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The death and life of a school system

By Phil Cullen - posted Monday, 22 March 2010

Diane Ravitch has written The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Printed by Basic Books this month, it has already sold out. This is because Diane Ravitch, a prominent US education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education, has done what Time Magazine (March 15, 2010) describes as an “... unabashed 180”. She has completely reversed her views on the way educational reform in handled in the US and is being cloned in Australia. This, the magazine observes is “... a rare sight in politics ... and in academia.”

Professor and Research Fellow at New York University, she previously occupied the second highest education position in the USA and, in this role, she was an advocate of private [charter] schooling, standardised testing and merit pay. She now uses Death and Life “... to proclaim her ardent opposition to the seemingly unstoppable engine of the education reform movement, which she believes is too quick to demonize teachers and unions in its attempt to improve the quality of the nation’s schools and close the achievement gap. With scathing looks at the influence of private money in schools and the national obsession with testing over learning, Ravitch’s critique is an essential one - passionate, well considered and completely logical” (Time, March 15, 2010, p.10).

She says, “Nothing can come of any reform that teachers do not embrace”.


There is little doubt that her critique will be avoided by Australian education writers and politically chained adherents of national testing and public flogging of schools; as occurred in 2009 when the most extensive study of schools ever in the western world, The Cambridge Review, was ignored. I’ll lay “London to a brick” that neither book will grace the shelves of those who comment with academic authority on news items and education articles; as well as those who support it by their timidity and casual indifference. They would have to eat too much crow - as Professor Ravitch has been prepared to do - if they thought about what was happening to our country, before regaining their professional integrity and strength.

However, the rest of us can Google “Diane Ravitch” and see for ourselves, while we wait for the book to appear on this continent. Her discourses with friend and foe Deborah Meier are fun to read on their blog.

The book itself has been described as a tour de force that is utterly and completely convincing. She treads on ground and explores solutions to challenges that are beyond the ken of bookish education scholars. She is a profound proponent of experience in the leadership of schooling and of learnacy vis-à-vis learning-for-tests, in schools.

Professor Mark Bay of Kentucky writes, “Ravitch was a passionate advocate for the conservative policies of testing and accountability, school choice, privatisation and business-style management, all of which she now powerfully shows, leave students [aka pupils] trained to take tests but not prepared to participate in a 21st-century economy.”

“She would” continues Professor Bay. “prefer to have professional educators rather than politicians, business leaders and philanthropists run the system and have charter [aka private] schools to help pupils most in need instead of allowing them to siphon off the best students [aka pupils] from public schools.”

Diane Ravitch said, in the Wall Street Journal on March 9, 2010, “On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students [aka pupils] false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it. Most significantly, we are not producing a generation of students [aka pupils] who are more knowledgeable and better prepared for the responsibility of citizenship. That is why I changed my mind about the current direction of school reform.”


Neither does Ravitch approve of the dominant role of a federal government dictating ineffectual remedies when it has no track record of success. Such a government’s reform is spearheaded by a psychometric blitzkrieg of metastasised testing aimed at dismantling public education that has taken 200 years to build.

Sound familiar? Hasten to the website.

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About the Author

Phil Cullen is a teacher. His website is here: Primary Schooling.

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