Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: "The Death and Life of the Great American School System"

I was on a plane a few months ago and caught a CNN interview with Diane Ravitch. I wasn't paying much attention to what was being said, I was mostly watching CNN to block out the loud people seated behind me. But then I heard her say something about education and that's always my cue to listen.

Let me start this review by stating a few somewhat obvious things. First, I define myself as a teacher. I have 2 teaching degrees and 2 teaching certifications. Second, we are a home school family. Which brings me to the third and less obvious thing, I am not anti-public school. Are you shocked? What I am against is an education system that has been reduced to passing a test.

The author, Diane Ravitch, was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. She led the effort for creating state and national academic standards. She was appointed by the Clinton administration’s Secretary of Education in 1997 and again in 2001. This woman knows her stuff and after watching her in that CNN interview which couldn't have been more than 4 minutes, I was hooked. I had to find this book she was talking about.

Our education system is flawed. I am sure you'd be hard pressed to find someone (besides a politician) that would disagree with me on that point. Here in 2012, it is clear that No Child Left Behind was a joke. It might be the biggest weapon of mass destruction that came out of the Bush administration. Just so we're clear, I don't think this is a time or place for an argument about right and left, but right and wrong.

Ravitch was initially a supporter of NCLB, as was most of the country. We were finally going to get something done with our education system. As Ms. Ravitch so clearly points out though, NCLB was unrealistic from the second it was unveiled, just days after Bush took office. NCLB had only one goal: All children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. This federal mandate came with a heavy dose of severe consequences which included closing schools, retaining students, and firing staff. It is like watching a train wreck.

Ms. Ravitch does a wonderful job explaining how things went from bad to worse. When the gauntlet was thrown down that ALL students would be "proficient", anxiety went up. Schools began scurrying around trying to figure out ways to meet this demand. The saving grace here was that each state was free to create their own standards and their own test. Not only do we now have a wide variety of the definition of proficient, but we also have the opportunity to slip through the cracks. The intense focus on passing a test has overshadowed the real purpose of education.

Teachers fear that their jobs might be in jeopardy if they have a class that fails the test. As Ravitch points out, test can't measure students' effort or the parents role in their child's education. Ravitch states, "But in the eyes of the law, the responsibility of the family disappears. Something is wrong with that. Something is fundamentally wrong with an accountability system that disregards the many factors that influence student's performance on an annual test-including the student's own efforts-except for what teachers do in the classroom for forty-five minutes or an hour a day." As a former teacher, this part made me want to stand up and clap!

Cheating existed before the era of high-stakes testing but it was mostly done by students. People do stupid things when placed under such intense pressure. Even if there is not blatant cheating by administrators, there certainly is inflation of test scores. This can't be what we want for our schools! Ravitch so poignantly writes, "And when we use the results of tests, with all their limitations, as a routine means to fire educators, hand out bonuses, and close schools, the we distort the purpose of schooling altogether." Amen. A very sad amen.

I could go on and on about this book. I could share at least a dozen more quotes that moved me. However, I leave you with this. READ THIS BOOK. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a home school supporter, or just a voter, you need to read this book.

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