The Death And Life Of The Great American School System

by Diane Ravitch

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 12, 2024
The Death And Life Of The Great American School System
The Death And Life Of The Great American School System

What are the big ideas? 1. The author argues that the focus on markets and choice in education, such as charter schools and accountability measures, is not an effec

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What are the big ideas?

  1. The author argues that the focus on markets and choice in education, such as charter schools and accountability measures, is not an effective solution for improving public education. Instead, he suggests that curriculum and instruction are more important. This perspective is distinct from other reform literature that emphasizes market forces and competition to drive educational improvements.
  2. The author critiques the way the Standards Movement evolved into the Testing Movement, arguing that A Nation at Risk did not advocate for privatization or an end to public education. Instead, it called for voluntary national standards, increased funding, higher academic requirements, and improved teacher training and compensation. This perspective challenges common assumptions in reform literature about the roots of standardized testing and its role in educational improvement.
  3. The author provides a case study of District 2 in New York City, where researchers attributed school gains solely to pedagogical reforms but failed to consider demographic and economic transformation. This finding highlights the importance of considering contextual factors in evaluating educational improvements.
  4. The author discusses the Blueprint for Student Success in San Diego and its limitations, suggesting that top-down reform initiatives may be effective in the short term but are unlikely to lead to lasting improvements if they fail to build trust among teachers, principals, and other educators. This perspective challenges assumptions about the effectiveness of centralized educational decision-making and control.
  5. The author advocates for a more collaborative, bottom-up approach to educational improvement, empowering educators and valuing their expertise. He argues that this approach is likely to be more successful in the long run than top-down reform initiatives or market-based solutions. This perspective challenges common assumptions about the role of policymakers and external organizations in driving educational improvements.


CHAPTER ONE - What I Learned About School Reform


  • The author was a policymaker in the Department of Education during the Bush administration and later advocated for market-based reforms in education, such as charter schools and accountability measures.
  • However, the author has since come to believe that these reforms are not effective solutions to educational problems and may even harm public education.
  • The author now believes that curriculum and instruction are more important than markets and choice in improving education.
  • Public education is essential for democratic citizenship and preparing students for a complex society.
  • To improve public education, the author suggests focusing on a strong, coherent curriculum grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, ensuring teachers are well-educated, maintaining standards of learning and behavior in schools, and preserving American public education overall.


“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.”

“A historian tries to understand what happened, why it happened, what was the context, who did what, and what assumptions led them to act as they did. A historian customarily displays a certain diffidence about trying to influence events, knowing that unanticipated developments often lead to unintended consequences.”

CHAPTER TWO - Hijacked! How the Standards Movement Turned Into the Testing Movement


  • A Nation at Risk was a report released in 1983 that criticized the quality of education in America's schools and made recommendations for improvement.
  • The report identified several issues, including a lack of clarity and coherence in the curriculum, low academic standards, and insufficient time devoted to learning.
  • A Nation at Risk called for voluntary national standards, increased funding for education, higher academic requirements for high school graduation, and improved teacher training and compensation.
  • The report did not advocate for privatization of schools or an end to public education. It was not part of a right-wing plot to destroy public education.
  • The recommendations in A Nation at Risk were within the scope of what schools could accomplish and did not propose impossible solutions.
  • Some critics argued that the report should have addressed social and economic factors that affect educational outcomes, such as poverty and housing.
  • A Nation at Risk is often contrasted with the No Child Left Behind law of 2002, which was a federal law requiring standardized testing and accountability in schools.
  • The No Child Left Behind law focused solely on basic skills and test scores in reading and math, while ignoring the importance of knowledge and a coherent curriculum.
  • A Nation at Risk is considered prescient because it recognized the importance of a well-rounded education and the need for a clear, coherent curriculum. It also highlighted the importance of preparing students for postsecondary education and the modern workplace.


“Accountability makes no sense when it undermines the larger goals of education.”

“If it had been written in the usual somber, leaden tones of most national commissions, we would not be discussing it a generation later. A Nation at Risk was written in plain English, with just enough flair to capture the attention of the press. Its arguments and recommendations made sense to nonspecialists. People who were not educators could understand its message, which thoughtfully addressed the fundamental issues in education. The national news media featured stories about the 'crisis in education.' The report got what it wanted: the public's attention.”

“In effect, we have a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses' ... This "curricular smorgasbord," combined with extensive student choice, led to a situation in which only small proportions of high school students completed standard, intermediate, and advanced courses.”

“A Nation at Risk proposed that four-year colleges and universities raise their admissions requirements. It urged scholars and professional societies to help upgrade the quality of textbooks and other teaching materials. It called on states to evaluate textbooks for their quality and to request that publishers present evidence of the effectiveness of their teaching materials, based on field trials and evaluations.”

CHAPTER THREE - The Transformation of District 2


  • District 2 in New York City experienced significant demographic and economic changes during the late 1980s to late 1990s, becoming more affluent and white.
  • The district's socioeconomic composition was not "relatively static" as some researchers believed, but rather undergoing rapid transformation due to gentrification.
  • District 2 saw increases in groups that tend to score higher on standardized tests, such as whites and Asians, and declines in the proportion of groups that tend to have lower scores, like African Americans and Hispanics.
  • Despite these demographic changes, there were large achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups within District 2's schools.
  • Researchers who studied District 2 attributed its gains solely to pedagogical reforms but failed to consider the impact of demographic and economic transformation.
  • The belief that District 2 had successfully closed the achievement gap led corporate-style reform leaders to believe they had found a formula for quick test score gains, leading to widespread implementation of similar reforms across the city and beyond.


“Perhaps the greatest obstacle to systemic reform was that it required numerous stakeholders - textbook publishers, test publishers, schools of education, and so on - to change, which turned out to be an insurmountable political obstacle.”

“The other article was by Lois Weiner, a professor who prepared urban teachers at New Jersey City University. Weiner was a parent activist at P.S. 3 in District 2, which she described as a highly progressive alternative school with an unusual degree of parent involvement. She claims that district administrators were stifling teachers and parents at P.S.3 by mandating "constructivist" materials and specific instructional strategies ... She [Weiner] continued, "The degree of micromanagement is astounding." Those who challenged the district office's mandates, she said, risked getting an unsatisfactory rating or being fired. Weiner contended that "opposition from parents is building against the new math curriculum," which was supposed to be field-tested with control groups, but instead was mandated for every classroom." Teachers were expressly prohibited from using other math textbooks or materials, and some were clandestinely "photocopying pages of now-banned workbooks.”

CHAPTER FOUR - Lessons from San Diego


  • The San Diego Unified School District implemented a top-down reform initiative called the Blueprint for Student Success between 1998 and 2004, which aimed to improve student achievement through a combination of instructional and organizational changes.
  • The instructional changes included adopting Balanced Literacy and constructivist math approaches, while the organizational changes involved accountability measures such as firing principals for low test scores and opening charter schools.
  • The Blueprint was led by Superintendent Alan Bersin, who employed a left-right strategy to gain support from both progressive educators and those on the political right.
  • The instructional reforms were met with resistance from many teachers, who felt that their professional autonomy was being undermined and that they were being forced to follow scripted lessons and teach to the test. Some also criticized the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of Balanced Literacy and constructivist math approaches.
  • The organizational reforms led to a high turnover rate among principals, which destabilized schools and undermined trust between teachers and administrators. The get-tough policy also created a climate of fear and hostility, leading some teachers to experience stress-related illnesses.
  • Despite the challenges, the Blueprint did result in improvements in student achievement, particularly in reading and math scores for elementary school students. However, these gains were not sustained over time, and secondary schools continued to struggle with low test scores and high dropout rates.
  • The San Diego experience suggests that top-down reform initiatives may be effective in the short term but are unlikely to lead to lasting improvements if they fail to build trust among teachers, principals, and other educators. A more collaborative, bottom-up approach that empowers educators and values their expertise is likely to be more successful in the long run.


“You can't lead your troops if your troops do not trust you.”

“Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves?”

CHAPTER FIVE - The Business Model in New York City


  • Mayoral control of New York City's public schools was enacted in 2002, ending decades of decentralized governance.
  • Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein introduced numerous reforms focused on test score improvement, including teacher evaluations based on student performance, school closures, and charter expansion.
  • The city saw significant gains in state test scores between 2003 and 2007, with fourth-grade reading proficiency increasing from 52.5% to 56.0%, eighth-grade reading rising from 32.6% to 41.8%, and fourth-grade mathematics climbing from 66.7% to 74.1%.
  • However, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for New York City showed little to no improvement in reading or mathematics between 2003 and 2007.
  • The graduation rate increased from 44% to 56%, but this gain was partly due to credit recovery, which allowed students who failed courses to receive credits without sufficient oversight or standards.
  • The city continued to pay less attention to subjects other than reading and mathematics, as they were not part of state and federal accountability programs.
  • The test score gains did not always last, with some schools experiencing dramatic rises followed by equally dramatic falls in test scores.
  • Mayoral control had a mixed record in New York City, bringing increased spending but offering no real accountability for the mayor or chancellor.
  • Mayoral control is not a guaranteed path to school improvement; other factors, such as community engagement and teacher quality, also play significant roles.

CHAPTER SIX - NCLB: Measure and Punish


  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a punitive law based on erroneous assumptions about how to improve schools.
  • It assumed that reporting test scores to the public would be an effective lever for school reform, but it did not bring about high standards or high accomplishment.
  • NCLB assumed that changes in governance would lead to school improvement, but this assumption was also wrong.
  • The law assumed that shaming schools and educators that were unable to lift test scores every year would lead to higher scores, but it did not.
  • NCLB assumed that low scores are caused by lazy teachers and principals who need to be threatened with the loss of their jobs, but this assumption was naive.
  • The law assumed that higher test scores on standardized tests of basic skills are synonymous with good education, but this is not the case.
  • NCLB's remedies did not work, and its sanctions were ineffective.
  • Teaching students test-taking skills and strategies rather than broadening and deepening their knowledge of the world and their ability to understand what they have learned led to gains in test scores at the state level.
  • Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools.


“Testing is not a substitute for curriculum and instruction. Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools.”

CHAPTER SEVEN - Choice: The Story of an Idea


  • School choice has been a contentious issue in American education for over a century, with varying degrees of support and opposition at different times.
  • The idea of school choice gained momentum after World War II, as public schools faced increasing challenges such as overcrowded classrooms, rigid curricula, and low morale.
  • In the 1960s, the civil rights movement and a surge of urban protests galvanized support for alternative education models that embraced diversity, experimentation, and community involvement.
  • By the 1980s, neoliberal ideology, fueled by deregulation of the financial markets, gained ground in American education as well, promoting deregulation, competition, and markets as solutions to persistent educational challenges.
  • The charter school movement, which originated with Albert Shanker's vision of creating innovative research-and-development laboratories for public schools, has since expanded rapidly. Yet the sector remains controversial, with evidence for both positive and negative outcomes.
  • Despite President Obama's call to remove caps on charter schools in 2016, the ideology continues to split elite opinion between those who champion school choice, competition, and markets versus those who support the democratic vision of public education as a community-bound endeavor for all students.


“During the 1950s and 1960s, the term “school choice” was stigmatized as a dodge invented to permit white students to escape to all-white public schools or to all-white segregation academies. For someone like me, raised in the South and opposed to racism and segregation, the word “choice,” and the phrase “freedom of choice,” became tainted.”

“When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors.Even the principal and teachers may not know for sure. A reporter from the local newspaper will arrive and decide that it must be the principal or a particular program but the reporter will very likely be wrong. Success, whether defined as high test scores or graduation rates or student satisfaction, cannot be bottled and dispensed at will. This may explain why there are so few examples of low-performing schools that have been "turned around" into high -performing schools. And it may explain why schools are not very good at replicating the success of model schools, whether the models are charters or regular public schools.”

CHAPTER EIGHT - The Trouble with Accountability


  • Test-based accountability has led to goal distortion in education, as practitioners focus on raising test scores instead of improving overall student learning and development.
  • The pressure to increase test scores can result in cheating or manipulating the testing pool to achieve desired results.
  • State-reported test scores often differ significantly from NAEP scores due to state flexibility in defining proficiency and setting passing marks.
  • Test-based accountability disregards the role of students, families, and other factors influencing academic performance, placing all responsibility on teachers and schools.
  • A good accountability system should include multiple measures of student achievement, professional judgment, and resources provided to schools.
  • Positive accountability focuses on improving low-performing schools through targeted support and interventions, while punitive accountability involves closing schools as a last resort.


“What matters most is for the school, the district, and the state to be able to say that more students have reached "proficiency." This sort of fraud ignores the students' interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for nonexistent improvements.”

“One problem with test-based accountability, as currently defined and used, is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families for the students' academic performance. NCLB neglected to acknowledge that students share in the responsibility for their academic performance and that they are merely passive recipients of their teachers' influence.”

“In the NCLB era, when the ultimate penalty for a low-performing school was to close it, punitive accountability achieved a certain luster, at least among the media and politicians ... Closing schools should be considered a last step and a rare one. It disrupts lives and communities, especially those of children and their families. It destroys established institutions, in the hope that something better is likely to arise out of the ashes of the old, now-defunct school ... It teaches students that institutions and adults they once trusted can be tossed aside like squeezed lemons, and that data of questionable validity can be deployed [used] to ruin people's lives.”

“The trouble with test-based accountability is that it imposes serious consequences on children, educators, and schools on the basis of scores that may reflect measurement error, statistical error, random variation, or a host of environmental factors or student attributes. None of us would want to be evaluated - with our reputation and livelihood on the line - solely on the basis of an instrument that is prone to error and ambiguity. The tests now in use are not adequate by themselves to the task of gauging the quality of schools or teachers ... they must be used with awareness of their limitations and variability. They were not designed to capture the most important dimensions of education, for which we do not have measures.”

CHAPTER NINE - What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?


  • The debate over the importance of great teachers in closing the achievement gap between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds continues.
  • Some studies suggest that top teachers can have a significant impact on student test scores, but others find little or no effect.
  • Teach for America (TFA) is an organization that places recent college graduates as teachers in low-income schools, but research on its effectiveness is mixed and most TFA teachers leave the profession after two years.
  • Traditional teacher training programs and certification requirements have been criticized by some economists, but others argue that they are important for ensuring that teachers have a strong foundation in their subject matter and pedagogical skills.
  • To attract and retain high-quality teachers, it is important to offer competitive salaries, good working conditions, mentorship opportunities, and ongoing professional development.
  • The use of test score data to evaluate teacher performance and determine compensation should be supplemented with on-site evaluations by experienced educators.
  • Performance-related pay schemes that focus solely on raising test scores may encourage teaching to the test and narrow the curriculum, rather than promoting a well-rounded education.
  • Bonuses for teachers who accept challenging assignments or work in hard-to-staff areas, as well as incentives based on individual performance, are more likely to be effective.
  • To recognize great teaching that goes beyond raising test scores, it is important to value and support innovative and creative approaches to instruction, as well as a focus on the liberal arts and sciences.


“If she [English literature teacher Mrs. Ratliff] had been evaluated by the grades she gave, she would have been in deep trouble., because she did not award many A grades. An observer might have concluded that she was a very ineffective teacher who had no measurable gains to show for her work.”

“While I have never been a member of any union, I was a friend of Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, whom I met after my history of the New York City schools was published. His successor, Sandra Feldman, was also my friend, and I am friends with her successor, Randi Weingarten, who was elected AFT president in 2008.”

CHAPTER TEN - The Billionaire Boys' Club


  • The Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation have significant influence over education policy due to their financial resources and strategic partnerships.
  • The Broad Foundation advocates for privatization of public schools, deregulation, and market-based solutions in education.
  • The Gates Foundation has invested heavily in small schools, charter schools, teacher effectiveness, and digital learning.
  • Both foundations seek to deprofessionalize education by promoting bonuses for teachers and students, using data to evaluate educators, and emphasizing business skills over educational knowledge and experience.
  • The Obama administration's education policies were influenced by the agendas of the Broad and Gates Foundations.
  • The foundations' strategies may not lead to improved education for most children, as they rely on deregulation, market forces, and unproven ideas about teacher effectiveness.
  • Neighborhood public schools are essential institutions that foster community engagement and democratic values; their closure or privatization weakens local civic life.


“There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.”

“The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountability.”

“The state put a Broad-trained superintendent, Randy Ward, in charge of the Oakland schools ... Ward embraced the small schools but went further; his school reform plan aimed to turn the district into a marketplace of school choice while overhauling the bureaucracy. He closed low-performing schools and opened charter schools. He attracted $26 million in grants from the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and corporations based in Oakland.”

“If we continue on the present course, with big foundations and the federal government investing heavily in opening more charter schools, the result is predictable. Charter schools in urban centers will enroll the motivated children of the poor, while the regular public schools will become schools of last resort for those who never applied or were rejected.”

“Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do ... For more than a century, they have been an essential element of our democratic institutions. We abandon them at our peril.”

“But the problem with the marketplaces that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program.”

“Nor is it wise to entrust our schools to inexperienced teachers, principals, and superintendents. Education is too important to relinquish to the vagaries of the market and the good intentions of amateurs.

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 is threatening to destroy public education. Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?”

CHAPTER ELEVEN - Lessons Learned


  • The U.S. education system faces significant challenges, including low academic performance compared to other countries, a focus on test scores and skills over content knowledge, and insufficient resources for schools in disadvantaged communities.
  • Reforms such as charter schools, vouchers, and accountability measures have not yielded meaningful improvements in student achievement or educational equity.
  • A strong and comprehensive curriculum is essential to provide students with a solid foundation of knowledge and skills. This includes subjects such as history, literature, the arts, sciences, civics, foreign languages, health, and physical education.
  • Fair assessments that align with the curriculum and evaluate student learning holistically are necessary to accurately measure educational progress.
  • Well-educated and effective teachers who love teaching and learning are crucial for student success. Teachers should be well-trained, supported, and compensated appropriately.
  • Families play a vital role in preparing children for school and supporting their education. Schools must collaborate with families to ensure students have the resources and support they need to succeed.
  • A strong public education system is necessary for a healthy democracy and a thriving society. It should be accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status or political power.


“Without knowledge and understanding, one tends to become a passive spectator rather than an active participant in the great decisions of our time.”

“Congress and state legislatures should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations.”

“Our schools will not improve if we continue to focus only on reading and mathematics while ignoring the other studies that are essential elements of a good education. Schools that expect nothing more of their students than mastery of basic skills will not produce graduates who are ready for college or the modern workplace.

Our schools will not improve if we value only what tests measure. The tests we have now provide useful information about students' progress in reading and mathematics, but they cannot measure what matters most in education....What is tested may ultimately be less important that what is untested...

Our schools will not improve if we continue to close neighborhood schools in the name of reform. Neighborhood schools are often the anchors of their communities, a steady presence that helps to cement the bond of community among neighbors.

Our schools cannot improve if charter schools siphon away the most motivated students and their families in the poorest communities from the regular public schools.

Our schools will not improve if we continue to drive away experienced principals and replace them with neophytes who have taken a leadership training course but have little or no experience as teachers.

Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn. Children who have grown up in poverty need extra resources, including preschool and medical care.”

“Not everything that matters can be quantified. What is tested may ultimately be less important than what is untested, such as a student's ability to seek alternative explanations, to raise questions, to pursue knowledge on his own, and to think differently. If we do not treasure our individualists, we will lose the spirit of innovation, inquiry, imagination, and dissent that has contributed powerfully to the success of our society in many different fields of endeavor.”

“Challenge your self to read what your children are forced to endure, and then ask why we expect that textbooks - written and negotiated line by line to placate politically active interest groups in Texas and California - are up to the task of supplying a first-rate curriculum.”

“But the market, with its great strengths, is not the appropriate mechanism to supply services that should be distributed equally to people in every neighborhood in every city and town in the nation without regard to their ability to pay or their political power. The market is not the right mechanism to supply police protection or fire protection, nor is it the right mechanism to supply public education.”

“As we seek to reform our schools, we must take care to do no harm.”


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