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VINE VOICEon January 22, 2013
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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on December 30, 2011
In "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education," Diane Ravitch provides a comprehensive, incisive, and fervent critique of the current decades long No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top reform movements.

Ravitch produces conclusive data to support her transformation from an early supporter of test-based teacher accountability and the trend toward privatization of public schools to becoming a fervent critic and an advocate for education professionals. Her support for the No Child Left Behind Act gives her the unique perspective of someone who know and understands the good intentions and laudable goals of this crop of education reformers. Her career as a education historian makes her uniquely qualified to put this movement into perspective. Having seen NCLB fully implemented, she understands the negative impact of simplistic top-down bottom-line business models. With standardized tests as their underpinning, teaching becomes data collection. While the teacher is collecting the data, the student is learning to take tests.

Once again, politicians and wealthy businessmen have foisted yet another ill-conceived reform on educators. Perhaps because almost everyone has "gone to school" at some point in their lives, they feel they know what needs to be done to "fix" public education. But as may seem obvious, while we have all been students, we have not all become public school teachers and administrators. Ravitch gives voice to those education professionals. She provides line after line of quotable material that educators will find reassuring and absolutely true.

At times, the cumulative data and logic seemed repetitious; however, when repeated, it was for the most part included in a new context, applied to a different situation, and a careful reading rendered the data again relevant. As of this writing, aside from the inevitable attacks from right-wing ideologues, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education has accumulated hundreds of positive reviews in print and online. In skimming these reviews, I found one from a college student who was "required" to read the book. The student wrote that it was just "okay" and predictably gave it three stars, thus illustrating the difficulties in education. Of course students blanche at "requirements." You must "teach" it, make it come alive with life experience, make it relevant - good teachers do that. While the book may have been less than thrilling to the student, the learning experience becomes worthwhile. In the corporate business model, teaching means making sure the student passes an often unreliable standardized test. If the student does poorly on the fill-in-the-bubble test, then the teacher is "bad." This is obvious folly.

Coincidentally, I wrote an article, "The Essence of Teaching and Learning," just prior to reading Ravitch's book and was delighted and amused about the commonality of our views. (I have since revised to reference her work.) In my article, I wrote, "The essence of teaching and learning lies in the hundreds of moments a day when students learn something as a result of the teacher's actions. What they learn depends on teacher experience, temperament, and creativity, but also on administrative leadership, curriculum, political demands, and parental influences. Additionally, learning is affected by the wealth of the district, background of individual students, class size, classmates, social dynamic of the class, and the physical class environment. And much more of course. It's easy to see how the variables increase exponentially."

Additionally, because I have written fiction all my life, I logically use that medium to help shed light on an often misunderstood profession. My guess is that about ninety-nine percent of teachers are not overpaid laggards, as ultra right wing pundits want you to believe. As I try to show in my novel, "No Teacher Left Standing," this piling on of negative influences can create extremely tense situations that are overcome only by the devotion, tenacity and strength of teachers.

Jeff May (Jeffrey Penn May), educator and author of No Teacher Left Standing, married to a brilliant elementary school teacher.
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on December 6, 2013
This book is a sorrowful confession and an attempt at atonement by Diane Ravitch for her part in the seduction of power exercised by 'policy making/makers' in Washington and how her participation in this process resulted in gross errors in directing public school reform. Her introduction describes her heady inclusion during the last few decades in directing public school policy toward a corporate model and beyond. In the book, Ravitch admits her error in supporting accountibility through testing and school choice via voucher and how these policies were and are not appropriate for the structure necessary to provide good public education to theour American children. She admits that public education policy must strive to improve the social and ecomonic lot of the disadvantage, attempt to maximize the potential of every student, to provide the best support to the classroom teacher possible, and to focus on the classroom - not on some grand scheme from the corporate world that has little understanding of what goes on in the nation's classroom. Ravitch details other reform policies gone amuck including the billionaires' foundatiions that have influence public education policy through their own specific flavor of predjudices. With her tail between her legs, Ravitch sheepishly proffers the hope that somehow these mistakes can be rectified to once again put our priorities on children and teachers in the classrooms. Oh, how sad she would be if it is too late.
This book will move you to action regarding the incompetent job our policy makers and political system as a whole has done in educating our children through the American school system.
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on March 28, 2014
Every person in this country should read this book. Diane Ravitch has given the American Education System an autopsy and has found our children are being robbed of individual thought, the ability to make decisions, teachers are being forced to teach a curriculum detrimental to future generations. Children are being given textbooks and told to sit down and teach themselves. We participate in parish meetings to protest Common Core which is the disease planted within the system and is here to stay. If a school accepts Federal Funds they are forced and bound to teach Common Core which is causing children to be nervous wrecks in school thinking there is something wrong with them when in reality there is a destructive, hidden agenda being used to warp childrens' minds. My husband teaches school and goes to school, still, is very involved in the education of our children. Children are being medicated more, becoming nervous wrecks feeling they cannot learn - the problem is: they are not being taught. Wake up, my fellow Americans.....our children are in danger.
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on January 9, 2014
I started working on education issues a year ago as a state house lobbyist for an education advocacy group. I learned more reading this book, which covers lots of issues I work with every day, than any other material I have encountered thus far. It was enormously helpful and I want to buy hundreds of copies and figure out how to get policy makers, business leaders, parents, legislative staff working on education issues and others to read it with as open a mind as Diane Ravitch has. The history and evolution of education "reform" in this country in the last sixty or so years, and the historical context provided, are very helpful. Debunking the myths about what does and does not work, putting the use of data and "accountability" in context and especially challenging the influence and experience of the wealthy individuals and foundations who are driving policy in this area with a coorate bentwere a real eye opener for me. It has informed me in ways that will give me ammunition to discuss these issues with confidence and trust that I have a better grasp of the subjects at hand.
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on August 14, 2015
Ravitch has nailed the issue of what it would take to see our schools succeed - and the problem is a voting public that has been fooled into relinquishing control of schools to politicians, and entrepreneurs who know nothing about learning and teaching. In addition we have failed to see the issue as an economic and social one. Until we acknowledge the breadth of the problem, we cannot resolve the issue of schools that are currently failing our children. Well-written, persuasive, and well-documented.
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on December 25, 2013
Ravitch is an inspirational woman, and I've met her! This book is great if you're looking for proof of why the business model doesn't work in schools and lots of examples of mistakes we have made in America's education system. I definitely enjoyed it. However, some of it is repetitive and it reads a little dry. I'd recommend further her new book, Rein of Error. It'll shine a whole new light on what you think you know about education.
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on November 28, 2011
In The Death and Life of The Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, education historian Diane Ravitch presents a multifaceted portrait of the American school system in peril. She describes the No Child Left Behind as a purely punitive accountability system with impossible-to-achieve goals. She argues that NCLB has not nor will not produce improved outcomes for our country's most underserved children. She contends that the current education reform climate has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum, reducing many classrooms to test-prep factories, and has weakened the social fabric by closing long-time community schools.

The Death and Life... is more than a simple repudiation of NCLB. Ravitch takes the entire en vogue model of school reform head on, decrying the current fixation on accountability via standardized testing as unsupported by a close scrutiny of the empirical evidence. Through a series of case studies and topical reviews, Ravitch constructs a narrative in The Death and Life... that contends that the trends dominating education reform--indeed, the trends most often considered "silver bullets"--will, in fact, jeopardize the most basic foundations of our education system: to provide an equal education for all students, regardless of income, education, or race. More ominously, she suggests they may possibly spell the end of public education altogether.

Yet I question whether Ravitch's reports of public education's death are in some ways exaggerated. Her conclusions appear to be based on a one-sided reading of the evidence or a selective presentation of that evidence. This does a great disservice to a book that otherwise raises many important issues on the effects of so-called reform efforts. It is important to note that her work successfully calls into question the corporatization of the public school experience, the effects of the standardized testing on the long-term educational outcomes of students, the potential ravages of school choice on communities. However, Ravitch does not spare equal opportunity to acknowledge the nuances of the issues she raises, especially in regard to the successes of urban "no excuses" charter schools. Ravitch heaps ample criticism on the corporate orthodoxy that has invaded the public schooling sphere while sparing virtually no words towards well documented excesses, corruption, and underperformance that mar many urban school systems in the country and have allowed charters in the areas to become magnets for parents and children disenchanted with public education.

In my estimation, Ravitch has allowed her political leanings to distort the nuances of the subject she attempts to address, which makes The Death and Life... a compelling but one-sided read. Certainly, her work helps name today's era of market-force school reform and cast copious doubts on its promises of meaningful change; however, the absence of a full accounting of all the factors contributing to the struggles of education reform gives The Death and Life... the feel of a partisan account, one closely aligned with teacher union interests.
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on July 2, 2014
Dian Ravitch has been an advocate against testing as the supreme proof of achievement. After having read her book, written in a very easy to read style, you can at least give her some points. She shows how this system-the charter schools-have not been the panacea once thought to be, by far. It is a well know fact that once you have an opinion, a way of thinking so to say, you tend to use the facts as you please, so this book maybe would only reinforce the arguments of those who are against, or will show nothing to those who are for it. As i said, i think it would be of great help to approach it with the most open mind possible. There has been many years to test that system, and the results, well, you can see them. Some isolated good examples, most of them dismayful porve it wrong. Here you can find why.
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on December 30, 2011
It is heartening that since this book has been released, the debate on public education has already started to change. Many of Ravitch's criticisms of high-stakes testing and charter schools are now finding there way into the analyses of mainstream media. As one of the nations most respected education historians and policy analyst, Ravitch raises grave doubts about current reform models. "Our schools will not improve if we expect them to act like private profit-seeking enterprises," writes. Ravitch should know: only a few years ago she was one of the nations premier advocates of school privatization.

Ravitch takes the reader through a variety of school reform movements in different cities including New York and San Diego. In virtually every case, school reform sweeps in on a wave of optimism and the promise of change. But once the reform advocates depart and hand over the keys to the school data to new management, suddenly the community discovers that little has changed. Student performance had not increased--instead the tests were made easier. Schools did not improve because of new teaching strategies--instead the schools simply raised average test scores by excluding students with the greatest learning problems and concentrating them in schools where little learning was possible. The lesson learned too late was that good schools were simlply made by creating bad schools.

If you had to read only one book on the current education reform debate, this is the one.
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