Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review of Diane Ravitch's Death and Life of the Great American School System

a review by Hal Pepinsky,,
March 7, 2010

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University, a historian of education. As assistant secretary of education under President Bush I, she advocated testing, accountability, choice and free markets for education. She describes herself as an “educational conservative.” In her new book, she argues that educational conservatism has been “hijacked” by the privatization of public education. The subtitle of her book is How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. She particularly derides US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s flagship educational initiative, “Race to the Top,” which in President Obama’s words “rewards excellence” in state competition for federal funding of public education.
As luck would have it Terry Gross interviewed Ms. Ravitch just as my main mentor in feminist education, Birgit Brock-Utne, arrived to stay with us. Next Tuesday, she gives a lecture on “language, policy and culture in Africa: a power perspective” March 9 for OSU’s graduate School of Educational Policy and Leadership, devoted to studying and practicing alternative education. That school is housed in the building that was University High School when I graduated in 1962. This is the ungraded high school that led me to resist grading students all my four decades as a professor. Birgit is the person who taught me that the crucial problem of grading is power of teachers over students, and who led me to focus the last half of my teaching career on educating FOR rather than ABOUT peace. Day after tomorrow, I will help introduce her in the mini-auditorium that was the music room in which the recently deceased Mary Tolbert taught me and so many others to make singing and playing music central to our adult lives.
Since President Clinton introduced high-stakes testing of public school students in 1995 (along with “welfare reform” a year before his bid for re-election), federal educational policy has been highly discouraging. I had been brooding over Obama/Duncan’s “race to the top” and thinking of blogging over it just as Ravitch appeared and Brock-Utne re-appeared in my personal space. They remind me that the dominant narrative—in this case in a context, education, so dear to me—is not the only narrative. We school our children in many ways, not only to suit presidential politics.
Still, U.S. belief in meritocracy runs so very deep and wide. We all lose when we make access to education and certification a competition, which in her interview Ravitch very succinctly describes. I only fault her for blaming the failure of universal education on corruption of her conservative agenda. Testing institutionalizes institutional and school failure, where winners eternally live on the competitive edge. The silliest part of the whole exercise is the presumption that every child ought to “know” the same stuff at a “grade level.” A not-so-silly consequence of putting this attitude into practice is that we train students that they know and feel nothing of consequence except what they learn that “we know” in school, where what we know is defined as what yields higher test scores a grades.
Alexis de Tocqueville concluded his Democracy in America by warning against “the room for despotism” in the United States. In our period of imperial decline, we are falling back more and more on turning our children into political sheep. It has not only been boring and frustrating to meet and greet students whose opinions are political/cultural clich├ęs; I consider it a progressing national tragedy. May resistance like Brock-Utne and Ravitch’s help us change national course. Love and peace--hal

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