How to Save the Schools

Carin Baer/Fox Broadcasting Co./Photofest
Dianna Agron, front left, and Cory Monteith, front right, in the television series Glee

Diane Ravitch is without rival as a historian of modern American schooling. She has written trenchantly about the history of New York City schools, and in The Troubled Crusade (1983) about the progressivist takeover of the nation’s schools after World War II. Her 2003 book The Language Police described ongoing attempts by publishers to sell their textbooks to all ideological factions by insisting on bland language in them. Her major work, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000), is considered by many to be the best study of the subject. It might be read with profit by policymakers, who would learn, for example, that the current movement in American schools to instill “twenty-first-century skills” is little more than a patched-up version of failed movements to instill twentieth-century skills.

But policymakers are far more likely to read her newest, most sensational book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. In it she considers the most recent round of unsuccessful school reforms, including some that she herself had championed and that the Obama administration supports, such as charter schools and universal testing. She criticizes several highly praised reform models of the 1990s and 2000s in San Diego, New York City, and elsewhere, as well as the enormously influential No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. She’s critical as well of reform efforts by the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies. Yet she has surprising praise for some long-standing outcasts of the educational reform world including teachers’ unions, some professors of education, and the present reviewer.1 Written with verve, the book takes aim at imposing targets. It won’t be ignored.

The general renewal of American public education is Ravitch’s chief aim. Chester E. Finn Jr., the distinguished educational writer and reformer, caught well the tenor of her purpose when he said that he

shares Ravitch’s pessimism about the record of education reform. “We agree it’s not very encouraging,” [Finn] said, “and then we come to opposite views of the way forward.” Ravitch, he said, wants to “re-empower” the public school system. “The same evidence has turned me into a radical who wants to blow up the system.”2

With his customary succinctness Finn has defined the issue. Do we try to get the regular public schools back on track, or do we replace them with a tax-supported, “free-market” system of charter schools and public-private vouchers?

In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote admiringly: “In the United States the general thrust of education is directed toward political life; in Europe its main aim is to fit men for private life.” The community-oriented character of American schooling in the first century of the Republic was the result of deliberate policy by political leaders…

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