The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education (Diane Ravitch)

5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This is one of the most important books about education currently in print. It is timely, it speaks to important issues at both a policy and practical level (though more the former than the latter), and most importantly, it is not only well thought out and well researched, it is also accessible. Too often, I’ve read education books that are clearly tiered towards researchers, towards economists, towards just teachers, or just school leaders. This is really a book that sums up the state of education (and truly, it’s a sad state of affairs) as well as how we got here (the good intentions and so on). It’s kind of short on solutions (I think), and some have claimed that it’s a little idealistic… so fine… it’s not perfect. But, it is important, well-written, and something that I think parents and educators should read to better educate themselves on our current K-12 school system.

Greater Detail:
Ravitch successfully goes through the ups and downs (mostly the latter) of several of the hot-button topics in K-12 education today. For example:

Choice — the idea that charter schools (which really started over a couple of decades ago now) can be our salvation. This is something she was originally in support of, and now shows data that charter school students, on average, seem to perform at about the same levels as public schools. (This data is somewhat controversial, as there are studies that seem to suggest support for both sides of this debate). The idea here is that if charter school students are doing as well as their counterparts in public school, that’s actually a bad thing. because charter schools, by definition, draw from the more involved parents. If parents A and B are neighbors, but parent A takes the time to learn about charter school options, enroll in lotteries, etc, that means that parent A is a more engaged parent than parent B, and thus his/her child was always more likely to succeed, regardless of the school (research is clear on that: the link between engaged/involved parents and their children’s success). Also, there is increasingly data showing that charter schools have, overall, a smaller percentage of special education and English Language Learners (this research is new, and also controversial). So then the problem Ravitch poses is this: are charters, who have fewer populations of students that require/should have more services, and who have more engaged parents merely performing as well as their public school counterparts? If so… that’s actually bad news.

She also takes turns examining the effect of billionaire¬†philanthropists¬†who mean well, but aren’t ultimately educated on the ins and outs of day-to-day education (for example: spending millions upon millions to split up failing schools, only to have… four smaller failing schools), and standardized testing and that whole can of worms.

It’s a wonderful, worthy read, regardless of which side of the debate you fall on.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
I’ve read a LOT of education books. A lot of the theory books are dry as dust (though some are genuinely interesting), and a lot of the policy books are slanted. While this isn’t exactly un-slanted, it does, I think, represent a little of both sides of the spectrum as Ravitch herself, as a former Assistant¬†Secretary of Education, has seen and experienced both sides of this debate firsthand.

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