Fifteen book publishers turned down the rights to The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explained about her latest work. Their rationale, she says, was that teachers and school officials didn’t like to read books about their field.
The book is now the No. 1 downloaded work on Apple’s new iPad and will be ranked No. 16 on the next New York Times bestseller list.
What’s made Ravitch’s latest work such a draw is that it details the negative effects of testing, the No Child Left Behind law, and the free-market effect on public schools brought on by reforms that were hailed by prominent expertsherself includedover the past two decades, despite the skepticism and frustrations of real-life educators.
“This is a book that flies in the face of a lot of conventional wisdom,” she said. “I’ve advocated for things that I’m now telling you are not working.”
Ravitch, the prominent scholar, historian, and former George H.W. Bush administration official, greeted a standing-room-only crowd at NSBA’s conference on Saturday, and she first proved that the one thing that has not changed is her bluntness. “I’ve written a lot of articles that were wrongwrong about merit pay, charter schools, and accountability.”
What has changed her mind, she added, is new research. “We now have a lot of evidence that we didn’t have before” about school choice, testing and accountability, and other reforms that she believes are now undermining and endangering the public education system.
Increasingly, she said, the debate around public education is being framed not by school officials, teachers, and others directly involved in K-12 education, but by large foundations (namely the Broad Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation), the Bush and Obama administrations, corporations, and Washington, D.C., think tanks that are primarily funded by the foundations.
Ravitch honed in on the impact of the No Child Left Behind law and its mandate that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Even though lawmakers have acknowledged that goal is implausible, she said, it damages the reputation of schools and the morale of teachers and staff, who are used as scapegoats.
She offered a hypothetical situation: “Say that all crime must be ended by 2014and if not, we’ll fire the cops.”
“What we have today as the legacy of NCLB is the obsession with data,” she said. “The theme of NCLB is simple: Measure and punish.” That, she added, de-professionalizes teachers and the system as a whole by closing schools deemed inferior and scattering the community’s social capital it has built.
Ravitch wants to drop the label of “failing schools” entirely and remove all punitive measures from the No Child Left Behind law in the upcoming reauthorization.
“Every school that has low test scores has a reason, and to hold them all up as failing schools is an outrage,” she said. Instead, each state should have an inspection team that will evaluate each school, determine the reasons for its low performance, and write a report detailing how the state can help.
The single most reliable indicator of test scores is the socioeconomic level of the student, she said, but knowing that the mentality has become “we can’t fire the families so let’s fire the teachers.”
Ravitch maintained, “Closing schools does not make for better schools.”