Book Alert: The Death and Life of the Great American School System



By 03/08/2010

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Diane Ravitch’s important new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, will surely stir controversy, exactly as she intends. For it embodies and expresses–with her characteristic confidence, style and verve–a fundamental change in her views about where U.S. K–12 education should be heading. Simply stated, she believes it should recapture the strengths of the traditional public school system, incorporate a vigorous common curriculum and renounce many of the theories, practices, policies and programs that have constituted America’s major education-reform emphases in recent years. More than a few of those are reforms that she herself had promoted in her writings, board memberships, speeches, media comments and government service.

She admits that she’s changed her mind.

Diane and I go back a very long way–three decades, give or take–and in addition to the personal friendship we have, during that period, shared a basic diagnosis of what’s awry in U.S. education. It boils down to this: Most kids aren’t learning nearly enough of the important stuff that they ought to be learning.

That was true in 1981, when we jointly launched the Educational Excellence Network, and it’s still true today. Our view of the central problem needing to be solved has, I believe, remained constant, and there is no daylight between us on that score.

We also share a number of disappointments and frustrations arising from reform efforts that have been mounted to solve that problem. Standards, in many places, have proven nebulous and low. “Accountability” has turned to test cramming and bean counting, often limited to basic reading and math skills. That emphasis, in turn, has diverted what was already weak-kneed attention to history, literature, art, etc. Efforts to rectify the “basic skills” problem have led to the folly of “21st-century skills” rather than a solid liberal arts curriculum. Textbooks, by and large, suck. No Child Left Behind has brought as many problems as solutions. Technology has wrought no miracles. Teacher education, with rare exceptions, is still appalling. Charter schools are uneven at best.

I could go on. A lot of innovations and reforms, meant to solve the underlying achievement problem, have failed to do so–hence our essentially flat test scores and graduation rates these past three decades–and some have had malign side effects. That’s what Diane reports, and in many areas I agree.

Yet when it comes to the future, we mostly disagree about what course America should follow. She has become more conservative, while I have become more radical.

She would undo most if not all of the “structural” reforms that have been put in place in recent years–mayoral control, performance-based pay, charter laws and other choice schemes, reliance on entrepreneurship and market incentives, federal efforts to incentivize and prod the system to change in constructive directions, testing- and results-based accountability and more. She would, instead, look to the “great American school system” and a (somehow) renewed culture and family structure to do right by our children.

Yes, she would augment that system with better-educated (and compensated) teachers, a strong core curriculum, a different (curriculum-based) approach to assessment, greater emphasis on behavior and attitudes and a number of collateral “social” changes such as better families and home environments. At the end of the day, however, she has concluded, after all the policy fumblings of the past couple of decades, that the public school system and its custodians and employees are best suited to make education decisions that will benefit the nation and its next generation.

I agree about the curriculum part but not much else. The failures of recent years have left me angrier than ever with that system, its adults-first priorities, its obduracy, inertia and greed, as well as its capacity to throw sand into the gears of every effort to set it right. Unlike Diane, I don’t trust teacher unions to do right by children (or to do right by great teachers, for that matter); I don’t expect locally elected school boards to put kids’ interests first; I see “neighborhood schools” as education death traps for America’s neediest youngsters; and I think the “Broader, Bolder” social-reform agenda is on the one hand naive (most of these things just aren’t going to happen on their own and can’t be made to happen) and on the other deeply mischievous (because it lifts responsibility from schools for all that they could and sometimes do accomplish pretty much single-handedly.)

Where I come out–you can read more in “The End of the Education Debate”–is that America needs not less education reform but far more fundamental and radical reform. I want every child to have quality school choices, I want stronger (and broader) external standards, I want more open paths to becoming an educator, I want empowered school leaders (really empowered, in ways that would also break the union stranglehold) who are compensated like CEOs, I want super pay for great instructors and no pay for incompetents, and I want a complete makeover of “local control.” The system needs a shakeup from top to bottom, not a restoration.

Diane thinks my prescription is guided by wishful thinking and unproven theories and would destroy an honorable and needed institution. I think that, while her analyses of past failures are often spot-on and frequently aligned with my own, her prescription for the future is guided by wishful thinking, nostalgia and unwarranted faith in an antiquated institutional arrangement that was already demonstrating its failure when we founded the Educational Excellence Network and has done nothing since to renew itself.

For all that, Diane and I still like and respect one another. We adore each other’s families. We agree about a thousand things outside of K–12 education. And we agree about what a good education consists of and why it’s crucial for everybody’s children. It’s the next fork in the road to that destination to which we are now headed–in different directions.

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com.




Comment on this article
  • John Volk says:

    My son’s elementary teacher years ago likened education to a three legged stool. You need good teachers, good parents and good raw material (students). Take away any one of those and the stool falls. Similarly, Ms. Ravitch addresses the teachers, parents and living environment as a key – the two legs that can be changed. Specifically, she wants to reward teachers for past demonstrated mediocrity. Mr. Finn focuses on the teachers, perhaps exclusively and holds them to greater accountability. It is no accident that unions today thrive only where performance is hardest to measure – Government (AFSCME) and Education (NEA, AFT) and service industries (SEIU). Over generous pensions and benefits to these groups are bankrupting local governing bodies all over the country, including my state- Illinois. The unions can coerce school boards with the threat of a strike, especially on the first day of the school year when parents are tired of their children being home, fall sports are starting up, etc. We need strong local control with strong national standards. In Germany and other countries, you must pass a two day exam (the “Arbitur”) to receive your diploma and be permitted to go on to “Universitaet.” Teachers must be hold two degrees, one in their subject and a second one in pedagogy – the study of learning. We would do well to pick some of the best practices of other countries. In other words, there is a third way which incorporates elements of both Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn.

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