The Death and Life of the Great American School System
How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education
Basic Books: 284 pp., $26.95
Diane Ravitch, probably this nation's most respected historian of education and long one of our most thoughtful educational conservatives, has changed her mind -- and changed it big time. Ravitch's critical guns are still firing, but now they're aimed at the forces of testing, accountability and educational markets, forces for which she was once a leading proponent and strategist. As President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, embrace charter schools and testing, picking up just where, in her opinion, the George W. Bush administration left off, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" may yet inspire a lot of high-level rethinking. The book, titled to echo Jane Jacobs' 1961 demolition of grandiose urban planning schemes, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," has similarly dark warnings and equally grand ambitions.
Ravitch -- the author of "Left Back" and other critiques of liberal school reforms, an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration and a committed advocate of rigorous national academic standards -- here tells the story of what she calls the "wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform." The educational ideas she had long been enthusiastic about -- testing, accountability, choice and markets -- have been "hijacked," she writes, by the privatizers, particularly the charter school movement. With their strong backing from government and deep-pocketed foundations, she argues, charters are gradually sucking the best students and most committed parents both from the public system and the good parochial schools (which, in their dependency on tuition, can't compete with tax-supported charters) and killing both. Ravitch became increasingly concerned "that accountability, now a shibboleth that everyone applauds, had become mechanistic and even antithetical to good education." Like the liberals she once criticized, "in this case, I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures."