May 25, 2024

Diane Ravitch’s New Book – A Warning

New Ravitch book I have eagerly anticipated Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education , for many months. I’ve recommended the book in this blog and at conferences since my copy arrived a few days ago.

I remain excited that a noted education historian is openly criticizing the pandemic of standardized testing, union-busting, teacher-bashing, charter school expansion and heavy-handed policies being driven by political ideologues and corporate profiteers. Diane Ravitch can teach us a lot about school governance, policy and the history of public education. Just don’t expect to learn much about learning from her new book.

Admittedly, I have only skimmed the book, but it is not hard to find evidence that Dr. Ravitch has not left all of her highly conservative views behind. She blames the familiar bogeymen of the religious right for many of the problems in American public education, notably constructivism and whole language with the selective citing of easily refuted research. Her naive understanding of learning theory or learner-centered pedagogy is like that of a teacher education student or mom who just returned home from a “Tea Party” rally.

Ravitch dismisses research conducted by noted scholars Lauren Resnick and Richard Ellmore and seems to present the case that Anthony Alvarado is one of the villains whose embrace of balanced literacy (HARDLY a progressive idea) and “constructivist math” (oooh booga-booga) led to the destruction of public education.

This assertion is not only wrong, but ignores the fact that Dr. Alvarado led many of the pioneering efforts in urban education including the “small schools” movement that resulted in the highly successful Central Park East Schools started by Ravitch’s colleague, Deborah Meier. Calling the reign of San Diego Superintendent and former prosecutor, Alan Bersin “left-wing”  is laughable to anyone with the slightest awareness of his heavy-handed leadership style.

Ravitch seems to revere A Nation at Risk as gospel created by divine intervention, not the Reagan administration and caricatures efforts of the 60s and 70s to make classrooms more democratic, creative and child-centered. She remains a proponent of national curricula, a patently absurd solution in search of a problem.

That said, I will read the rest of the book and share my thoughts as warranted. I just felt it was my obligation to warn my friends and colleagues that although I recommend  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,  you should read it with a fresh new battery in your BS detector.

7 thoughts on “Diane Ravitch’s New Book – A Warning

  1. I was just listening to her interview on NPR this morning, and I thought from the few minutes she had some great points about the abuse of testing in our country, and it’s close connection to punishments. The real question is, if this book contains all of the BS that you indicate, what do we, as educators, do to combat democrats AND republicans to restore faith in our public school systems?

  2. Thanks for the ‘Heads Up’ Gary. My copy is still winging its way downunder from Amazon…

  3. You write that calling ‘Alan Bersin “left-wing” is laughable to anyone with the slightest awareness of his heavy-handed leadership style’ – in my experience, the ones with the heaviest heavy-handed ‘leadership’ styles are left-wing.

    Simply observe the current and past roles of education ministers at both the Victorian State and Federal levels in Australia!

  4. Well… she IS still Diane Ravitch. I think she’s still clinging to some of her core tenets, but she’s decidedly horrified by what they have created. It is amazing to watch Diane Ravitch and the Core Knowledge folks try to figure out how to hold onto many of their ideas while also distancing themselves from the movement they created.

    Wouldn’t education be better if we all actually thought about what might happen if “our” ideological side of the debate won? And what problems might ensue if “we” did?


  5. I read half the book this past weekend, and agree it’s a worthwhile read.

    I don’t have an insider perspective on the Alvarado history, but she did give him credit for doing a lot of things right in New York, and portrayed what happened when he went to San Diego as more the fault of Bersin. She interviewed Alvarado and reported that he was “horrified” (as I’m remembering) about how administrators were summarily fired by Bersin early on.

    The way she portrays balanced literacy is that this was the approach from NZ educators, so it does seem reasonable that was “progressive” at the time and probably still today. She portrays both Alvarado and Bersin as initially using a “left-right” approach for change: encouraging more progressive (certainly not phonics-based) literacy approaches, and simultaneously pushing for choice and accountability to make conservatives happy. The former approach eventually was ditched under Bersin, and he just went for the current scheme of threats, testing, choice, etc.

    You are right that Ravitch remains enamored with ANAR. She is making the point (at least in the first half of her book) that CURRICULUM is what is needed, not overly broad standards like those written by most states.

    I was very interested to read about the millions of dollars Lucy Caulkins received in money from NY schools during the Alvarado era. It was really sad to read about the millions spent for PR spin by the district during that time as well.

    Overall definitely a good read.

  6. Wes,

    Ravitch is very good on policy and governance issues and still a right-wing reactionary when it comes to learning theory and pedagogy. She’s at her best when she doesn’t attempt to answer such questions.

    The problem is that when we enthusiastically recommend this book to people who have heard Ravitch referred to as the “preeminent education scholar in America,” a ridiculous title she never declines. Those readers are likely take her seriously when she resorts to the typical conservative attacks on whole language, “progressive education,” constructivism, project-based learning, etc..

    For someone who claims that her work is based on research, her attacks on such topics ideologically ignore all research that doesn’t fit her conservative paradigm.

  7. OK, well that is good to know and I’ll definitely bear that in mind as I share and amplify some of her themes in the book in upcoming weeks. Thanks.

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