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The Death and Life of the Great American School System – Diane Ravitch | Hand of Reason

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The Death and Life of the Great American School System – Diane Ravitch

Drawing on numerous empirical studies, Ravitch reviews the findings that have dramatically changed her perspective of education policy. Initially an ardent support of the choice, accountability, and charter school reforms, Ravitch has come to steadfastly oppose such reforms. This book is her account for how this occurred. The major developments within education, including the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), are all discussed and analyzed. Ravitch debases the arguments put forth by proponents of school reform, arguing that the most effective way to encourage efficient and excellent schools is to start with a clear and thorough curriculum.

Ravitch’s Take-Home Points:

  • The education success of District 2 in New York City, a highly cited example of the potential for reforms, owes its success to economic and demographic changes, not the successful application of new styles of teaching or a restructuring of the district (43-44).
  • In contrast to Alan Bersin’s, the former superintendent of San Diego schools,  and his policies of coercion to achieve reform adoption, trust and cooperation throughout the district is absolutely necessarily for any shifts in policy (66-67).
  • Mayoral control of education, as Michael Bloomberg and the subsequent mixed results of education improvement in New York City exemplify, does not result in guaranteed improvements in education (91).
  • The primary goal of the NCLB, a national 100 percent proficiency rate in reading and mathematics, has been a complete failure. In 2007, that rate was about 30 percent (103). Not only has NLCB not improved test results, such an unrealistic goal has encouraged schools to abandon struggling students (105), lower the standards for proficiency (106), and overemphasis reading, math, and test preparation (107-108).
  • Both voucher programs and the proliferation of charter schools have not resulted in noticeable improvements in education (133-133).
  • The success of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school is largely the result of a highly motivated student body selected by lottery. Only the most motivated students in urban neighborhoods apply for the lottery, resulting in a unofficial selection process that largely excludes unmotivated students (135-136).
  • Test scores should not be the only metric to measure schools and teachers. It encourages systematic cheating, gaming, and overemphasis on tests, degrading the strength of the education system (152-160).
  • Teacher unionism has not had an impact on educational performance, negative or positive (175).
  • Teach for American is not a viable solution. Inexperienced teachers that will not remain in the profession or the neighborhood do not provide the stability and continuity that urban districts desperately need (190-191).
  • The Walton Family Foundation the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Foundation exercise disproportionate influence over education policies and their support for small high schools, business style management, and allowing the market to regulate schools have not produced improvements in education (200-221).
  • The first step to improving education and the hallmark of successful national education programs is a “coherent, sequential curriculum.” This is merely the first step in a lengthy and arduous process (231).
  • Poor schools should not be stigmatized and closed, they should be helped and supported (238).

Bottom Line:

Anyone interested in education policy whether they be educators, parents, policy-makers, or NGOs must read this book. Ravitch covers a great deal of data on education and her arguments must not go unanalyzed. In short, Ravitch has crafted a book that serves as an excellent starting point for those delving deeper into the intricacies of education policy.


The vast majority of Ravitch’s book shows a great depth of understanding, experience, and care for developments within education. However, one topic within the book has not been given the same degree of research and analysis, the role of foundations in education policy. While Ravitch clearly proves her claim that prominent foundations, such the Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation, have disproportionately influenced education policy, Ravitch debases her argument by claiming these foundations have obtained enough power and influence to boldly shape education policy unrestricted and without critique. She blatantly states that these foundations “are accountable to no one” (201) and the Gates Foundation has given substantial amounts of money throughout the education industry, eliminating the possibility for measured dissent (210-211).

Contrary to this alarmist perspective, the Gates Foundation is still beholden to school boards to accept their grants and policies, giving their voters indirect control of any adoption of education policy. Substantial sums of money may reduce the willingness to question policy recommendations but these foundations do not represent a new oligarchy within the American political arena that can indefinitely sway policy adoption. Such a claim would require a great deal of evidence to support.

Furthermore, Ravitch fails to discuss how charter schools can be adapted to fit within a broader framework of education. She meticulously discusses the stratification they produce by attracting students with the greatest potential while encouraging struggling students to go elsewhere but does not consider if this characteristic of charter schools can be harnessed. By allowing charter schools to educate highly motivated students, public schools may have more resources to specifically address the needs of students that require more individualized instruction.

This counterpoint also deserves a great deal of depth. Such an assertion assumes that struggling students will not learn delinquent behavior from each other and increase their participation in delinquency. Several theories of criminology, the learning theories, state that delinquency is the result of close proximity to other delinquent peers in combination with a lack of norms and definitions that favor conventional behavior. ((Akers, Ronald L. “A Social Learning Theory of Crime” in Criminological Theory, Past to Present : Essential Readings, ed. Cullen, Francis T., and Robert Agnew. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. )) Taking the learning theory of crime into account, separating “good” students from struggling students may increase the rate of delinquency instead of helping it. A complete and thorough discussion of charter schools and their impacts on communities is needed before they can be advocated for or discarded. Their purpose, strengths, and weaknesses must also be clarified.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

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