Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: The Death and Life of the Great American School System

How Testing and Choice Undermine Education. 2010 by Diane Ravitch.
Review by Duane Campbell.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System; 
Historian  Ravitch, formerly a prominent conservative critic of efforts toward multicultural school reform has now reversed many of her earlier positions and in particular criticizes the over use and abuse of testing and the development of for profit charter schools.  Ravitch is currently a research Professor of Education at New York University, formerly a Fellow at the Hoover Institute, and an Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush.   It is interesting a welcome to have a  prominent scholar reverse her earlier positions.  She seems to have changed her positions because she continued to look at the data, and the test based reforms which she earlier promoted are not working out.  And, she examines the specifics of testing limitations. There is no evidence in the book  that she has reversed her earlier advocacy opposing  pluralism and multicultural education.
The Death and Life of the Great American School System   provides an important description of the media savvy campaign of the pro charter groups- such as Democrats for Education Reform, and the groups Ravitch calls the “Billionaires Boy’s Clubs” .  This is one of the best chapters in the  well written book.  She describes how the Broad Foundation, the Gates and others have taken a leadership in criticizing schools.  Their advocates clearly have the ear of Secretary of Education Duncan and Barack Obama.   A central purpose of their work is to weaken teachers unions.  A part of their effort is organized in the Democrats for Education Reform.
One of the points not developed by Ravitch is the ploy these groups use is  that you are either for the charter based reforms and privatization, or you are for continuing public schools as they are – a deceptive premise  at best.  There are thousands of dedicated school reformers who have worked for decades to improve schools.  And, we have improved some.  We should continue to improve and reform schools. 

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, (2010)Diane Ravitch briefly describes her role in writing the current History/Social Science Framework for California schools.  I continue to dissent from her writing in these arena.  I hope that she re-examines her role in this area also.
Textbooks for  California schools are selected by the State Board of Education based upon recommendations of their Curriculum Committees and the state frameworks and standards.  It is urgent that the History-Social Science Framework be revised to provide an accurate history of the contributions of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Latinos and Asians to the history of the state and of the nation. The current Framework reflects the historiography of the 1950’s. It was written in 1986 by senior scholars,  lead by Diane Ravitch.  They in turn were educated in the early 1970’s or before. It is substantially out of date. 
The current Framework was written in 1986 and published in 1987 after a great deal of controversy.  Ravitch was one of the three primary authors of the Framework. The Framework is  supposed to be revised each 7 years. The Framework, along with the standards, provides the guidelines for what is to be taught and what is to be included in the history and social science textbooks in California. In 2009, the History /Social Science Framework was  up for re consideration but the process was halted by the budget crisis.
 California has the largest population of any state, with more than 6,252,000 students  in school in 2008.   California students make up more than 11 percent of the United States total. California, along with some 16 other states, adopts textbooks for the entire state instead of district by district purchasing. This makes the California adoption the largest single textbook sale in the nation. Gaining   this market is an important goal for textbook publishers. Many publishers write and edit their books in a targeted attempt to win control of the large and  lucrative California and Texas markets.   Publishers promote and try to sell books developed in California in response to the narrow conservative Framework  throughout the nation in an effort to increase their profits. 
 The 1980’s were the age of Ronald Reagan.  As Governor he appointed members of the State Board of Education.  His influence continued long after he became President of the U.S. The view of history that won the battle  in California in 1987  was crafted by neoconservative historian Diane Ravitch and supported by Paul Gagnon and former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995).  Ravitch was the historian and the primary author of the history sections of the Framework. 
The 1987 Framework still in use today  expanded African American, Native American, and women’s history coverage but remains totally inadequate in the coverage of Latinos and Asians. The only significant change between the 1985 and the 2005 adopted Framework was the addition of a new cover, a cover letter, and additions of photos such as of Cesar Chavez . Latinos currently make up 48.1 percent of California’s student population and Asians make up 8.1 %. 
The dominant neo conservative view  of history promoted by Ravitch  argues that textbooks and a common history should provide the glue that unites our society. Historical themes and interpretations are selected in books to create unity in a diverse and divided society, a unity from the point of view of the dominant class.  This viewpoint assigns to schools the task of creating a common culture. In reality, television and military service may do more to create a common culture than do schools and books.
Conservatives assign the task of cultural assimilation to schools, with particular emphasis on the history, social science, and literature curricula. Historians advocating consensus write textbooks that downplay the roles of slavery, class, racism, genocide, and imperialism in our history. They focus on ethnicity and assimilation rather than race, on the success of achieving political reform, representative government, and economic opportunity for European American workers and immigrants. They decline to notice the high poverty rate of U.S. children, the crisis of urban schooling, and the continuation of racial divisions in housing and the labor force. In California they decline to notice that Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and Latinos as well as Asians contributed to the development of this society.
This consensus conservative viewpoint history dominates textbook publishing in California , but these partial and incomplete histories do not empower students from our diverse cultural communities. By recounting primarily a consensual, European American view, history and literature extend and reconstruct current White supremacy, sexism, and class biases in our society. When texts or teachers tell only part of the story, schools foster intellectual colonialism and ideological domination (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995). 
         When the 48.1 % of students who are Latino , and the 11.5 % who are Asian do not see themselves as part of history,  for many their sense of self is marginalized.   Marginalization negatively impacts their connections with school and their success at school.  It contributes to an over 50% drop out rate for Latinos and some Asian students.  An accurate history  would provide some students with a  a sense of self, of direction,  of purpose. History and social science  classes  should help young people acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives.   Instead, the current history textbooks  based upon the guidelines of the Ravitch written Framework, tell a fairy tale of what happened here in the Southwest.
 Many schools serving urban and impoverished students  need  adequate funding and fundamental change. As I argue in my book, Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education (2010) these schools do not open the doors to civic and  economic opportunity. They usually do not promote equality. Instead, they recycle inequality. The high school drop out rates alone demonstrate that  urban schools  prepare less than 50 percent of their students for entrance into the economy and society. We cannot build a safe, just, and prosperous society while we   leave   so many young people behind.
Ravtich has written an excellent book detailing many of the controversial issues in education with a focus on the role of testing, the Billionaires Boy’s Club, and the role of Charters.  It is well worth reading.  She provides some needed criticism of the exaggerated claims and the media promotion  of the corporate side of the school reform debates such as provided in the promoted film, Waiting for Superman.    The book will be useful in promoting the needed debates on  school reform  leading up to the Congressional attempt to re-authorize No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top in a Republican controlled Congress  this Spring.  

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