Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is the rarest of scholars—one who reports her findings and conclusions, even when they go against conventional wisdom and even when they counter her earlier, publicly espoused positions.” Howard Gardner

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education is Diane Ravitch‘s new tome. It is clear, now that I have read it, why reviewers are saying”…this is a very important book”.

‘The Death and Life…” is a well-written, very readable and well-researched. The multiple perspectives Ravitch brings to the debate about school reform makes the book particularly valuable. Diane Ravitch is an academic and education historian with long experience but is best-known for her advocacy of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies as his Assistant Secretary of Education. Her book explores educational reform that she originally supported but now feels was terribly misguided.

Ravitch knows schools need to be improved.

A wave of reforms, in the US, over the last century has not been satisfactory and she says, “the policies we are following today are unlikely to improve our schools…(and are) likely to make the schools less effective”. Ravitch’s book looks at the most recent waves of reforms that she supported but now knows were errors of judgement. Particularly important is her analysis of how data in New York City was misinterpreted in District 2.

This model was adopted by other states and educational precincts based on the flawed belief that the new approach was working miracles (always a good reason for skepticism). You can still read about the ‘success’ of the approach taken by Anthony Alvarado, here and also an interview discussing that ‘progress’. His approach caused much bitterness. In San Diego (chapter 4) 1998-2005, where the Alvarado model was adopted even more forcefully, with a  ‘90% turnover rate of principalships’ (p.61) and dismissal of ‘fifteen administrators’ during Alan Bersin’s tenure. There appears to have been no discernible improvement, in fact, there’s evidence to suggest a decline in educational oucomes. With such ‘angry and disaffected…troops’, Ravitch is not surprised. “Trust not cercion is a neccessary precondition for school reform” being her sage point. (p. 66)

Ravitch, in her chapter, ‘The Trouble with Accountability”, says that, ‘tests are necessary and helpful” but when “we define what matters in education only by what is measured, we are in serious trouble”. (p.166)

Ravitch believes that the ‘fundamentals of are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community and the culture, but reformers in our time look for shortcuts and quick answers”. (p.225)

Australian educators, systems leaders and politicians who do not read Ravitch’s book are being irresponsible, considering the implications of some of the current Federal government’s education policy for our children and communities. I implore all interested in education to read this important research and analysis.

Here is an interview (and another) with Ravitch and a very good review by ED Hirsch. Here’s a complete list of reviews.

Please consider reading this important analysis of educational reform and the impact on children and communities.

UPDATE: Diane Ravitch is on twitter.



    • kmcg2375

    • 14 years ago

    I think the problem lies in the fact that if “Trust not coercion is a neccessary precondition for school reform”, then school reform will always be hindered by parents and politicans who simply don’t trust teachers. That much can be gleaned from Maralyn’s article (linked above).

    I agree that if “we define what matters in education only by what is measured, we are in serious trouble”, but in a context where teachers aren’t ever going to be trusted, the punters will insist on measurement as a safeguard.

    Perhaps the answer is for schooling to become a little less high-stakes. Ban exams? Let universities run their own entry programs? Extend school hours and provide more free study time between classes – students could then visit teachers they preferred in study time, or use their PLN to catch up…?

  1. I am not certain, Kelli but one knows that motivation and a move away from one size fits all factory models (think about what Sir Ken has to say) are part of the answer.

    Ravitch has some insightful research, quoted powerfully in her book, which she always plays even-handedly with. In one of her final chapters she discusses teacher tenure, unionism and the Teach for America program. She makes the point that vert few of the best-performing teachers are able to maintain the level of success in changed contexts or even, over a period of time. The idea that you take the very best teachers and put them in the worst performing schools, with the poorest socio-economic backgrounds ensuring success is not supported by any data. However, it would take 3-4 years for this to make a real difference in students lives according to Ravitch. Much more data is required (and not just from standardised tests) but even that will be unlikely to be vindicate one ideology over another. She did mention Finland though. 100% of the teacher there are members of unions.

    The much vaunted charter school movement is held up to the light and the latest data examined critically. The news is not great as the original goals of the movement, to assist students in the most underperforming schools/poorest areas to have some choice and opportunity have not been realised.

    The biggest message of the book: there are no quick fixes and that short-term political solutions based on market place ideas just do not not churn out a better quality sausage.

    Improving the quality of teachers (and politicians, journalists, doctors etc..) should be our society’s plan. It needs to be constant and gradual. There are no quick fixes.

    • kmcg2375

    • 14 years ago

    Very interesting. I had to do a lit review on whole school reform/improvement research a few years back, and recall reading that it takes around 5-7 years for ‘effective’ whole school change. This requires staff stability, which I don’t see is promoted by quick-fix transfer systems (and where teacher burnout drives them to leave the school sooner rather than later).

    I think when you talked about maintaining success in changed contexts you were referring to changing workplaces, but I expect this phenomenon is also observable during times of curriculum change. I’m thinking of excellent English teachers who found themselves up the creek without a paddle if they resisted the introduction of visual literacy studies. I wonder what lessons could be learned for better implementation of the National Curriculum?

  2. The Australian Curriculum is being rushed for political gain. Such an important change should be introduced after much (and ongoing) consultation. I worry that diversity – of content, approaches and learning generally – will be lost as we standardise. I was hoping for something more innovative but instead, in the case of English, we are getting something much less than thge syllabuses we already have in place.

  3. here is a good comment about charter schools.

  4. […] who have read and been greatly impressed by the intellectual honesty of Diane Ravitch’s excellent new book. She, like Foster does so passionately with football, asks a fundamentally important question: […]

  5. […] of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010) and blogged admiringly about it at the time. I have not read her most recent book but have a feed from her […]

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