Dear Dr. Ravitch:
I just finished reading, and very much enjoyed, your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. The book answered many questions I had about how we got to where we are now in our education system, and, more importantly, why we appear to be headed in insanely wrong directions right now with no one seeming to have the power to stop it, or even steer it in a better direction.
As background, I was an electrical engineer (BSEE) and manager (MBA) in the electronics industry for nearly 20 years before becoming a high school Physics teacher 10 years ago. I have always been quite good at recognizing the underlying power structures of an organization, but was at a loss to do so regarding the driving forces behind our education policies until I read your book (and I am now more scared than before).
I do, however, have several comments to make concerning your book:
Regarding the title: There is nothing in the book that would make me conclude that the word “Life” should be in the title. I suspect that you put it there because “The Death of the Great American School System” would have been too negative to sell books. But we currently appear to have a political system that is claiming our school system to be failing, while simultaneously doing everything they can to make it fail.
I have read numerous articles by you over the years (I’m a bit of a politics junkie) and cannot help but feel that you bear some responsibility for “where we are now” in the American education system, but I agree with where you appear to be right now in your philosophies. Still, based on your history, I believe that you might have more of an obligation than most to use your connections to high-level officials, that most of us do not have, to fight some of the insanity that seems to be flourishing in the education bureaucracy right now.
Finally, I would like to discuss one area not really covered by your book, but what I feel to be at the heart of the problems with our education system. And that is our economy as a whole.
I am in a very unique situation as a teacher and observer of education. I left my hometown of about 8,000 people in 1975 at the age of 19. I spent 4 years in the Air Force and nearly 20 years as an engineer before getting certified to teach high school Physics. By an odd twist of fate, I ended up back in the very same town (and school) that I had left behind almost 30 years ago. And I believe that this has allowed me to see the changes that have occurred much better than many of those teachers who were here all those years.
What I left behind 30 years before was a wonderful small-town school. It was the center of the community (and it was, indeed, a community). Teachers were demanding (and parents were, too), but they cared about you, and seemed genuinely happy to be teaching you. But, more importantly, it was a middle-class town. In spite of being in the middle of a rural area, the local businesses included: a radio manufacturing plant, train tank-car makers, a food-processing plant, furniture-making plant, a paper mill, several pharmaceutical plants, a huge shoe factory, a computer hardware manufacturer, a huge fabric-dying plant, a steel mill, two Federal prisons, and more. All in about a 10 mile radius. There were beautiful little housing developments all around, and the downtown was clean and somewhat vibrant, although starting to give way to the malls.
I would probably have been considered lower-middle-class, but being near the top of my class academically seemed to put me in good stead with my more middle-class friends. Virtually all of my closest high school friends went on to become doctors, engineers, or otherwise successful professionals. And, yet, we didn’t even have SAT prep classes, or any of the time-consuming testing that we have today.
Now, nearly all of those businesses are gone, with very few stepping in to replace them. Those once-beautiful little housing developments have become a bit sloppier, and the rest of the town a bit dirtier. More than half of the student population is on free or reduced lunch plans, and the middle-class is all but gone. There are still a few highly-motivated students, and most of the others are fairly cooperative, if not all that motivated, but working well below their abilities. It could certainly be worse, but it was far better 30 years ago. The closing businesses and decaying infrastructure are a perfect metaphor for the attitudes that students bring to school with them.
While our economy may not have actually “promised” us a future when I was young, it at least appeared to do so…and it gave us more hope. These kids do not really see the “hope” in today’s economy (nor do I). Politicians and business people have been (successfully) placing the blame for our failing economy on the schools, when it is actually the other way around.
In the last year, our school has jumped on the “Data Driven” bandwagon. We now spend inordinate amounts of time over-analyzing the results of a few questions from any number of tests they are administering. It is all a fool’s errand anyway, because we failed to reach required proficiency levels last year, and have absolutely no hope of reaching the even higher levels that will be required in the coming years.
My state is about to embark on a Teacher Evaluation pilot program for about 100 schools, and our superintendent has signed us up to participate in it. Our state Education Secretary has said that they will be having a consulting firm (Mathematica) attempt to statistically tie student test performance to individual teachers, even though those tests might not be in the specific area of the teachers being rated. The rest of the rating will be tied to a lengthy checklist derived from Charlotte Danielson’s framework (which I have to believe she would not find an appropriate use of her work). But, as you discussed in your book, students will bear none of the responsibility for their test results.
Within the next 2 or 3 years, NCLB will have succeeded in labeling nearly all US schools as “failing”. I suspect that it will not take much more time than that for the new evaluation systems to also label most teachers as “failing”. And, while I would never ever discourage any of my students from pursuing their dreams, and will always help them in any way that I can, I would also never initiate the idea that any of my “best and brightest” students become teachers right now. How sad is that for a teacher to say?
In closing, let me just say that I appreciate your excellent book and your recent efforts (those that I have seen in the press and those you have likely made without my noticing) in attempting to address some of the insanity that is currently running through the uppermost levels of our education bureaucracy. I hope you will keep at it, because I know that many of my fellow teachers are feeling utterly helpless and demoralized, as do I, by what we see taking place in our field. And you appear to be one of the few people who are actually on our side these days.