The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Sunday, July 25, 2010

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

This book caught my eye a couple weeks ago when I was browsing at Books-A-Million. I just started it, but there's already so much I want to share!

First, some background...Diane Ravitch has been involved in education research and policy for over 40 years. She's a scholar, an author, and Research Professor of Education at NYU. She served as the assistant secretary of education under Lamar Alexander during George H.W. Bush's presidency; and in 2001, when President George Bush, Jr. presented NCLB, his infamous plan for school reform, she was "excited and optimistic." But in the years that followed, she began to see that NCLB...and its pillars--accountability and choice--were not solving any of our problems. In fact, she writes, "I came to believe that accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strove to meet unrealistic targets...Over time, my doubts about accountability and choice deepened as I saw the negative consequences of their implementation." In this book, Ravitch presents the evidence that changed her mind.

She begins by explaining how "the standards movement turned into the testing movement..." In the early 1990's, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned a set of voluntary national standards in several content areas. According to Ravitch, this effort fell apart in 1994, when Lynne V. Cheney, the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, criticized the unfinished, unreleased history standards. Cheney argued that the standards were politically biased...against great white men. She felt that minority groups were over-represented...and the nation's failings were emphasized. Her critique caught the nation's attention. It was all over the news. Elected officials in D.C. didn't want to have anything to do with the controversy...or the development of any other standards. It would have been political suicide, so they passed the buck to the states. But the states had seen what happened on the national level, and they were wary. Ravitch explains that most states wrote standards that were vague and "devoid of concrete descriptions of what students should be expected to know and be able to do."

...which explains a lot! I've often marvelled at the convoluted language used in the standards I'm expected to teach. I've been frustrated by how broad and nebulous they are...stumped by the fact that the sixth grade standards look exactly like the seventh grade standards...which look exactly like the eighth grade standards. Now I understand. Being any more specific...naming pieces of literature or authors students should read, for example, would be too risky.

So...the states were allowed to write their own standards and pick their own tests to measure whether or not students were meeting those standards. And then came NCLB with its legislative command that ALL students...including those with special needs, those whose native language isn't English, those who are EVERY school across the nation must be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014. This, according to Ravitch, is the plan's "toxic flaw"...The federal government has mandated an unattainable goal. She cites data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests student in fourth and eighth grades. In 2007, only 33% of the nation's fourth graders, and 31% of eighth graders, were proficient or advanced in reading...ONLY 1/3 of all the students in the nation...yet, in just seven years, NCLB dictates that 100% should score at that level.

Faced with the unachievable, the states did one of two things...they stalled by predicting lower gains in the first several years of NCLB's implementation followed by a sharp increase the closer they got to 2014, making it look like they were doing better than they really were...OR they lowered standards and played with the percentage of questions students had to answer correctly in order to attain "proficient" status. Mississippi, for example, claimed that 89% of it's fourth graders were at or above proficient in reading, but only 18% scored at that level on the NAEP in the same year!

Not only that, but many districts sacrificed instruction in history, geography, science, the arts, and P.E. to focus on reading and math--the two subjects that counted towards Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)...and even then test-prep was front and center.

But despite all that, in the year 2007-2008 30,000 or 35.6% of all public schools in the U.S. did not meet AYP as defined by NCLB! Wow!

So much of what Ravitch has to much of the data she mind-boggling. I'm looking forward to reading more...especially to hearing her ideas about what needs to happen to turn it around.


  1. Yup. Me and Diane go way back. For a more radical view from a friend of Ravitch's look into Chester Finn. He's my other main squeeze. Thanks for calling my attention to this one. Maybe I could borrow it when you're finished? :)

  2. Oh and for an old-school education must-read, check out Jonathan Kozol. Everything he has ever written is mind-blowing.

  3. Sara...I'd be happy to let you borrow this one. I should finish it sometime this week. Maybe we could rendezvous at Panera or Rembrandts. I'd love to catch up!

    I've read Kozol's Shame of the Nation...unbelievable. I'll have to check out Finn. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. I had seen this book in one of my Mom's reading "piles" :) and been interested. I'll have to borrow it and read it. I know how many discussions we've had on this subject so it sounds like we have more to talk about now.