Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review: The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010)

The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) by Diane Ravitch is a critique of the modern American public educational system in which she previously espoused, particularly its growing emphasis on accountability, privatization, standardized testing, and charter school movement since the 1990s. Ravitch said that the charter school and testing reform movement was started by billionaires and "right wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation," for the purpose of destroying public education and teachers' unions. She proposes several solutions to fix American education to its original principles: leave decisions about schools to educators, not politicians or businessmen; develop a national curriculum that sets out what every children should be learning; pay teaches a fair wage for their work that is not based on students' performance on standardized tests; encourage family involvement in education from an early age.

Ravitch is a historian by training, having earned her doctorate in the history of American education at Teachers College - Columbia University. In addition, she reflected on her own career in public service and academe. She was the Assistant Secretary of Education (1991-1993), National Assessment of Educational Progress (1997-2004); and the Brookings Institution (1995-2005) . She witnessed the rise of No Child Left Behind, a landmark legislation that championed many of the education reformers' goals in quantitatively evaluating student progress. She thought the accountability movement was the solution to enhancing K-12 education only to find out later that she was blindsided by its consequences, chiefly its impact on the declining enrollment of traditional public schools and parochial schools and the over-emphasis on tests to measure student achievement. The only flaw in this book is that I wished that she advocated for the elimination of charter schools, which are pseudo-private schools receiving public funding which have the effect of competing with public schools. This shift gives charter schools (which can be operated by a for-profit company or educational institution) an unfair advantage over traditional public schools who have the greatest need. Research has shown that charter schools have not exceeded the academic performance of public schools.

The title of the book pays homage to Jane Jacobs' seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was also a critique of American urban planning in the 1950s and offered solutions on maintaining healthy neighborhoods. I recommend Ravitch's book to educators, students majoring in education, and policymakers who specialize in educational issues. Social workers who work in K-12 schools and educational nonprofits will also benefit from gaining a better understanding of why the current education reform movement on testing, accountability and charter schools is doing more harm than good.

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