- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2010


By Diane Ravitch

Perseus, $26.95, 242 pages

Reviewed by Martin Morse Wooster

@$:Anyone interested in learning more about the strengths and weaknesses of our schools should begin by reading the books of Diane Ravitch. Her best books include “The Troubled Crusade,” a history of American education from 1945 to 1980, “Left Back,” an account of “scientific” education schemes and the harm they caused, and “The Language Police,” which explains how political correctness in textbooks is much worse than most of us can imagine.

Mrs. Ravitch’s latest book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” has gotten a great deal of attention from the mainstream media, which claim that the book shows that a pillar of the conservative education establishment has abandoned her conservatism and now supports liberals. This book, although problematic, is a more nuanced political shift. Mrs. Ravitch, an education historian at New York University and an assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration, has always been a liberal Democrat committed to standards and excellence. Her shift in views in this book is from center-right to center-left. Moreover, several of her criticisms are ones with which conservatives should agree.

This book is a critique of two views: the idea that national testing programs (and, more specifically, No Child Left Behind) are the one best way to make our schools better and that students and parents benefit from a choice in schools. Her foes in this book include New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Washington schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, the heads of the Broad and Walton family foundations and anyone who thinks that any sort of market in education should be created.

Mrs. Ravitch is most persuasive in her critique of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). She contends that the path to NCLB appeared when the Clinton administration’s effort to create national standards for various disciplines collapsed after the withdrawal of proposed national history standards because they were politically correct. She shows that the result of NCLB is that schools spend more time than they should drilling students in math and reading and less time on history, science, the arts and physical education. She is quite right in showing that NCLB probably has done more harm than good.

In another chapter, Mrs. Ravitch reminds us that good teaching is something more than producing students who do well on standardized tests. Using an idea created by political scientist James Scott, she says that far too many education reformers are “seeing like a state” when they look at schools, “looking at students and teachers from an altitude of 20,000 feet and seeing them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans.”

Mrs. Ravitch recalls her favorite English teacher in high school, Ruby Ratliff, who passed on a love of literature and learning that can’t be measured by any test. She suggests that many potential teachers might not want to make the effort to get certified if they knew their success would be based solely on student test scores. She would have been more persuasive if she had produced evidence (which almost certainly exists) showing increasing teacher frustration with the bureaucracy and red tape produced by school systems struggling to comply with NCLB.

On the issue of school choice, Mrs. Ravitch’s position is simple: Parents should have no choice of school, unless they can scrape up enough money for private school tuition. She argues that there are a lot of bad charter schools out there and that charter schools “take good students and leave the bad ones for public schools.”

She argues that the neighborhood school is an idea that ought to be brought back. “The neighborhood public school is the place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy.”

Unlike bad public schools, bad charter schools go out of business. And while the market for charter schools is imperfect, motivated parents and students who want a good education can get one, particularly if they go to a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) or a Green Dot school.

Is the neighborhood school a worthy idea? Well, take a typical bad high school in the District of Columbia. (You could choose from a dozen of them.) Students sentenced to these schools, staffed with tenured, burned-out teachers, housed in decaying facilities and plagued by violence in the halls and sometimes in the classrooms, will get a bad education if they bother to show up. These urban high schools are unreformable, but charter schools can give some students chances they would not have had.

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System” presents a weak and unpersuasive case against choice in education. The flaws of this book show the strength, not the weakness, of conservative ideas for increasing choice and competition in public schools.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds” (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

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