Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Review

I had started reading The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch just after Christmas hoping to finish before we started our schooling back up . . . not so much.  I can't recall where I heard about this book, but I was interested in reading it now that J is enrolled in public school.  I have noticed a very strong emphasis on the ISTEP tests, whose use recently is somewhat contradictory to what I feel is the important part of education.  I have finally finished this very insightful read and wanted to share a few things. 

To begin with, the author has some pretty hefty credentials.   Despite (or maybe because of) her experience and appointments, she has changed her perspective on what she has supported and touted in the past.  She goes to great length to describe the current educational reform trends and to examine many of the "leading" school systems across the country.  Standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, privatization, teacher accountability, choice and charter schools, and private foundations funding school reforms are all discussed.  Ravitch challenges the reader to think about the purpose of education (educating the child as a whole to give them knowledge and understanding because "without knowledge and understanding, one tends to become a passive spectator rather than an active participant in the great decisions of our time") and reminds them that "there is no single answer to educational improvement". 

On discussing the taking over of schools by mayors and businessmen, she states that "Even officials of the highest integrity must be subject to checks and balances to ensure that they listen to those they serve". 

There has been reform that suggests that if schools are run as businesses, then they would perform better.  The idea that schools should be a "free-market" has placed many outside the education field into the school system where the bottom line is likely to be looked at instead of what is best for the child.  Traditionally, public schools have been run by those in the community  and that "the market undermines traditional values and traditional ties; it undermines morals, which rest on community consensus.  If there is no community consensus, then one person's sense of morals is as good as the next, and neither takes precedence.  This may be great for the entertainment industry, but it is not healthy for children". 

On the subject of testing and test preparation, "New York University's Robert Tobias, who was testing director of the New York City schools for thirteen years, criticized 'unhealthy over-reliance on testing as a facile tool for educational reform and political advantage' and said, 'Much of this test preparation is not designed to increase student learning but rather to try to beat or game the test'."  Ravitch encourages a strong all around curriculum, not just focus on reading and mathematics (which is what most tests test) "Ironically, test prep is not always the best preparation for taking tests.  Children expand their vocabulary and improve their reading skills when they learn history, science, and literature, just as they may sharpen their mathematics skills while learning science and geography". 

As there seems to be a movement to hold schools and teachers accountable for test results, I felt that the author's statement that "The problem with using tests to make important decisions about people's lives is that most standardized tests are not precise instruments" along with many studies and examples of the inconsistencies of testing that she sights, brings to light that "tests can be designed and used well or badly" and that they are not the only answer.  "Testing experts also warn that test scores should be used only for the purpose for which the test was designed: For example, a fifth-grade reading test measures fifth-grade reading skills and cannot reliably serve as a measure of the teacher's skill".  Also, "one problem with test-based accountability, as currently defined and used, is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families for the students' academic performance". 

This book is filled with many studies and studies of studies that started to blur together after the first chapter or two.  They were used to make many valid points, however, but I got the point she was trying to make after the first example or two.  She spends the first 10 chapters on the errors and inconsistencies of current reform and the last on her "lessons learned".  She keeps referring to the idea that the curriculum needs to be addressed and finally in the last chapter the reader gets to hear her suggestions.  I feel she provides real insights and an overall perspective to the difficulties public education in America is facing.


Cecilia said...

So what was her main point? There are just so many factors that make a difference...from people really dedicated to kids to resources...too bad there is no formula. I'm just thankful we live in a country where we have a system we can reform.

Rita said...

Her main point? She wanted to challenge readers to look closer at the reforms that are taking place with little or no proof that they will work. Her answer was that kids need a rich curriculum that covers all subjects to educate the whole person. In many of the schools she discussed, there was no set curriculum to guide the teachers.

Christine said...

It's sounds like a great read, Rita. And it's a wonderful reminder for me to not get caught up in 'keeping up'.

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