I finally read Diane Ravitch’s bestselling The Death and Life of the Great American School System which came out in March, and it’s a must for everyone involved in public education.

Ravitch presents a searing counter-narrative to the overwhelming tide of corporate-style edu-rhetoric sweeping the country’s editorial boards, superintendents’ directives, and Obama administration press releases. The subtitle cuts right to it— How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.






Ravitch, a venerated historian who was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Education by a Republican administration, argues that our public school system is “a fundamental element of our democratic society” and that the current march toward privatization, shutting down neighborhood schools, and a myopic focus on unreliable and reductive basic skills standardized tests are weakening that democratic society.

Education policy today is prodded more than ever by foundations (especially the Gates and Broad Foundations) whose largesse comes with strings attached. These foundations are accountable to no one and their preconditions for funding can be misguided and even destructive.

One example: The Gates Foundation’s $2 billion fixation from 2000 to 2008 on restructuring high schools that affected 2,600 schools in forty-five states and Washington, D.C. Ravitch writes:

“It was never obvious why the Gates Foundation  decided that school size was the one critical reform most needed to improve American education. Both state and national tests showed that large numbers of students were starting high school without mastering basic skills… the root causes of poor achievement lie not in the high schools, but in the earlier grades…”

The massive small schools initiative by the Gates Foundation was disastrous, and discontinued. Many community high schools were irreversibly closed. Gates turned to pumping money into “advocacy” and quickly had big bucks invested in virtually every major education policy organization and publication around. (Ravitch includes a staggering list with accompanying dollar amounts.) They own everybody. When I was invited to the (now-defunct) Gates-funded Strong American Schools’ one-day “Ed in ’08 Blogger Summit” in Washington, they put me— a twenty-seven year-old teacher— up in a swank Kimpton hotel for two nights. At the time my ears were wide open to whatever Strong American Schools wanted to tell me about their platforms.

Regrettably, the foundations’ education initiatives— practically all based on corporate-style privatization and a deification of data— aren’t necessarily helping kids prepare for the world beyond school. Quite the opposite, Ravitch argues.

What’s more alarming is that the power-brokers on both sides of the aisle in Washington are parroting this privatization mantra. During the presidential transition, editorial boards howled with disgust that President Obama might select Linda Darling-Hammond— someone who defended teachers’ right to collective bargaining and had criticized Teach For America’s ability to rescue public education— as Education Secretary. They claimed she was not a “reformer,” because she did not tout charter schools, anti-unionism, and merit pay based on high-stakes test scores. The editorial boards got their way, and since then, Secretary Duncan and President Obama have joined the torrent of “reformer” voices conflating test scores with achievement. Ravitch argues that a total faith in data is misplaced in public schools. It’s easy but wrong to think you can measure “value-added” for students based on year-to-year proficiency tests.

Ravitch’s chapter of No Child Left Behind is terrifying. She describes curriculum distortion and excessive focus on testing, but her fiercest critique is aimed at the law’s impossible goal of 100% proficiency for all students in the year 2014. Each year, every school’s benchmark for achieving “Adequate Yearly Progress” will go up until it hits 100% in four years. We’re not going to make it. Each year, more and more schools fail to meet AYP. In Washington, D.C., 49 made it last year. This year it’s only 15. By 2014, maybe it will be just one or two. All the rest can be cleaned out.

The consequences of not meeting this ludicrous, politically concocted dream are terrifying; all schools will be subject to takeover and privatization. There’s no evidence private entities can run existing schools better; in fact there’s plenty of evidence suggesting otherwise. It’s a set-up for failure, destruction of public education, and a wild west landscape for profit-seeking carpet-baggers.

What do vulnerable students really need to get ahead? Not the “reforms” of today that empower any outsider to crunch data and clean house. I’m pleased that the book is still selling briskly—Amazon ranks it #483 overall and #1 in education policy as I write this. I hope that the messages of this book reach everyone holding a stake in public education, a system Ravitch compellingly portrays as poised for execution.

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