Three books about education reform

By Diane Ravitch
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Now that the Obama administration has invited the states to compete for $5 billion in stimulus funds, the winners will not be those that come up with the best reform ideas, but those that agree to do what the administration wants: create privately managed charter schools, evaluate teachers by their students' test scores, and close low-performing schools. Since so much power and money are arrayed on one side of the issue, it is useful to consider some dissenting views. These three books have the power to change the national discussion of what now passes for "school reform."

1 Linda Darling-Hammond's "The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future" (Teachers College, $21.95) contains a valuable lode of practical and research-based advice about how to improve our schools. Darling-Hammond does something that the Obama administration has failed to do: She reviews what the top-performing school systems around the world do to get great results. Their highest priorities, she shows, are building a strong, experienced staff and making sure that every school has access to a rich, well-balanced curriculum in the arts and sciences. Finland, the highest-performing nation, has not relied on testing and accountability to achieve its current status.

2 Barbara Torre Veltri's "Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher" (Information Age; $29.99, paper). If American education has a sacred cow, it is Teach for America, which recently won $50 million from the U.S. Department of Education. The organization recruits bright college graduates to work for two years in the nation's poorest schools. Veltri has taught many of these recruits in her job at the University of Arizona, and she interviewed hundreds for this book. While she admires the young people who join the program, she raises important questions about the value of placing unprepared teachers in classes with the nation's neediest children.

3 If I were assigning reading to staff members at the U.S. Department of Education, I would ask them to study Richard Rothstein's "Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right" (Teachers College and Economic Policy Institute; $19.95, paper). Rothstein and his colleagues explain in plain language why current accountability policies, which focus only on basic skills, are making education worse, not better, by narrowing the curriculum. With apt examples, they also show how the pursuit of numbers distorts more important goals and how schools may get higher test scores without supplying better education.

Diane Ravitch is a former assistant secretary of education. Her latest book is "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

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