I would highly recommend reading “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” if you’re looking for an overview of what’s happened in education over the past few decades. It not only discusses the policy decisions and educational movements, but also explains many of the basics – for example, the differences between charter, voucher, private, and public schools.
It also brings to light the dire straits of today’s American education system. 33% of all 4th grade students can’t read at grade level and 68% of 8th graders can’t read at grade level. More than 1.2 million students drop out every year. And our graduation rate as a nation? 70%. That number is even lower for African-American and Hispanic students – hovering around 50% (according to the Broad Residency webpage). These stats are nothing to be proud about, especially since we rank 25 in math and 21 in science out of 30 industrialize countries.
After reading this book, it seems to me that one of the biggest problems surrounding education is politics, something that we unfortunately can’t seem to escape in any arena of life. It troubles me, however, when politics and re-election take a front seat to the education of our children. For example, Ms. Ravitch looks at the movement to establish voluntary national standards. When the history standards came out in 1994, they were lambasted as being “the epitome of left-wing political correctness” and for not mentioning enough about America’s great men. All there seemed to be was critique. A media firestorm ensued and quickly spiraled out of control. And what happened to the national history standards? They petered out. My question is, why didn’t opposing parties work together, to fix the standards? Most things can be revised, with new learning and new information. Shouldn’t we be working together to solve a common problem? To make education better?
The book also had a strong focus on testing (as is indicated by its subtitle: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education). Diane argues that the focus on testing is driving teachers to prepare students for tests, versus on educating children. And who can help but agree? If your job depends on your students scoring well on a test, who wouldn’t make that a main focus of instruction? However, I do believe there needs to be some accountability, some kind of testing. People in corporate jobs are held accountable every day for everything they do. There needs to be something equivalent for teachers. Maybe the real problem lies with the tests themselves. I am the first to admit that test design is incredibly difficult, and I am by no means qualified to come up with a test that would truly test how educated our students are. But there are smart people out there, who are deeply experienced in teaching and education, who should be able to come up with something that works. Maybe we need to think about redesigning tests to gather meaningful data about what students need to know to succeed.
Then there is the question of the charter movement, something that I really don’t feel qualified to form an opinion about given my limited knowledge (not that I know enough to form an opinion about most things when it comes to education). The only thing I will say, is that for the charter schools that are doing well, even if they are taking the best of the students in poorer communities and helping them succeed, isn’t that a good thing?