Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 3


June 24, 2010

Dr. Ravitch,

I wish to congratulate you on your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Your current conclusions are those that I have been attached to for the last thirty five years. I have been at odds with the testing mania, choice, accountability and the many other panaceas that have crept over the educational landscape. I have, in fact, a list of panaceas that we have tried for short periods of time, never long enough to see if they work.

Although born in Brooklyn in 1938, my wife and I came to Pennsylvania in the early sixties and have been advocates for rural schools in our Commonwealth for many years. In the early 1990s, the organization that I helped to start, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) sued the Commonwealth on the basis of an inequitable funding system. We were in court for about 10 years. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania punted on the issue and said that the issue was not justiciable (the only court in the U.S. not to give a yes-or-no answer).

After going through the chairs of education, I retired to join my wife’s consulting firm (she pays me $5,000 a year, but the benefits are excellent). The firm is devoted to seeing that rural children have an opportunity to go to college. We established two rural scholarship programs, funded by two billionaires, Andy McKelvey of Monster.com and Gerry Lenfest (sold his cable company to Comcast for 7.5 billion dollars). I am now on the Pennsylvania State Board of Education. Sometimes, I am the lone voice for rural schools and for a diminution of our confounded reliance on high stakes testing. I have succeeded in getting an 11th grade test dumped by 2013 to be replaced with end-of-course tests (how about that for going backwards to regents exams). These end of course tests can be created by the local school district and validated, or one can use the state created test (more dough for testing companies).

I have purchased and distributed your book to all of the 21 state board members. A private citizen has purchased 100 of your tome and has distributed them to many members of the legislature. All this to say thank you for taking a fresh look at what is happening to our public school system in the U.S. I still believe that it is the best system in the world, even when our leaders compare us to Singapore (happy caning), China and India. Do we really want to be like them? Best wishes to you in your future endeavors. As with J.D. Salinger, I await your next publication. Hope it is not going to take as long as his will.

Arnold Hillman, D.Ed
Member, Pennsylvania State Board of Education


March 3, 2010

The Death and Life of the American Public School System, Diane Ravitch’s new book, is perhaps the most important education policy book you will read this year. The book is highly readable, the arguments irrefutable, the conclusions disturbing. Ravitch persuasively makes the case that the crisis in our schools today is not so much that they are underperforming, as that they are under siege. The schools are being pressured by unaccountable corporate and philanthropic interests that use their vast wealth and political connections to impose technocratic and free-market reforms on the design and delivery of public education. It is ironic that many of this current crop of reforms focus on deregulation at just the moment when we see the devastating results of such policies on the world economy. Despite the fact that the effectiveness of many of these ‘reforms’—charters, threats, and excessive and misguided use of testing—is unproven, they appear impervious to critique in the current climate. Nonetheless, as Ravitch so clearly demonstrates, the corporatist model is antithetical to public education’s civic purposes. It is a profoundly undemocratic turn which could spell the demise of America’s greatest social invention, the public school.

Joan Baratz Snowden
President, Education Study Center


March 11, 2010

Dr. Ravitch—

I heard you on Diane Rehm this morning—and literally threw my hands in the air (briefly, as I was driving my car) when you said NCLB’s goal of 100% of students passing tests was never attainable, and folks within DoE knew it!

After 25 years of working on education finance policy in Texas, I know many of the folks responsible for crafting NCLB, and while our disagreement has always been respectful and professional, I have had numerous people suggest that I am willing to settle for sub-standard student achievement because I have said that anytime (not just with NCLB) you set a 100% success rate as your goal, you have set yourself up for failure.

I am one of the many on Amazon’s wait list for your book—and I am very much looking forward to reading it.

Warm regards—

Debra Haas


May 4, 2010

Dear Prof. Ravitch,

I’m in the middle of your book and am very glad that someone is finally making public the stupidity of the “accountability” movement. For some time I’ve worried about the trend to siphon off the students with the best-educated and most activist parents from our public schools. The schools certainly need improvement, especially those in low-income parts of our larger cities, but giving frequent multiple-choice tests will not solve the problem and, as you point out, will almost certainly make it worse.

I am also worried about several trends that will discourage exactly the kind of young person we need in our schools from entering teaching. It seems to me that more than half of the letters to the editor regarding education show a complete lack of respect for teachers and a real hate for their unions. There is also the periodic and worsening threat of layoffs: whenever the economy worsens education suffers. Not only are young teachers fired, but the remaining teachers are faced with even larger classes and deteriorating facilities.

Keep the pressure on!

David R. Harrington


March 26, 2010

I cannot express enough gratitude for the recent book you wrote! I bought a copy the day your book hit the bookstore shelves and read it rapidly, then passed it on to my principal at my base school. It was perfect timing, as the students were just finishing up the last of the MD State exams, and everyone was feeling so all-consumed by this high-stakes testing. In Title I schools, real education comes to a complete halt months before the actual tests in order to prepare! Fortunately as an art teacher, I am not subjected to test-prepping students so some creative learning goes on DESPITE this climate. I am a public school art teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland and teach at 4 schools. I “cut my teaching teeth” in the New York City public school system, however. When I read your chapter on NYC, I thought “Finally someone is exposing the ‘emperors that be’ (chancellor, mayor and DOE). Hey, they are not WEARING ANY CLOTHES!” It was so on target and just laid out the facts as they are—FINALLY! No spun data—just real facts.

I had wanted to remain in NYC and teach but really felt that every fiber of my intellectual being was being drained from me. I am not alone in these thoughts, as teachers with high potential and intellectual curiosity are leaving the profession (forced or not) in droves. I had a rigorous academic background and yet couldn’t use my wealth of knowledge in the classroom as I was busy preparing students for standardized tests, going to endless meetings on testing implementation, coordinating testing, and dealing with an administration that enforced very cookie-cutter teaching methodologies—ironically under the guise of “balanced” literacy.

If Bloomberg, Broad and Gates have their way, the NYC model will soon prevail nationwide. By the way, I cheered when I read your chapter on the billionaire club as I had done research on this very subject. Has Obama ever read Haney’s “Myth of the Texas Miracle”? I wondered, “Are there any super-billionaires who actually might oppose what the Broads and Gateses of our nation are doing and might financially support education policy suggestions from a panel of experienced teachers, administrators and academics like yourself without making it a “for (them) profit endeavor”?

Thanks again for championing one of the most important causes of our nation!



May 15, 2010

Dear Diane,

I don’t know if you remember me. I was part of the 1987 History—Social Science Framework Committee that changed the way history is taught in the schools.

First, I must commend you for your recent wonderful book on The Death And Life Of The Great American School System. Finally, someone has come forward to corroborate what so many in the teaching profession have believed about the market approach to teaching that relies on competition, choice, excessive testing and accountability, and deregulation. I have often admired not only the substance but the way you write. It is like reading a novel as I anticipate what the ending will be of a particular problem or situation. I felt the same way about The Troubled Crusade.

I have often thought about our work on the framework. During the two years we labored on it, we changed the emphasis from a social studies viewpoint to one that is focused on history. I remember giving a brief talk to the committee on the nature of the social studies approach in the previous framework with its emphasis on broad generalization from sociology and anthropology vs. a historical approach emphasizing the actions and passions of people in the past. The final result of all our deliberations was (and still is) a magnificent achievement.

However, there is one area in which more needs to be done. We stated that history is “A Story Well Told” as I recall, but never really spelled out, in detail, just what this means. Since the textbook is, and will on doubt remain, the primary teaching source, there is a need for some strong leadership, something like a framework to give it an official imprimatur, to delineate the broad elements to be considered in writing a history textbook. A few, among others, that come to mind are:

1. The writing should be in the form of teaching narratives that are dramatic and have a point or bite to them.

2. In depicting the events of the past, there should be a focus on certain recurring themes such as laissez-faire vs. regulation, liberty vs. security, xenophobia vs. “Americanism,” majority rule vs. minority rights, etc. History may not repeat itself exactly, but certain human frailties keep rearing their ugly heads from time to time.

3. The narratives themselves, by giving insight into the human condition and by providing a forthright and valid context should be such as to evoke a student response instead of providing a vapid set of facts with questions at the end of the chapter.

4. Literary techniques such as foreshadowing, irony, similes and metaphors as well as myths we live by should be employed to enhance the narratives.

Of course, this just scratches the surface. Many more elements need to be added.

I received my ED.D. at UCLA and taught Curriculum Design at California Lutheran University. At neither institution was there a connection, at least at the secondary level, between the history department and the methods courses in education. The same could be said about the other curriculum areas. At C.C.N.Y., in the halcyon days when the college was known as the “poor man’s Harvard,” we had a course in the methods of teaching the social studies. We need to reverse the present specialization and fragmentation.

I hope you will pardon the diatribe. However, I blame you. Your book brought back the wonderful experience I had working with you, Charlotte Crabtree, and the rest of the committee. I look forward to reading more about your ideas in the future.

Yours truly,

Dave Reinstein


June 19, 2010

Dear Professor Ravitch,

Thank you so much for researching and writing The Death and Life of the Great American School System and thanks especially for your extensive documentation and cogent analysis of the evidence.

I teach high school math and science in a small town in northwest Colorado. Our staff experienced conditions similar to those you describe in the San Diego school system until the then principal moved up to superintendent in another district (bless them). Our new principal at least appreciates good classroom instruction and has some common sense, but we continue to labor under the mandates of NCLB and new state follies. It’s really discouraging: we do our best to help kids learn and grow, but we’re told we’re never good enough, test scores are never good enough. Your book provides a lot of comfort and hope. It is reassuring to know that our (general faculty) concerns about testing and accountability are shared by someone with your credentials who can convey the evidence and the message.

With all best regards,

Bob Dorsett


June 4, 2010

Dear Diane,

I recently finished your new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and I wanted to thank you. My wife and I started teaching as part of Teach For America in 1999 (we met in Houston!). Your book clarified the last ten years for me. We were stuck in the trees and could not see the forest, so to speak. Now I have a more complete understanding of the challenges I faced as a public school teacher in Baltimore, then New Orleans, then Connecticut.

I want you to know that there are many teachers out there like my wife and I, who consider our craft an art but are left silent by the well-funded and unceasing calls for charter schools, vouchers, blind accountability and “teaching to the test.” I think your life’s work, talent and insight make you the perfect person to aggressively lead the backlash against the current state of education. You have the support of many more than you think. Please keep making your voice heard, for the rest of us.

Thank you,

Nathan Munro


March 22, 2010

Dear Diane Ravitch,

I am a teacher in Florida, where Senate Bill 6 is about to strip teachers of—well, just about everything keeping us in the profession. I have been getting more and more depressed about the state of education the last few years, to the point of thinking I must leave teaching.

I happened on your book before even hearing about it this past week at Barnes and Noble, and the next day, after I bought it, started seeing your name everywhere. Reading your book this past week was a breath of fresh air and a tiny ray of hope.

Ironically, just before I bought the book, I wrote a piece for my local newspaper about a lot of the issues you talk about, and it ran in the paper the same day I finished your book.


Lastly, I have been trying to say the things you’re now saying about testing for the past ten years in a local comic strip about teaching that I do on the side. It’s called Mr. Fitz, and if you visit the site, I think you might appreciate some of the humor. I’ve poked fun at the testing (called the U-SKUNK, the Universal SKills UNderstanding and Knowledge test, in the strip) for years. You can see some of the strips at www.mrfitz.com.

Thanks for making my school year less depressing. I love what I do, and I’m good at it, but I feel like both sides of the political spectrum are trying to drive me out. Nobody listens to us.

Thanks for speaking out.

David Lee Finkle


March 15, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch:

Thank you for your article in the opinion section of the Sunday March 14 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Coming up on my fourth year of retirement away from the fray of public education, trying to have the best test scores and all the political rhetoric surrounding the tired slogan of “what’s best for kids,” I have what I feel is a healthier perspective. I had almost 40 years in public education as a teacher, principal, and central office administrator in what I view as a rewarding career. Being closer to the kids as an elementary and middle school principal gave me many pleasant moments to cherish. Though I support President Obama, I have serious reservations about the current direction the adminstration has taken as they revamp No Child Left Behind. I always felt that the principal of the school is the linchpin for the teachers and the parents in opening up the school to become a real learning organization for students. If students are motivated and teachers are motivated and parents are an integral part of the school community, the job of the principal is to balance all of the moving parts so the organization works in a harmonious relationship on behalf of the children. The arts, music, natural and physical sciences, mathematics, the social sciences, history and government, language arts, foreign language, and physical education and other parts of the curriculum share equally and are not greater or lesser in their value toward educating the complete student.

I have serious concern that if testing and test scores become the only focus of teachers and administrators, critical thinking and learning will be suppressed and schools will be relegated to “pencil and paper” institutions. The improvement of math and science education are worthy goals, but not at the expense of the other parts of the curriculum that are equally important.

Again, thank you.

Dr. Frank Ware


March 20, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch:

I just wanted to personally thank you for the voice of reason you have inserted into the media blather about education. As a teacher who considers this the darkest time my profession has seen in my 26-year career, I have been disenchanted by the lack of thoughtful response to the current condemnation of educators for all that is wrong with American education.

On behalf of my colleagues, and most importantly the students in our classrooms, thank you, thank you, thank you. Keep talking. We do need your help.

Most sincerely,

Michael Lambert


April 13, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I just finished reading your most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I want to first thank you for the courage it took for you to publish this. I admire you for your honest reflection of the journey you have been on. Your ideas about what is really important about the public schools are right on. I agree with you that the current administration has jumped on the “free market” bandwagon and is setting policy that is dangerous to the future of our nation. Thank you for exposing the truth through this thought-filled expose.

Thank you for sharing the research of the great charter school “choice” experiments that are ongoing in our country through your writings. I was unaware of the extent of the influence that Gates and the other “Billionaires” were having in urban communities. I had no idea... I live in AZ, where our charter school growth has succeeded in contributing to a serious “stranglehold” in our state budget and the weakening of strong communities. I live in a more rural area of the state, so our communities tend to value the local public schools, but the charter schools give us a run for our money. A vast majority of parents bring their kids back to the public schools. I think our young parents need to be educated.

I am a proud and experienced teacher and school administrator (32+ years). I have been on a reflective journey of my own this year. My position as Director of Special Services was eliminated at the end of last school year to effectuate economies in the district. Feeling the effects of what you might describe as “reform fatigue,” I elected to take the year off and go back to school to complete the certification requirements to become a school superintendent. I was hoping to renew my vision for the future of public education and re-energize for the next phase of my professional life. As I complete the final courses this semester and prepare for the “illustrious” test that will determine whether or not I will be an effective school superintendent, I have contemplated whether or not I even want to continue in this field. Our state faces drastic budget cuts. People are pitted against each other for survival. School boards and interest groups put so much pressure on the schools. The purposes of the schools are changing. It is a time when I question if public education will survive the pressures.

I have wonderful memories of some great teachers and of having great moments as an exceptional teacher. I wonder if I would “measure up” in today’s standards. I am thankful AZ was not chosen for “Race to the Top.” Most people think the “writing is on the wall” and that we will all be required to follow their guidelines. Is there no one willing to fight this strange initiative? I have often asked, “What will we do for money?” People will jump through all kinds of unnatural and inappropriate “hoops” for it.

Teaching is my greatest gift and love (except for my family, of course). Yet, in this climate of “data-driven” decision making, I lose my enthusiasm for the work in this field. Spending hours disaggregating data and pressuring teachers to improve their test scores is not my idea of fulfilling work. And I wonder, “Will I ever find the place to lead and serve that will embrace the core values that our public schools have held in striving to give every child access to a rich curriculum and meaningful learning activities?” I have to believe and “stay the course.” This is my life.

I pray that President Obama, Arnie Duncan and others read your book and seriously contemplate the many questions you posed throughout your book. If they do, I am sure they will experience enlightenment at some level (if that is possible). The “good old boys” seem to have a new agenda, and it’s not good for kids. Yet, they seem mightily determined... Does evidence change their thinking?

Again, thank you for your book, your life’s work, and the influence you continue to have on many powerful people in our government. I am inspired and encouraged. God bless you!


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


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