Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book Review - The Death and Life of the Great American School System - Ravitch

Diane Ravitch, Bill Gate’s number one enemy in his words, doesn’t stoop to blogger-style comments. She is an educational historian! Her critique of education reformers and their emphasis on tests may not rise to Susan Sontage levels, but it is devastating nonetheless.  My review that follows tries to supplement her kind words

Perhaps it’s best to read The Death and Life of the Great American School System in reverse order.  The last chapter stresses what can be done to improve our schools in ways that are achievable and positive.

The penultimate chapter discusses the non-criticized roles of Gates, Broad, and Walton family (Wal-mart). These foundations have contributed to almost all “elite” ed institutions: dissent has been minimized.
Dr. Ravitch doesn’t discuss particular silencings, but my favorite group, Core Knowledge, which pressures for improved curriculum has become very quiet over test, test, test. The organization merely presses for more integrated content from curriculum to test.  Again, she doesn’t stoop to my levels of writing things like why don’t they preach what they practiced: Gates went to a wonderful, liberal high school that allowed him time to work on projects, why does he stress accountability now.  He’s like G. Canada of the Harlem Charter School who brags about reading constantly while growing up, but now presses for accountability.

The third to the last chapter focuses on the limitations of testing. No legitimate organization and no country has adopted testing of students as the way to target teachers. Yet we say that we are research-based.  Of course, here Dr. Ravitch agrees, but she still pulls back. She shreds the VAT people, because they also advocate for no licensing, no advanced education etc of teachers because it doesn’t correlate to higher test scores.  Dr. Ravitch doesn’t state the obvious conclusion: If VAT results don’t correlate to anything, then they are worthless.  The key fact that Dr. Ravitch leaves out is that TIMSS scores correlate with the number of demographic questions answered.  This implies, or I infer, that test results are a cultural issue, not a teaching issue!  The only strange omission in her text is that the unreliability of VAT results is due to “regression to the mean.” She left out that well-know term.

The funniest chapter is the one on “choice.” Who can be against choice? She points out that Schools of Choice were the standard to keep white schools white after 1954 in the South. Choice means segregation. Of course, it will mean the same thing now, but it will be seen differently.  Of high importance is that even schools that try to be random in student selection are not in practice. Low achievers are dismissed.  This can be seen in my school district Newport-Mesa. Early College High School is meant to have 100 students per class. Only 34 graduated! The other students returned to different schools. The good news was that the test scores of this school were equal to those of a high-SES school for everyone. Are congratulations in order?

In other words, Dr. Ravitch presents evidence quietly and the reader brings the heat to this work.  This is clear in that she doesn’t argue, as I would, that all of the attacks on public education are to reap its cash in privatization. This is obvious to me because Gates, Broad, and company refuse to put any money into Catholic schools; even though they have excellent track records in educating poor students. They are in decline because of subsidized competition from charters, which most of whom deliver weak results.

This is the book to read if you value the value of local community schools, see the value in local democracy, and worry about the unchecked power of reformers.  If you just think the market should decide things, while ignoring the impact of regulations and foundation money on the market, don’t bother.