As her office was being repainted in 2007, Diane Ravitch, who had written extensively on American education for roughly 40 years, sorted papers and thought about why she was feeling increasingly pessimistic about America’s educational system. She realized that theories she had championed were failing dismally in practice.
Ravitch decided to find out what had gone wrong. The result of that exploration is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
In this book, Ravitch writes about the American public education system as an inside-outsider. She’s an insider by virtue of having been an assistant secretary of education in the George H. W. Bush administration and a Clinton appointee to the board that oversees federal testing. Yet she’s an outsider because she’s never been employed in K-12 education.
Part autobiography, part history, and part sales pitch, Ravitch’s book combines the virtues and flaws of all three genres.
What Ravitch tells is a story of a system in which politicians and a public bought snake oil solutions to reverse the “rising tide of mediocrity” detailed in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk. They were unwilling to do the tough work of developing a national curriculum that spelled out what every child should be learning at every grade level.
Ravitch is at her best when writing in the third person. There her admitted passion for public education is restrained by her historian’s training. She writes lucidly, connecting the dots, giving a feel for the people as well as for the cultural context of events. Her prose is a pleasure to read.
When she brings in her personal experience, however, issues get muddy.
I understand why Ravitch feels she needs to include autobiographical material in view of her recent conversion to anti-testing and choice position—and she’s undoubtedly correct in that feeling—but the participant-observer material puts my critical senses on high alert.
The most astonishing and disturbing material in the Ravitch’s book, to my mind, is her revelation of the extent to which scholars fail to see facts that people outside education take for granted.
For example, as Ravitch explores how the national curriculum movement that began as a result of the Nation at Risk report became derailed when Lynne V. Cheney attacked the history standards for political bias, she says:
Unfortunately, the historians . . . who supervised the writing of the history standards did not anticipate that their political views and their commitment to teaching social history through the lens of race, class, and gender would encounter resistance outside the confines of academe. (p. 17)
Later as she discusses the foundations that are pouring money into public education, Ravitch says of the Walton Family Foundation, established by Walmart founder Sam Walton, “It simply doesn’t make sense that a family worth billions is looking for new ways to make money.”
In both these observations, Ravitch fails to see patterns of behavior that non-historians would find perfectly predictable: unpopular ideas encounter resistance; people who do something successfully tend to continue doing it.
Ravitch’s focus is on major metropolitan school districts, particularly New York City and San Diego. The big city focus is, in many respects, entirely understandable. School leaders in cities set the tone, and often the curriculum, for the nation. We in rural America are jerked around by the policies and procedures established by metropolitan America.
That said, however, I would have liked to see Ravitch acknowledge that the upheaval in education nationwide plays out somewhat differently in rural areas.
In rural areas, teaching may be a high-paying job compared to others available. If the poor pay of teachers in cities poses one challenge for public education, the relatively good pay of teachers in rural areas poses a different challenge.
For example, where I live in Chenango County, NY, the median family income was $42,257 in 2008, according to the US Census Bureau, and 14.2% of the population was below the poverty level. The average teacher’s salary in Bainbridge-Guilford School District in which I live is $54,516. In this type of pay disparity, choice and testing certainly have an impact on public schools, but the impact is expressed differently than in cities.
Also, instead of charter schools as visible reminders of dissatisfaction with public education, in rural America homeschools are a largely invisible expression of dissatisfaction. More significantly, foundations are not rushing into rural areas with money to fill in the gaps for poor students.
I don’t know whether The Death and Life of the Great American School System will change anyone’s mind about choice and testing. My guess is that Ravitch is going to be pretty lonesome for some time to come. That is not a criticism of the author or the book. It’s simply an acknowledgement that Diane Ravitch is one of very few people willing to say publicly, “I was wrong.”