Last summer I had the great privilege of reading Diane Ravitch’s new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System in draft form. It’s a splendid book and a must-read for anyone who cares about our schools and our education policy. I have been eagerly anticipating the release of this book and the reaction to it.
At Washington Monthly, Rick Kahlenberg frames his review as Ravitch’s return to her liberal roots, noting she has become “one of the nation’s leading critics not only of conservative educational policies like vouchers but of more centrist ideas too, like charter schools, testing, and merit pay for teachers.”
The new Ravitch exhibits an interesting mix of support for public education and the rights of teachers to bargain collectively with a tough-mindedness that some on the pedagogical left lack; she supports a strong core curriculum and a no-nonsense approach on discipline, while casting a skeptical eye on efforts to artificially prop up student self-esteem….Ironically, Ravitch’s return to the left comes precisely as centrist ideas are consolidating their hold on Washington. Even left-of-center thinking—at the Obama administration’s Education Department, leading foundations and think tanks, and the editorial pages of the New York Times—has galvanized around greater emphasis on charter schools and performance pay for teachers based on test score gains.
At the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Valerie Strauss urges readers to pick up the book and focuses on its most important takeway: Ravitch’s strenuous pushback against data-driven, business-minded reformers who ”imagine that it is easy to create a successful school.”
“They imagine that the lessons of a successful school are obvious and can be easily transferred to other schools, just as one might take an industrial process or a new piece of machinery and install it in a new plant without error. But a school is successful for many reasons, including the personalities of its leader and teachers; the social interactions among them; the culture of the school; the students and their families; the way the school implements policies and programs dictated by the district, the state and the federal government; the quality of the school’s curriculum and instruction; the resources of the school and the community; and many other factors. When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors.”
“Amen,” Strauss chimes in. “The U.S. public school system would not be as troubled as it is if most of the reformers of the past few decades really understood this.”
Amen, indeed. It has been dispiriting to see some in the ed reform community, including some I otherwise respect, dismiss Ravitch in the past several years (no links; you know who you are) accusing her of anything from apostasy to idiocy. Being right is the best revenge, however, and I suspect when some future Diane Ravitch writes the history of this era in education, he or she will wonder why more attention wasn’t paid to our best and clearest educational historian. Too often a prophet without honor, she has spent the last several years of her career acting as a one-woman counterweight to the worst excesses of the ascendant, 0ften-wrong-but-never-in-doubt brand of ed reform. The Death and Life of the Great American School System is her clearest and most powerful statement to date.