE UNDERMINING EDUCATION) authored by Diane Ravitch is second to none as far as any book ever published about education. Every person with the slightest interest in education whether it be a parent, a school committee member, a superintendent of schools or any other administrator or teacher all should read this book. Everyone would then understan why there is so much controvery in education today and why students are not getting the quality education they deserve. In addition the President of the United States and all Congressmen should read it. All then would understand the fallacies of NO CHILD LEFT LEFT BEHIND (NCLB), the worst piece of legislation ever created in the history of American education, as well as the problems that arise from high stakes testing. It's all in the book, all they have to do is read. Dr. Ravitch has served in the field of education during the reign of three different Presidents. She was committed to NCLB and high stakes testing in the past but over the last three as the negative findings became public she now rejects both. It takes a special person such as Dr. Ravitch to admit mistakes while others stand by and create false research to defend their indefensible positions. It verges on criminality. I could go on and on about the attributes of this book but suffice to say read it and you will understand what I am trying to say. I would suggest to President Obama that he fire or find a new position for his present secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who also comes from a questionable past as the leader of the Chicago public schools, and replace him with Dr. Ravitch. We would then would see common sense CHANGE in the field of education. President Obama ran on the platform of change but from what I can see little to none has happened. He continues to follow Bush policies with few exceptions. Obama has not only added to former President Bush's NCLB but has added to it in a more controversial manner. I guess we all live and learn no matter which position we hold in life. Ironically on the day this book was published another appeared on the market entitled NO ONE WOULD LISTEN. It deals with the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme and is written by Harry Markopolos who informed the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)as early as 2000 of this scheme. The SEC and government DIDN'T LISTEN for eight years until thousands lost billions including some who took their lives when they found they were penniless. Hopefully the government WILL LISTEN to Diane Ravitch this time and not waste billions of dollars more of the hard working public's tax dollars on a broken and useless NCLB. Once again we find Washington to be the problem and not the solution.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Diane Ravitch's well-researched, thought-provoking, and impassioned plea for an examination of current education reforms is a must-read for anyone who is concerned about the present state and future of education in the United States. What makes it all the more remarkable is that Ravitch was part of George W. Bush's administration and had an active role in his educational agenda and the development of the No Child Left Behind legislation. Ravitch's book explains her 180-degree reversal in attitude and how reforms that she once saw as the salvation of education in the U.S.--school choice, testing, and "accountability"--she now acknowledges as further weakening the overall quality of education.

Ravitch's books contains a great deal of statistics that may prove a little dry to the casual reader, but are extremely important nevertheless. She uses a wealth of research to debunk such myths as the idea that charter schools are superior at educating children. By citing studies that show that charter schools on the whole enroll fewer special education students, fewer English language learners, and "counsel out" lower-performing students, Ravitch provides a possible explanation of how they are able to post impressive gains in test scores. As Ravitch argues, the initial role of charter schools was to bolster the public schools by serving the neediest of the needy students. Instead, these institutions are using their autonomy to add to the burdens already suffered by public schools by skimming off top performers and leaving the lowest performers to the public schools, which must educate every student. Ravitch illustrates how, by attempting to run education like a marketplace, competition is actually hurting our public schools and our underserved students by placing a heavier burden on schools that already have trouble providing the necessary resources to these underserved students.

Illuminating chapters about the New York City schools and the San Diego schools show how the astonishing improvements reported in test scores are often no more than a product of data manipulation. The New York chapter in particular discusses how stripping elected school boards of their rights and responsibilities in favor of placing control of schools directly in the hands of the mayor is not necessarily in the best interests of the community and its parents and students. She illustrates how the top-down management style of such districts often leads to teacher dissatisfaction and increases in the rate of attrition of both teachers and administrators. Just as importantly, Ravitch uses these chapters to show how parents are stripped of their voices when they have no part in choosing who will be in charge of the decision-making in their neighborhood school districts.

The heavy emphasis on testing as inspired by NCLB is also taken to task. By placing so much emphasis on reading and mathematics, students are left with gaping holes in their education when it comes to subjects such as science and social studies. Ravitch provides plenty of alarming statistics showing just how little American students know about these subjects. She also takes the stance that this emphasis isn't even very effective at ensuring that students develop good reading and math skills, and she has the data to prove it. Gains in test scores are often due to the dumbing down of state tests and manipulation of data. Ravitch also argues that "teaching to the test" doesn't adequately prepare students, as they gain skills necessary to take a specific test rather than gaining meaningful knowledge. By contrasting state test results with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Ravitch proves that the successes reported by states are often inflated--and why wouldn't they be? States that fail to show progress are severely penalized thanks to NCLB, and Ravitch makes a very convincing argument that such punitive measures do little to increase the overall quality of education.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is the portion of the book in which Ravitch takes on those she dubs "The Billionaire Boys' Club". She argues that organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation sometimes do more harm than good for the schools they are attempting to save. Ravitch provides an alarming look at how these rich and powerful foundations sometimes use their clout to promote their own agendas and philosophies of education. Why is this allowed to happen? Because, as Ravitch's research shows, so many are beholden to these organizations that they lack the will or the courage to question them. What's worse, they are usually treated with kid gloves by media that are content to take the claims of these organizations at face value without pulling up the rug to see what lies underneath. I found it admirable that Ravitch risked black-listing herself with these organizations (after all, they often generously fund the kind of research that Ravitch conducts) in order to bring to our attention why we should be wary of their involvement in shaping educational policy.

Make no mistake, this book isn't meant to be an attack on the right or on Republicans. Ravitch is equally critical about educational initiatives that were pushed during the Clinton administration, as well as those that were considered during the Obama campaign and are being shaped during the Obama presidency. As Ravitch states, NCLB was bipartisan legislation, and the idea of frequent testing, tying teacher salary to student test results, and the push for more charter schools is being advanced by Republicans and Democrats alike.

I learned a great deal from this book. In an era when so much is at stake economically, the importance of education should never be undermined. As Ravitch says on page 223, "The nature of our education system--whether mediocre or excellent--will influence society far into the future." Considering the initiatives currently being pushed by President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, Ravitch's words couldn't be truer.
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49 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2010
Ravitch boldly and incontrovertibly reveals that the smorgasbord of education reforms that have been the obsession of foundations, think tanks, legislators, and policymakers in recent decades has been a waste of resources and, tragically, of time. While their focus, which Ravitch unrelentingly documents, has been on operational and organizational reforms (from choice and charters to testing and merit pay) they've been blind to what really determines whether students are learning or not: the content of what they are being taught. "It's the Curriculum, Stupid" could be another name for this mandatory book.

Lynne Munson
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2010
Between charter schools, vouchers, firing all the teachers in a school, Race to the Top, merit pay, NCLB, and so very much more, there are a lot of people who wonder what the heck it all means. Most people pick up a newspaper, watch a news program on TV, or listen to friends talk about this, and find the education debate mind-numbing and impossible to understand.

If you want to know the what, why, and true meaning behind the issues in K-12 education today, this is the book you must read.

Diane Ravitch is the preeminent education historian in the United States, and believe it or not, she is no academic, for she has lived through these issues at the highest levels of the United States Department of Education and other places that are very much at the heart of K-12 education in America.

Diane presents the education debates and issues of our times in an easy to digest, well- documented, first-hand account.

Most importantly, Diane recasts the conversation around education in a time where the easy answer is to apply free market principles to schools. If we "corporatize" our schools, and deregulate them just like our financial sector, will that improve the education of our youth and the future of our nation? Read this book and read it now, if you want to find out the answer to that question and many more like it.
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