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

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  • Posted June 17, 2010

    Autopsy of American public schools - confessions of a former true believer

    It is rare to find a book which would endeavor to both prescribe the ills of public education in America as well as to offer some possible solutions. It is even rarer to find a true believer who has the courage and integrity to admit they were wrong. Diane Ravitch's masterful assessment of public education - at the end of a failed experiment with testing and choice called No Child Left Behind, of which she was a chief administrator as Assistant Secretary of Education under George W. Bush - provides both.

    Ravitch offers two particularly fine case studies of public schools administered by non-educators using the business model: New York City schools under Mayor Bloomberg's handpicked czar, Stephen Klein, and the San Diego School District under, Alan Bersin, both federal prosecutors. In both cases, a number of alarming tendencies are noted: teachers were rarely consulted but rather were commanded from the top down by non-educator administrators demanding absolute obedience; teacher morale plummets in both cases as teachers transfer, retire early or simply quit; initial gains in tests scores quickly become illusory as student demographics become factored into analysis. Brandished as examples of the miracles of business model leadership, both districts present major questions about tactics which raise test scores by getting rid of historically low scoring student groups, privatization of schools and expenditures of major sums of money for questionable results.

    Ravitch reserves her strongest critique for two cherished icons of public school critics - the middle class mantra of choice and test-driven pedagogy. Under the rubric of choice, Ravitch details how billions of public dollars have been spent supporting highly questionable private and charter schools all over the country, many of which produce no better if not worse reading scores than the public schools their diaspora students fled. Choice has not proven to be the silver bullet, Ravitch argues, and the vicious underside of this project has been the selective screening of students from public schools into charters and private schools - the winners - leaving the losers - exceptional education students, students learning English, low income family students generally - in crumbling, failing schools. Competition has not proven the answer, it has exacerbated the problem.

    Her critique of test-driven pedagogy is even more pointed. Ravitch points out the folly of end-of-year high stakes testing which provides no time to remediate deficiencies identified by standardized testing, the actual purpose of such tests in the first place. Lamenting the drudgery of a school year laden with incessant drills for the big test with the concurrent loss of cherished and necessary aspects of education ranging from physical education to music, Ravitch worries out loud about a profession which would draw the technocrats needed to run such a project while true teachers, like her own beloved teacher, Mrs. Ratliff, whose effectiveness was her ability to awaken a passionate interest in learning in her students, would find no place at the inn.

    This is a well-documented and thoughtful examination of American public schools by a true lover of education. Ravitch is provocative, painstakingly detailed and yet passionate in her efforts. Her resulting work is well worth the read, particularly by anyone who, like Ravitch, actually still cares about the Great American School System.

    12 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2010

    A Mandatory Read

    For those who think that taking a business approach to education will save our schools and/or that simply testing students to see if the schools are successful or not - READ THIS BOOK. Ravitch takes honest looks at herself as well as the effects of what has happened as a result of mandated testing and NCLB. I truly appreciate how she points out how neither side of the aisle is innocent (including our current Administration) in effectively robbing students of a solid education much less a well-rounded one. If you care about how your child is being educated in any way shape or form - read this book. You don't have to be a scholar to read it as Ravitch makes her points very systematically within a well-written narrative. If you are involved in education in *any* way - even if you may not think you are, you really are - read this book for the sake of our education system before it's too late.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 14, 2010

    The facts will set you free

    Diane Ravitch has taken a 180 degree change in her position on public education, specifically on No Child Left Behind legislation based on her research and extensive experience in the field.. Every educator, administrator, and parent should read this book!

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 11, 2010

    Fascinating read

    Excellent book on the subject of federalizing public schools. Book combines readability with meticuous research. I fould the chapters on San Diego and accountability particularly interesting.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 10, 2010

    Finally, some truth!

    As a teacher in elementary and middle schools for 37 years, I am so glad not to be blamed for all that is "wrong" in public schools. I have always been amazed that the public is hoodwinked by some of the people running a school system. Of course, how can we blame them when they are misled with part truths and numbers/percentage manipulation as Diane Ravitch so clearly states in her book. Our public school teachers take all children, at whatever proficiency level, and do our best to meet the levels of testing required by the state. We do not have the luxury of putting students out who are discipline problems, not meeting a certain GPA,or have a lack of parent involvement.
    I have recommended this book to our union site reps and any person who truly wants to know what is happening in public schools today. Good work to Ms. Ravitch for being open-minded and willing to change her mind after seeing the truth.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2010

    Ravitch cares and has done some real homework.

    Everyone who claims to care about public education should read this book. Ravitch has done valuable research and obviously and sincerely cares about seeing that all children in the United States have an opportunity to get a public education. People are allowing the public education system to be highjacked by business people--who served the world so well on Wall Street and in the banking industry. I cannot understand why anyone would want his/her child to be educated in a system more concerned about profit and bottom lines than about the child's overall well-being. Ravitch points out that the charter schools have, for the most part, been allowed to disallow all of the students who might prove a problem for their bottom line--test scores, neat appearance, quiet behavior. The students who are in trouble for various reasons are shifted off to the public schools who cannot and do not aspire to turn them down. The public schools who take the troubled students get lower marks and are blasted by the world for not being able to make every kid who might, as Kanye West said, "jack your Lexus," look like a potential Harvard graduate. But those very public schools are the best and just about only chance most of those "Lexus jack[ing]" kids have of ever getting to Harvard or some other equally valuable public college or university that does not have the funding and prestige of Harvard. The public schools are also there to help the students who are not likely to be able to go to any college, but who can still make valuable contributions to society. I have struggled in the trenches for nearly thirty years without having a tenured position or often much protection of any sort (from some pretty unbelievable stuff) but God's. The problems in schools come from American society, and teachers have been struggling valiantly against the tide for a long time. If Americans continue to buy in to this race to the top with the huge stick, they deserve to get their Lexuses and Fords and whatever else they have jacked. God help us all. Ravitch is certainly trying to help us with this book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2010

    Finally someone has told the Emperor that he doesn't have any clothes on.

    In The Death and Life of the Great American School System Ravitch blows the lid off of NCLB. As with most divisive issues in this country, politicians are taking advantage of failing schools to further the agenda of getting tax payers to fund private school education at the expense of public education. This book is a must read for teachers, school administrators, and public school parents who want to improve public education instead of destroying it.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 26, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Diane Ravitch's New Book is entertaining and compelling

    I have given this book a first read and am very, very impressed. I did not think Diane Ravitch could top LEFT BACK but with THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM she has really written a tour de force that is utterly and completely convincing. It is so well-documented and so sensible that I would be astounded if it did not leave some impression upon the American educational establishement.

    I like it better than Bloom's book THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND and every bit as much or better than Highet's book MAN'S UNCONQUERABLE MIND. Highet was remarkable man but he knew only elite academies and higher education. When he wrote of public education it was like a Naval Aviator writing about guerilla warfare; he reallly didn't know the grit , complexity and challenge of it. I may not know much but I do know the grit and dirt and challenge of the education trenches places where students threaten to kill teachers and are belligerently apathetic. So what distinguishes Ravitch's work from Highet is that SHE DOES UNDERSTAND the challenges facing classroom teachers and school administrators in America.

    And I mean it as the highest and most sincere compliment that in understanding this grit and this reality on the ground she treads on ground and explore solutions to challeges that were beyond the bookish ken of dear Gilbert Highet or many other education scholars.

    I cannot praise this book more highly and I look foward to reading it again and studying it. It is highly quotable and the sum of its learning and analysis is humbling for a mere rural school teacher like myself. But I do know quality when I see it and this is quality. I know wisdom when I hear it and this book is very wise and yet not haughty or stiff or overly pedantic. In fact I often laughed out loud when reading this book (see allusions to Dumbo and Dr. Seuss). When was the last time a book on education made you do that???

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 7, 2010

    Ravitch Dispels the Myths

    In a detailed review, Diane Ravith dispels the myths about choice, charter schools, testing, and top-down strategies for education "reform" touted by business, philantropy and government officials over the past decade. Armed with data and extensive research, the education historian, who served in the second Bush administration, shows how policies promoted by non-educators have reversed progress toward teaching quality and education equity, leaving students, especially our most vulnerable children, further behind. She argues persuasively against these "quick fixes" for improving schools, outlining strategies that help, rather than harm, public schools. A must read for anyone who works in education policy.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 7, 2010

    I Also Recommend:


    This is not only a good book, it's the best book I have ever read dealing with all aspects of public education. I say this after serving in the public sector of education across this country from the Northeast to Wyoming for a period of over fifty years. Today public education is in the worst state it has been in since I entered the profession a half centuty ago. No Child Left Behind,(NCLB) written during the Bush 11 administration is the most ineffective and naive piece of legislation ever written in the history of education. It was written for the most part by empty suits with their PhD's from Ivy League colleges who showed no common sense or knowledge of public school education. A few of them might have entered a public school once but it would have only been for a photo shoot. Little to no part of NCLB makes any sense and is costing states and the American public billions of dollars with little to no positive results from high stake's tests unless they are "corrected wrongly by those who correct them". For anyone with any intelligence to believe that over 95% of the students in this country will be, by the school year 2013-2014, reading and doing math at grade level is mindless. NCLB could have inserted the school year 3013-3014.There would have been a chance the goal might have been met but only if we had brain transplants by then. We would need a good educational system for that to happen and that's not the direction we are headed. Not all wiil succeed no matter how hard we try. President Obama was to be the President of change. He's changing education but while doing so he is seeing that NCLB is getting more absurd. The DEATH and LIFE of the GREAT AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM concerns itself with all aspects of public education and the errors that have added to its demise. It also offers some common sense, which we many times find uncommon today, suggestions as how to improve it. Personally I have read the book twice looking for something I might disagree with but for the first time in my life I can say I don't disagree with a word in the book.

    Today we find many being critical of public education but for the most part these are those unfortunaely not well versed in edcuation. School committees, administrators, teachers and unions are blamed. Their blame is minimal. The blame should be pointed at the politicians who sign legislation without first reading it. Washington is once again not the solution but rather the probblem.

    Billions are being donated by foundations to education such as Gates, Broad, Dell and others but with their donations come control and corruption. It's very little different from the government donating wtih the public's tax money to education. They only donate to states who will follow their rules and we have already said their rules are inept.

    One will find this book as well researched as any. The author, Dr. Ravitch served in the field of education during the reign of three Presidents. She was there in some cases when NCLB was written and at one time believed in it. When she realized what was happening to kids she changed her mind and rejects most of it today. I admire her much for this as it is seldom that those in Washington will ever admit to any error. President Obama would do well to seek a differnt position for his education secretary, Arne Duncan, and appoint the author of this book to Duncan's position. There then would be some semblans of order to an extremely broken public educatio

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2011

    Highly recommended

    This is a "must read" for educators in states that are becoming "right to work" states. Valuable information and the historical perspective on how we got into this mess! Information is critical to good communication with politicians who don't know anything about education but insist on passing laws that are decimating education in this country.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2013

    I am Austin and I chose to read this book for my 2013 spring Com

    I am Austin and I chose to read this book for my 2013 spring Comp 2 class at OSU, and it was definitely worth the read. The book was a easy read but at some points it was little history heavy. Although the history was sometimes excessive, the reasons she provided it were necessary. Ravitch answers all questions when it comes to education reform in the U.S. and informs any reader who is not knowledgeable in the area. Some might think that Ravitch might be a little contradicting considering she was once supportive of all the ideas she is now criticizing, but Ravitch admits to being wrong. She fully accepts that policies she once supported have failed and does not try to hide the truth. She provides all the facts to back up her claims, but did not provide a very clear quality answer to the problems. Even so, she pinpointed the problems with such policies today like No Chil Left Behind, and brought the facts to why they are not working. Over all a good read that anyone in the education world should give a whirl.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2012

    Most interesting required reading for a graduate class

    This book was the required text for one of my classes, but I found it surprisingly easy to follow and even enjoyable. In addition to providing supporting articles and books that are connected to or related to the specific issue Ravitch takes you through the issue from the "why is this a bad idea?" to the consequences of each step and decision. It's extremely relevant to understand the political and academic actions that have impacted our school system and Ravitch does a wonderful job of introducing you to the subject.

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  • Posted January 31, 2012

    A Call to Action

    In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch reviews the factors leading to the current political obsession with educational reform. Dr. Ravitch focuses both on the doublespeak used to shape the political arguments and on highly lauded case studies of market-based reform efforts. Throughout, she offers an introspective history of her own journey through the patterns of thought shaping both sides of the debate, which leads to the deeply personal questions educators must ask themselves. What is my role in education? What makes me a highly effective educator? How will I exercise my voice in the public discourse regarding my life’s work? For any educator who has felt disparaged by recent public rhetoric, The Death and Life of the Great American School System is at the very least an opportunity to become conversant with the language that has been usurped by politicians and pundits, journalists and lobbyists, and foundations and corporations in their efforts to reshape an essentially democratic institution into a market-driven, competitive factory. At its best, the book presents a call to action for educators and stakeholders in education to step into the foray and defend the high calling of teachers and and the sacred mission of schools across the nation.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2012

    Crazy but True!

    I read this book a little at a time, but every time I opened it I could say, "Yes, yes! That's happening right now! . . . or yesterday at the staff meeting!" The crazy stuff she talks about is happening RIGHT NOW. It's stuff I've been saying is true since the No Child Left Behind began. The first thing it started doing is making education very weird and guess what?... Leaving kids behind in droves. Good teaching is being left in the dust in the pursuit of higher test scores. What a fiasco! Ask an educator -- they're dealing with it every day while trying to teach your kids. Thank you, thank you. I hope everyone reads this.

    Teacher grade 5
    teaching 14 years

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2011

    Tip top

    A musf

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Crisis in American Schools

    I'm an educator, and this is currently very relevant in the field of education.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    A must read!

    Once again, we are shown how much our lawmakers mess things up when they try to overhaul or reform something they've never had first hand experience in. Ravitch writes with a personal touch while using facts, statistics, and research proving the enormous mistakes made by the NCLB policies of testing testing testing and anti-teacher, anti-public education beliefs. It's worth it to read something OTHER than what the politicians want you to hear in order to get your vote!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Excellent! A must read for everyone.

    As an educator it was everything that I have experienced as a teacher. Teach to the test!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Diane Ravitch Gets It Right

    An honest scholar who is not afraid of being a reflective practitioner, this author has given us an extraordinary review of school reforms in recent decades.

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