The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch Credits: Basic Books

Let's start today's review on The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch with your homework assignment. On a piece of notebook paper . . . no, scratch that … on your keyboard write the name of the best teacher that you ever had. Under his/her name list five reasons why that teacher was the best one you ever had and support your opinions. Repeat the process, substituting “best” teacher with “worst” teacher. When you have finished your two lists, compare your reasons and deduce what qualities one should look for in a good teacher. Then write a five paragraph opinion paper on the qualities of an excellent teacher.

See, anyone who ever went to school thinks that he/she is an authority on what comprises a good educator --- or so many politicians and business people have come to believe. However, Diane Ravitch, former assistant U.S. Secretary of Education, has concluded that those in politics and business have become too entrenched in public education and are steering the “great American School System” in the wrong direction.

Ravitch, who has studied education for over forty years, criticizes the path on which contemporary America schools are headed. She explains the dangers in restructuring schools, rails on using test scores to punish instructors, and points out the dangers in using charter schools to segregate the top students from the bottom instead of using charter schools to help lower ranked students become achievers. Categorically, Ravitch blasts using the “business model” to restructure American education.

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Since PARCC is looming ever closer in New Jersey's schools, Ravitch's chapter on standardized testing, “The Trouble with Accountability” is particularly important. She begins, “NCLB (No Child Left Behind) opened a new era of testing and accountability in American public schools.” (150) Just as parents and educators are protesting the implementation of PARCC, those forces filed lawsuits and protested against the new standardized testing during the Bush era to no avail. But Ravitch continues stating that it was the misuse of testing, ranking schools and educators based on test scores, that became the major problem. Ravitch states,”The information derived from tests can be extremely valuable, if the tests are valid and reliable.” (150) This is the statement that resonates with parents, educators, and other interested parties in what is happening currently in New Jersey's education system.

The emphasis on testing has gone so far that we fear the testing drives the curriculum, rather than the curriculum driving the tests.

“The trouble with test-based accountability is that it imposes serious consequences on children, educators, and schools on the basis of scores that may reflect measurement error, statistical error, random variation, or a host of environmental factors or student attributes. None of us would want to be evaluated---with our reputation and livelihood on the line---solely on the basis of an instrument that is prone to error and ambiguity,” (166) states Ravitch. So many factors can influence a student's performance on any given day that high stakes testing, especially a test created by people who don't teach for a living, that it is senseless to rely on the results for truly measuring student achievement and/or placement for future classes. Ravitch concludes her discussion of standardized testing with the warnng that “when we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble.” (167)

After studying what has been occuring in major cities in the U.S., including Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Denver, and San Diego, Ravitch recommends insightful ways to improve schools in America. First among her suggestions is to abandon the idea that big business should dictate how our students are taught. She states, “Although Bill Gates had no experience in or expertise about public education, his immense wealth made him a cultural icon; when he spoke, governors, senators, and editorial boards paid close attention.” (276) Gates decided that the biggest problem in American education was teacher evaluation and, therefore, began pouring money into several major cities to improve the evaluation system and fire any teacher who didn't measure up to the standards his organization set. Ravitch points out that Gates is not the only entrepeneur to be insinuating his beliefs into public education. Ravitch concludes her section on business in education by saying, “When historians write about this era some twenty or thirty years from now, my guess is that they will not view kindly those who sought to transform students into commodities, products, and consumers, and to turn schooling into a marketplace.” (280)

Ravitch's other suggestions for improving America's schools include a national curriculum that defines what every child should be learning, making sure that charter schools educate students who are in the most dire straits, paying teachers a fair wage for work accomplished, refusing to institute merit pay based on test scores, and most importantly, encouraging the family to work with their children and teachers to ensure a total team effort.

I have been in education since 1972, as a teacher, administrator, and now a member of the Edison Board of Education. To be honest, I got teary eyed through much of Ravitch's book because she was so on the money in diagnosing the problems in public education. I recommend this book to all parents and educators as a guide into how we can all work together to give our children the great American education that they all deserve. I concur with Ravitch's final statement, “We need a strong and vibrant public education system. We need to give our children a good start in life. None of this is outside our reach or grasp, although such ideas are far from our present rhetoric and strategies for education reform. Our future as a nation depends on our actions today.” (288)

Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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