Diana Senechal, who’s been a wonderful guest blogger here, writes:
Congratulations to Diane Ravitch on her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010), which goes on sale today. I helped with the editing of this book, so I cannot comment on it dispassionately; I will point to a few of the ideas and passages that intrigue and inspire me after many readings.
Near the end of the seventh chapter, Ravitch writes, “If there is one consistent lesson that one gleans by studying school reform over the past century, it is the danger of taking a good idea and expanding it rapidly, spreading it thin.” A reform might be of value in a specific context, for limited purposes, but risky when elevated to the status of grand solution or panacea.
Ravitch illustrates this in the chapters on District 2 (NYC) and San Diego. The reforms of District 2 in the 1990s caused a few uproars in their time; teachers and parents objected to Balanced Literacy and the constructivist math programs. Yet the district—which went through an economic boom during this period—made substantial gains and garnered national acclaim. As a result, reformers saw in District 2 a solution for entire cities. “This formula, they believed, could be transplanted elsewhere to get results quickly,” Ravitch writes. “The time for debate about what to do and how to proceed was over.” The District 2 model was transplanted to San Diego and then back to New York City. The heavy-handed implementation (by Bersin and Alvarado in San Diego, and Bloomberg and Klein in NYC) undermined what merits it might have had. Ravitch interviewed many teachers and administrators in San Diego and gives a searing account of what happened there.
Testing, too, goes sour when taken past its proper limits. Tests themselves are not the problem, Ravitch writes; they “can be designed and used well or badly.” However, when test results are used not to inform instruction but to determine the futures of teachers and schools, they may do great harm. For one thing, they are neither designed for these purposes nor adequate for them; Ravitch cites Robert Linn, Daniel Koretz, and other testing experts who describe the fallibility and limitations of tests. Moreover, when the stakes are too high, educators and administrators may find ways to game the system, as Ravitch explains in detail. The upshot, she writes, is that we “define what matters in education only by what we can measure.” We demean education and the people involved in it. When tests are elevated to a status for which they were not intended, when we use their results “as a routine means to fire educators, hand out bonuses, and close schools,” she says, “then we distort the purpose of schooling altogether.”
Ravitch analyzes more reforms that have merit in isolated circumstances but fail as panaceas or grand solutions—including charter and voucher schools, value-added assessment and merit pay, and small schools. Economists have pointed to many flaws in value-added methodology, yet reformers push for its adoption across the country. One of my favorite parts of the book is Ravitch’s description of her high school English teacher, Mrs. Ratliff, who loved her subject and demanded excellence of her students: “I still recall a class discussion of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias,’ and the close attention that thirty usually rowdy adolescents paid to a poem about a time and place we could barely imagine.” Today Mrs. Ratliff would probably not be deemed a “great” teacher, because her class produced no hard data, not even test scores. The students wrote essays and took written tests. If Mrs. Ratliff were teaching today, Ravitch posits, “she would be stifled not only by the data mania of her supervisors, but by the jargon, the indifference to classical literature, and the hostility to her manner of teaching that now prevail in our schools.”
To improve our schools, Ravitch argues, we must resist quick fixes and grand solutions, focusing instead on the substance of education: our reasons for educating in the first place, the subjects, works, and concepts that students should learn, and the conditions that schools require in order to thrive. With deep knowledge and humanity, Ravitch urges us to turn our attention to the things that matter and to save public education before it is too late.
Now for some links from Joanne:
The Death and Life of the Great American School System is now available in bookstores and on Amazon.
Little dead schoolhouse is the headline on the Boston Globe review.
“Read it right now,” advises Arthur Goldstein on Gotham Schools.
But Paul Peterson on Ed Next says Ravitch doesn’t understand markets.
Ignoring basic economic principles, Ravitch asks us to keep intact our hopelessly disabled school system, now stagnant for half a century or more. She thinks she can get American schools to adopt her favored curricular reforms—even though they have refused to do so despite her multi-decade advocacy.
Amazingly, she rages against the very school choice arrangements that are creating schools willing to try out the curricular reforms she favors.
How do we get there from here, asks HuffPo’s Alan Gottlieb.