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Saturday, January 7, 2012

I Love That Amazon Offers This - Public Education Statistics Book Review

By Luke Powell

Scrupulously researched, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM ends on a positive note, as Ravitch offers her own solutions - or at least sensible first steps - to stopping the hemorrhaging. Of all things, she calls for collaboration and for listening to the professionals in the trenches - teachers and what she says should be the "head teacher," a principal who has served first many years as a teacher, then as a vice-principal, and finally as a principal fit to lead.

As such, it probably comes as no surprise that I disagree with much of what Dr Ravitch has written in her book, at least, to varying degrees. Ravitch uses a bevy of academic studies, articles, and research to support her arguments against many of the current trends in education reform including NCLB-driven testing, expansion of charter schools, and merit-based compensation systems.

The author warns about the business-model approach to education that many states have already swung toward with negative to mixed results. She points out what educators already know. But what she has done is giving us a tremendous wealth of detail on what goes on, and especially on what does not go on, in America's schools. For that she deserves our gratitude. By citing studies that show that charter schools on the whole enroll fewer special education students, fewer English language learners, and "counsel out" lower-performing students, Ravitch provides a possible explanation of how they are able to post impressive gains in test scores. As Ravitch argues, the initial role of charter schools was to bolster the public schools by serving the neediest of the needy students.

If they can't do that then they cannot hope to engage the English medium curriculum. Ravitch is exactly right that non-educators - often with no classroom experience - are simply not qualified to reform schools let alone run them. Were that the case, she would not have had to go to more than a dozen publishers to find someone who would print her book. I am a teacher, as you might guess by name. Private profit is driving decisions and corrupting the current system. Diane offers insight into how corrupt that current system has become and offers hope to those of us who wish to defend and strengthen our democratic society through a thriving public school system. 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. The founder of the organization - not an educator but a former insurance salesman - may have taken the State of California for over $100,000,000. That is no way to run a navy. However, several years into the program, essentially no schools were authentically narrowing the gap and funds were being siphoned away from the neediest schools.

My frustration comes not just from the painful amount of repetition, but from frustration that Ravitch's arguments simply don't seem likely to persuade anyone who doesn't already share her views. In the end, I simply found myself wishing for a much shorter, better-organized summary of the ideas discussed in this book. In regard to charter schools, Ravitch gives credit where credit is due, but she also cites the failures. She also noted that many charter schools "fudged" their scores to make themselves look good.

Why continue down this road when the results we have up to this point show that it has not led us closer to where we want to be? This is exactly what Obama has done with his approach to education. I feel empowered by what I learned from Dianne Ravitch, am invigorated to read more widely about education policy and to become an active advocate for real improvement in our public schools - and not just higher scores on standardized tests. Dianne Ravitch was instrumental in formulating and implementing No Child Left Behind but has now realized we have failed a generation of children by how this emphasis on Accountability and Testing was "corrupted" (her word).

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