The Death and Life of the Great American School System
Noted policymaker Diane Ravitch says she was wrong to jump on the No Child Left Behind bandwagon.
Teaching school is as humbling as parenting and equally dependent on careful human adjustments. Politicians and policymakers, on the other hand, at work far from the actual difficulties, are able to take reckless action and ignore the squawks of the affected communities. Education problems are so very specific that they are rarely remedied by on-high administrative shufflings and sudden and short-term financial redistributions. That’s why so many teachers and students directly involved in teaching or learning in public schools, for instance, fail to believe in the long-term educational benefits of the high-stakes testing mandated by America’s No Child Left Behind education law.Skip to next paragraph
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Diane Ravitch, the renowned education historian who once served in the first President Bush’s Education secretary’s office, remembers back in the 1980s when she “began ‘seeing like a state,’ looking at schools and teachers and students from an altitude of 20,000 feet and seeing them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans,” she writes in her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. She recalls how more recently, “there were periodic outbursts by parents and activists against excessive testing and even some organized protests against mandatory state tests. I was not sympathetic to the anti-testing movement. I didn’t see why anyone would object to an annual test of reading and mathematics.”
Ravitch’s book should be called “Confessions of an Ex-Policymaker,” rather than to try to evoke Jane Jacobs’s 1961 classic, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs was a wonderful nobody whose clear vision of urban mismanagement showed how governmental agencies were blindly destroying neighborhoods and cultures. Ravitch, on the other hand, has long been a somebody who, as she admits, should have known better than to have “jumped aboard a bandwagon, one festooned with banners celebrating the power of accountability, incentives, and markets.” We have to appreciate, though, how clearly and pointedly Ravitch writes, as most of the chapters unfold like first-rate public lectures or lengthy but rather good Op-Ed pieces.
Ravitch only came around as a fully-committed critic of the testing craze in 2006 when members of a conservative panel presented overwhelming evidence that “NCLB was a failure.” The evidence suggested that No Child Left Behind had, just as many parents and teachers claimed, been wrenching school systems into a high-pressured, money-driven strategy of teaching to the tests. In addition, many parents said that they preferred sending their children to neighborhood schools and were not opting for “school choice”; they simply and sensibly wanted their local schools to be improved.