Ravitch Book Creating a Big Stir in Education Circles

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The AFT hosted a reception, discussion and book signing for Ravitch, who served as a U.S. Department of Education official in the first Bush administration, to celebrate The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Earlier in the day, she and AFT president Randi Weingarten participated in a panel discussion at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Ravitch's message was the same at both events: Policymakers must exercise judgment or the tools of school improvement will continue to usher in a "warped" vision of education reform, one based on limited tests of basic skills, misapplied market models and a life-raft approach to what should rightfully be a community/public enterprise. Less than two weeks into its release, her book is already in its third printing and is serving as a strong cautionary tale filled with implications for the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

While policymakers are finding the book to be a must-read, Ravitch told the AFT audience that the most enthusiastic readers seem to be teachers, hundreds of whom have e-mailed her about the work. They tell me, "Thank God someone is finally speaking up for us," she said, because teachers feel like their voices aren't being heard in discussions about reforming public education.

Earlier in the day, at the EPI discussion, Ravitch said that "public education today is in great peril." For the first time in more than a century of education reform, "let's get rid of public education" is a strong and growing constituency in the public dialogue, and policies in place actually fan those disturbing flames—although the reforms often masquerade as public school improvement and revitalization.

"The testing and accountability movement is feeding right into the frenzy to privatize public education," she said. Many reformers—or "deformers," as she called them at the AFT event—have promoted a narrow curriculum, a belief that "everybody is on their own" when it comes to children's education, and "the illusion of progress through statistical game-playing." As currently practiced in schools and districts, testing, choice and accountability "have taken us farther away from the goal of education."

Ravitch also cited failings in the execution of the No Child Left Behind Act and a climate where policymakers have forgotten that "testing and choice are means; they are not ends." That landscape has been fertile ground for "red herrings" in school reform, such as the belief that the road to improvement lies in dismantling teachers unions and wholesale firing of teachers. "I don't believe in blowing up schools and systems."

And the "blueprint" for revamping ESEA unveiled recently by the Obama administration (see earlier story) offers little comfort and less evidence that these problems will ultimately be laid to rest, Ravitch warned, pointing to the limited number of options the White House hopes to give districts to turn around the lowest-performing schools in the nation. A nationwide rollout is unwarranted when "none of the models rest on evidence of success," she said.

In addition to Weingarten, Ravitch was joined in the panel discussion by Brookings Institution senior fellow Bill Galston and Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education.

Weingarten lauded Ravitch's strong defense of public education, and urged policymakers to be mindful of public schools and their unique mission in a nation that still embraces the twin concepts of universal access and the promise of universal attainment, regardless of students' backgrounds. "The bottom line is that the neighborhood school has a moral obligation to take all comers," she said. That sets them apart from niche reforms like charters, and it should have great bearing on lawmakers when they take up legislation like ESEA, the nation's fundamental pledge of federal help when it comes to leveling the playing field for all students.

Video of the EPI event is available on the institute's Web site.

More information on The Death and Life of the Great American School System is available on Ravitch's Web site, which includes links to many reviews and interviews about the book. The book is for sale through various online vendors, including Powell's, the only unionized major online bookstore. [Mike Rose, Dan Gursky]

March 16, 2010