book review: Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”

I recently finished Diane Ravitch‘s book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.” This book has been getting quite a bit of attention even outside of educational circles so I figured I should read it.

Ravitch is an historian of education and, viewed as a history, I think the book is really great. It concisely traces a few important strands of recent education history: how the school standards movement got turned into the testing movement, the rise of the business model of education and “accountability,” the segregation-tainted past of “schools of choice,” the conception and effects of No Child Left Behind. If you don’t feel like reading the book, though, Ravitch covers most of these topics ( maybe less comprehensively) on the Education Week Bridging Difference blog she co-writes with another influential educator, Deborah Meier.

Ravitch’s conclusions in this book are particularly notable because they represent a significant departure from her former views. While she used to approve of standardized testing and support market-based education reform, she has come to reject them pretty much entirely. Testing is bad because the tests are often unreliable and invalid, and provide strong incentives for people in control of education to game the system, cheat, or at very least to narrow the curriculum to just the tested subjects. Market-based education reform is bad because there isn’t much evidence that choice and charters actually get any results. (She cites a ton of studies on both of these points).

In the end, Ravitch recommends a strengthening of public education. This can be best achieved by doing away with the high-stakes testing, establishing rigorous and coherent curriculums in all subjects (not just reading and math), making sure that teachers are not only trained in pedagogy but are also experts in their subject material, treating teachers as autonomous professionals, and helping struggling schools rather than closing them down, etc. They’re all pretty conservative recommendations – nothing radical here.

But I’m not as happy with the book’s prescriptions for education as I am with its historical sections, for two main reasons:

  1. Having explained how easily the movement for curriculum standards was disrupted in the 9os, why would Ravitch then go on to put so much stock for future reform in strengthening standards? This is at best idealistic, possibly naive. There is no reason to think that political consensus on what should be taught will be easier to reach now than 15 years ago. Maybe this is ideally the best thing we could do for school reform. But, if it’s exceedingly unlikely to happen, then we need to start looking at next best options, and how to move forward without such curriculum.
  2. Ravitch’s disapproval of school choice and charter schools is based upon their disappointing results in terms of raising test scores. But, she disapproves of the tests, so why should their inability to raise tests scores itself be an indictment against them? And, more importantly, many people support school choice and charter schools at least partly independently of their ability to raise test scores. School choice and charter schools might be valuable simply insofar as they afford parents and students additional freedom. Or, they might be good because they achieve the same mediocre results but at a lower cost. Furthermore, just because school choice and charter schools haven’t yet produced astounding results doesn’t show that they won’t in the future – most programs are in their infancies. An education market, with its increased flexibility, may still have a better chance of innovating to students’ benefit than the current public school system. And anyway, none of the choice or charter programs studied are what the staunchest, most free market of reformers really have in mind. They could still maintain that market-based education *done their way* will work. So Ravitch’s condemnation of choice and charters is maybe a bit hasty, although I think she’s right that the evidence to date is not fantastic and that it is being overblown or ignored by ideological proponents of choice.

So, basically a solid book. I’m definitely still chewing it over. While I’m pretty sympathetic to the market-based education reforms that Ravitch has come to reject, my faith in them is by no means unlimited. I think that the arguments for and against school choice/charter schools are usually pretty tired, and I plan to explore some of the finer points of the issue in the coming months and years. This timely book serves as a solid starting point for understanding school choice/charter school (and testing) skepticism.


  • Excellent post. Another book that comes with a similar conclusion is E.D. Hirsch’s Making of A Democracy. But he has been making his point on a cultural literacy for students for years.

  • Good review! I enjoyed reading it.

  • I’d love to hear your thoughts on James Tooley’s book “A Beautiful Tree” if you’ve read it.

  • Interesting post, I may have to check out the book. If you get a chance, you may want to check out “School Choice: the findings” by Herbert Walberg. He presents many studies and reasons in favor of vouchers and school choice. It is always good to look at both sides of the coin, as I am sure you would agree. Take care.

  • @Manny – Thanks! Have a couple of Hirsch books on my to-read list, he is quite well respected it seems.

    @Nathaniel – Thanks! I’ve been meaning to read “Beautiful Tree” since it came out. I think I will purchase it to read on some flights next week. I’ll review it for sure.

    @Vance – Thanks for the rec, I will add it to my reading list! I actually recently attended an IHS advanced topics seminar that was all about education, and we read a ton of school choice stuff (Chubb & Moe, Coulson, etc), so Ravitch *was* kind of the flip side of the coin. But I’m not done reading, of course, in fact I’m just beginning a PhD in philosophy and education this fall. So stay posted :-)

  • That sounds great! Considering I was in private school from K-2nd, public school from 3rd-6th, and homeschool from 7th-12th, I have a great deal of passion when it comes to education. Best of luck with your PhD, and I look forward to discussing these issues at the conference.

  • One thing about TC is that when you walk through its hallowed halls you start to think about all the educational juggernauts (e.g. Dewey, Bagley, Ravitch, et al.) that have walked through the same exact halls. It’s intimidating and inspiring at one and the same time.

  • You are so right, Jeremy. I am already feeling intimidated, and often find myself wishing the summer away so I can get cracking on living up to expectations! :-/

  • I’m a bit naive on these topics, so pardon me if this is an elementary question, but isn’t one of the problems with “choice and charter” that it is a threat to equality of opportunity (i.e., further rewards the wealthy and talented)?

  • pamela wrote:

    Hi Matt. Thanks for stopping by, and sorry this reply is ridiculously late (summer, you know). Choice & charters, at least in *some* forms, do threaten equality of opportunity (or at least fail to promote it, so to the extent that you’ve argued for them on those grounds, the argument’s in trouble). The objection that Ravitch usually presses against existing choice & charters is that they “skim” students off the top (higher SES students, or smarter ones, or those with more involved parents, etc). This stacks the deck against public schools in terms of test performance and makes scaling up charter solutions impossible, because the students eventually added into the system would not be relevantly similar to the students for whom charters worked. But those who are inclined in the privatized, free-market-ish direction just see this as a reason to allow even *more* choice into the system. If all students were able to choose their schools, and there were no “default” schools, then it seems that schools in general (not just charters & schools of choice) would have incentives to serve their students well.

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