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.

New Ravitch bookEducation historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education for the first President Bush, Diane Ravitch has just published an extraordinary book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The book should be required reading for every policy-maker, citizen and educator.

The extraordinary reporting found in the book can not help but convince Americans that their public education system is endangered by the politicians, billionaire mischief-makers, foundations and business groups professing to “fix” the “broken” system.

Similar accusations have been leveled before in books by Alfie Kohn, Susan Ohanian, Gerald Bracey, Herb Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Linda Darling-Hammond and others. What makes this book so extraordinary is that it was written by a proponent of many of the reforms Ravitch herself now admits are destroying public education.

That’s right, Dr. Ravitch is the rare scholar/leader who when confronted by the actual application of theory is capable of rethinking her assumptions. Ravitch has also severed ties to many of the conservative think-tanks with whom she no longer shares similar views and has had the courage to expose her change-of-heart and mind publicly in this book and in the spectacular blog, Bridging Differences, she writes with (CMK 2010 guest speaker) Deborah Meier.

Ravitch challenges the current fetishes of merit pay, mayoral control, charter schools, vouchers and standardized testing while also questioning the statistical plausibility of the test score miracles being touted by politicians like Arne Duncan and NYC Mayor Bloomberg. At the same time, Ravitch advocates a national curriculum (albeit a richer one than proposed), an idea I find extremely troublesome. Without sentimentality, Ravitch’s new book is a love letter to public education and the democratic ideals it fosters.

The story of personal transformation late in life is generating an unprecedented level of publicity for a book about education. I am most grateful to Dr. Ravitch for placing these issues at the center of mainstream media debate for the first time. I intend to write something substantive about the book once I have an adequate chance to digest it. In the meantime, I recommend you read the following reviews of the book.

  1. Little Dead Schoolhouse – Boston Globe 2/28/10
  2. “Teacher Ken’s” comprehensive review of the book for the Daily Kos – 2/28/10 (highly recommended)
  3. Business principles won’t work for school reform,  former supporter Ravitch says – Washington Post – 2/26/10
  4. Los Angeles Times review – 2/28/10
  5. Why You Should Read Diane Ravitch’s New Book – Washington Post – 2/26/10

You might also find these resources useful:

Champions of public education, teachers and students lost an important ally recently when Gerald Bracey passed away unexpectedly. I wrote about the loss of Dr. Bracey here. Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, USA Today and others did so as well.

Bracey had a highly-tuned BS detector as Neil Postman called for four decades ago, but he used the tools of a scientist, wisdom of a scholar and heart of a teacher to make his arguments irrefutable.

One of Gerald Bracey’s most important contributions to education was the Annual Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education. The final report has just been published after having been finished posthumously by his friend, Susan Ohanian. If you do not know Susan’s work, you should read her web site daily!

This report is brought to us by the Education and Public Interest Center of the University of Colorado at Boulder & the Education Policy Research Unit of Arizona State University.

The current (and perhaps final) Bracey report tackles the “the research support for what the author considers to be three of the most important assumptions about how to reform public education:” (

  1. High-quality schools can eliminate the achievement gap between whites and minorities.
  2. Mayoral control of public schools is an improvement over the more common elected board governance systems.
  3. Higher standards will improve the performance of public schools.

I was pleased to read that Bracey identified the “do as I say, not as I do,” contradictions in Obama’s education policies as I wrote last year in Obama Practices Social Promotion (which incurred the global wrath of the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics) and in Why I’m Scared to Death About Obama’s Education Policies.

Download the report, Read it! Circulate it to friends, neighbors, administrators, school board members and public officials!

I landed in Paris to read the sad news that Ted Sizer has passed away. This is the second loss of great leaders the progressive education community has experienced in just a few days. Earlier this week, Gerald Bracey died in his sleep. May they both rest in peace.

If you don’t know whom I’m talking about or have not read their work, then ed school, we have a problem.

Dr. Theodore Sizer was a veteran school principal, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, author, mentor and original thinker whose ideas on school reform led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a vital organization that brings relevant, common-sense, student-centered and practical reform ideas to schools wishing to do better by youngsters

Gerald Bracey (Obituary from the Washington Post)

It was easy to marginalize Jerry Bracey since his career was so deeply committed to using the tools of a hard-nosed researcher to expose their emperor’s lack of clothes. He was a university researcher – a wonk’s wonk willing to enter the arena and battle powerful forces and mythology without fear. Bracey fought standardized testing, the politicization of public education and demonstrated time and time again how the claims of public school failure are simply untrue. He was unafraid to expose the frauds who keynote our conferences and dominate professional development agendas.

Some of us speak out on issues of concern, but we relied on Bracey’s research to fortify our arguments. I recommend that you read some of his recent Huffington Post columns here to get a sense of Dr. Bracey’s genius. I regret that I never had the privilege of meeting him.

Ted Sizer (read obituaries from the Washington Post, NPR, Coalition of Essential Schools, Forum for Education and Democracy)

Ted Sizer was a different kind of radical. He was straight out of central casting – white, male, smart, articulate, soft-spoken, innovative, inspirational with a Patrician sensibility suited to running universities, government agencies or a think-tank. Sizer should have been the United States Secretary of education long ago, but American education policy is not a meritocracy. Instead, we have been saddled with a series of mediocre governors, talk show hosts, football coaches and Tasmanian minor league basketball players. Being right seems insufficient.

Unqualified is the new qualified. Many of our large urban school districts are run by woefully inadequate people (NYC, D.C., Chicago, New Orleans come to mind). Unlike such bloviating union-busting marionettes, Sizer was a learned man who had actually led successful schools and developed a set of principles for others interested in doing the same.

The Coalition of Essential Schools was built upon ten common sense and replicable principles. With all due respect, if you are a school leader who has not read Sizer’s three seminal books on high school reform, Horace’s School, Horace’s Compromise and Horace’s Hope, then I’m sorry, but you’re a pretender.

It is worth reading Dr. Sizer’s views on effective (or as he calls it “admirable”) teacher education on the heels of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s mean-spirited misinformed attack on the enterprise.

A collection of Dr. Sizer’s speeches for the Coalition of Essential Schools may be found here. The Coalition of Essential Schools’ Fall Forum (annual conference) is this November 5th-7th in New Orleans. You can still register.

Fewer shoulders to stand on

I wish I were optimistic that Sizer and Bracey’s work and spirit will live on and inform the future of public education, but even if ignorance is absent, amnesia will likely prevail.

Chris Lehmann and I often remind our easily excitable friends in the edublogosphere that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Ignorance of history and the great thinkers that came before us not only dooms one to repeat the mistakes history, but retards the progress that would be possible if we recognized that as Bill Clinton said, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Alas, we continue to slip backwards.

I get dismissed as an old crank if I suggest that colleagues read texts longer than 140 characters, attend conferences or think more deeply about fads. There isn’t a single discovery of an edublogger that Seymour Papert didn’t write in his 1996 book, The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap, but who wants to read books by experts when our PLN applauds our laziness?

Just this week, one of my graduate students in a Masters in Learning Technologies course expressed surprise that I asked students to read Papert’s 1993 book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. How could what Papert wrote in 1996 or 1993 or 1968 possibly be relevant? Animoto and Plurk didn’t even exist back then! John Dewey must have lived in a cave.

I am sorry, but Dan Pink, Tom Friedman and a boatload of Web 2.0 authors combined don’t know as much about teaching and learning as Ted Sizer or Gerald Bracey could share in an 800-word article or five-minute conversation. We must stop being so easily distracted by shiny web objects, rhymes and slogans.

Seymour Papert and I used to talk at length about how the edtech community needs to know more about learning and how the progressive education community needs to understand how computers can amplify their ideas and offer learners unprecedented opportunities. Unfortunately, Dr. Papert was in a terrible accident and the summit we envisioned never came to pass. I do my small part by writing, speaking, recommending books and organizing events, but there is still much more work to be done.

I created Constructing Modern Knowledge so that younger educators excited about learning with technology could situate those experiences within a context of powerful ideas – Deborah Meier, Lella Gandini, Bob Tinker and Alfie Kohn have been but a few such people who spent time inspiring CMK participants. I had really hoped to feature Ted Sizer in the future, but will redouble my effort to acquaint educators with powerful ideas and whenever possible with the originators of those ideas.

We all need to get busy and get smarter. Our children depend on us.