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Today Is Publication Day

Dear Deborah,

At last! Over the course of our three years of blogging together, I have been writing a book, as you know. Today is publication day for The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The title is a conscious echo of Jane Jacobs' important book about urban planning.

You know the feeling. It is both exhilarating and scary, because now the book must stand on its own and face readers and reviewers.

In the book, I trace my evolution from conservative advocate of charters, merit pay, and accountability to what I now think of as "skeptical independent." I belong to no party, I follow no one's lead, I ask of every reform proposal: Where is the evidence?

Accountability and choice are now the official strategies for school reform, as they have been since the passage of No Child Left Behind. I look at the evidence for their effectiveness and conclude that we are on the wrong track. The emphasis on accountability is leading to lowered standards (which inflate results), dumbed-down tests (which inflate results), gaming the system (which inflates results), and cheating (ditto). What we have today is a system that borders on institutionalized fraud, where we tell ourselves lies about progress. The emphasis on choice promotes privatization, turning over public school children to private managers who may use screening mechanisms to skim the best students and/or get rid of the weakest, and then trumpet their "results." This way does not lead to a quantum improvement of American education.

My hope for the book is that it will provoke a counteroffensive against misguided policies. These misguided policies, now embedded in No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top, have the support of the most powerful people in our society, including our best-known pundits and editorialists.

The first reviews have been encouraging. Valerie Strauss wrote a wonderful column about the book in The Washington Post, and Peter Schrag commented thoughtfully in the Los Angeles Times. However, I take issue with Peter Schrag's comment that, for every terrific teacher (like the one I describe fondly in the book), there "were (and probably are) two or three stultifying drones who cared little for great books (or math or science) and killed curiosity as readily as the test-bound." I absolutely do not agree that our schools are overrun with terrible teachers; part of the goal of my book is to discredit the current knee-jerk reaction of editorialists and public officials, who blame teachers for everything that goes wrong in the schools. Blaming the teachers lets everyone else off the hook: families, the media, the popular culture, policymakers, and students themselves. The overwhelming majority of our nation's teachers are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances, with not enough support from society, parents, or the media.

Deborah, I have learned a lot from you and our readers. I want to take this opportunity to thank you and them for what I have learned while we were bridging our differences.

Diane

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