Study Guide

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

by Diane Ravitch

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

Extended Summary

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch provides a historical account of education reform in the United States of America during the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. Ravitch explains why she contributed to the George W. Bush administration’s education legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), as well as why she later became convinced that NCLB ultimately failed. She goes on to criticize other reforms, particularly those associated with charter schools and “corporate” or “market-based” reform.

It is difficult to reform American education since it is supposed to be run by the state government rather than the federal government. After the education report, A Nation at Risk (ANAR), was released in 1983, politicians decided to prioritize the creation of a standard curriculum. Broadly, the report was a response to the reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, which were primarily focused on racial desegregation, cultural diversity, and overthrowing tradition. These reforms, for example, encouraged teachers to deprioritize the literary canon. Specifically, A Nation at Risk responded to concerns about dropping SAT scores. The commission that responded to these alarming scores suggested that they were the result of increased minority students taking the SAT, changing social forces such as the increased level of divorce and the spread of television viewing, and political upheavals like the Vietnam War. Finally, the commission suggested that school practices did not require sufficient rigor from students.

By the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Ravitch and her political allies had decided to encourage states to voluntarily adopt national standards. However, controversy arose over the proposed historical standards, which focused too much on America’s failings and not enough on its “great men.” The standards became politically unpopular, so the states were encouraged to create their own standards. In place of standards came a focus on testing and accountability, both of which became the central focus of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program. In retrospect, Ravitch prefers ANAR’s recommendations and its implementation to NCLB. Unlike ANAR, NCLB proposed simple solutions to complex problems, set unattainable goals, and had the potential to harm public education.

No Child Left Behind mandated that 100% of students across America test as “proficient” by 2014. Under the law, schools that failed to make “Annual Yearly Progress” would be shut down, suggesting that all schools would be closed by 2014. Ravitch criticizes the legislation for its goals, which she points out have never been achieved anywhere. Further, it leads to a narrowing of curriculum since it only requires students to demonstrate ability in reading, writing, and mathematics on standardized tests. The implementation of the law’s goals is also suspect. Each state, Ravitch explains, was required to devise its own definition of “proficient,” which means that the tests were often useless indicators. It is no surprise, Ravitch argues, that the law led to cheating and a gaming of the system. Whatever could not be tested, explains Ravitch, did not count. No Child Left Behind became the largest expansion of the federal government’s influence and control of education in America’s history.

Ravitch explores how an effort to improve education could turn into an “accounting strategy.” In 1987, Anthony Alvarado was appointed superintendent of District 2’s schools. He invested in professional development related to constructivist mathematics and a reading program called “Balanced Literacy.” Initially, test scores rose and Alvaredo’s approach was praised. Ravitch explains that further analysis of the rise in test scores, though laudable, was less impressive as was originally thought because it could be attributed to other factors, such as socioeconomic and population changes in District 2. However, Alvarado had already attracted the attention of corporate-style reformers who felt that his leadership was a proven formula for getting results quickly. 

Business leaders welcomed Alvarado to San Diego in 1998. He entered into a partnership with business leader Alan Bersin. Bersin’s leadership style was described by teachers as dictatorial, but the business community applauded the way he refused to be cowed by the unions and the “bureaucracy.” He became the model of the “get tough” superintendent. Bersin fired principals that disagreed with him, closed schools, and eliminated of much of the central office staff....

(The entire section is 1924 words.)