Death and Life of Great American Society

"The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education." By Diane Ravitch | Basic Books (March 2, 2010) | 283 pp. | List Price: $26.95

In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, educational scholar and advocate Diane Ravitch, who as a registered Democrat rose to national prominence within Republican presidential administrations, criticizes the national embrace of the free market and accountability in education—ironically producing a truly "conservative" book.

Through a thoughtful examination of the past three decades of educational reform, Ravitch offers a breath of fresh air in today’s typical political wrangling that too often devolves into mere attempts to "win" rather than seeking truth. Ravitch’s political connections run deep, but she is an accomplished historian and in The Death and Life, her historical instincts serve her well. While not disinterested, Ravitch is self-reflective and honest regarding the American school reform efforts of primarily the past three decades—efforts she largely supported and now largely regrets.

What Ravitch reveals is that by the turn of the 21st century, Republicans and Democrats embraced the same reforms: namely, accountability and choice. She finds both wanting.

Ravitch will leave aghast those unfamiliar with the myriad of ways school officials circumvent testing procedures. By the end of her account, even Mark Twain, who noted a century ago that there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics," might lose even more faith in conclusions drawn from "scientifically" derived data about schools.

Ravitch’s primary frustration resides with the bipartisan embrace of "choice" through charter schools. As she demonstrates with President Obama, here "was a president who had been elected on a promise of change, yet he was picking up the same banner of choice, competition, and markets that had been the hallmark of his predecessors." Ravitch proves that, despite its bipartisan popularity, mere choice does not ensure success. In fact, by undermining the viability of both neighborhood and private schools, charter schools frequently make things worse.

It is in Ravitch’s salient critique of the education market that, consciously or not, she reflects a traditional conservatism frequently forgotten in today’s extreme individualism and cult of efficiency political milieu. Ravitch captures one of the problems succinctly when documenting why the Walton Family Foundation would logically support charter schools, since the Waltons have "an ideological commitment to the principle of consumer choice and to an unfettered market, which by its nature has no loyalties and disregards Main Street, traditional values, long established communities, and neighborhood schools."

Ravitch further notes, in an ironic twist for "conservatives," that it "is a shame that the big foundations have not seen fit to keep Catholic schools alive. Instead, they prefer to create a market-place of options, even as the marketplace helps to kill off highly successful Catholic schools."

Such allusions to the loss of both religion and traditional values ultimately define the largely unstated message of the book: schools decline when society declines. To be fair, the book’s prose never formally wanders far from school reform. Nevertheless, can the larger demise of American culture really not be the true issue, when Ravitch repeatedly notes that students succeed in "a safe and structured environment, if they have supportive parents and are willing to work hard, spend long days in school, and comply with the school’s expectations"? Or, that the "fundamentals of good education are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community, and the culture, but reformers in our time continue to look for shortcuts and quick answers"? Or, that the successful "no-excuses schools are a response to the weakening of social norms that once supported parents; now even the best efforts of families are often contradicted by what children see on television, in the movies, and in their interactions with peers."?

Ravitch closes her powerful work with less powerful and arguably contradictory calls to embrace both neighborhood schools and a national academic curriculum. Yet, Ravitch is at her best when she lovingly recalls her greatest teacher—Mrs. Ratliff—whose no-nonsense, "old-school" approach to education is almost a caricature today. Ravitch knows that Mrs. Ratliff "was a great teacher. But under any imaginable compensation scheme, her greatness as a teacher—her ability to inspire students and to change their lives—would go unrewarded because it is not in demand and cannot be measured. And let’s face it: She would be stifled not only by the data mania of her supervisors, but by the jargon, the indifference to classical literature, and the hostility to her manner of teaching that now prevail in our schools."

Ravitch is right; all of the presidents’ programs and all the billionaires’ dollars are not going to put America’s educational system back together again. The problem Ravitch indirectly but powerfully documents is a decayed culture. And history demonstrates that neither the market nor any other utopian device can stop sin.

— Dr. Jason R. Edwards is an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College, Grove City College’s director for educational policy studies, and a fellow with The Center for Vision & Values.