MORE THAN A BOOK REVIEW NEEDED: A closer look at Diane Ravitch's book 'The Death and Life of the Great American School System'

BOOK REVIEW: Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How testing and choice are undermining education (New York: Basic Books, 2010, 283 pp., $26.95). Reviewed by George N. Schmidt, Editor, Substance and

Let's start this by considering the following reminder about the history of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and charter schools:

"Over the next twenty years [following Albert Shanker's 1988 speech at the AFT convention supporting the establishment of charter schools] as the charter movement spread, its supporters liked to point to Shanker as a founding father. The association with charters was intended to reassure people that charters were public schools, and that they were not a threat to public education. But those who invoke his name routinely overlooked the fact that Shanker withdrew his endorsement of charter schools in 1993 and became a vociferous critic. As he watched the charter movement evolve, as he saw new businesses jump into the 'education industry,' he realized that the idea he had so enthusiastically embraced was being taken over by corporations, entrepreneurs and practitioners of 'do you own thing.' He abandoned his dream that charters would be led by teams of teachers who were akin to medical researchers seeking solutions to difficult pedagogical and social problems. He came to see charter schools as dangerous to public education, as the cutting edge of an effort to privatize the public schools." (Ravitch, 'The Death and Life of the Great American School System', pages 123-124).

During the 17 years since Al Shanker began to denounce charter schools as part of the attack on public schools, many critics of corporate "school reform" have pointed out that charters were not supported by Al Shanker during his final years. Virtually all of those critics, including Gerald Bracey, who died last Fall, had their voices drowned out by the torrent of official lies that substituted for history during the years of the hegemony of the official narrative in support of so-called school reform.

As we look favorably on Diane Ravitch's scathing critique of most of the main pillars of corporate school reform, we need to remember that it was Ravitch who was one of the most prolific — and dishonest — purveyors of the falsification of history and fact which has been necessary, to this day, to the vicious spread of attacks on public education. "Race to the Top" anyone?

The impact of those lies-repeated-as-history continues to this day. The impact continues nowhere as seriously as in Chicago, where many of the lies were first launched and gained widespread credibility because of some unique historical factors, including the professional bankruptcy of the city's three daily newspapers (the Defender, Tribune and Sun-Times) — which came long before the three corporations went into court as financially bankrupt. Without the creation of a detailed hoax, point by point, and the absence of a sustained media refutation of the hoaxes promulgated in Chicago, the vast number of lies begun here proliferated across the USA, ending now in the stricture associated with Barack Obama's "Race To The Top" education policies, each of which was birthed in a Chicago lie.

Take just the one example quoted above: Albert Shanker's denunciation of charter schools, by the middle of the Clinton administration.

Who knew?

During the past year or so, thousands of teachers in Chicago have heard Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart talk about how charter schools were an AFT idea, and how Al Shanker had supported charter schools. What Stewart may never have been told was that Shanker went from being an early proponent of "charter schools" (before there were, really, any) to being a fierce opponent of charter schools (long before Chicago became one of the nation's best examples of how charter schools are part of the privatization, teacher bashing and union busting movement that goes by the name of "school reform").

By April 2009, Randi Weingarten, by then President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), stood on stage in Chicago while union officials praised the organizing at three of the nearly 100 charter schools in Chicago ("schools" and branches are really the same thing, although one fiction Chicago has created is that a "Charter School" can have branches across the city in separate buildings, with all of those "branches" being part of one school.)

Weingarten had already established two union charter schools in New York City during her time as President of New York's United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Marilyn Stewart did likewise when she joined with officials of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to create a union charter school in Chicago — the so-called 'Talent Development High School'. In all those cases, the "pro-charter" Shanker was cited, while the "anti-charter" Shanker was ignored.

Marilyn Stewart refuses to be interviewed by Substance, so her motivations in supporting charter schools are as unclear as her wrongheaded view of history is clear.

No matter. What is as true as today's headlines is that Marilyn Stewart, in her role at "secretary treasurer" of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), has foisted a union-based charter school on Chicago without consulting her own Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates. And that charter school is now competing against her base union's own members for scarce space at Tilton Elementary School, on Chicago's West Side.

Hence, these versions of history are as contemporary as today's events. And if Marilyn Stewart's decision to support the so-called "Talent Development Charter High School" (along with the Service Employees International Union, SEIU) was based partly on a particular historical ignorance, then the lack of a decent historical record is a serious one, and one that Diane Ravitch must go much further to correcting than the beginning launched in "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

If 'The Death and Life of the Great American School System' had been written by anyone else, this reviewer might be tempted to give it four stars in a four-star ratings universe. It's a good book (for the most part), and it probably deserves a second reading from anyone who has the time. As a summary of some of the major issues that have faced American education over the past quarter century, it is also a useful book. However, if those people who purchase, read and re-read Dr. Ravitch's book haven't already purchased and read numerous works by other people who have already done a better job than Diane Ravitch on each of the topics she covers, there is something unfair about the phenomenon created by the publication of this particular book.

Furthermore — and this is important for anyone reading this book in 2010 — 'Death and Life of the Great American School System' is both a highly accurate and intensely dishonest work.

The accuracy of its history is interesting and useful. The dishonesty of its historiography is breathtaking. After all, this work was written by a historian who lived much of the history she now critiques. Yet she is barely critical of the main people who furthered the massive mistakes that she once served so ably. In some cases, it's as if Diane Ravitch had spent the last 25 years teaching and doing history from a university somewhere, and not within the highest levels of education policy during the years when the U.S. government undertook its most concerted attacks on public education in the history of the USA. The reasons? If, as has been true, the past 25 years of corporate "school reform" have more closely resembled a religious cult — irrational, but with enormous power — than a rational debate about public policy, then Diane Ravitch's role in the promotion of that irrational cult has been as important as the role of any theologian could have been. This book is the equivalent of a member of the central body of any theist movement announcing he had become an atheist. So perhaps given the importance of such an event, the publication of "Death and Life of the Great American School System" deserves the attention it is getting.

There are more than 50 good books in all on the short list, as noted at the end of this review, about the issues discussed in "The Death and Live of the Great American School System..". Those books were written by Gerald W. Bracey, Susan Ohanian, Alfie Kohn, Kenneth Saltman, Pauline Lipman, David Berliner, Richard Rothstein, Peter Sacks, Stephen Krashen, Dick Allington and dozens of others (including those of us who have published Substance and documented the crimes of corporate school reform here in Chicago long before those crimes became national policy). So there is a bit of injustice and historial dishonesty in this latest media frenzy about "The Death and Life of the Great American School System..." even though (a) the book is very good and (b) it comes at an important time. It is all the more so because Dr. Ravitch does not credit or cite any of those books as she forges ahead promoting her own.

And since Diane Ravitch first made her reputation as a decent historian (I'm sitting here with a first edition paperback copy of her book "The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805 - 1973" at my side, as well as her latest work), it's important for accuracy's sake and history's sake that a few things be noted before actually reviewing her latest book.

The current corporate media frenzy regarding Dr. Ravitch's apostasy is something we have to be warned and re-warned against. How completely Diane Ravitch joins and helps the resistance now that she has broken — like a Martin Luther in some ways, since much of what she is breaking from constituted a kind of secular religion, with its own perverted theology — with the fundamentalist church of absurd economic theories remains to be seen.

As Dr. Ravitch can tell you — and anyone who actually reads that "classics" will join — Adam Smith never imagined anything like the right-wing nut case versions of his "Wealth of Nations" that came from the descendants of Ayn Rand and the people with whom she spent a quarter century. Alan Greenspan's adolescent economic pornographic introduction to the cult of "free markets" is just the most dramatic example of that from the financial world. But that's a related story for another time. How this drama plays out from now on — and how much it can do to save one of the greatest inventions of the United States, our public schools — remains to be seen.

For now (March 2010), she is giving voice to what many of us have been saying while silenced by corporate America over the past quarter century. One cheer for that; maybe even two (after her brilliant March 9 essay in The Wall Street Journal). But..

The trouble is, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education" — or at least much of its basic content — was already written 20 years ago. These facts and this analysis have been repeatedly written since by all of the authors and journalists noted above (and below), and others as well (I hesitated to provide the list above because I knew I'd be leaving out so many people who contributed to the resistance, especially those of us who don't have book publishers to ply our musings). While "The Death and Life of the Great American School System..." showcases, once again, Diane Ravitch's considerable talents as a historian and polemicist, history also has to judge her complete work, not just this latest iteration.

That said, and before going on, everyone should get a chuckle out of many of the eleven chapters of her book. My favorite chapter, because it shows her at her best, is "The Billionaire Boys Club", the tenth chapter in the book. In 'The Billionaire Boys Club', in a way that few writers are capable of, Ravitch savages Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family. The three are the main foundation funders of much of the corporate propaganda and pseudo-academic "research" behind corporate "school reform" and the current attacks on public education.

The information on how the Super Rich are buying scholars, scholarshiip, and the power to set agendas has been published and available for years. But Dr. Ravitch is helping us focus here.

Who knew before Bill Gates began repeating it and paying millions of dollars to scholars and bureaucrats (and Education Week) to repeat his mantra that the high schools of the USA had "failed"? Why was it that the "failure" on the nation's public high schools was the agenda item, even though the elementary schools were where the mess was (how do the kids get into high school illiterate after nine years of "reform"?); but the elementary schools had been completely "reformed" and were doing just fine? But Dr. Ravitch's notice is far from the first, and teachers have to notice that she's tardy on many important topics, even when her cleverness makes us want to give her a good grade anyway. Who has previously reported how American millionaires and billionaires were buying up the writers and setting the agendas for corporate "school reform"?

Among other places, the exposure of the Business Roundtable and the plutocracy's investment in the destruction of public education was exposed years ago in the pages of Substance and in the book by Susan Ohanian and Kathy Emery "Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools". Diane Ravitch at her best prose and humor breathes more life into the revelation that the richest men in the USA are spending billions of dollars to destroy the public school system that created most of them. It's worth repeating until everyone gets both their ludicrous investments in mind control and their hypocrisy: Of the main people involved in that threesome, only Bill Gates was privately educated; Eli Broad and the Waltons — of Wal-Mart fame — got their educations in public schools, public colleges, and public universities, the very institutions they are now trying to destroy and privatize.

But back to the latest book. Diane Ravitch's mea culpa appears in 2010. As we review and study it, let's never forget that it was written by a person who spent the past 25 years working against teachers, teacher unions, public schools, and the decent educational changes. Enormous and productive educational changes were possible — especially given the vast wealth the American people squandered on corporate "school reform" during the quarter century Dr. Ravitch spent as one of corporate "reforms" most effective propagandists. Those days may now be ended, and the tragic consequences have to be allocated in a kind of historical accountability. The butcher's bill for the costs of stupid testing alone would have equipped decent libraries for every poor child in the USA. For a fraction of what's being wasted this week on corporate tests that are the latest iteration of educational malpractice, every child in the USA could have been given a dictionary, a thesaurus and five or ten paperback books of his or her own choosing — once a year, every year, at the beginning of the school year. That's part of the price we've paid for the agenda that Diane Ravitch helped set since the late 1980s.

And let's also not forget that Dr. Ravitch, beginning as early as the early 1990s, spent some of her professional time, while well compensated by her corporate and political masters, slandering those of us who held the fort against the "standards and accountability" movement that she helped create and nurture. A humane version of public school change was possible, and one of the reasons it became nearly impossible was the enormous work that Diane Ravitch put into what she has now rejected (at least in part).

Dr. Ravitch's new book neglects to mention the dozens of scholars, writers and organizers who were telling the truth about Dr. Ravitch's project while Dr. Ravitch was conjuring lies and half truths on behalf of the corporate and political masters she served so well for the last part of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st Century.

If the book is an apology for a misspent professional life, the first thing we might say is: "Too little. Too late." But no. The stakes are too important to neglect a thank you or two.

The damage Diane Ravitch has done to public schools, teachers, children, American democracy, and sane public policy won't be undone with the publication of one relatively useful book, the hype we've been getting about it, and the somewhat muted apologies that Dr. Ravitch is beginning to make as she launches what promises to be a very lucrative book tour.

Since Diane Ravitch intersperses the book with a few personal asides and one complete chapter (Chapter Nine, "What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?"), I'll share a bit of my odyssey with this book before returning to a review of its eleven chapters and related materials (some of which raise questions about the integrity of the work itself, as will be noted below).

After my first reading of the book, I was puzzled as to why it made me so uneasy. In order to get a little more out of my understanding of this, I have to talk with a few people who have been around the resistance a long time (most notably, Susan Ohanian, whose "One Size Fits Few" is still a classic and stands alongside "The Death and Life..." as one of the main books everyone should read), Rich Gibson, Norm Scott (who knows Ravitch) and some others. Then I kept wishing Jerry Bracey hadn't died when he did a few months ago, because Bracey knew and took on Diane Ravitch the longest of any of us.

Jerry Bracey was on the phone, checking out some Chicago facts, three days before his tragic and untimely death a few months ago. So before I could do an honest job reviewing the latest Diane Ravitch book, I had to re-read a lot of Bracey. Much of Jerry's last work is now only available on the two Substance Web sites, since for the past several years only Substance — along with Susan Ohanian's Web site and Jerry's own EDDRA — in print and on the Web, would publish Jerry's "Rotten Apples".

To read all of it, since 2002, requires that the reader visit both the "old" Substance site ( and our current site ( The reason why we're paying to sustain two sites is that we can't afford the staff to migrate the "old" site's content to the current site, and keeping the current site active takes the full-time work of all of our staff. So, before I could finish this review, I had to reread all the original "Bracey Reports," which appeared in the Phi Delta Kappan from 1991 until the Borad Foundation bought our the editors of PDK and destroyed it last year. Once I had read those writings (still available in "The Truth About America's Schools, The Bracey Reports 1991 - 1997) from the early 1990s, it was possible to feel that Jerry would have used his rare sense of humor to welcome Diane Ravitch back.

Diane Ravitch is not just any New York intellectual who hitched a ride on the star (and lucre) of the right wing ascendency of the 1980s and since. She was — and is — one of the foremost New York intellectuals on schools and schooling. As a historian and a public intellectual, she has been enormously influential. As a public official (she served for a time in the U.S. Department of Education) she was a vicious guardian of the programs she now critiques. Because of these historical facts, the appearance of Diane Ravitch's book "The Fall and Rise of the Great American School System" is as signal a political event as it is a literary one. It's as if Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney had decided not only to oppose the imperial adeventures in Iraq and Afganistan today, but to explain and critique all the lies they told that got us into Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place. And not only that, but to apologize for their lies and expose, in detail, just how stupid their boss and his policies were while they encouraged George W. Bush's imperial fantasies between 2000 and 2008.

When I'm asked, I recommend the book, but with a caution. Be sure you know the history Ravitch is reorganizing, because even in her new mode, she is capable of the same kind of intellectual dishonesty that characterized her years.

Every Big Lie requires its intellectual apologists. This is a lesson from history as old as the pyramids (and the movie "The Ten Commandments"). The kinds of Big Lie we've been witnessing in Chicago since the mayoral control hoax was launched in the early 1990s by the same coalition of right wing Republicans and "New Democrats" (culminating and beginning with the passage of the so-called Amendatory Act of 1995, launching the "mayoral control model" on the USA from Chicago) is as old, literally, as the pyramids. According to the latest histories, the pharoah Ramsees III of Egypt may have been miserable as a general and as a military leader, but he was an unsurpassed totalitarian bully and perhaps the world's first expert at public relations. After losing some key battles (and barely escaping with his skin), Ramsees simply rewrote history, carving his version over more accurate memories in the monuments of Egypt. Similarly, Chicago's "American Pharoah" Richard M. Daley has carved a hoaxious mythologizing of history (as I used to joke about with Michael Scott, who asked why I had signed up to speak at Board of Education meetiongs on the topic of "hoaxacious mythologizing" every six months or so) in the minds of the people of the USA. Hoax, to the level of Bernie Madoff, and possible at greater cost (cities like Rochester New York are sill embroiled in a fight over "mayoral control" as I write this).

Now, Diane Ravitch, who served her pharoahs so ably for a quarter century, is coming forward in a "tell all" book that surpasses anything to come out of the recent Presidential Election — even the John Edwards campaign.

So let's take a close look at Ravitch's book, remembering that it would be much easier to write this review if the book had been written by anyone else. There is a danger of books to educational praxis that is fairly simple. The people who have the time and leisure to write books about education are rarely the people who are caught in the daily praxis of education. As outsiders, they are as notorious as the so-called "helicopter parents" who drop in and out of schools to (sometimes) terrorize principals and teachers. Helicopter scholars tend to be professors and their graduate students who drop in on various experiments, observe for a bit, distribute surveys, and then leave to concentrate their energies on writing up their next "study" for presentation at a conference of people like themselves (usually, the professors and graduate students at the annual conference of the AERA, for example). The class bias in this entire process has to be mentioned in any discussion of the latest Ravitch book.

In this regard, Ravitch is by far not the worst practitioner. My awards for steamy obscurantism would probably go to Bill Ayers, whose dishonest corpus of work extends from his quasi-fictional account of the Weather Underground to his tomes on education, some of which have misled a generation of acolytes. But the list would be much longer than that.

"The Death and Life of the Great American School System..." has eleven chapters, and each one should be studied separately (although two are kind of personal narratives that add to the content but aren't as packed with fact and analysis as the other nine). "Chapter One: What I Learned About School Reform" begins with some disarming personal anecdotes, and then take the reader abruptly into an intellectual odyssey that few intellectuals have ever undertaken and survived. (And in a certain way that some teachers of the classics will appreciate, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System..." could be dramatized as a kind of "Odyssey" — complete with the sirens, a Cyclops or two, and the usual perils. But not for now.

While each chapter deserves attention in detail, there is usually a paragraph or two that outlines the "main idea" in some usually interesting ways. Here is one pair, from Chapter One:

"In our own day, policymakers and business leaders have eagerly enlisted in a movement launched by free-market advocates, with the support of major foundations. Many educators have their doubts about the slogans and cure-alls of our time, but they are required to follow the mandates of federal law (such as No Child Left Behind) despite their doubts.

"School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss's Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land "where they never have troubles, at least very few." Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. In my writings, I have consistently warned that, in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets. For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly..."

SIGNIFICANT FACTS LEFT OUT OF MOST CRITICISMS. In elaborating her critique of charter schools, Dr. Ravitch not only notes the fact that charters have failed to live up to their dual original promise, but that in addition to damaging the public schools, they also are wiping out the largest and oldest parochial school networks in the United States of America: the Catholic schools.

The dual purposes, according to Albert Shanker and others who promoted charter schools in the early days, were to spur innovation and to provide a superior education to the public schools. If the charter schools were simply to become another public schools, but without unions and run by entrepreneurs, what was the point? That's why Shanker broke with the "charter schools movement" even before it became a movement, a fact that has been left out of some of the narrative, especially in Chicago, where Marilyn Stewart uses the early Shanker notions about charter schools without noting that Shanker later denounced what charter schools had become. Bracey recognized this, too, long before Ravitch's conversion. In Chicago, this has been evident for a decade.

AFTERWORD AND BIBLIOGRAPHY. So before anyone rushes out to join the pack to buy the book, here is a list of all the books that Diane Ravitch might have credited with explaining the things she now exposes — during the two decades before her conversion to skepticism. (Patience: We owe it to our colleagues to create this list and ask people to read it before reading any review of the latest from Ravitch):

Sacks, Peter, Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1999). 351 pages.

Berliner, David C. and Biddle, Bruce J., The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1995). 414 pages.

Kohn, Alfie and Shannon, Patrick, Eds., Education, Inc. Turning Learning into a Business (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002). 179 page.

Allingon, Richard, Author Editor, Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum, How Ideology Trumped Evidence (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002). 304 pages.

Heubert, Jay P. and Hauser, Robert M. Editors, High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion and Graduation (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, National Research Council, 1999). 331 pages.

Bracey, Gerald W., Final Exam: A Study of the Perpetual Scrutiny of American Education (Bloomington, Technos Press, 1995). 244 pages.

Bracey, Gerald W., On the Death of Childhood and the Destruction of Public Schools: The Folly of Today's Education Policies and Practices (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003). 196 pages.

Bracey, Gerald W., The War Against America's Public Schools: Privatizing Schools, Commercializing Education (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002). 213 pages.

Bracey, Gerald W., The Truth About America's Schools: The Bracey Reports, 1991 - 1997 (Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappan Educational Foundation, 1997). 264 pages.

Bracey, Gerald W., Put To The Test: And Educator's and Consumer's Guide to Standardized Testing (Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappan Educational Foundation, 1998). 74 pages.

Bracey, Gerald W., Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions about Public Education in the U.S. (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004). 211 pages.

Ohanian, Susan, One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 1999) 154 pages.

Ohanian, Susan, What Happened to Recess and Why are our Children Struggling in Kindergarten (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002) 263 pages.

Owen, David, with Marilyn Doerr, None of the Above: The Truth Behind the SATs (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999) 323 pages.

Kohn, Alfie, The Case Against Standardized Testing (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2000) 94 pages.

Goodman, Ken, What's Whole in Whole Language? (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 1986) 80 pages.

Goodman, Kenneth, The Truth about DIBELS: What it is. What it does (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2006) 85 pages (with CD). Meier, Deborah and Wood, George, Eds., Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging our Children and our Schools (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004) 133 pages.

Doyon, Juanita, Not with Our Kids You Don't! 10 Strategies to Save Our Schools (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2003) 129 pages.

Krashen, Stephen, Three Arguments Against Whole Language & Why They Are Wrong (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2003) 103 pages.

McNeill, Linda M., Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing (New York: Routledge, 2000). 304 pages.

There are more, but this is enough for one month's reviewing work. 


April 5, 2010 at 9:16 AM

By: Don Perl

Educator - University of Northern Colorado - The Coalition for Better Education, Inc.

Diane Ravitch's apostasy would be far more impressive if all the funds earned from her book and the speaking engagements were dedicated to supporting public libraries around the country. And, equally important, Professor Ravitch made this dedication crystal clear as an act of contrition.

April 12, 2010 at 12:52 AM

By: Marian Higgins, Resource Specialist


Your commentary hurts the cause of resisters. The current Ravitch book is excellent. In addition to being a teacher, I wrote a book attempting to warn of the looming disaster of NCLB to public schools. Despite how "right" I was, few people read the book. The point here is, Dr. Ravitch has broken through and connected to an audience we have not been able to reach. The authors you have listed are wonderful, but this is the first book that does something besides preach to the choir. We need to support the message and the book, no matter how long it's taken for the author reach her current point of view. Furthermore, Diane Ravitch is an etremely articulate and effective spokesperson. There is a lot of cheering in the city where I teach, Rialto, CA., for this book. We've taken hit after hit in the public schools and the reception of "Death and Live.." is the first ray of hope in some time. Let's not undermine the breakthrough. I also think it will improve the chances of the fine authors you have mentioned of reaching larger audiences.

July 20, 2010 at 1:23 AM

By: Rich Gibson

George Schmidt on Ravitch and Ayers

I hope nobody missed the great lines below, inside George's Review of Ravitch--there is more to this story, for sure


"In this regard, Ravitch is by far not the worst practitioner. My awards for steamy obscurantism would probably go to Bill Ayers, whose dishonest corpus of work extends from his quasi-fictional account of the Weather Underground to his tomes on education, some of which have misled a generation of acolytes."

August 19, 2010 at 10:27 PM

By: Phyllis Steele

Review of Ravitsch book

World Socialist Web Site

Published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI)

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

An insider’s critique of education “reform”

By Walter Gilberti and Jerry White

27 July 2010

[Click here to toggle images]

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch, Basic Books: 284 pp.

It is rare to find a book that provides a detailed picture of the wrecking job that has been carried out against the public education system in the US over the last three decades in the name of “school reform.” Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, presents a summary of the assault waged by both Democratic and Republican parties against public education, from its origins during the Reagan era to the Obama’s adminstration’s Race to the Top.

Because of its well-informed exposures, her latest work has been read widely by teachers in the US and other countries and became a best seller a month after its release in March 2010.

A 1975 graduate of Columbia University with a PhD in the history of American public education, Ravitch is the author of more than 20 books on the subject. Her particular insights into the attack on public education, however, stem from the fact that for much of the last 20 years she was a prominent supporter of “teacher accountability,” “school choice,” merit pay and other free-market nostrums she now criticizes for destroying public education.

In 1991 Ravitch, a registered Democrat, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush as US assistant secretary of education under Republican Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, a proponent of school vouchers. Afterward she worked for right-wing think tanks promoting free-market proposals for public education, including the Hoover Institution, before being appointed to the Clinton administration’s National Assessment Governing Board, where she served between 1997 and 2004. By her own admission, as recently as 2006 she maintained support for the reactionary No Child Left Behind Act, sponsored by the second Bush administration, and passed by Congress in 2001 with overwhelming Democratic Party support.

In her book Ravitch pays particular tribute to former American Federation of Teachers president, Albert Shanker, a leading anti-communist trade union official in the AFL-CIO, and notes that she traveled on behalf of the AFT to Poland and other Eastern European in 1989-90, at a time when the union was working with the US State Department to push for the restoration of capitalism in those countries. She is currently director of the Albert Shanker Institute.

“With the collapse of communism and the triumph of market reforms in most parts of the world,” she writes in the opening chapter of her book, “it did not seem much of a stretch to envision the application of the market model to schooling. Like many others in that era, I was attracted to the idea that the market would unleash innovation and bring greater efficiencies to education.”

Ravitch’s rethinking of this view appears to be bound up with a growing concern by more astute sections of the political establishment that the dismantling of public education and its handover to the most rapacious corporate interests are incompatible with maintaining even the pretense of a democratic society.

In a March 2010 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, entitled, “Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform,” Ravitch expresses concern that the destruction of public education is undermining social cohesion in America. “The Obama administration seems to think that schools will improve if we fire teachers and close schools,” she wrote. “They do not recognize that schools are often the anchor of their communities, representing values, traditions and ideals that have persevered across decades.”

Shortly after Obama took office, in April 2009, Ravitch quit the Hoover Institution, writing in the book of her disappointment that the Democrats were advancing educational policies “that had been the exclusive property of the conservative wing of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.” She also notes “at the very time that the financial markets were collapsing, and as deregulation of financial markets got a bad name, many of the leading voices in American education assured the public that the way to educational rejuventation was through deregulation.”

It is presumably with the hope that she could persuade the new adminstration to change course that Ravitch embarked on her revealing portrait of the bipartisan assault on public education.

Towards the beginning of the book, Ravitch attempts to locate the shift in government policy against public education. In 1983, she notes, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a group formed under the Reagan administration, published A Nation at Risk. This report blamed the “mediocrity” of the public schools for the failure of US corporations to compete with their Japanese and European rivals.

Ravitch explains, however, that the document, far from advocating school closures, privatization, charter schools, vouchers or market-based education reforms, simply warned that there had been a steady erosion of the content of education.

Ravitch compares this document, the alpha so to speak of education reform, to the omega, No Child Left Behind, correctly characterizing the latter as devoid of any new or educationally sound ideas; promoting instead “a cramped, mechanistic and profoundly anti-intellectual definition of education. In the age of NCLB, knowledge was irrelevant.”

But while Ravitch’s comparison of A Nation at Risk to NCLB is correct as far as it goes, she soft-pedals the former’s significance—arguing that the good intentions of the report’s authors were later hijacked. Placed in its proper context, A Nation at Risk was a shot across the bow of public education. It represented one side of the Reagan administration’s overall offensive against the democratic rights and living standards of the working class, initiated with the firing of striking air traffic controllers and the destruction of their union, PATCO, in 1981.

Ravitch fails to explain why—after nearly two centuries in which the reach of public education was brought to ever broader layers of the population as a result of mass social struggles—the American ruling class in the 1980s abruptly reversed course and began a sustained attack, which continues to this day, to dismantle the right to universal, free public education.

The rise of the educational “reformers”

Ravitch is at her best when she chronicles the destructive effects of a string of education policies advanced by an array of self-styled reformers, “visionaries” and, more recently, billionaire philanthropists. By the early 1990s the movement for “schools of choice” was well under way, fueled by the idea that vouchers should be given to families whose children are “trapped” in failing schools. The money for these vouchers would be taken from the public schools themselves, thus leading to the further erosion of public education.

Ravitch exposes the interesting evolutionary lineage linking “schools of choice,” vouchers and charter schools with their common ancestor, in the form of the “segregation academies” constructed in the Deep South to oppose federally mandated school desegregation in the 1950s. She writes: “When the federal government and the federal courts began compelling segregated districts to reassign black and white pupils to integrated schools, public officials in some southern states embraced a new form of choice. They encouraged the creation of private schools to accommodate white students who did not want to attend an integrated school.”

In 1955, this movement was given official benediction by the right-wing economist Milton Friedman in his essay, “The Role of Government in Education,” which is really the ideological progenitor of the “school reform” movement. Ravitch makes the point that nearly 50 years after its publication, “almost everyone who supports school vouchers and school choice is familiar with Friedman’s essay.”

In it Friedman outlined the free-market notion that competition should be introduced in education—which he considered a bastion of egalitarian socialism in America—and that the role of government is to provide the money to insure that parents can send their children to any school they choose, even to for-profit enterprises and religious schools. Ravitch points out the cynicism of those who sought political leverage for vouchers by targeting low income and inner-city families, citing the “achievement gap” with their suburban counterparts.

Following on the heels of the schools of choice movement, the idea that the problem with public education lay with school governance emerged during the Clinton administration. Systemic school “reform” became the buzz phrase, and drastic changes in the way school districts were run, with the emphasis on “accountability,” were instituted.

The primary focus of the governance movement was to establish a rigid business-like hierarchy, which allowed administrators to punish teachers and administrators; exhorting, threatening and scrutinizing them, all with the aim of increasing standardized test scores. Ravitch is scathing in her treatment of these attempts, and gives a detailed account of their alleged successes, as well as their demonstrable failures, first in New York City, then in San Diego, California.

Ravitch describes in considerable detail the “Children First” program in New York City’s public schools, launched by billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and how his subsequent claims of success conveniently overlooked the fact the many of the neighborhoods had been gentrified; their schools serving few, if any, low-income or at-risk children.

She documents several examples of how officials, including former Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan, cooked the books on test scores to show the “success” of their policies. This included lowering the threshold for passing grades, instructing teachers to teach to the tests, encouraging principals to suspend or send home low-performing students before the test, cheating by getting the exams in advance, etc.

In Washington DC, Michelle Rhee was promoted by the “reform” advocates in the federal government to head the public schools there. Rhee was a graduate of “Teach For America,” (TFA) a kind of domestic Peace Corps designed to introduce “new blood” in the form of young, idealistic, as well as predominantly Ivy League college graduates, and place them in inner city schools districts.

TFA gained prominence in the 1990s as the “reform” groups claimed that poverty and conditions in the schools were unimportant compared to teacher “quality,” while at the same time questioning the traditional measure of quality, professional teacher training requirements. Despite the fanfare, however, most TFA teachers, some 80 percent, were gone by the third or fourth year of employment.

Ravitch quotes Rhee’s assertion that teachers should be able to overcome poverty and other disadvantages students face without an additional dime to improve their schools or the children’s lives outside the classrooms: “Those kids, where they lived didn’t change. Their parents didn’t change. Their diets didn’t change. The violence in the community didn’t change. The only thing that changed … was the adults who were in front of them every single day teaching them.”

Rhee also denounced “adult interests,” i.e., the preservation of job security, decent working conditions and living standards by teachers, as the chief threat to “children’s interests.” This was a repeat of the long-standing right-wing claim that teachers unions were the biggest obstacle to innovation.

Ravitch, who counts American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten as a close associate, is a defender of the teachers unions and argues that these organizations actually defend the interests of their members. Her argument against the proponents of the right-wing attack on teachers is colored by that perspective. Actually, the salient issues here are the rights that teachers as workers have won over the years, and the unions, far from defending these achievements, have collaborated with the government to destroy them.

The main slogan of the AFT is “school reform with us, not against us.” On this basis, the AFT and the National Education Association have blocked any struggle by teachers against Obama and Duncan and sanctioned the destruction of jobs, pay and benefits and working conditions. In many cases the unions have set up charter schools—a proposal first made by Albert Shanker himself—and now oversee the hiring and firing of their own members.

Foundations run roughshod over democracy

In chapter 10 of her book, “The Billionaire Boys Club,” Ravitch discusses the insidious role that big capitalists are currently playing, by inserting themselves into the education process through the seemingly bottomless pockets of their philanthropic foundations.

Ravitch mentions a few of these repositories (and tax shelters) for vast fortunes: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Eli and Edith Broad Foundation. She characterizes them as “venture foundations” because unlike others that bestow their gifts to intermediate organizations to use as they see fit, these foundations view their endowments as an investment, from which they are seeking a return, in this case in the form of the realization of their education agendas.

Ravitich explains that there is something profoundly undemocratic about their role in education. The foundations, she says, “are not subject to public oversight and review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state ... The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.”

Ravitch notes that big foundations channeled large sums of money into the Chicago schools when Arne Duncan ran them. In return, Duncan appointed a high-level official from the Gates Foundation to serve as his chief of staff at the US Department of Education and sent him around the country urging mayors to take control of their public schools. Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which uses federal funding to blackmail states into lifting caps on charter schools and merit pay, was designed by Joanne S. Weiss, another “education entrepreneur” who runs a charter school management company with James H. Shelton III. Shelton, a former program officer for the Gates Foundation, was appointed by Duncan to oversee the $650 million “Invest in What Works and Innovation Fund.”

Ravitch points out that all the reform initiatives, like the setting up small learning communities, and schools within schools; all the attempts to impose the business model on education; all the invocations of choice and the demands for accountability have failed to improve the education of children. The “successes” they have scored are chiefly at schools that exclude special education, children whose first language is not English, and other students who require the most resources—in other words, schools that cannot be defined in any serious sense as “public.”

It is as if an incompetent scientist devised an experiment, in which all the extraneous variables that could possibly contaminate the results are ignored. The notion that excellent schools can be created amidst social and economic devastation; that all the current social problems symptomatic of a deeply diseased social order—chronic mass unemployment, poverty, social dissolution, cultural decline, decaying infrastructure; the social and economic context within which many urban schools are embedded—are considered to be besides the point.

Ravitch can identify problems, like the retrograde demands for vouchers and “schools of choice,” the arrogant and punitive demands for accountablity, the reckless district reorganizations, the stultifyingly narrow conceptions of what constitutes proficiency, and the stupid obsession with standardized tests. She critiques these with thoroughness and gusto, but can offer no coherent explanation for the onset of these policies or where the solution lies.

In the end she can do no more than appeal to the powers that be to insitute a well-rounded curriculum, drop the fixation with free-market solutions and renew America’s past “commitment to public education.” She longs for a return to yesterday. But the “yesterday” of American capitalism, which once promoted the progressive idea that a truly democratic society required an informed populace, has long passed.

As a longtime opponent of socialism, Ravitch cannot come to grips with the fact that the intractible problems besetting education cannot be resolved within the framework of the defense of the capitalist profit system, whose crisis is the driving force of the crisis in the education system as such. Teachers, parents and students who are looking for a way forward to defend public education, as well as the right to be educated, should mark well her criticisms. But she offers no solution, since that lies elsewhere, in the adoption and implementation of a socialist perspective and program.

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