The publication of Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” might not immediately appeal to an English readership, but its subtitle “How testing and choice are undermining education” certainly resonates with many this side of the Atlantic.

For the better part of the past 25 years I have crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic many times as I have studied the emerging research on human learning and the political initiatives to reform education being mounted in either country. I’ve written and lectured widely about this and known many of the people involved. Specifically for four years (1995-2000)I lived and worked in Washington DC leading a team of researchers in the biomedical and cognitive sciences seeking to establish (I use a woodcarving analogy) “the grain of the brain”. As the people Ravitch describes were developing their ideas in the States I was constantly cross-referencing these ideas with those being taken up in the United Kingdom.

During this time I have never ceased to be amazed at how those seeking to understand the operation of the brain seemed unable to make any impact whatsoever on those political think tanks that thought they, and they alone, could come up with solutions to underperforming education systems. I was never able to persuade those advising politicians that these problems had their origins in a misunderstanding about how children learned, and comparatively little to do with administrative issues of governance. So, in the course of studying t6his book I found myself constantly reflecting on the current situation in England amongst which I am frequently engulfed. This has changed the nature of this review to become more a reflection on her story, and the impact such policies have had in London.

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Diane Ravitch is a Professor at New York University and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, an academic with middle-of-the-road democratic political leanings, so it was rather surprising that George Bush Snr appointed her as Assistant Secretary for Education under Lamar Alexander in 1991. Progressively she became more and more involved in solutions advocated by the Republicans that centred on standard assessment procedures and advocating the principal of choice as the solution to apparently otherwise intractable educational problems. In her thinking, and those around her, anything emerging from the biomedical sciences about the grain of the brain appeared an irrelevance.

Ravitch has a scholarly, thoughtful and balanced approach – she writes with the assurance and authority comparable to a top English girl’s grammar school head teacher of years gone by. She goes back to the dream of using public education in 19th Century America to create a nation out of immigrants of many nationalities. She writes of the honest attempts to deal with the issues in that damning report in 1983 “A Nation at Risk” which, as it analysed America’s declining academic performance since the early 1960s, commented “if a foreign power had done this to us we would have defined it as an act of war”. Ravitch speaks of powerful innovation in New York and San Diego that didn’t quite turn out as expected; of George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” that finally shifted the focus away from a broad and balanced education to an ever-increasing emphasis on tests, choice and accountability, and she concludes with a chapter on what she calls “the Billionaire Boys’ Club” – the extraordinary influence of the Gates and Buffet fortunes linked to the Walton family’s belief in the Walmart economic model of accountability as the assumed solution to all educational issues.

Ravitch concludes her criticism of educational policies over the past 25 years with two key statements. Firstly she declares uncompromisingly that “our public education system is a fundamental element of our democratic society”, whilst secondly she says “at the present time, public education is in peril. Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival”. This is serious stuff. “Ms Ravitch…writes with enormous authority and common sense” wrote the New York Times, while another American commentator called her one of the “most important public intellectuals of our time”.

However there is another aspect of this story of great importance to both England and America but it is almost entirely missed in Ravitch’s account, even though she has an obvious affection for its creator, the former President of the American Federation of Teachers, Dr Albert Shanker, who died in early 1997.

She attributes the creation of Charter Schools (with what has become their English lookalike, namely Academies and Free Schools) to a speech that Shanker made in 1988. His idea had been that groups of teachers within individual schools should be allowed a “Charter” to experiment – for the good of the rest of the school and the District – with truly innovative ways of dealing with old problems. So dismayed did Shanker become by the way in which the first of these Charters were manipulated to undermine the very democratic basis of American public education that he totally withdrew his support from the Charter School movement in 1993. One detects, from the way Ravitch describes this 15 years later, she wished she had followed his example.

I first got to know Al Shanker when he and I were addressing a conference in Helsinki in 1987. He was a big man in every sense, an amazing polymath with a voracious capacity to absorb new ideas. In a speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs in London in about 1990 he warned against the dumbing down of teachers, saying “the more you trust teachers the thinner the rule book: the less you trust them the thicker that rule book becomes”. He went on, “the factory, rather than a moral, learning community – is the inspiration for the traditional school. When the factory was touted as the ideal organisation for work, and when most youngsters were headed for its assembly lines, making a mass public education system conform to the model of the factory may have seemed like a great achievement”.

Shanker was the only man I knew in America (I know of no one comparable in the United Kingdom) with the intellect and the sheer physical presence to master the findings of erudite research and expressed this with a clarity that had escaped everybody else. He was also able to draw research programmes together in ways that made more sense than when any one of the disciplines remained on its own. He contributed a weekly column to the Saturday edition of the New York Times. Even more remarkable, as a union leader, he forced the challenging nature of these ideas on his disparate union membership. By birth he hailed from Eastern Europe and subsequently used his immense influence to strengthen teachers’ ability in Poland and other former-Communist countries, to deepen an appreciation of democracy in countries escaping from Communism. In all senses Al Shanker was a colossus of a man.

He addressed Education 2000 in London in 1993, and personally introduced me to Howard Gardner (of multiple intelligence fame) remarking “if we closed schools today and asked ourselves how we could reinvent them to work for all youngsters, my answer would be: according to the ideas and models in Howard Gardner’s “The Unschooled Mind” – visionary yet practical, scholarly yet acceptable – his book is a stunning achievement”.

Shanker was more concerned to revitalise the practice of teaching, and the life of pupils, than he was to worry about issues of governance. He later wrote “the limitations of America’s traditional factory model of education have become manifest, and they are crippling. The traditional model of schooling is, therefore, incompatible with the idea that students are workers, that learning must be active and that children learn in different ways and at different rates”.

Shanker got me to read a remarkable book on transferable skills and the development of expertise, “Surpassing Ourselves” by the Canadians Bereiter and Scardamalia, and enthused me about the emerging studies in the neurosciences. He was the first to draw to my attention the article “Making Thinking Visible” about the significance of cognitive apprenticeship when linked to both psychological and neurological studies. In particular about the book by the Caines, a husband and wife team, “Making Connections: Education and the human brain” and then he got me into the management theories of Peter Drucker.

Then, as my informal and highly valuable personal tutor, he put me in touch with Seymour Papert and his work on children and technology, “The Children’s Machine”. Later he pushed into my hand a copy of Mitchell Waldrop’s “Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos” (1992). He got me to meet David Perkins, Howard Gardner’s colleague at Harvard whose book “Outsmarting IQ: the emerging science of learnable intelligence” I found almost unputdownable. Then he told me of the new work by the cognitive scientist John Breuer, “Schools for Thought: a science of learnable intelligence” (1993), that finally convinced me that a synthesis of all these different disciplines was needed to provide the intellectual basis for what Al called “genuine school transformation”.
It was all this that propelled me to accept the invitation to go to Washington in late 1995 to set up the network of education thinkers and researchers that rapidly led to the creation of the 21st Century Learning Initiative.

By the time I reached America, however, Shanker was already seriously ill from the cancer which was to kill him two years later. When I started to draw many of these people together for six conferences at Wingspread in Wisconsin, a terrible rift was beginning to open up in the United States between those in the biomedical sciences enthused by what functional MRI and genetic studies might contribute towards a better understanding of the growth of the young brain and those psychologists and cognitive scientists who feared that biomedical research would appropriate the very funds that they had anticipated would come to them. Shanker, the only man who could have boxed a few heads together and forced the various scientists to realise that together they spoke with infinitely more strength than if they allowed themselves to split into sectional interests, was already dying. At his funeral held at American University in Washington there were nine speeches. The first seven were an enormous testimony to Shanker’s work. The eighth was from Al Gore, the Vice-President of the United States. It was brilliant. It seemed as if nobody could encapsulate what Shanker was about in a finer set of words, but then up spoke Bill Clinton by recounting a phone conversation he had with Shanker only days before his death and proved that he could do just that. How many of the warring scientists in that room would ever have both a President and a Vice-President of the United States contributing to their funeral eulogy?

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By the latter 90s Shanker was no longer there to knock heads together. Gradually the row between the cognitive scientists and the biological evolutionary scientists was reaching boiling point. John Breuer (the cognitive scientist) launched his broadside of “The Myth of the First Three Years” in 1997 in which he staked the claim for a social and cognitive science as being the prime, if not the only way, in which human learning can be understood. Writing in “Educational Researcher” later that year he published a blistering attack entitled “Education and the Brain: a bridge too far”. Researchers have subsequently squabbled with such venom it was as if they were Reformation and Counter-Reformation theologians disputing how many angels could dance on a pinhead.

When ASCD had published my article in Educational Leadership “To Be Intelligent” in March 1997 it was later identified by “Psychology Today” as the one of the four most outstanding articles on cognitive processes published that year in the United States. That was fine but it was not sufficient. By basing part of my argument – as I believe Shanker would have done – on what was emerging from the studies of the developing brain as shown by Functional MRI scans and combining that with what other work had shown on cognitive apprenticeship, it seemed to those swayed by John Breuer’s apt quote to be indeed a “bridge too far”. Although I was invited to discuss my position with Dr Bruce Alberts, the President of the National Academy of Science, and its committee on developments in the science of learning (its report was published under the title “How people learn; brain, mind, experience and school”) my suggestion that issues of human learning went far beyond the walls of the classroom, and the theories of psychologists, were quietly ignored. How I needed Shanker to help back me up! The case I was making desperately needed somebody of comparable status to Shanker who was an acknowledged synthesiser able to comprehend how biomedical research could, and should, complement and extend the work of cognitive and behavioural scientists. The problem I and my colleagues were having was well articulated by Vaclav Havel (himself a poet, political activist and President of his country rather than a research scientist) when he said in 2000 “education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena”. There were few in American academia who understood this, and perhaps also in England with the obvious exception of Professor Susan Greenfield soon to become Director of the Royal Institution.

In 1999 I tried to intrude this thinking into the ideas of Chester (Checker) Finn a close colleague of Diane Ravitch and President of the Thomas Fordham Foundation who was to become an early promoter of Charter Schools – but with no success. To Finn, as to so many others in England and America whose training was essentially in the behavioural sciences and the humanities, there was no obvious connection between synaptic malfunctioning which could only be seen under a high-powered microscope and the way in which people behave and think in particular ways.

Later that year I had to return to England, and closed down the Initiative in Washington, as our largest sponsors having declared that “we had gone too far” by describing the Western education system as “upside down and inside out” and by implying that this should lead to a reversal in the distribution of funds between primary and secondary education.

I found myself back in a country that seemed anxious to follow the political initiatives set up in the United States, but often with a time-lapse of three or four years. Bringing these ideas with me back into England I found myself in considerable demand as a speaker at endless teachers’ conferences – the English at this stage were fascinated by what I was saying. But steadily what was happening in America when I had left (and which Diane Ravitch so well describes) came to be repeated in England with a frightening predictability. As first a Labour then a Conservative administration pulled ever more authority away from the 140 or so locally accountable educational authorities, with its claim of giving every school more “freedom” – by “freedom” it seemed to imply escaping from local political control, yet tying themselves ever-closer to the mandarins of Whitehall, and the whims of the Minister. English education seemed caught up in a continuous flurry of disconnected initiatives which few understood. What, ever more people started to say, was education supposed to be about?

By 2007 Diane Ravitch was asking the same question. She now believes the problem goes back to the way in which the accountability agenda took over from the standards movement – in simple terms the emphasis on what could be measured replaced concern about what should be taught. How it happened at first sight seems to be a very American phenomena – but it’s not. It goes back to who the American people think they are, and who they want to be. The clue to this is in the people’s perception of who they are in academic terms, and that has to mean what history is taught in the schools.

In America the nature of the history curriculum is a most vexed issue. How could Columbus have “discovered” America if the “Americans” had not been living there themselves for thousands of years? Can Americans of African origin have the same affinity for European culture as to the WASPS of New England? Do the masses who, only a generation or so ago, escaped from “industrial bondage” believe in the recuperative capabilities of unbridled capitalism? Whose side would you have been on in the Civil War, and do recent immigrants have a greater loyalty to the values of their new homeland than they did to their countries of origin? Whose literature should children be taught; whose music should they espouse, and are they really citizens of the world if, first and foremost, they believe in America’s world economic dominance?

By replacing the standards movement in 1996 with the accountability movement what had once been an effort to improve the quality of education turned into little more than an accounting strategy – measure, then punish or reward. Sensing a political quagmire, Federal politicians decided to leave to the individual states the decision as to what to teach and how to teach it. Fifty different curricula arose of highly variable quality, and multiple ways of looking at children’s learning and so confusing any development of a national vision of education. George W. Bush bought in the “No Child Left Behind” strategy with its emphasis on high-stakes testing, data-driven decision making, choice, Charter Schools, privatisation, regulation, merit pay and competition amongst schools. Incredible as it might seem, by 2008 this had been taken up by the Democrats.

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To an Englishman this is all too familiar – we too have been befogged by statistics and the mesmeric impact such abstract data can have. But reading a detailed analysis of how this can pervert the delivery of education in someone else’s country, can challenge readers to reflect more dispassionately about affairs in their own land. By 2007 Ravitch had become quite unequivocal in her judgement – without a national vision of what good education involves the test results alone simply provide a treacherous smokescreen to what is actually happening in schools. “Schools that expect nothing more of their students than the mastery of basic skills will not produce graduates who are ready for college, or the workplace”, she now writes, and then continues “without a comprehensive liberal arts education our students will not be prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy…”

Ravitch is at pains to say that education is an arduous process and always requires enormous effort to succeed. “The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how schools systems should be organised, managed and controlled. It is not the organisation of the schools that is at fault but the ignorance we deplore, with the lack of sound educational values”.

Out of the dozen reasons that Ravitch quotes as to why schools will not improve under the present regime I select four;

… if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators, Congress and State legislatures (for which we English should read Parliament and the local town hall) should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations.

… if we value only what tests measure we miss the point, for not everything that matters can be so quantified – such as a student’s ability to seek alternative explanations, to raise questions, to pursue knowledge on his or her own and, critically, to think differently.

… if we entrust educational policy making to the magical powers of market choice, education is reduced to a matter of winners and losers. Surely our goal must be to establish school systems that foster academic excellence in every school and every neighbourhood?

… if we expect schools to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises we fail for the goal of education is not to produce higher scores, but to educate children to become responsible people with well-developed minds and good character.

Nor will schools improve if they are used as society’s all-purpose punching-bag, blaming them for all the ills of the economy and the problems created by poverty, dysfunctional families and the erosion of civility. She states passionately, “if there is one thing all educators know, and that many studies have confirmed for decades, it is that there is no single answer to educational improvement. There is no silver bullet”, and it all starts with the need for a well thought through, respected and robust vision of what is involved in good education.

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The 21st Century Learning Initiative endorsed such a sentiment even before it produced “the Synthesis” (1996) drawing upon a vast range of research studies into how the brain works and children learn as a result of the first set of Wingspread conferences in 1995. But the Initiative added the additional ingredient namely that the biological origins of the human brain give it a certain “grain” which, if worked with, can achieve magnificent results, but if ignored (as it has been in so much present pedagogic practice both sides of the Atlantic) children simply fail to develop in the way that they are entitled to do.

Of all the reports and British Government White Papers of the past five years it was probably the Cambridge Primary Review, published in the late Autumn of 2009, that showed just how removed English educationalists still are from the work in the biomedical and cognitive sciences. Commissioned by the Esmée Fairburn Foundation this report cost several million pounds. It is a massive document of more than half a million words, compiled by 14 editors and 66 consultants which drew upon some 4000 published sources. Its main limitation is that it treated primary education in isolation both from secondary education and from the influence of the home and community on the growing child. Then, if you consult the index, you will find almost no reference to the researchers in the cognitive and biomedical research which I have quoted here, and which the Initiative sees as being very significant. There is no reference whatsoever to the groundbreaking work of Gerald Edelman, the Nobel Prize winner, now known in cognitive science as NeuralDarwinism.

That is a terrible shame for the most significant of the Cambridge Review’s recommendations – that formal schooling should be delayed until the age of six – receives tremendous support from the work of Edelman and the like. Without that additional body of research findings the Review seems to be merely a recycling of earlier ideas. English politicians in 2009 were quick to spot this. Ed Balls the then Minister of Education claimed that this was based on totally out-of-date statistics and ideas. Three days later Michael Gove, the education spokesman for the Conservatives and former leader-writer for the Times claimed “Another Academic Exercise Divides Opinion”. All this looked so much like what Diane Ravitch was describing about the reform movement in America.

In both America and England academics and intellectuals have lost their (often despised) authority with which to challenge those simplistic political dogmas and snake-oil placebos that have so bedevilled educational policy for more than a generation, and have allowed ambitious politicians to selectively put one set of research findings against another in contexts which make no apparent sense.

Albert Shanker understood this and had the vision of a genuinely well-educated society able to sustain American democracy. Where is his successor, either in England or in America?

Without the ability to synthesise – to draw together those different yet most certainly valid understandings of the wonder of human learning as set out by scientists, philosophers and practitioners, education flounders for the lack of a really good map. Without such a map we are lost. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, writing in 1939, expressed this perfectly.

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned,

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.

Where is the weaver, and in which country the loom? On the basis of the OECD analysis of educational performance published in December 2010 (in which the United States came 12th overall, and the United Kingdom 18th overall), neither the loom nor the weaver are likely to be found in either of our two countries, unless each heed the advice given in this book.