Ravitch on how reform ideas go sour

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.

Diana Senechal

Now for some links from Joanne:

The Death and Life of the Great American School System is now available in bookstores and on Amazon.

Here’s the Washington Post review.

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.


About Joanne


  1. Tom Linehan says:

    I have read two of Dianne’s earlier books. In this book, Dianne seems to depart from her stance in “Left Back” in which she proposed some clear, actionable solutions. I shall read this book. But so far, all I have read is that she is against most proposed reforms. Perhaps she is trying to agree too much with Deborah Meier which whom she shares the Bridging Differences Blog.

    I think she creates straw men in most instances. Few suggest, for instance, that Charter Schools or competition is the whole answer. The vehicle is far less important than the route it takes. If you look at world class schools, whether it is the BASIS schools or Singapore, they all do the same things. They put a great teacher in every classroom. They have high standards and a demanding curriculum. They have a system of accountability. They have leadership that keeps them focused on teaching and learning.

    I, for one, think the current system of public schools has too many interests arrayed against significant reform. Without removing the worst of the current teaching corps now, there is no chance of putting even a decent teacher in every classroom. The current system has watered down standards to the point of absurdity. Educators resist any modicum of accountability. According to the General Accounting Office, most money earmarked for reform ends up reinforcing the status quo. Leadership controls the purse strings in education. Just ask any teacher how much say teachers have in how the money is spent.

    Incremental improvements have been the most obvious failure in public education. There are too many interests arrayed against real improvements. I think we have to close schools, reopen them and charging them to focus on putting a world class teacher in every classroom, to have a demanding curriculum and standards, to have transparency and accountability. And if any school does not produce drastic improvement, close it again and reopen it with a new staff.

    Compared to other countries we pay top dollar for K-12 education. We are paying for a top of the line, loaded Mercedes and getting a 60s vintage VW bus complete with flowers and peace signs. I think it is time to trade it in and get what we are paying for and what the children of this country deserve.

  2. Diana Senechal says:


    By all means, read her book. There is much more in it than a short commentary or review can convey. She documents her arguments thoroughly, and she makes powerful recommendations. And no, she is not setting up straw men. You will see.

  3. Tom Linehan says:

    I ordered Dianne’s book..

    I hope she has solutions that someone has put in place now and that have proven to produce world class results. As a non educator, the way I see it, educators have thoroughly worn out my patience and betrayed my faith. Governments, billionaires and many great people have wasted uncounted resources on public education. Essentially they have only succeeded in further entrenching the worse aspects. The education my children got was worse than the one I received in the 50s. And my grandchildren’s education is much worse than my children’s.

    By the way, teachers who game the system instead of teaching have already failed. They should try teaching the students. Many high scoring schools teach anything but the “test”.

  4. Is she treating charters as a monolith? Some will succeed and some will fail based on the models they implement. Isn’t that what the charter movement is all about, figuring out what works via experimentation and accountability for the experiment? Charters allow the very thing she’s advocating, incremental and careful change – one school at a time.

    Tom, you’re spot on. As a noneducator as well, I am competely cynical about educational reform. The experts have lost all legitimacy.

  5. Diana Senechal says:


    She is not treating charters as a monolith. She gives a fascinating history of charters and upholds the idea of charters as laboratories–as schools that try different ways of educating the neediest kids. But any kind of experimentation must be conducted thoughtfully, and we must be careful about the conclusions we draw. Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet blog about Diane’s book highlights this point.

  6. so, whenever we get frustrated at experts of any kind, should we assume that we know more than them?

    or are educators not actually experts? i think if i had gotten my degrees in any other field they would garner respect, but in the field of education they are worthless apparently.

    if people are so unhappy with the education system today — pull your kids out and do it yourself.

  7. I haven’t read the book, but don’t understand the example of Mrs. Ratliff: “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 taught today, nothing would preclude her from assigning essays and administering written tests in her classroom and using them to inform her own instruction and hold her students to high standards. Her students would be required to also take state tests, and I suspect that if she was holding her students to high standards then they would have done just fine on the state tests.

  8. Steve Quist says:

    I and I expect most others want high standards for our schools and accountablility when the standards are not achieved or upheld. Now Dianne tells us that we should not use tests for this purpose. How does that work? What else is there to use that is suitably reliable to measure student’s progress?

  9. Diana Senechal says:


    It is essential to read the book. But the point here is that reformers too often equate “great” teaching with teaching that brings about the largest test score gains. Most of Mrs. Ratliff’s teaching would go unrecognized, as the state test would reflect only a fraction of what she had taught. No one would care that her students were having lively class discussions of Shelley, or that they would carry this with them into their lives. Her students might or might not have the largest gains in the school; a teacher who focused on test prep might see larger short-term gains.

    There is much more to this point; Ravitch discusses many studies of value-added methodology.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    I am getting the impression–correctly or not– that there is a profitable business devoted to selling new fads, reducing them to books, workbooks, software, seminars all for sale at high margins.
    I am reminded of an English prof who had us buy the nineteenth edition of his modest little composition text. None of the previous eighteen would do.
    Guy should have been in business school, except that they’re supposed to be honest.

  11. Maia, The experts are failures. Why should or would we trust them after 3 decades of ever increasing expenditures and ever decreasing performance?

    Some educators are experts, but many are just ed school grads with worthless diplomas.

    By the way, I did pull my kids out of public school and now home educate, as have hundreds of thousands of other Americans.

  12. Diana, could you provide a brief summary of what Diane Ravitch’s issues are with choice?

    My belief is that too often vouchers in America come with so many strings of who can use the voucher, where it can be redeemed, and so on, that our country really hasn’t implemented a reasonable voucher program.

    Like some of the other commenters here, we have exercised our choice and homeschooled our children.

  13. Diana Senechal says:


    Diane Ravitch cites studies and reports that show little if any difference in achievement between voucher schools and regular public schools–and a mixed record for charters. Charter and voucher schools run the gamut. A team of reporters examined the Milwaukee voucher schools in 2005 and found that about 10 percent were excellent and the same percentage showed “alarming deficiencies.” (I won’t give away the details–“alarming” is indeed the word.)

    She acknowledges the accomplishments of some charter and voucher schools. But overall she finds little evidence that choice will improve education, and much reason to believe that it will undermine the public schools by leaving them with the less-motivated students.

    This is just part of her argument, which is tied in with her critique of accountability. The full argument is in the book, and you can hear her speak about it in an interview with John J. Miller on NRO.

  14. Diana Senechal says:

    Richard Aubrey,

    I think you will thoroughly enjoy Diane’s book. It takes on a lot of educational fads, as do her earlier books, though in different ways. You may also enjoy Left Back and The Language Police.

    Speaking of fads translated into software, the NYT had an article the other day about schools in New Jersey that are having students build goal-setting portfolios. Part of the process involves taking a computerized personality inventory that then generates career recommendations. I took a look at the technical reports for this product, and it was as I suspected: the software relies on trends. It matches students to careers that others with “similar” personalities chose. Oh, and at one high school kids were given flash drives as incentives for taking the 200-question quiz.

    That’s a little off-topic, but perhaps not entirely.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ref the personality inventory: As I said in another thread, I am not at all confident that such things can be done wholesale to kids without damage to at least some of them.
    One shrink I know said we’re all nuts and we’ve mostly figured out a way to hang on and get through the day without raising too many eyebrows. Mostly, it’s unconscious, or at least we don’t think about it much. Does nobody any favors to make that plain to him or her.

  16. Allison says:

    Ms. Senechal said:
    –But the point here is that reformers too often equate “great” teaching with teaching that brings about the largest test score gains. Most of Mrs. Ratliff’s teaching would go unrecognized, as the state test would reflect only a fraction of what she had taught. No one would care that her students were having lively class discussions of Shelley, or that they would carry this with them into their lives. Her students might or might not have the largest gains in the school; a teacher who focused on test prep might see larger short-term gains.

    Are you saying, or are you saying Ravitch is saying, that “great teachers” don’t necessarily have great results on tests?

    An engaged class doesn’t mean anyone has learned anything. An class that feels edifying to the teacher doesn’t mean anyone has learned anything. One discussion of Shelley doesn’t mean someone has learned to think critically about literature, place the context around the Romantics, nor know how to write something which conveys these ideas.

    Perhaps Ms. Ratliff isn’t that good a teacher after all. You or Ravitch may want to tell me it’s the intangibles that count, but I don’t think the intangibles do count if you haven’t learned to count, or can’t write a sentence well enough for someone else to understand you.

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose you could get the intangibles plus the test scores.
    Problem is, society at large wants people who are at least semi-literate. Until that is solved, talking about intangibles is for the folks who are independently wealthy.

  18. Diana Senechal says:


    This excerpt from the book may be of help.

  19. Senechal is a great teacher, a gifted writer, and an excellent guest blogger.

    I plan to buy two or three of her books.

    I passionately disagree with her on competition and choice, so reading her will make me swear and shake my fist, but she’s just too dang good not to read.

  20. andrei radulescu-banu says:

    Diane Ravitch’s latest book is just as good as her previous ones I have read, “Left Back” and “The troubled crusade”. I highly recommend it. Among many other things, she describes how the adoption of Everyday Math and Balanced Literacy programs in the New York City District 2 unwittingly became a template for the introduction on vast scale of these questionable discovery-centered curricula. Very good read.