Book Review

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

by Diane Ravitch, Basic Books, New York, N.Y, 2010, 288 pp., $26.95 hardcover

Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education delivers a knockout blow to anyone who believes high-stakes testing under the punitive No Child Left Behind Act or the untested Race to the Top initiative are the panaceas for America’s education system failures.

Recognized as a premier historian of education, Ravitch is the Research Professor of Education at New York University and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education. She pulls no punches in what for her is an about-face by repudiating her former position regarding the “quick fix to intractable problems” promised by high-stakes testing, choice, accountability, charter schools and other “panaceas and miracle cures.”

Both the Bush and Clinton administrations, she believes, tried to “reinvent” schools using a market reform strategy that included deregulation and privatization. But Ravitch says these “new corporate reformers (of American education) betray their weak comprehension of education by drawing false analogies between education and business.”

Ravitch’s prescriptions for improving America’s schools are clear and unequivocal: (1) educators should make decisions about schools, not politicians, corporations or foundations; (2) we need a national curriculum; (3) pay teachers well and don’t design flawed and dangerous merit pay systems; (4) collaborate with families; and (5) expect charter schools to educate our most challenged students but do not let charter schools compete with or undermine our public schools.

You may not agree with her prescriptions, but you must not take such a position without reading her book.

Reviewed by Perry Berkowitz, department chair, education leadership and counseling programs, College of St. Rose, Albany, N.Y.