Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education

by Diane Ravitch

(Basic Books, 288 pages, $26.95, March 2010)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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The subtitle of Diane Ravitch's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, leaves no mystery about where the New York University and Brookings Institution education policy expert stands.

What is surprising is the route she took to her conclusion that the currently favored routes to reforming education -- measurement by standardized testing and market-based approaches to school choice -- have been counterproductive in the extreme.

A former Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H. W. Bush administration and a Clinton-appointed member of the National Assessment Governing Board (which oversees federal education testing), Ravitch sat eagerly in the White House on January 23, 2001, when newly-inaugurated President George W. Bush announced the principles that would become the foundation of the education act known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

As she listened to the new president lay out his plans, she was thinking about 1983's A Nation at Risk, "the all-time blockbuster of education reports," prepared by a group appointed by President Reagan's Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell. "Its conclusions were alarming, and its language was blunt to the point of being incendiary. It opened with the claim that 'the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.'"

Ravitch believed that NCLB's goals could provide a rising tide of a different kind: one that promoted excellence and achievement in schools throughout the United States. Then, on November 30, 2006, she realized that she had been terribly wrong.

"I can pinpoint the date exactly," she writes, "because that was the day I realized NCLB was a failure." NCLB was not a continuation of the reforms launched by A Nation at Risk, but a dangerous diversion.

That transformational moment came at a conference of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, where "a dozen or so scholars" agreed that school choice, one of the principal instruments of the "NCLB toolkit," was not working.

The speakers suggested many reasons, but Ravitch found "especially striking that many parents and students did not want to leave their neighborhood school, even if the federal government offered them free transportation and the promise of a better school."

That was only the beginning of Ravitch's transformation. She also realized that the other key pillar of NCLB, assessment by standardized testing, has been producing an illusion of progress while in fact undermining the traditional strengths of the American educational system.

Standardized testing is useful as an assessment tool, but its accuracy is limited. Using test scores alone to judge which schools are improving or slipping is dangerous. Likewise it is impossible to identify effective teachers by their students' performance on a set of tests that emphasize reading and math techniques over content and understanding.

Additionally, NCLB creates a high-stakes environment by using test results to reward or punish schools and faculties. If a school fails to achieve "adequate yearly progress," it is at risk of being closed.

Before NCLB, schools defined success as the development of skills and the acquisition of a body of knowledge needed to become a productive citizen. Now success means getting good scores on a particular set of tests that may not produce a true measure of educational achievement. In pursuit of better scores, hundreds of instructional hours each year are diverted from history, social studies, science, the arts, and physical education to test preparation.

NCLB has not been the only factor undermining our schools, Ravitch writes. A new group of powerful private foundations, of which the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the most prominent, have embraced education reform. The contributions of this "Billionaire Boys' Club" have also come with heavy doses of advocacy.

"Never in the history of the United States was there a foundation as rich and powerful as the Gates Foundation," Ravitch writes. "Never was there one that sought to steer state and national policy in education. And never before was there a foundation that gave grants to almost every major think tank and advocacy group in the field of education, leaving almost no one willing to criticize its vast power and unchecked influence."

To its credit, the Foundation has been diligent in analyzing the impact of its grant money. "In late 2008," Ravitch notes, "the Gates Foundation announced that it was changing course. Its $2 billion investment in new small high schools had not been especially successful."

Bill Gates himself issued a statement in early 2009 that to Ravitch indicates that "the richest foundation in the world planned to put its considerable resources into the proliferation of charter schools and into the issue of teacher effectiveness."

She finds this worrisome, especially because the Foundation's power and advocacy make it "improbable that anyone would challenge Bill Gates and tell him his new goals were likely to be as ill-advised as the $2 billion he had poured into restructuring the nation's high schools. Who would warn him of the dangers of creating ... charter schools for motivated students and public schools for all those left behind?... Who would caution him of the dangers of judging teacher effectiveness solely by the ups and downs of scores on standardized tests of basic skills?"

Equally alarming to Ravitch is that the Obama administration's new "Race to the Top" seems to be setting the nation's schools on that same risky course.

This book is an urgent warning of impending danger. With the nation's educational system at greater risk than ever, it should be required reading for every school administrator and school board member in the United States.

About the reviewer: In response to A Nation at Risk, physicist Fred Bortz shifted his career focus to K-12 education reform. In 1996, he left academic life to pursue his interest in writing science books for young readers.