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MORE THAN A BOOK REVIEW NEEDED: A closer look at Diane Ravitch's book 'The Death and Life of the Great American School System'

Posted: 2010-04-04

From Substance News, April 2, 2010.

In his review of the Ravitch book, George Schmidt acknowledges that it's an important book but also insists that we not forget history.

BOOK REVIEW: Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How testing and choice are undermining education (New York: Basic Books, 2010, 283 pp., $26.95). Reviewed by George N. Schmidt, Editor, Substance and www.substancenews.net.



Let's start this by considering the following reminder about the history of the American Federation of Teachers and charter schools: "Over the next twenty years [following Albert Shanker's 1988 speech at the AFT convention supporting the establishment of charter schools] as the charter movement spread, its supporters liked to point to Shanker as a founding father. The association with charters was intended to reassure people that charters were public schools, and that they were not a threat to public education. But those who invoke his name routinely overlooked the fact that Shanker withdrew his endorsement of charter schools in 1993 and became a vociferous critic. As he watched the charter movement evolve, as he saw new businesses jump into the 'education industry,' he realized that the idea he had so enthusiastically embraced was being taken over by corporations, entrepreneurs and practitioners of 'do you own thing.' He abandoned his dream that charters would be led by teams of teachers who were akin to medical researchers seeking solutions to difficult pedagogical and social problems. He came to see charter schools as dangerous to public education, as the cutting edge of an effort to privatize the public schools." (Ravitch, 'The Death and Life of the Great American School System', pages 123-124).



During the 17 years since Al Shanker began to denounce charter schools as part of the attack on public schools, many critics of corporate "school reform" have pointed out that charters were not supported by Al Shanker during his final years. Virtually all of those critics, including Gerald Bracey, who died last Fall, had their voices drowned out by the torrent of official lies that substituted for history during the years of the hegemony of the official narrative in support of so-called school reform.



As we look favorably on Diane Ravitch's scathing critique of most of the main pillars of corporate school reform, we need to remember that it was Ravitch who was one of the most prolific ΓΆ€” and dishonest ΓΆ€” purveyors of the falsification of history and fact which has been necessary, to this day, to the vicious spread of attacks on public education. "Race to the Top" anyone?



The impact of those lies--repeated-as-history continues to this day. The impact continues nowhere as seriously as in Chicago, where many of the lies were first launched and gained widespread credibility because of some unique historical factors, including the professional bankruptcy of the city's three daily newspapers (the Defender, Tribune and Sun-Times) which came long before the three corporations went into court as financially bankrupt. Without the creation of a detailed hoax, point by point, and the absence of a sustained media refutation of the hoaxes promulgated in Chicago, the vast number of lies begun here proliferated across the USA, ending now in the stricture associated with Barack Obama's "Race To The Top" education policies, each of which was birthed in a Chicago lie.



Take just the one example quoted above: Albert Shanker's denunciation of charter schools, by the middle of the Clinton administration.



Who knew?



During the past year or so, thousands of teachers in Chicago have heard Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart talk about how charter schools were an AFT idea, and how Al Shanker had supported charter schools. What Stewart may never have been told was that Shanker went from being an early proponent of "charter schools" (before there were, really, any) to being a fierce opponent of charter schools (long before Chicago became one of the nation's best examples of how charter schools are part of the privatization, teacher bashing and union busting movement that goes by the name of "school reform."



Marilyn Stewart refuses to be interviewed by Substance, so her motivations in supporting charter schools are as unclear as her wrongheaded view of history is clear. No matter. What is as true as today's headlines is that Marilyn Stewart, in her role at "secretary treasurer" of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), has foisted a union-based charter school on Chicago. And that charter school is now competing against her base union's own members for scarce space at Tilton Elementary School, on Chicago's West Side. Hence, these versions of history are as contemporary as today's events. And if Marilyn Stewart's decision to support the so-called "Talent Development Charter School" (along with the Service Employees International Union -- SEIU) was based partly on a particular historical ignorance, then the lack of a decent historical record is a serious one, and one that Diane Ravitch must go much further to correcting than the beginning launched in "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."



It 'The Death and Life of the Great American School System' had been written by anyone else, this reviewer might be tempted to give it four stars in a four-star ratings universe. It's a good book (for the most part), and it probably deserves a second reading from anyone who has the time. As a summary of some of the major issues that have faced American education over the past quarter century, it is also a useful book. However, if those people who purchase, read and re-read Dr. Ravitch's book haven't already purchased and read numerous works by other people who have already done a better job than Diane Ravitch on each of the topics she covers, there is something unfair about the phenomenon created by the publication of this particular book.



Furthermore, and this is important for anyone reading this book in 2010, 'Death and Life of the Great American School System' is both a highly accurate and intensely dishonest work. The accuracy of its history is interesting and useful. The dishonesty of its historiography is breathtaking. After all, this work was written by a historian who lived much of the history she now critiques. Yet she is barely critical of the main people who furthered the massive mistakes that she once served so ably. In some cases, it's as if Diane Ravitch had spent the last 25 years teaching and doing history from a university somewhere, and not within the highest levels of education policy during the years when the U.S. government undertook its most concerted attacks on public education in the history of the USA. The reasons? If, as has been true, the past 25 years of corporate "school reform" have more closely resembled a religious cult -- irrational, but with enormous power -- than a rationale debate about public policy, then Diane Ravitch's role in the promotion of that irrational cult has been as important as the role of any theologian could have been. This book is the equivalent of a member of the central body of any theist movement announcing he had become an atheist. So perhaps given the importance of such an event, the publication of "Death and Life of the Great American School System" deserves the attention is is getting.



There are more than 50 good books in all on the short list, as noted at the end of this review, about the issues discussed in "The Death and Live of the Great American School System..". Those books were written by Gerald W. Bracey, Susan Ohanian, Alfie Kohn, Kenneth Saltman, Pauline Lipman, David Berliner, Richard Rothstein, Peter Sacks, Stephen Krashen, Dick Allington and dozens of others (including those of us who have published Substance and documented the crimes of corporate school reform here in Chicago long before those crimes became national policy). So there is a bit of injustice and historial dishonesty in this latest media frenzy about "The Death and Life of the Great American School System..." even though (a) the book is very good and (b) it comes at an important time.



And since Diane Ravitch first made her reputation as a decent historian (I'm sitting here with a first edition paperback copy of her book "The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805 - 1973" at my side, as well as her latest work), it's important for accuracy's sake and history's sake that a few things be noted before actually reviewing her latest book.



The current corporate media frenzy regarding Dr. Ravitch's apostasy is something we have to be warned and re-warned against. How completely Diane Ravitch joins and helps the resistance now that she has broken ΓΆ€” like a Martin Luther in some ways, since much of what she is breaking from constituted a kind of secular religion, with its own perverted theology ΓΆ€” with the fundamentalist church of absurd economic theories remains to be seen. As Dr. Ravitch can tell you ΓΆ€” and anyone who actually reads that "classics" will join ΓΆ€” Adam Smith never imagined anything like the right-wing nut case versions of his "Wealth of Nations" that came from the descendants of Ayn Rand and the people with whom she spent a quarter century. Alan Greenspan's adolescent economic pornographic introduction to the cult of "free markets" is just the most dramatic example of that from the financial world. But that's a related story for another time. How this drama plays out from now on ΓΆ€” and how much it can do to save one of the greatest inventions of the United States, our public schools ΓΆ€” remains to be seen.



For now (March 2010), she is giving voice to what many of us have been saying while silenced by corporate America over the past quarter century. One cheer for that; maybe even two (after her brilliant March 9 essay in The Wall Street Journal). But..



The trouble is, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education" ΓΆ€” or at least much of its basic content ΓΆ€” was already written 20 years ago. These facts and this analysis have been repeatedly written since by all of the authors and journalists noted above (and below), and others as well (I hesitated to provide the list above because I knew I'd be leaving out so many people who contributed to the resistance, especially those of us who don't have book publishers to ply our musings). While "The Death and Life of the Great American School System..." showcases, once again, Diane Ravitch's considerable talents as a historian and polemicist, history also has to judge her complete work, not just this latest iteration.



That said, and before going on, everyone should get a chuckle out of many of the eleven chapters of her book. My favorite chapter, because it shows her at her best, is "The Billionaire Boys Club", the tenth chapter in the book. In 'The Billionaire Boys Club', in a way that few writers are capable of, Ravitch savages Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family. The three are the main foundation funders of much of the corporate propaganda and pseudo-academic "research" behind corporate "school reform" and the current attacks on public education.



The information on how the Super Rich are buying scholars, scholarshiip, and the power to set agendas has been published and available for years. But Dr. Ravitch is helping us focus here. Who knew before Bill Gates began repeating it and paying millions of dollars to scholars and bureaucrats (and Education Week) to repeat his mantra that the high schools of the USA had "failed"? Why was it that the "failure" on the nation's public high schools was the agenda item, even though the elementary schools were where the mess was (how do the kids get into high school illiterate after nine years of "reform"?); but the elementary schools had been completely "reformed" and were doing just fine? But Dr. Ravitch's notice is far from the first, and teachers have to notice that she's tardy on many important topics, even when her cleverness makes us want to give her a good grade anyway. Who has previously reported how American millionaires and billionaires were buying up the writers and setting the agendas for corporate "school reform"?



Among other places, the exposure of the Business Roundtable and the plutocracy's investment in the destruction of public education was exposed years ago in the pages of Substance and in the book by Susan Ohanian and Kathy Emery "Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools". Diane Ravitch at her best prose and humor breathes more life into the revelation that the richest men in the USA are spending billions of dollars to destroy the public school system that created most of them. It's worth repeating until everyone gets both their ludicrous investments in mind control and their hypocrisy: Of the main people involved in that threesome, only Bill Gates was privately educated; Eli Broad and the Waltons ΓΆ€” of Wal-Mart fame ΓΆ€” got their educations in public schools, public colleges, and public universities, the very institutions they are now trying to destroy and privatize.



But back to the latest book. Diane Ravitch's mea culpa appears in 2010. As we review and study it, let's never forget that it was written by a person who spent the past 25 years working against teachers, teacher unions, public schools, and the decent educational changes. Enormous and productive educational changes were possible ΓΆ€” especially given the vast wealth the American people squandered on corporate "school reform" during the quarter century Dr. Ravitch spent as one of corporate "reforms" most effective propagandists. Those days may now be ended, and the tragic consequences have to be allocated in a kind of historical accountability. The butcher's bill for the costs of stupid testing alone would have equipped decent libraries for every poor child in the USA. For a fraction of what's being wasted this week on corporate tests that are the latest iteration of educational malpractice, every child in the USA could have been given a dictionary, a thesaurus and five or ten paperback books of his or her own choosing ΓΆ€” once a year, every year, at the beginning of the school year. That's part of the price we've paid for the agenda that Diane Ravitch helped set since the late 1980s.



And let's also not forget that Dr. Ravitch, beginning as early as the early 1990s, spent some of her professional time, while well compensated by her corporate and political masters, slandering those of us who held the fort against the "standards and accountability" movement that she helped create and nurture. A humane version of public school change was possible, and one of the reasons it became nearly impossible was the enormous work that Diane Ravitch put into what she has now rejected (at least in part).



Dr. Ravitch's new book neglects to mention the dozens of scholars, writers and organizers who were telling the truth about Dr. Ravitch's project while Dr. Ravitch was conjuring lies and half truths on behalf of the corporate and political masters she served so well for the last part of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st Century.



If the book is an apology for a misspent professional life, the first thing we might say is: "Too little. Too late." But no. The stakes are too important to neglect a thank you or two.



The damage Diane Ravitch has done to public schools, teachers, children, American democracy, and sane public policy won't be undone with the publication of one relatively useful book, the hype we've been getting about it, and the somewhat muted apologies that Dr. Ravitch is beginning to make as she launches what promises to be a very lucrative book tour.



Since Diane Ravitch intersperses the book with a few personal asides and one complete chapter (Chapter Nine, "What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?"), I'll share a bit of my odyssey with this book before returning to a review of its eleven chapters and related materials (some of which raise questions about the integrity of the work itself, as will be noted below).



After my first reading of the book, I was puzzled as to why it made me so uneasy. In order to get a little more out of my understanding of this, I have to talk with a few people who have been around the resistance a long time (most notably, Susan Ohanian, whose "One Size Fits Few" is still a classic and stands alongside "The Death and Life..." as one of the main books everyone should read), Rich Gibson, Norm Scott (who knows Ravitch) and some others. Then I kept wishing Jerry Bracey hadn't died when he did a few months ago, because Bracey knew and took on Diane Ravitch the longest of any of us.



Jerry Bracey was on the phone, checking out some Chicago facts, three days before his tragic and untimely death a few months ago. So before I could do an honest job reviewing the latest Diane Ravitch book, I had to re-read a lot of Bracey. Much of Jerry's last work is now only available on the two Substance Web sites, since for the past several years only Substance ΓΆ€” along with Susan Ohanian's Web site and Jerry's own EDDRA ΓΆ€” in print and on the Web, would publish Jerry's "Rotten Apples".



To read all of it, since 2002, requires that the reader visit both the "old" Substance site (www.substancenews.com) and our current site (www.substancenews.net). The reason why we're paying to sustain two sites is that we can't afford the staff to migrate the "old" site's content to the current site, and keeping the current site active takes the full-time work of all of our staff. So, before I could finish this review, I had to reread all the original "Bracey Reports," which appeared in the Phi Delta Kappan from 1991 until the Borad Foundation bought our the editors of PDK and destroyed it last year. Once I had read those writings (still available in "The Truth About America's Schools, The Bracey Reports 1991 - 1997) from the early 1990s, it was possible to feel that Jerry would have used his rare sense of humor to welcome Diane Ravitch back.



Diane Ravitch is not just any New York intellectual who hitched a ride on the star (and lucre) of the right wing ascendency of the 1980s and since. She was ΓΆ€” and is ΓΆ€” one of the foremost New York intellectuals on schools and schooling. As a historian and a public intellectual, she has been enormously influential. As a public official (she served for a time in the U.S. Department of Education) she was a vicious guardian of the programs she now critiques. Because of these historical facts, the appearance of Diane Ravitch's book "The Fall and Rise of the Great American School System" is as signal a political event as it is a literary one. It's as if Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney had decided not only to oppose the imperial adeventures in Iraq and Afganistan today, but to explain and critique all the lies they told that got us into Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place. And not only that, but to apologize for their lies and expose, in detail, just how stupid their boss and his policies were while they encouraged George W. Bush's imperial fantasies between 2000 and 2008.



When I'm asked, I recommend the book, but with a caution. Be sure you know the history Ravitch is reorganizing, because even in her new mode, she is capable of the same kind of intellectual dishonesty that characterized her years.



Every Big Lie requires its intellectual apologists. This is a lesson from history as old as the pyramids (and the movie "The Ten Commandments"). The kinds of Big Lie we've been witnessing in Chicago since the mayoral control hoax was launched in the early 1990s by the same coalition of right wing Republicans and "New Democrats" (culminating and beginning with the passage of the so-called Amendatory Act of 1995, launching the "mayoral control model" on the USA from Chicago) is as old, literally, as the pyramids. According to the latest histories, the pharoah Ramsees III of Egypt may have been miserable as a general and as a military leader, but he was an unsurpassed totalitarian bully and perhaps the world's first expert at public relations. After losing some key battles (and barely escaping with his skin), Ramsees simply rewrote history, carving his version over more accurate memories in the monuments of Egypt. Similarly, Chicago's "American Pharoah" Richard M. Daley has carved a hoaxious mythologizing of history (as I used to joke about with Michael Scott, who asked why I had signed up to speak at Board of Education meetiongs on the topic of "hoaxacious mythologizing" every six months or so) in the minds of the people of the USA. Hoax, to the level of Bernie Madoff, and possible at greater cost (cities like Rochester New York are sill embroiled in a fight over "mayoral control" as I write this).



Now, Diane Ravitch, who served her pharoahs so ably for a quarter century, is coming forward in a "tell all" book that surpasses anything to come out of the recent Presidential Election ΓΆ€” even the John Edwards campaign.



So let's take a close look at Ravitch's book, remembering that it would be much easier to write this review if the book had been written by anyone else. There is a danger of books to educational praxis that is fairly simple. The people who have the time and leisure to write books about education are rarely the people who are caught in the daily praxis of education. As outsiders, they are as notorious as the so-called "helicopter parents" who drop in and out of schools to (sometimes) terrorize principals and teachers. Helicopter scholars tend to be professors and their graduate students who drop in on various experiments, observe for a bit, distribute surveys, and then leave to concentrate their energies on writing up their next "study" for presentation at a conference of people like themselves (usually, the professors and graduate students at the annual conference of the AERA, for example). The class bias in this entire process has to be mentioned in any discussion of the latest Ravitch book.



In this regard, Ravitch is by far not the worst practitioner. My awards for steamy obscurantism would probably go to Bill Ayers, whose dishonest corpus of work extends from his quasi-fictional account of the Weather Underground to his tomes on education, some of which have misled a generation of acolytes. But the list would be much longer than that.



"The Death and Life of the Great American School System..." has eleven chapters, and each one should be studied separately (although two are kind of personal narratives that add to the content but aren't as packed with fact and analysis as the other nine). "Chapter One: What I Learned About School Reform" begins with some disarming personal anecdotes, and then take the reader abruptly into an intellectual odyssey that few intellectuals have ever undertaken and survived. (And in a certain way that some teachers of the classics will appreciate, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System..." could be dramatized as a kind of "Odyssey" ΓΆ€” complete with the sirens, a Cyclops or two, and the usual perils. But not for now.



While each chapter deserves attention in detail, there is usually a paragraph or two that outlines the "main idea" in some usually interesting ways. Here is one pair, from Chapter One:



"In our own day, policymakers and business leaders have eagerly enlisted in a movement launched by free-market advocates, with the support of major foundations. Many educators have their doubts about the slogans and cure-alls of our time, but they are required to follow the mandates of federal law (such as No Child Left Behind) despite their doubts.



"School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss's Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land "where they never have troubles, at least very few." Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. In my writings, I have consistently warned that, in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets. For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly..."



SIGNIFICANT FACTS LEFT OUT OF MOST CRITICISMS. In elaborating her critique of charter schools, Dr. Ravitch not only notes the fact that charters have failed to live up to their dual original promise, but that in addition to damaging the public schools, they also are wiping out the largest and oldest parochial school networks in the United States of America: the Catholic schools.



The dual purposes, according to Albert Shanker and others who promoted charter schools in the early days, were to spur innovation and to provide a superior education to the public schools. If the charter schools were simply to become another public schools, but without unions and run by entrepreneurs, what was the point? That's why Shanker broke with the "charter schools movement" even before it became a movement, a fact that has been left out of some of the narrative, especially in Chicago, where Marilyn Stewart uses the early Shanker notions about charter schools without noting that Shanker later denounced what charter schools had become. Bracey recognized this, too, long before Ravitch's conversion. In Chicago, this has been evident for a decade. AFTERWORD AND BIBLIOGRAPHY. So before anyone rushes out to join the pack to buy the book, here is a list of all the books that Diane Ravitch might have credited with explaining the things she now exposes ΓΆ€” during the two decades before her conversion to skepticism. (Patience: We owe it to our colleagues to create this list and ask people to read it before reading any review of the latest from Ravitch):



Sacks, Peter, Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1999). 351 pages.



Berliner, David C. and Biddle, Bruce J., The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1995). 414 pages.



Kohn, Alfie and Shannon, Patrick, Eds., Education, Inc. Turning Learning into a Business (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002). 179 page.



Allingon, Richard, Author Editor, Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum, How Ideology Trumped Evidence (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002). 304 pages.



Heubert, Jay P. and Hauser, Robert M. Editors, High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion and Graduation (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, National Research Council, 1999). 331 pages.



Bracey, Gerald W., Final Exam: A Study of the Perpetual Scrutiny of American Education (Bloomington, Technos Press, 1995). 244 pages.



Bracey, Gerald W., On the Death of Childhood and the Destruction of Public Schools: The Folly of Today's Education Policies and Practices (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003). 196 pages.



Bracey, Gerald W., The War Against America's Public Schools: Privatizing Schools, Commercializing Education (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002). 213 pages.



Bracey, Gerald W., The Truth About America's Schools: The Bracey Reports, 1991 - 1997 (Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappan Educational Foundation, 1997). 264 pages.



Bracey, Gerald W., Put To The Test: And Educator's and Consumer's Guide to Standardized Testing (Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappan Educational Foundation, 1998). 74 pages.



Bracey, Gerald W., Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions about Public Education in the U.S. (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004). 211 pages.



Ohanian, Susan, One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 1999) 154 pages.



Ohanian, Susan, What Happened to Recess and Why are our Children Struggling in Kindergarten (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002) 263 pages.



Owen, David, with Marilyn Doerr, None of the Above: The Truth Behind the SATs (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999) 323 pages.



Kohn, Alfie, The Case Against Standardized Testing (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2000) 94 pages.



Goodman, Ken, What's Whole in Whole Language? (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 1986) 80 pages.



Goodman, Kenneth, The Truth about DIBELS: What it is. What it does (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2006) 85 pages (with CD). Meier, Deborah and Wood, George, Eds., Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging our Children and our Schools (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004) 133 pages.



Doyon, Juanita, Not with Our Kids You Don't! 10 Strategies to Save Our Schools (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2003) 129 pages.



Krashen, Stephen, Three Arguments Against Whole Language & Why They Are Wrong (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, 2003) 103 pages.



McNeill, Linda M., Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing (New York: Routledge, 2000). 304 pages.

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