The Death and Life of the Great American School System

How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education


By Diane Ravitch

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An urgent case for protecting public education, from one of America’s best-known education experts

In this landmark book, Diane Ravitch – former assistant secretary of education and a leader in the drive to create a national curriculum – examines her career in education reform and repudiates positions that she once staunchly advocated. Drawing on over forty years of research and experience, Ravitch critiques today’s most popular ideas for restructuring schools, including privatization, the Common Core, standardized testing, the replacement of teachers by technology, charter schools, and vouchers. She shows conclusively why the business model is not an appropriate way to improve schools. Using examples from major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, and San Diego, Ravitch makes the case that public education today is in peril and includes clear prescriptions for improving America’s schools.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System is more than just an analysis of the state of play of the American education system. It is a must-read for any stakeholder in the future of American schooling.


Also by Diane Ravitch
Edspeak: A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords, and Jargon
The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn
Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms
National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide
The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crisis of Our Times
The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980
The Revisionists Revised: A Critique of the Radical Attack on the Schools
The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973
What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature
Debating the Future of American Education: Do We Need National Standards and Assessments?
The American Reader
Brookings Papers on Education Policy
The English Reader
Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America’s Children
Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society
City Schools: Lessons from New York
New Schools for a New Century: The Redesign of Urban Education
Learning from the Past: What History Teaches Us about School Reform
The Democracy Reader
Challenges to the Humanities
Educating an Urban People: The New York City Experience
Against Mediocrity: Improving the Teaching of the Humanities in America’s High Schools
The School and the City: Community Studies in the History of American Education

This book is dedicated
with love to my grandchildren
Nico Zev
Aidan Thor
Elijah Lev

What I Learned About School Reform
IN THE FALL OF 2007, I reluctantly decided to have my office repainted. It was inconvenient. I work at home, on the top floor of a nineteenth-century brownstone in Brooklyn. Not only did I have to stop working for three weeks, but I had the additional burden of packing up and removing everything in my office. I had to relocate fifty boxes of books and files to other rooms in the house until the painting job was complete.
After the patching, plastering, and painting was done, I began unpacking twenty years of papers and books, discarding those I no longer wanted, and placing articles into scrapbooks. You may wonder what all this mundane stuff has to do with my life in the education field. I found that the chore of reorganizing the artifacts of my professional life was pleasantly ruminative. It had a tonic effect, because it allowed me to reflect on the changes in my views over the years.
At the very time that I was packing up my books and belongings, I was going through an intellectual crisis. I was aware that I had undergone a wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform. Where once I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas. I was trying to sort through the evidence about what was working and what was not. I was trying to understand why I was increasingly skeptical about these reforms, reforms that I had supported enthusiastically. I was trying to see my way through the blinding assumptions of ideology and politics, including my own.
I kept asking myself why I was losing confidence in these reforms. My answer: I have a right to change my mind. Fair enough. But why, I kept wondering, why had I changed my mind? What was the compelling evidence that prompted me to reevaluate the policies I had endorsed many times over the previous decade? Why did I now doubt ideas I once had advocated?
The short answer is that my views changed as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality. The long answer is what will follow in the rest of this book. When someone chastised John Maynard Keynes for reversing himself about a particular economic policy he had previously endorsed, he replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”1 This comment may or may not be apocryphal, but I admire the thought behind it. It is the mark of a sentient human being to learn from experience, to pay close attention to how theories work out when put into practice.
What should we think of someone who never admits error, never entertains doubt but adheres unflinchingly to the same ideas all his life, regardless of new evidence? Doubt and skepticism are signs of rationality. When we are too certain of our opinions, we run the risk of ignoring any evidence that conflicts with our views. It is doubt that shows we are still thinking, still willing to reexamine hardened beliefs when confronted with new facts and new evidence.
The task of sorting my articles gave me the opportunity to review what I had written at different times, beginning in the mid-1960s. As I flipped from article to article, I kept asking myself, how far had I strayed from where I started? Was it like me to shuffle off ideas like an ill-fitting coat? As I read and skimmed and remembered, I began to see two themes at the center of what I have been writing for more than four decades. One constant has been my skepticism about pedagogical fads, enthusiasms, and movements. The other has been a deep belief in the value of a rich, coherent school curriculum, especially in history and literature, both of which are so frequently ignored, trivialized, or politicized.2
Over the years, I have consistently warned against the lure of “the royal road to learning,” the notion that some savant or organization has found an easy solution to the problems of American education. As a historian of education, I have often studied the rise and fall of grand ideas that were promoted as the sure cure for whatever ills were afflicting our schools and students. In 1907, William Chandler Bagley complained about the “fads and reforms that sweep through the educational system at periodic intervals.” A few years later, William Henry Maxwell, the esteemed superintendent of schools in New York City, heaped scorn on educational theorists who promoted their panaceas to gullible teachers; one, he said, insisted that “vertical penmanship” was the answer to all problems; another maintained that recess was a “relic of barbarism.” Still others wanted to ban spelling and grammar to make school more fun.3 I have tried to show in my work the persistence of our national infatuation with fads, movements, and reforms, which invariably distract us from the steadiness of purpose needed to improve our schools.
In our own day, policymakers and business leaders have eagerly enlisted in a movement launched by free-market advocates, with the support of major foundations. Many educators have their doubts about the slogans and cure-alls of our time, but they are required to follow the mandates of federal law (such as No Child Left Behind) despite their doubts.
School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss’s Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land “where they never have troubles, at least very few.” Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. In my writings, I have consistently warned that, in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets. For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly.
As I flipped through the yellowing pages in my scrapbooks, I started to understand the recent redirection of my thinking, my growing doubt regarding popular proposals for choice and accountability. Once again, I realized, I was turning skeptical in response to panaceas and miracle cures. The only difference was that in this case, I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures; I too had drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems. I too had jumped aboard a bandwagon, one festooned with banners celebrating the power of accountability, incentives, and markets. I too was captivated by these ideas. They promised to end bureaucracy, to ensure that poor children were not neglected, to empower poor parents, to enable poor children to escape failing schools, and to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. Testing would shine a spotlight on low-performing schools, and choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for better schools. All of this seemed to make sense, but there was little empirical evidence, just promise and hope. I wanted to share the promise and the hope. I wanted to believe that choice and accountability would produce great results. But over time, I was persuaded by accumulating evidence that the latest reforms were not likely to live up to their promise. The more I saw, the more I lost the faith.
It seemed, therefore, that it would be instructive to take a fresh look at the reform strategies that are now so prominent in American education and to review the evidence of their effectiveness. This book is my opportunity to explain what I have learned about school reform and also to suggest, with (I hope) a certain degree of modesty and full acknowledgment of my own frailties and errors, what is needed to move American education in the right direction.
THE FIRST ARTICLE I EVER WROTE about education was published in a small (and now defunct) education journal called the Urban Review in 1968. Its title—“Programs, Placebos, Panaceas”—signaled what turned out to be a constant preoccupation for me, the conflict between promise and reality, between utopian hopes and knotty problems. I reviewed short-term compensatory education programs—that is, short-term interventions to help kids who were far behind—and concluded that “only sustained quality education makes a difference.” My second article, titled “Foundations: Playing God in the Ghetto” (1969), discussed the Ford Foundation’s role in the protracted controversy over decentralization and community control that led to months of turmoil in the public schools of New York City.4 This question—the extent to which it is appropriate for a mega-rich foundation to take charge of reforming public schools, even though it is accountable to no one and elected by no one—will be treated in this book. The issue is especially important today, because some of the nation’s largest foundations are promoting school reforms based on principles drawn from the corporate sector, without considering whether they are appropriate for educational institutions.
In the late 1960s, the issue of decentralization versus centralization turned into a heated battle. Newspapers featured daily stories about community groups demanding decentralization of the schools and blaming teachers and administrators for the school system’s lack of success with minority children. Many school reformers then assumed that African American and Hispanic parents and local community leaders, not professional educators, knew best what their children needed.
As the clamor to decentralize the school system grew, I became curious about why the system had been centralized in the first place. I spent many days in the New-York Historical Society library studying the history of the city’s school system; the last such history had been published in 1905. I discovered that the system had been decentralized in the nineteenth century. The school reformers of the 1890s demanded centralization as an antidote to low-performing schools and advocated control by professionals as the cure for the incompetence and corruption of local school boards. As I read, I was struck by the ironic contrast between the reformers’ demands in the 1890s for centralization and the reformers’ demands in the 1960s for decentralization. The earlier group consisted mainly of social elites, the latter of parents and activists who wanted local control of the schools.
So intrigued was I by the contrast between past and present that I determined to write a history of the New York City public schools, which became The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973.5 This was quite a challenge for someone who had graduated from the Houston public schools and—at that time—had no advanced degrees in history or education. As I was completing the book, I earned a doctorate from Columbia University in the history of American education, and the book became my dissertation. While writing and pursuing my graduate studies, I worked under the tutelage of Lawrence Cremin, the greatest historian of American education of his era.
In the mid-1970s, Cremin persuaded me to write a critique of a group of leftist historians who attacked the underpinnings of public schooling. They called themselves revisionists, because they set themselves the goal of demolishing what they saw as a widespread myth about the benevolent purposes and democratic accomplishments of public education. The authors, all of them professors at various universities, treated the public schools scornfully as institutions devised by elites to oppress the poor. This point of view was so contrary to my own understanding of the liberating role of public education—not only in my own life but also in the life of the nation—that I felt compelled to refute it.
The resulting book was called The Revisionists Revised: A Critique of the Radical Attack on the Schools.6 In that book, I defended the democratic, civic purposes of public schooling. I argued that the public schools had not been devised by scheming capitalists to impose “social control” on an unwilling proletariat or to reproduce social inequality; the schools were never an instrument of cultural repression, as the radical critics claimed. Instead, I held, they are a primary mechanism through which a democratic society gives its citizens the opportunity to attain literacy and social mobility. Opportunity leaves much to individuals; it is not a guarantee of certain success. The schools cannot solve all our social problems, nor are they perfect. But in a democratic society, they are necessary and valuable for individuals and for the commonweal.
My next book was a history of national education policy from 1945 to 1980, an era notable for major court decisions and federal legislation. In The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945- 1980, I analyzed the many fascinating controversies associated with McCarthyism, progressive education, the civil rights movement, bilingual education, the women’s movement, and other social and political upheavals.7
While writing The Troubled Crusade, I became increasingly interested in issues related to the quality of the curriculum. I began studying the history of pedagogy, curriculum, and standards, especially the teaching of literature and history and the representation of our culture in schools. In 1987, I coauthored a book with my friend Chester E. (Checker) Finn Jr. called What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? which reported on the first federal test of history and literature. We lamented what seemed to be a loss of cultural memory, a position that hit a public nerve but was scorned in the academic world, which was then caught up in postmodernism and a revolt against “the canon.” Our view was that you can’t reject the canon if you have no knowledge of it.8
In 1985, California State Superintendent Bill Honig invited me to help write a new history curriculum for the state. Over a two-year period, I worked closely with teachers and scholars to draft a curriculum framework that integrated history with literature, geography, the arts, social sciences, and humanities. With this framework, California would become the first state to require all students to study three years of world history, and three years of U.S. history, with a substantial infusion of history and biography in the elementary grades. The framework was adopted by the State Board of Education in 1987 and remains in place to this day with only minor revisions to update it. Over the past two decades, the state of California replaced its reading curriculum, its mathematics curriculum, and its science curriculum, but the history curriculum—touching on some of the most sensitive and controversial topics and events in American and world history—endured.9
I had not, to this point in my life, given much thought to issues of choice, markets, or accountability.
Then something unexpected happened: I received a telephone call in the spring of 1991 from President George H. W. Bush’s newly appointed education secretary, Lamar Alexander. Alexander, a moderate Republican, had been governor of Tennessee. The secretary invited me to come to Washington to chat with him and his deputy David Kearns, who had recently been the chief executive officer of Xerox. We met for lunch at the elegant Hay-Adams Hotel, near the White House. We talked about curriculum and standards (Secretary Alexander later joked that I talked and he listened), and at the end of lunch he asked me to join the department as assistant secretary in charge of the Office of Educational Research and Innovation and as his counselor.
I went home to Brooklyn to think about it. I was a registered Democrat, always had been, and had never dreamed of working in a government job, let alone a Republican administration. I had no desire to leave Brooklyn or to abandon my life as a scholar. And yet I was intrigued by the thought of working in the federal government. Surely education was a nonpartisan issue, or so I then imagined. I decided that this would be a wonderful opportunity to perform public service, learn about federal politics, and do something totally different. I said yes, was confirmed by the Senate, moved to Washington, and spent the next eighteen months as assistant secretary and counselor to the secretary in the U.S. Department of Education.
During my time at the department, I took the lead on issues having to do with curriculum and standards. The federal government is prohibited by law from imposing any curriculum on states or school districts. Nonetheless, my agency used its very small allotment of discretionary funds (about $10 million) to make grants to consortia of educators to develop “voluntary national standards” in every academic subject. Our assumption was that so long as the standards were developed by independent professional groups and were voluntary, we were not violating the legal prohibition against imposing curriculum on states and school districts. And so we funded the development of voluntary national standards in history, the arts, geography, civics, science, economics, foreign languages, and English. We did this energetically but without specific congressional authorization; the absence of authorization unfortunately lessened the projects’ credibility and longevity.
The Department of Education was committed to both standards and choice (choice was even higher on the agenda of Republicans than standards, because Republicans generally opposed national standards, which suggested federal meddling). At meetings of top staff in the department, I sat in on many discussions of school choice in which the question was not whether to support choice, but how to do so. The issue of choice had never been important to me, but I found myself trying to incorporate the arguments for choice into my own worldview. I reasoned that standards would be even more necessary in a society that used public dollars to promote school choice. The more varied the schools, the more important it would be to have common standards to judge whether students were learning. I began to sympathize with the argument for letting federal dollars follow poor students to the school of their choice. If kids were not succeeding in their regular public school, why not let them take their federal funds to another public school or to a private—even religious—school? Since affluent families could choose their schools by moving to a better neighborhood or enrolling their children in private schools, why shouldn’t poor families have similar choices?
In the decade following my stint in the federal government, I argued that certain managerial and structural changes—that is, choice, charters, merit pay, and accountability—would help to reform our schools. With such changes, teachers and schools would be judged by their performance; this was a basic principle in the business world. Schools that failed to perform would be closed, just as a corporation would close a branch office that continually produced poor returns. Having been immersed in a world of true believers, I was influenced by their ideas. I became persuaded that the business-minded thinkers were onto something important. Their proposed reforms were meant to align public education with the practices of modern, flexible, high-performance organizations and to enable American education to make the transition from the industrial age to the postindustrial age. In the 1990s, I found myself in step with people who quoted Peter Drucker and other management gurus. I dropped casual references to “total quality management” and the Baldridge Award, both of which I learned about by listening to David Kearns during my stint in the Department of Education.
During this time, I wrote many articles advocating structural innovations. In the past, I would have cast a cold eye on efforts to “reinvent the schools” or to “break the mold,” but now I supported bold attempts to remake the schools, such as charter schools, privatization, and specialized schools of all kinds. I maintained that we should celebrate the creation of good schools, no matter what form they took or who developed them.
Both the Bush administration and the Clinton administration advocated market reforms for the public sector, including deregulation and privatization. Bill Clinton and the New Democrats championed a “third way” between the orthodox policies of the left and the right. People in both parties quoted Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler as a guide to cutting down bureaucracy and injecting entrepreneurship into government.10 Months after his inauguration, President Clinton tasked Vice President Al Gore to devise ways to “reinvent” the federal bureaucracy, and he did. With the help of David Osborne, Gore created the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, whose purpose was to adapt private sector management techniques to the public sector. Many of its recommendations involved privatizing, cutting jobs, and implementing performance agreements in which agencies would receive autonomy from regulations in exchange for meeting targets.11
Similar ideas began to percolate in the world of public education. 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. Government-run schools, said a new generation of reformers, are ineffective because they are a monopoly; as such, they have no incentive to do better, and they serve the interests of adults who work in the system, not children. Democrats saw an opportunity to reinvent government; Republicans, a chance to diminish the power of the teachers’ unions, which, in their view, protect jobs and pensions while blocking effective management and innovation.
This convergence explained the bipartisan appeal of charter schools. Why shouldn’t schools be managed by anyone who could supply good schools, using government funds? Free of direct government control, the schools would be innovative, hire only the best teachers, get rid of incompetent teachers, set their own pay scales, compete for students (customers), and be judged solely by their results (test scores and graduation rates). Good schools under private management would proliferate, while bad schools would be closed down by market forces (the exit of disgruntled parents) or by a watchful government. Some of the new generation of reformers—mainly Republicans, but not only Republicans—imagined that the schools of the future would function without unions, allowing management to hire and fire personnel at will. With the collapse of Communism and the triumph of market reforms in most parts of the world, it did not seem to be much of a stretch to envision the application of the market model to schooling.
Like many others in that era, I was attracted to the idea that the market would unleash innovation and bring greater efficiencies to education. I was certainly influenced by the conservative ideology of other top-level officials in the first Bush administration, who were strong supporters of school choice and competition. But of equal importance, I believe, I began to think like a policymaker, especially a federal policymaker. That meant, in the words of a book by James C. Scott that I later read and admired, I began “seeing like a state,” looking at schools and teachers and students from an altitude of 20,000 feet and seeing them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans.12
Anyone who is a policymaker, aspires to be a policymaker, or wants to influence policymakers must engage in “seeing like a state.” It is inevitable. Policymaking requires one to make decisions that affect people’s lives without their having a chance to cast a vote. If no one thought like a state, there would probably be no highways or public works of any kind. Those who make the most noise would veto almost everything. It is the job of representative government to make decisions without seeking a majority vote from their constituents on every single question. Anyone who recommends a change of federal or state policy engages in “seeing like a state.” Improvement also depends on having a mix of views and new ideas to prevent the status quo from becoming ossified. Those who make policy are most successful when they must advance their ideas through a gauntlet of checks and balances, explaining their plans, submitting them to a process of public review, and attempting to persuade others to support them. If the policymaker cannot persuade others, then his plans will not be implemented. That’s democracy.


  • "Ms. Ravitch...writes with enormous authority and common sense."—New York Times
  • "In an age when almost everybody has an opinion about schools, Ravitch's name must be somewhere near the top of the Rolodex of every serious education journalist in this country."—Nation
  • "Ms. Ravitch [is] the country's soberest, most history-minded education expert."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Ravitch's hopeful vision is of a national curriculum--she's had enough of fly-by-night methods and unchallenging requirements. She's impatient with education that is not personally transformative. She believes there is experience and knowledge of art, literature, history, science, and math that every public school graduate should have."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "The book intelligently and readably addresses today's education controversies, using a combination of anecdotes, case studies, and statistics.... [I]t's a must-read for education policymakers at all levels of government."—National Review
  • "Ravitch's critique is an essential one--passionate, well considered and completely logical."—Time Magazine
  • "Diane Ravitch is arguably our leading historian of primary and secondary education."
    Andrew Delbanco, New York Review of Books
  • "Ravitch is our best living historian of education. In my view she is the best ever."—Jay Matthews,
  • "The book that follows is, if not a mea culpa, perhaps something more valuable--a fiercely argued manifesto against fads in education reform and for public schools, and the teachers and students who inhabit them."—Boston Globe
  • "The Death and Life of the Great American School System may yet inspire a lot of high-level rethinking."—Los Angeles Times
  • "Her credibility with conservatives is exactly why it would be particularly instructive for everyone--whether you have kids in school or not--to read The Death and Life of the Great American School System."—Valerie Strauss,, Washington Post
  • "For readers on all sides of the school-reform debate, this is a very important book."—Booklist, starred review
  • "[A]n important and highly readable examination of the educational system, how it fails to prepare students for life after graduation, and how we can put it back on track.... Anyone interested in education should definitely read this accessible, riveting book."—Library Journal, starred review
  • "Diane Ravitch is the rarest of scholars--one who reports her findings and conclusions, even when they go against conventional wisdom and even when they counter her earlier, publicly espoused positions. A 'must' read for all who truly care about American education."—Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • "Diane Ravitch is one of the most important public intellectuals of our time. In this powerful and deftly written book, she takes on the big issues of American education today, fearlessly articulating both the central importance of strong public education and the central elements for strengthening our schools. Anyone who cares about public education should read this book." —Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, Stanford University, and Founding Executive Director, National Commission for Teaching & America's Future
  • "By facing off against most of the centers of power in her field, Ravitch has turned herself into a singular check on the ascendant education orthodoxy."
    The Atlantic

On Sale
Jun 28, 2016
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

Diane Ravitch

About the Author

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the former Assistant Secretary of Education and a former member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program. The author of ten books, including Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Ravitch lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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