Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 11


July 29, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I just finished The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and I really, really enjoyed it and learned a great deal from it. I think you’ve done a real service for genuine educational reform. Incidentally, one reason I’m particularly motivated to write to you is that for some time I’ve found myself on opposite sides from you on educational issues. Another is that I think it takes real courage and deep intellectual, professional, and personal courage to so publicly recant former views.

Although I am not a public figure, I have found it necessary to do something similar. I am a typical San Francisco progressive/liberal/leftist. At one time I was a Maoist (Progressive Labor Party, if you recall that sect), then a strong defender of the Soviet Union. I’m still on the left but hopefully a little saner now and not afraid to identify myself as a Democrat as well as a democrat (and, I suppose, a democratic socialist).

I taught public school from 1968–2005, when I retired (though I still work part-time supervising student teachers for the University of San Francisco). For 34 of those 37 years I taught at the same high school I attended (George Washington HS in San Francisco) where from 1984–2005 I was chair of the Social Studies Department. (I’ve also taught both creative and expository writing, and a few other English classes. I definitely admire your commitment to the importance of good writing.) I think I’ve been quite an excellent teacher for the most part, but I, too, flirted with some of the fads that have so often dotted the educational landscape. It took me a while to realize that a clear and solid curriculum is the backbone of any successful school or school system and that just being a “cool” and popular teacher really isn’t worth a whole lot.

For some time I’ve thought that the two most important educational reforms would be the doubling of teachers’ salaries and the institution of small high schools. I still believe in the first, though with some quid pro quo on teachers’ parts. Sadly, the second, as you point out in what might be my favorite chapter (“The Billionaire Boys Club”) seems not to have been particularly effective where tried. Also for some time I’ve thought that perhaps the worst contemporary trend in public schooling has been the imposition of high-stakes tests. I actually thought I knew a great deal about this issue, but I have to tell you that I learned so much more from your book. Also for some time I’ve believed that we, like many other countries we tend to compare ourselves to, should have a national curriculum. I agree with you that the creation of such a curriculum would be daunting but doable.

Once again, thank you so much for a terrific, and terrifically important, book. And best wishes as you continue with your distinguished career.


Dennis Gregg


July 21, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch:

I understand your e-mail has been flooded with teachers’ comments on The Death and Life of the Great American School System; however, I had to add my humble thanks. This is, without a doubt, the single best treatise on American education I have ever read and a work of great insight. If only administrators who crunch numbers would read this and take heart! I have recommended it to many of my colleagues and hope we can start an issues discussion group based on the book.

I can’t thank you enough for so eloquently voicing what teachers know in their hearts to be true. I am a high school social studies teacher and also a college psychology instructor. My college insists that our students are “customers” and we must deliver instruction as if it were produce in a grocery bag. I am at the point of retirement after 35 years of teaching and I deplore the misdirection education is/has been embracing. My younger hires in the department are an apt example of the mistakes: they are well-meaning but have no depth of knowledge in their licensed areas and have stripped the curriculum down to simplistic pabulum. They teach to their tests and hand out grades as if they were candy. All of this to please the administration with high-scoring students (indicating their “success” in the classroom) and to avoid having to speak with parents who are used to their students being “given” high grades.

Much work remains to be done but please, please continue to write and speak out in favor of what you have advocated so well in your book. Teaching is a humanizing profession, one which prospers only insofar as we can honestly connect with our students, excite them, and challenge them. Mandated testing will serve none of this and will only destroy what education used to bring to America.

Thank you so much!



July 15, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I am writing to express my gratitude for your writing The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

It gives a glimmer of hope that there are individuals who can still critically analyze the reality of what is going on in the current market-based, data-driven educational climate. I am hoping it will help point out that the market-based-reform emperor has no clothes.

I am the sole teacher of the gifted and talented in a small, affluent, nationally recognized school. You would think that we would not be feeling the carrot-and-stick pressures that are a direct result of NCLB and Race to the Top. Think again.

During the past couple of years, there has been a virtual takeover of our school by a data-driven instruction model, with an emphasis on documentation and accountability. At the primary level, it sometimes seems that the teachers spend more time administering DRA tests than teaching reading. We have high tech test prep programs which translates into computers being periodically inaccessible to the students who need them for other purposes while test practice is happening. There have been a number of complaints about the dumbing down of curriculum by a number of our most experienced teachers. And, frighteningly, our new governor is embracing most, if not all, of the market-place dogma that you so eloquently worked to discredit.

There is likewise a shift in mentality that steers teachers away from doing anything that is not “measurable,” which I feel does not take real learning into account. This can be especially detrimental to the highly creative and gifted students who pretty much live outside the proverbial box, and find, to their horror, that they will be forced back into it. To give a specific example, a lower-grade Socratic seminar was criticized because the students’ discussion did not have a predictable and measurable outcome to specific questions. It would be an insult to even have to explain to anyone the folly of that idea.

All things considered, I am very wary of the idea of the various ways that have been suggested to evaluate teacher performance. You gave some excellent reasons against tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. I would also like to add that administrative evaluations where the emphasis is on how well the teachers are “sticking to the program” are likewise ludicrous.

As a person who had previously had a career as a research analyst, I am well aware of how statistics can be misinterpreted, or even abused to push an agenda. I find it odious that educational decisions are being made by business gurus, test development companies, and statisticians for who have less vested interest in the children than in their profit margin.

Thank you, thank you, for pointing out the fallacies of the current mentality.

I just pray that some of the powers that be will actually listen for once.




July 19, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I am a teacher. I just finished reading your book The Death And Life of the Great American School System

I loved it! It has given me hope that someone at the top will understand what kids and teachers are going through.

Has Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Eli Broad, or President Obama commented on your book?

I’d like to know what they have to say.


Phill Lombardo


July 19, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I am writing to thank you for your latest book, chronicling your journey from educational testing/choice advocate to skeptic. The reasons you provide for your apostasy and what NCLB has promoted and threatens are devastatingly spot-on. I know your examples and insights are accurate because I observed or lived many of them.

Until my retirement a year ago as a public school educator, I had last been a middle school (7–9) administrator (first as an assistant principal and then as a principal) for 16 years in a suburban district. (For what it’s worth, my school, fortunately, always made AYP.) Prior to that, I was an elementary and middle school teacher for 24 years in Philadelphia, where I was also active with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Like you, my K–12 education was in city schools. My primary understanding of current charter schools has come only through teacher candidates who have taught in them and parents whose children attended.

The NCLB/data-driven/accountability movement, as well-intentioned as it may have originally seemed, has turned out to be an addiction which vote seekers of all stripes cannot resist. It provides them a perfect fit with a sound-bite world and desire for digital, unchallenged conclusions. I do hope your book helps spur some push-back with a commitment toward thriving and real public school “systems” that promote a rich and full curriculum and an understanding of the broad scope of what it takes for students to achieve.

With congratulations and appreciation,

Alan Hershman


July 13, 2010

Hello Diane—

Many roses to you for being honored with the NEA Friend of Education Award at the National Education Association Representative Assembly. I have just received a copy of your acceptance speech from two delegates who heard you address the Assembly.

One wrote Diane’s speech “was really great...There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she is a great friend of PUBLIC EDUCATION.” The other wrote, “I was impressed by what Diane had to say....It is high time to blow the whistle on NCLB and the insane testing that results.”

You deserve this honor. Your Death and Life of the Great American School System is leading teachers and their organizations to rational positions on educational reforms. Punishments of quality teachers and schools followed false top-down promises based on false assessments.

Grassroots reality started to boom after your book was published. The book is producing ground-up honest messages to education leaders both in and out of teachers’ organizations. Fight for public education. Defend public schools against false prophets. Use honest facts. Reason well. Great.


Thanks for all you do for education.

Best wishes from Nebraska.

Phil Kaldahl


July 19, 2010

Dr. Ravitch,

I just finished reading your book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I have been teaching in Cleveland Schools for 18 years and for most of those 18 years I have felt like standing up and screaming “what the heck are we doing and why are we doing it??!! ” This year I told my students that I had a vision that I would barricade the door on the first day of the test and refuse to give it, get arrested, and twenty years from now be like the Rosa Parks of education.

Connie Roop


July 9, 2010

Professor Ravitch,

I started teaching in 1964 and retired in 2006. All but 8 years were in Philadelphia. Five of those years were at a private junior college, three years at community colleges. I also taught adjunct at a state college near where I live. In 1964, like many young teachers, I was idealistic. I was certain we could correct the problems we faced in our public schools. Over and over again the fads, the quick cheap fixes, created by people with little, if any, teaching experience kept coming and going. When NCLB arrived we realized what it was all about, a way to destroy public schools. By 2006 I was the department chair, the “teacher leader,” in our high school Social Studies Department confronted by self-righteous people from the main administration who knew it all and a principal who didn’t enforce discipline in what had been one of the best kept secrets in Philadelphia. I was disgusted and retired, but I hadn’t lost hope. I thought that Barack Obama would change things but you know what happened. When he appointed someone who was not a teacher, an amateur educator, as his Secretary of Education, I was very disappointed. I thought the new president would have realized that NCLB from Bush and now under him was based on the same kinds of faulty research that had fueled all the other “reforms” that had been tried.

I don’t understand how someone as brilliant as Obama can fall for this. Why doesn’t he realize that all he is doing is the same things that have failed before? Why does he expect a different outcome now?

Dr. Ravitch, I, along with thousands of experienced teachers, know what the problems are and how to fix them. You wrote about what we know in your book. Being progressive politically we had high hopes when Obama was elected. Is there any way we can get to him so his administration will do the right thing? Our children are at stake.

I would like to be able to talk to you about these issues.

Thanks for the book and the excellent history writing.



PS: There is one thing you needed to stress in the book more. There is a real crisis in educational leadership. It is too easy to get a principal’s certificate. All too often people who can’t handle and don’t like the classroom get certified. It seems that if you can stay awake for the classwork and get a good coach to help you with paper you get the degree and certificate.


July 14, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I just completed reading your book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System) and everything you write about is accurate. I have been an elementary public school teacher for the past five years, and all the emphasis is on teaching math and reading. While I agree with the framework of NCLB, such as AYP and meeting the needs of all subgroups, I don’t believe multiple-choice testing by itself is the appropriate method of evaluation.

I continually keep reminding my colleagues not to abandon the other essential core subjects such as science, social studies, and health. (We do not have art class.) The best argument I can make to other fellow teachers is to try and integrate these subjects into their reading and math curriculum. I also point out that their students will expand their vocabulary and comprehension, which will lead to higher scores anyway. However, it is a tough sell when all the pressure from the state tests is solely based on math and reading.

Anyway I just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed your book and appreciate your dedication to the profession of teaching. Take care.


Travis Hinkley


July 21, 2010

Dr. Ravitch,

Thank you for your great book on the history of American education for the last 30 years, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education! Your book much helped put my teaching career in perspective and made me realize just how out of control the current climate is for education (or is it testication now). I just finished my 20th year of teaching in teaching social studies in the state of Virginia and have witnessed how much our current test-driven (rather than test-informed!) culture of education has seemingly taking us a step backward in teaching and learning. Whereas a decade ago I did creative projects and critical thinking exercises with my students, now it is all about content and getting students ready for their tests (be it the state SOLs in Virginia or the AP and IB tests our students take). Even the latest learning management system our school system has bought into has nothing really to do with helping students further their education and our pedagogy rather than to beautifully display test scores for students and various group cohorts that administrators can now easily analyze.


Paul Ferentinos


July 21, 2010

I am hoping this message gets to Dr. Ravitch.

I have heard in your interviews the “talking point” (not in the propaganda sense) regarding the effects of high stakes testing in terms of narrowing of curriculum—such as against history, etc.

I want to share a true anecdote—just because this actually happened and someone other than powerless me should know about it.

If anybody ever challenges you on this point feel free to use this. I am a high school history and government teacher in Florida (ground zero in this crap) and a few years back, when our principal was finally forced to “freak out” over test scores, we had a meeting prior to the school year regarding strategies for improvement. (In fairness to him, he was “old school” and had resisted paying attention to all of the politics of this, but was now forced by pressure from above to “care.”) He had decided to “use” the 10th grade world history teachers as surrogate English teachers. His plan was to use this prep book they had spent a lot of money on and give it to the history teachers and they would use it TWICE a week in their classes. In other words, they would be required to stop teaching history and teach reading/writing using this book 2 out of every 5 days of instruction. One teacher, concerned about the effect of, essentially, losing 2 days a week of curriculum, raised her hand and asked, and I quote, “What about being able to cover our curriculum?” To which he replied, and I quote again, “History doesn’t matter.” I was shocked, and I wasn’t the only one—there was a hush that fell over the room. And sadly, this guy had been a former history teacher. It was the crystallizing moment when I realized that EVERY prediction about high stakes testing by its critics since the 80s had been right and was now taking root. Not that I had doubted them. But with that tiny exchange, it couldn’t have been more stark. I will never forget this.

Also—quick tip for you on some raw data available. I don’t know about the results in other counties, but when our FCAT scores came out this year, our local paper created a database to look up scores, etc. So I did what I always do—looked up the scores in my school and other schools in my county (try to figure how screwed we are for the coming year) and in the county I used to work at. If you go to the website and look up scores for Orange County high schools, you will find an amazing indictment of charter schools. Quick background—Ever since Jeb Bush pushed this through, Orange County has been an absolute affirmation that SES is what is at work here. The richest school in the county, Winter Park, has been an A school ever since this started more than 10 years ago. The three poorest schools, Evans, Jones, and Oak Ridge, have been D’s and F’s. It couldn’t be more clear. Well, anyway, I always check this pattern to see if it holds, and of course, this year, yet again, it did. BUT, then I checked something that is new: they had data on the Charter Schools! I almost fell out of my seat. Their scores were 9 times out of 10, ABYSMAL! They made our lowest “performing” poverty stricken schools look GOOD. Of course, not a peep from all of the pro-charter school clowns writing for this very newspaper in their columns week after week. Not a PEEP. NO ONE’s talking about it that I can tell. So... you might wanna check it out.

Of course, now Florida is switching to End of Course Exams....which are a LITTLE better... at least now I’ll be judged on what I TEACH, rather than how good an English teacher I am... but still...

Anyway—to be honest I want you to know that back when I was in grad school studying this stuff, you were one of my (political) “enemies”! The fact that you have had the courage and integrity to publicly admit to a change of heart—when so many will just dig in and defend their position no matter what—is so very admirable. I salute you.

Sorry for the rambling...




March 15, 2010

Professor Ravitch:

Thank you for your thoughtful and clear commentary, “The Big Idea.” It is the case in so many areas of human endeavor that, despite data that should be persuasive, changing our beliefs is the last thing we consider when confronted with information that suggests we should rethink things.

When I was freshly out of high school, Ray Cortines offered me a job working at a newly desegregated public middle school in Pasadena, California. Hundreds of children from historically poor and segregated areas of the city were bussed into what had previously been a middle class white school. The staff was geared toward educating ready-to-learn children who came to school possessing values and world views congruent with traditional teaching models of the time. The school administrators tried to punish the new arrivals into submission. It failed. The more it (and the children) failed, the more punishment was meted out. The principal said to me in despair, “I’ve never seen so many bad kids,” to which I replied, “These kids are really good. Look how good they are at getting kicked out of school. Think of how smart you have to be to figure out exactly how to behave to get tossed out of these terrible classrooms.” The principal said I needed to work on my attitude.

It was as clear to me then, at the ripe and wise age of 18, as it is to me now many decades later, that public educators could probably learn more about how to run an urban school from Disneyland Guest Relations than from No Child Left Behind.

Thank you for reminding us to beware of the seductive lure of grand ideas. In so many areas of public policy, this is sage advice.


Jed Shafer

All letters have been reprinted with the permission of the writers.


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