Educational Horizons, Vol. 88, No. 4, Summer 2010, p. 194-198
Published by Pi Lambda Theta

Book Review

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

by Diane Ravitch, Basic Books, 2010

Reviewed by David Klein

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch offers a panoramic view of the past two decades of precollegiate American education, a sharp critique of its current course, and prescriptions for renewal. She takes aim at standardized testing, punitive accountability, the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation with its narrow focus on reading and math, and most especially the relentless drive toward privatizing the public schools.

The author confesses forthrightly to her own role in furthering those trends. Explaining her change of heart, she writes, “I began to question ideas that I once embraced, such as choice and accountability, that were central to NCLB. As time went by, my doubts multiplied. I came to realize that the sanctions embedded in NCLB were, in fact, not only ineffective but certain to contribute to the privatization of large chunks of public education.”

Illustrating the damage caused by corporate “reform,” Ravitch devotes three chapters to the San Diego and New York City school systems. In the 1990s, many prominent education leaders attributed rising test scores in District 2, within the New York City school system, to the mandated use of a child-centered reading program called “Balanced Literacy” and the constructivist math programs “TERC” and “Everyday Math,” along with high-stakes testing and school choice. Overlooked as a more plausible explanation for improving test scores were the demographics that gentrification of the district had altered.

Inspired by the so-called “District 2 miracle,” the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) adopted the New York City model starting in 1998, but with even greater coercion. The San Diego business community bankrolled its pro-business school board candidates, who in turn hired Alan Bersin, a top-down superintendent with strong business connections but no education experience. Even though San Diego schools were outperforming the state of California as a whole, the new leadership completely restructured the district, firing administrators and teachers who questioned the SDUSD “Blueprint” and micromanaging the rest. The Gates, Hewlett, and several other foundations, which contributed millions of dollars to the takeover, conditioned their support on retaining Bersin and Anthony Alvarado, his chancellor of instruction, who had headed the District 2 schools in New York. The two administrators required schools to use Balanced Literacy, Everyday Math, and a similarly dubious high school physics program. By the time of the next school board election, both Bersin and Alvarado had left the district, amid much rancor and with San Diego test scores declining relative to the rest of the state.

With the election of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and mayoral control of schools, the same business model was implemented systemwide in New York City, which has the nation’s largest school system. With the support of corporate foundations, large high schools were split into smaller schools, eliminating advanced courses, art and music classes, vocational programs, and extracurricular sports. Charter schools expanded, taking public buildings and otherwise receiving favorable treatment over the district’s regular schools. As in San Diego, the focus was almost entirely on reading and math, to the detriment of other subjects.

Following those case histories, Ravitch devotes a chapter to NCLB, and thereafter a chapter to the broader history of the choice movement, which she traces back to Milton Friedman’s work in the 1950s. Friedman’s radical free-market ideology has exerted enormous influence in all spheres of the U.S. economy and beyond. In the case of education, he was an early advocate of vouchers, the germ of the choice movement that has since engulfed America’s education system. In its current incarnation, as Ravitch describes it, “The new thinking—now ensconced in both parties—saw the public school system as obsolete, because it is controlled by the government and burdened by bureaucracy.” She observes ironically that “at the very time that the financial markets were collapsing, and as deregulation of financial markets got a bad name, many of the leading voices in American education assured the public that the way to educational rejuvenation was through deregulation.” Here, Ravitch’s analysis parallels, and in some respects serves as a companion volume to, Naomi Klein’s important book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, which traces the consequences of free-market capitalism and Friedman’s ideas in other parts of the U.S. and global economy.

Ravitch relies heavily on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, perhaps too much. In one chapter, “The Trouble with Accountability,” she writes,

NAEP monitors trends; if the state says its scores are rising but its scores on NAEP are flat, then the state reports are very likely inflated. In a choice between the state’s selfreported scores and an audit test, the public should trust the audit test. (p. 162)

The argument here is plausible, but there are also reasons not to trust the NAEP exams. The prerequisites of the NAEP math questions for fourth and eighth grade are minimal. They allow the use of calculators on a substantial portion of the exams. Some questions, which closely resemble IQ test items, do not measure math achievement, especially the questions that ask students to complete a pattern or to fill in geometric shapes with other geometric shapes, like puzzles. Some test insignificant vocabulary only; some are so vague they require guessing the intent of the questions. The NAEP exams favor students who have used constructivist math programs with little substance but a greater emphasis on patterns, pictures, and other low-level content. If the NAEP math exams are testing IQ more than math achievement, that could explain why NAEP scores are flat while at least in some instances state achievement scores have increased.

Death and Life’s penultimate chapter, “The Billionaire Boys Club,” tracks the involvement and many underreported failures of the corporate foundations—which Ravitch appropriately describes as “bastions of unaccountable power”—in the nation’s schools. She provides plenty of ammunition to support her warning:

American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas. The current obsession with making our schools work like a business may be the worst of them, for it threatens to destroy public education. (p. 222)

In the final chapter, “Lessons Learned,” the author offers her own recommendations for improving education. “As one innovation follows another,” she drolly observes, “teachers may be forgiven if from time to time they suffer an acute case of reform fatigue.” Drawing a lesson from earlier chapters, she warns,

Our schools will not improve if we continually reorganize their structure and management without regard for their essential purpose. Our educational problems are a function of our lack of educational vision, not a management problem that requires the enlistment of an army of business consultants. (p. 225)

Schools will not improve, she further notes, “if we use them as society’s all-purpose punching bag, blaming them for all the ills of the economy, the burdens imposed on children by poverty, the dysfunctions of families, and the erosion of civility.” Ravitch makes it clear that she does not seek to abolish standardized tests, but warns that American education cannot be improved by “the blind worship of data.”

The challenge for our generation, she argues, is “to create a renaissance in education” that goes “well beyond the basic skills that have recently been the singular focus of federal activity, a renaissance that seeks to teach the best that has been thought and known and done in every field of endeavor.” There is no simple recipe to achieve that, but she offers several ingredients, the most important of which is to “improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn.” Having a curriculum, she acknowledges, is not a “silver bullet,” but its absence is fatal to the mission of schools. Ravitch only obliquely acknowledges the damage caused by whole language learning and constructivist (a.k.a. fuzzy) math programs forced on schools collectively by senior administrators, university professors of education, funding agencies, and national education leaders during the past quarter-century. She glosses over that when she writes,

Our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators. . . . Nor should the curriculum of the schools be the subject of a political negotiation among people who are neither knowledgeable about teaching nor well educated. (p. 225)

By way of counterpoint, it was, after all, the intellectually vacuous reading and math programs imposed by professional educators that led parents of schoolchildren, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, a few courageous teachers, and ultimately politicians to oppose those programs and to try to insert content into the curriculum. Public opposition to the programs in turn paved the way for the “army of business consultants” to gain control.

America’s schools have thus been caught in a giant pincer movement between the anti-intellectualism and incompetence of senior administrators, education professors, and their allies on the one hand, and the coercion and incompetence of the “billionaire boys club” and its many acolytes on the other. Worse, the two groups do not really work in opposition to each other; they work in tandem, supporting each other’s goals.

Ravitch hints at this alliance with her term “left-right strategy,” which appears twice in the text by my count, but this formidable union is not adequately probed. How can schools truly reform? Ravitch’s solution is to return control to “professional educators” in the “hope that the curriculum wars have ended, not in a victory for either side, but in a truce.” But given education leaders’ nearly one hundred-year history of antipathy to academic content—brilliantly documented in her previous work, Left Back—are there really no better alternatives?

The Death and Life of the Great American School System should be read by anyone who seeks to improve American education. It is a major contribution by America’s leading historian of education, and it might mark the beginning of a new era in education.


Klein, D. 2007. “A Quarter Century of U.S. ‘Math Wars’ and Political Partisanship,” BSHM Bulletin 22: 22–33.

Klein, N. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Ravitch, D. 2000. Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. New York: Simon and Schuster.