Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 13


August 27, 2010

Dr. Ravitch,

About twelve years ago I was introduced to your work in education by a college professor. Since then I have been busy trying to find my soul in the world of education. I have literally just completed reading your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Thank you for service to your country! This book has confirmed what I have felt for a few years now and with the research I would not have been able to find. While I am not the quickest of readers, it was quite enjoyable!

You mentioned the problems of reform movements and efforts. What would you say regarding the current technophiles that are cramming the use of technologies down the educational windpipe? Is there any research that substantiates the use of technology in the classroom as improving the education of children? Does computer use improve reading skills, mathematic skills, and understanding of civics, arts, music, etc.? Am I the only one that sees the use of technology as a step backwards for the development of future generations?

You repeatedly mentioned the curricula in Massachusetts, California, and Texas. New Jersey has recently revised its curriculum in social studies. How does this new standard compare to those of other states? Do you feel that the use of revisionist histories (H. Zinn) is good for the education of students?

Thank you for your time in addressing these questions.


E. Todd Kaul


August 25, 2010

Greetings, Dr. Ravitch,

I am simply writing to say I very much liked your book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. †As a matter of fact, I am having my graduate students read it this semester, which will be followed by a class discussion and a viewing of your March 10 C-SPAN interview with Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss.

Again, Dr. Ravitch, great job on your book! By the way, I highly suggested to policymakers and others in Louisiana that they read The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Many Thanks,

James D. Kirylo, Ph.D.


August 25, 2010

Dr. Ravitch,

Let me begin by saying that I loved your most recent book and I hope that those in current positions to impact education reform read it. I am a former elementary and special education teacher who has taught in two of the best charter schools in Pittsburgh. I decided to leave the profession to attend graduate school because I have experienced what has become of education, which you accurately describe in your book. Morally I could no longer subject my students to an amount of testing that is dehumanizing. Currently, I am attending the University of Pittsburgh and plan to graduate in December with a master’s degree in Social and Comparative Analysis in Education.

After working on my master’s, reading your book and watching the implementation of legislation that will continually erode public education, I feel the urgent need to act; however I am not sure what exactly to do. I think there needs to be a counter-narrative that does not come solely from teachers’ unions. When arguments about preserving public education come from teachers unions, they seem to be so often discredited as support for the status quo. I think that we need a movement of scholars, teachers, students, and parents that begins to voice their discontent with accountability and choice reform. We need to put education back into the hands of educators instead of government officials and titans of industry. So many Americans do not even realize who is beginning to run our education system.

I guess I need to rephrase what I said earlier from “I do not know what to do” to “I do not know how to do it.” I think that your book may be a catalyst for this movement and I would like to contribute to this cause but I have no idea how. I am beginning my research paper and I would like to use it to help with continuing the counter-narrative. I have written to the president to explain what education has become and received a response that defends their legislation. I need an outlet, a role in the defense of the professionalism of teachers and of public education.

If you have any suggestions as to what I can do to further this very important cause please let me know. I long to make a difference. Thank you for all of your work and the courage it took to write The Life and Death of the Great American School System. It is a voice of reason and I thank you for it.


Jennifer Asmonga


August 19, 2010

Dr. Ravitch,

I’ve recently finished The Death and Life of the Great American School System. It was very fulfilling to understand the beginnings of these institutions that are trying to bring change to public schools. Your book struck a chord with me, as Charter Schools and Top-Down Reforms are currently plaguing the district where I am employed. What’s interesting is that most of the examples you provide come from the urban setting. I am here to tell you that your arguments are just as valid for rural settings.

Fort Sage Unified, my employer, sits nestled in the high deserts of the Eastern Sierra in Northern California. We are approximately 50 miles north of Reno, Nevada. In the 50 years of its existence, the school system served the children of Sierra Army Depot and its civilian employees. During the 1990s, the Clinton Administration oversaw a Force reduction of military installations, and Sierra was one of them. The district suffered a tremendous loss of students and funding, and the community was forever transformed.

When the families of high-ranking officers and civilian employees scattered across the country, it brought down the average family income in the area. The installation switched from employing full-time positions to employing temporary employees who could be laid off when specific missions were completed. As the Army left, the community’s infrastructure began to erode. Lush lawns and stately looking government buildings began to brown and crumble.

In this environment, a recommendation was made to close one of the elementary schools in our area. The parents of this elementary school banded together and formed a Charter School in order to retain an elementary school in their area. The school board allowed the Charter to exist, and a competitor was born in the late ’90s.

The Charter School operates within the district, and it currently competes for the same pool of students in our small area. They have a lottery system and boast of high test scores. It is no surprise that parents (who’ll endure the process) choose to send their children to the Charter. Although specific allegations have not yet been proven true, it is suggested that the school turns away special-need and at-risk students through its lottery process. In the end the public school takes on the task of educating “who’s left.”

So you see, Dr. Ravitch, your points and insights also apply to small rural schools. They are almost magnified with our small numbers. One thing is certain: we have a passionate staff (four of whom are alumni of the district, including myself) who are committed to helping our local youth reach out from their humble beginnings and strive for great things.

Your work has recharged the batteries, and I plan to share it with my coworkers and administration.

Tom Jones


May 31, 2010

Professor Ravitch.

I just finished reading your wonderful and thought-provoking new book on American education.

Not that I look for confirmation of my own views, but it was nice to see someone with your expertise dissect many of the facile claims made by education reformers.

Just from my experience in a teaching program, the bulk of the program was dedicated to teaching strategies and classroom management. When we would ask what specifically to teach, we were told to follow the state standards. But as you point out in your book, the standards were mostly just “vacuous verbiage.” Fortunately for me and my cohort, my school received a grant from the U.S. government to improve HS history education. This allowed our program to buy TCI’s “History Alive” curriculum, as well as bring in a trainer to give us 40 hours of training on how to use the program correctly. This was a tremendous benefit for my program, which got me wondering about all the school districts that do not get the benefit of a grant providing them high-quality curriculum in particular subjects. This disparity in access to curriculum must result in disparate outcomes, which I believe gets back to your point about developing strong curriculum and standards.

On to my question...

Recently with the controversy over textbooks in Texas, I started to wonder why at the HS level there exists a strong textbook industry. There seems to be a lot of wasted money on textbooks. Here is my question: Why hasn’t the federal government—or even at the state level—hired a group of education experts to write textbooks that can be put in the public domain, allowing each school to download and copy the book and distribute it to their students? With a method like this, it seems costs could be reduced considerably, and with new educational research, modifications could be made to the text to keep it current with the most effective teaching strategies. Since the books will essentially be copied or printed from say a PDF file, there would be no need to have bulky, expensive 2nd/3rd/4th editions of books.

Maybe I am just naive, but is there a reason the textbook industry gets a piece of this lucrative pie?

Finally, just as an anecdote about markets and school performance. I taught in Korea for close to four years at different English academies. Korea has a very competitive English school market. But, as almost anyone who has taught at a Hagwon in Korea can tell you, this competition most certainly does not lead to better-performing schools. Sometimes markets produce junk, and the private English academy system in Korea mostly does that. What competition led to, or at least from what I saw, were two things: parental tyranny and fads. Keeping parents happy was a constant concern of the directors, especially since the market was so competitive an unhappy parent could pull their kid out at any time and enroll their child five minutes later at a school one door down. Schools also, similar to businesses, were constantly marketing the newest, most exciting, and most effective way to teach English, leading to a mass exodus from one school to the hot new thing, only to have the process repeat itself again in the end. Overall, competition didn’t make things better, it just ensured there was not continuity.

Again, thank you for writing a very good book.

Jonathan Strosser


August 23, 2010

Dr. Ravitch:

I’ve just finished reading your most recent book—thank you for presenting such a clear and articulate case against ideas about accountability and choice that seem sound and logical on the surface, but have a corrosive effect on public education.

I teach in Alberta, Canada, and in light of reading Death and Life I thought I’d pass on to you the outline of the accountability system my province has devised to assess the performance of a school. Alberta has a well-established testing program, but the Pillar of Accountability balances test data with a range of other measures to create a more varied and holistic picture of what’s happening at a school and within a jurisdiction.

While far from perfect, as a teacher in this province I feel comfortable with a system of measurement/accountability that doesn’t single me out as an individual (individual performance is left completely to the principal and administration within each school), that takes a variety of factors beyond exam scores into account, and that doesn’t have short-term punitive and coercive consequences attached. I am accountable for my performance and am committed to improvement, both personally and within my school, but I don’t have to walk into my classroom every day burdened by the fear of harsh consequences attached to narrow and imprecise performance measures. I certainly feel extremely fortunate when I compare my situation to those that many of my colleagues in the United States face in their schools and communities.

You may well have come across this type of accountability framework in the course of your research, whether from Alberta or other school systems, but thought it was worth sending in any case.

Thank you again for such a precise, lucid illumination of the issues facing public education in America. I follow the public discourse surrounding American education with great interest, not just as a matter of personal and professional curiosity but also with the knowledge that what happens in America often makes its way across the 49th parallel—a phenomenon of particular concern given the fact that Alberta is generally considered the most right-wing Canadian province. That curiosity led me to Death and Life, and I was richly rewarded with a thoughtful, courageous piece of analysis.


Paul Shamchuk


August 21, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I have been a teacher for 25 years, and there is a long legacy of teachers in my family. I heard you speak on the radio with Doug Henwood this morning. Thank you so much for your work.

When I retired, I wanted to do what you are doing. When I saw that this country didn’t get health care reform right, when keeping people alive is not a priority, I gave up on the idea that educating people would be. I use to have a particular chip on my shoulder about being female and how that made it all the more easy to exploit teachers. I now see the world more in terms of haves v. have-nots, no matter the have-not subgroup.

You are the first person I have heard, ever, that has represented teachers. Most of the teachers I work with are not able to look at their situation as honestly. I cannot thank you enough.




August 16, 2010

As a community journalist covering education, I was delighted when a teacher in Greenport last week waved your column, “Stop the Madness,” at board members and complained about having to teach to the test. I can’t believe any teacher worth the title needs a test to identify which students need assistance and which don’t. I know the intention of NCLB was good, but unintended consequences have resulted in districts paying more money for these tests, in some cases manipulating results, and our kids aren’t getting any more proficient because of them.

Bravo to you for your wonderful column and for all you have done and are doing to make a real difference in our educational process.

Best wishes.

Julie Lane


August 15, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I just finished the last complete paragraph on page 184. I had to pause because I started feeling queasy. The problem is that I have not even made it to the chapter about the billionaires.

I hope that this book is the catalyst to bring about change. Could it be the Nation at Risk for the new millennium? I pray it is.

Thank you for rendering these details in such fine form and speaking for so many who feel helpless against the tide of the so-called change agents.

Robert S. Perry


August 15, 2010

Dear Prof. Ravitch,

I wanted to write you to thank you for your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I bought your book twice. The first time, I left it on an airplane. The second time, I read it cover to cover in one night.

I have spent the last two years making many of the points you make in your book in informal policy discussions while a student at the University of Oxford. Since I left college, I have taught at a Green Dot School and studied as an education researcher. I have become increasingly disenchanted with the so-called reform movement. As a mathematician, I abhor the indiscriminate and fallacious use of data that abounds in these circles. As a historian, and true believer in the liberal arts, I am utterly discouraged by the narrowing of the curriculum. So, I am extremely glad that someone of your talents and knowledge has written such a clear, well researched, evenhanded, and challenging book pointing out the serious deficiencies and myriad dangers of the current political situation.

As I finished your book last night, I was brought to tears by the simplicity and power with which you argue for a strong, deep, content-driven curriculum. Your advocacy for teachers as examples of free and professional intellectuals able to teach the content in their own style is dead on. Yet, I awoke to the latest public smear piece (fraught with methodological gloss) by Jason Song of the LA Times, and felt powerless. On page 222, you ask, “Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?” I know that I must be one of these people. I am unsure how.

But again, thank you.


Stephen Silvius


August 15, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I read your book with great interest. I have, at various times in my life, been a public school student, a public school teacher, part of a family of public school teachers, a homeschooling parent, and the parent of a child in public school. First, I would like to offer my thanks for an evenhanded, intelligent assessment of what is and what is not working in the public schools. Particularly in the current political climate, I admire your courage.

I have seen all of the drawbacks of charter schools, the triumphs and drawbacks of public schools, and the problems related to the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives which you outlined so well in your book. However, I have had a unique perspective, given that education has been the family occupation for so many years and my child is a special education student, and I would like to outline some additional problems in public education.

1. THE “FIELD OF DREAMS” PROBLEM: Even before No Child Left Behind, this was a horrible problem, but the added burden of low test scores has made this worse. Special education students are expensive. The federal government is supposed to reimburse the states for the full cost of their education; it doesn’t. Worse, for many disorders such as autism and cerebral palsy, the primary interventions are considered educational by health insurers, so parents (myself included) must lobby the schools for occupational therapy services and speech therapy services, which are necessary for our childrenís health, as well as their education. This leads to the following downward spiral:

*A school district creates a fantastic special education program. Every involved, desperate parent of a special-needs child served by that program will move into the district, regardless of what city, county or state they were in previously. Families will split up to get good special ed. Quite honestly, if cutting off our dominant hands would get our children a good program, we would do it.

*The school district will find that every parent within a 1,000 mile radius will find a way to get there—further, if there’s good publicity—this is what happened in Seattle Unified, when its autism program was revealed. People left jobs and came to Seattle from across the country.

*The difference between the federal government’s reimbursement and the cost of the program becomes too great to bear. The only thing that will stop the bleeding is to destroy the program. By this point, the administration will have allies in all of the non-special-education parents, because those parents will feel (with some justification) that their children’s education is being impacted by the needs of our children. The situation is made worse by NCLB, because now the very presence of a critical mass of disabled children ensures that test scores will drop. What district administrator, in his or her right mind, wants that to happen?

*The program is slowly dismantled. Parents are pressured to accept ever more truncated services, regardless of the needs of their children. Some of the more legally savvy will refuse to sign modified IEPs; however, the vast majority of the parents will be confronted by a smiling, sympathetic face of a teacher or therapist who will tell them that this is truly the “best thing” for their children, when, in reality, an administrator has made clear to that teacher or therapist that if they do not persuade this parent to accept fewer services, things will not go well for them in the district. (Threats are never made so blatantly as to be actionable; they are nonetheless an ugly part of the process.)

*The program becomes so poor that parents leave. In my own case, my child’s therapists came about 75% of the time outlined in her IEP. Classwork came home, and, effectively, I was the homeschool teacher every night. We were told that the school district “wasn’t going to bother” meeting standards—basically, as long as my child sat in the back, and was not disruptive, nothing actually had to be learned. This left my family with the following options: Call a lawyer, an expensive, long process, which, by the time it yielded results, would have caused untold damage to my child, or become a homeschool teacher. We chose the latter.

*The parents move to the next excellent program, and the cycle begins again. We moved to our current home, where our current school district has an excellent program for students with high-functioning autism. It is already beginning the slow decline—more and more students are being crowded into the special education classes, and the bar for “qualifying” has become impossible to reach for the incoming 6th graders (lucky for me, my daughter is in 9th grade).

This is the easiest problem to solve—it just takes money. However, it is the most politically unpopular. Over and over again, we hear, “You can’t throw money at the problem!” Actually, you can. If the federal government did not penalize districts for taking our students, and if it truly did reimburse the cost of their educations, school districts would have an incentive to create the programs that our children need. Instead, we have to rely on the altruism of a few dedicated teachers and administrators—it is no small thing to have your child’s future rest, almost entirely, on the goodwill of others.

2. PARENTS ARE HELD TO AN ABSURDLY LOW STANDARD: I had a miserable time in a public middle school. In fact, it was so traumatizing, I had no intention of sending my child to a public middle school. My child, however, wanted to return to school for social reasons, and the district to which we had moved had an excellent program. I’m not sorry I reversed my decision; it proved to be a great experience. However, my child attended a large, urban school with an excellent reputation, which both the district and the parents fought hard to preserve.

*I, on the other hand, went to a smaller, rural school in which the primary occupation of many parents was the production, sale and distribution of various illegal substances. Their children were wild monsters who made my life a living hell. My grades suffered, and the stress triggered illnesses.

*You cannot fix the parents, and there are definite limits to what any teacher or administrator, no matter how dedicated, can do when he or she has no parent support. The principal at my junior high school was physically threatened by the parents of many of the young sociopaths, and, as he was not a man of great courage (and, to be fair, the parents were willing and able to carry out their threats), the little monsters were allowed the run of the school. My English teacher attempted to manage the bullying, but she was limited to her classroom in her influence. I was finally transferred to another school when they beat me so badly I had to have multiple orthodontic repairs and stitches.

*My parents were distraught, but in the 1980s, few remedies were available, and bullying was thought to be more the fault of the victim than the perpetrators.

*A high school principal in my family has called parents of students who were failing their classes, only to be told, “From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., he’s YOUR problem,” and then the parents hang up. He has had to deal with weapons on the school grounds, and one student beat another so viciously he nearly died. This principal tried to engage the parents of both students before it escalated this far. Neither student’s parents would even return his calls.

*Even more than the teachers and the administrators, the parents really make the schools. If children are raised right, they behave well at school. If they aren’t raised at all, the school has very few tools in its arsenal with which to combat parental disinterest.

3. THE SERFDOM OF TEACHERS: After a fairly short number of years, a teacher must stay with the district in which they started or they will lose most of their income and retirement benefits. Tenure is limited to the district in which you work. If a city goes bad (like the one that housed my junior high school), families cannot move without devastating financial consequences. If the states could cooperatively find a way to make benefits, salaries and pensions nationwide, and indexed to geography (it is much more expensive, for example, to live in San Jose than in Bellevue), it would make the profession more attractive. While I did work, for a time, as a public school teacher, I did it, more or less, as discretionary money for my family. I would never consider it a career, because I have seen, firsthand, the consequences to families of being so inseparably tied to one’s city. Coupled with the low pay, and even more than the low pay, the low regard given to teachers, it is a terrible burden on a teacher’s family.

4. THE UNIONS LACK TEETH: I realize this puts me immediately at loggerheads to those on the far right who believe unions to be the next step to communism, but they do not adequately protect their teachers, and they do not represent substitute teachers at all. As a substitute, I was seriously injured on the job—I am now in a wheelchair as a result. Much legal wrangling resulted in a settlement of $30,000, which will need to pay my medical expenses and last me for the rest of my life. Thankfully, I have Social Security, and my husband has a good job.

*One of my family members, whose French students passed the AP French exams after four years of instruction (considered an almost unheard-of feat), attracted the negative attention of the school board, who felt there was no need for French. After all, the students could take Spanish, and it would free up more money for the football team. After returning from a serious, life-threatening surgery, and after the administration received documentation from her surgeon that she needed a clutter-free work environment, they moved her room from the French room (which had murals of France painted on the walls, and was set up for language teaching), to the theatre, where the only light switch was up a short flight of stairs, up which she was forced to walk in the dark, and behind several props. Basically, they figured they could either force her out or kill her, and either way, she would be out of their hair. She forced them into concessions on the work environment, but only after several months of her family wondering if she would survive to make it home.

5. THE REWARD FOR SUCCESS IS TO MAKE SUCCESS IMPOSSIBLE: My child’s excellent middle school special education teacher has now left the profession permanently. A large class of special education students is considered to be 8 or 9. Because she had been successful with 8 or 9 students, the district felt she could suddenly handle 15 or 16. It was appalling. She couldn’t do a good job for that many special needs students, and she felt it was better to quit than to be an ineffective teacher.

6. NOBODY WANTS TO PAY FOR IT: The primary reason that we need to give our teachers tenure and good benefits is that nobody is willing to pay what good teachers are really worth. They would rather put somebody minimally qualified in the classroom than actually pay for the years of experience it takes to have a good teacher. It is only in the most affluent and professional districts that anybody is willing to pay for their children to have that educational experience. I have had people tell me, to my face, that they cannot afford to pay the additional taxes to support the schools, while they drive away in a better car than I have ever owned, wearing designer clothing. Until and unless the vast majority of the populace sees the value of education, it will not happen. Sadly, from what I have seen of the vast majority of the population, I think it’s more likely that we’ll see pigs fly.

After such a dispiriting list, I think it’s also important for me to say that public schools do many things well. As I mentioned before, I feel my child received an exemplary education in middle school. My child has grown immensely, has goals, and works hard to achieve those goals. While I cannot say that my education was stellar—it was definitely not as safe—I remember two or three teachers with great fondness, and I know that my family members worked tirelessly to serve their students. There is not a place in the world to which I have traveled with these people when we have not run into someoneís student, who tells one or another of them how much difference that person made in the studentís life. Having worked in the corporate sector, I can honestly say that if the average corporation managed assets with the care that the average teacher does, we would be out of the recession.

I hope the public policy makers will take your words to heart. You gave voice to many of my grave concerns.

Thank you.

Stacey Dunn


August 13, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I am a school director in Pennsylvania. I wanted to send you some links to show you what is going on in this state, as we approach a gubernatorial election in November. I am writing because I am afraid for education both in PA and in this country. I see the Obama policies, and the policies being promoted by the leaders in our State House and Senate Education Committees and our Governor (and gubernatorial candidates), as a clear and present threat to the future of public education. We have just been through a contentious battle regarding graduation exams, a battle that was lost because the game wasn’t played fairly by those in power. Looking back on that issue, we are now seeing that the exam issue was all part of a bigger agenda, one promoted by the NGA and funded by the foundation tycoons. There is agreement by the leaders of both parties in our state on this reform agenda of testing, accountability, and choice. There is no dissent between the two parties to provide a healthy opposition, so it is moving at full force. Do you have any suggestions for those of us who are not yet ready to give up? Is there anything we can do short of keeping our finger in the hole of the dike?

Yours truly,


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


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