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How to Save the Schools

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Carin Baer/Fox Broadcasting Co./Photofest
Dianna Agron, front left, and Cory Monteith, front right, in the television series Glee

Diane Ravitch is without rival as a historian of modern American schooling. She has written trenchantly about the history of New York City schools, and in The Troubled Crusade (1983) about the progressivist takeover of the nation’s schools after World War II. Her 2003 book The Language Police described ongoing attempts by publishers to sell their textbooks to all ideological factions by insisting on bland language in them. Her major work, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000), is considered by many to be the best study of the subject. It might be read with profit by policymakers, who would learn, for example, that the current movement in American schools to instill “twenty-first-century skills” is little more than a patched-up version of failed movements to instill twentieth-century skills.

But policymakers are far more likely to read her newest, most sensational book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. In it she considers the most recent round of unsuccessful school reforms, including some that she herself had championed and that the Obama administration supports, such as charter schools and universal testing. She criticizes several highly praised reform models of the 1990s and 2000s in San Diego, New York City, and elsewhere, as well as the enormously influential No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. She’s critical as well of reform efforts by the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies. Yet she has surprising praise for some long-standing outcasts of the educational reform world including teachers’ unions, some professors of education, and the present reviewer.1 Written with verve, the book takes aim at imposing targets. It won’t be ignored.

The general renewal of American public education is Ravitch’s chief aim. Chester E. Finn Jr., the distinguished educational writer and reformer, caught well the tenor of her purpose when he said that he

shares Ravitch’s pessimism about the record of education reform. “We agree it’s not very encouraging,” [Finn] said, “and then we come to opposite views of the way forward.” Ravitch, he said, wants to “re-empower” the public school system. “The same evidence has turned me into a radical who wants to blow up the system.”2

With his customary succinctness Finn has defined the issue. Do we try to get the regular public schools back on track, or do we replace them with a tax-supported, “free-market” system of charter schools and public-private vouchers?

In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote admiringly: “In the United States the general thrust of education is directed toward political life; in Europe its main aim is to fit men for private life.” The community-oriented character of American schooling in the first century of the Republic was the result of deliberate policy by political leaders in the aftermath of the Revolution. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration, thought American schools should offer a common curriculum designed to create “republican machines.” His sentiments were similar to the educational views of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the most important early schoolmaster of all, Noah Webster. The schools were to be institutions for inculcating democracy, designed to develop critical thinkers and able citizens in a setting of loyalty to the national common good. Early schoolbook authors began a long tradition of texts that aimed, in the words of one author,

to exhibit, in a strong light, the principles of political and religious freedom which our forefathers professed, and…to record the numerous examples of fortitude, courage, and patriotism, which have rendered them illustrious.

The reasons for this communitarian emphasis were obvious to American leaders in the nineteenth century. Loyalty to the Republic had to be developed, as well as adherence to Enlightenment ideals of liberty and toleration. For without universal indoctrination by the schools in such civic virtues, the United States might dissolve, as had all prior large republics of history, through internal dissension.

The aim of schooling was not just to Americanize the immigrants, but also to Americanize the Americans. This was the inspiring ideal of the common school in the nineteenth century, built upon a combination of thrilling ideals and existential worry. By the end of the century we were educating, relative to other countries, a large percentage of the population, and this forward movement continued well into the twentieth century. In the post–World War II period, the US ranked high internationally according to a number of educational measures. But by 1980, there had occurred a significant decline both in our international position and in comparison with our own past achievements. Two decades ago I was appalled by an international comparison showing that between 1978 and 1988 the science knowledge of American students had dropped from seventh to fourteenth place. In the postwar period we have declined internationally in reading from third place to fifteenth place among the nations participating in the survey.

The root cause of this decline, starting in the 1960s, was a by-then-decades-old complacency on the part of school leaders and in the nation at large. By the early twentieth century worries about the stability of the Republic had subsided, and by the 1930s, under the enduring influence of European Romanticism, educational leaders had begun to convert the community-centered school of the nineteenth century to the child- centered school of the twentieth—a process that was complete by 1950. The chief tenet of the child-centered school was that no bookish curriculum was to be set out in advance. Rather, learning was to arise naturally out of activities, projects, and daily experience. A 1939 critic of the new movement, Isaac Kandel, described it this way:

Children should be allowed to grow in accordance with their needs and interests…. Knowledge is valuable only as it is acquired in a real situation; the teacher must be present to provide the proper environment for experiencing but must not intervene except to guide and advise. There must, in fact, be “nothing-fixed-in-advance” and subjects must not be “set-out-to-be-learned.”

By 1950, with new, watered-down schoolbooks and a new generation of teachers trained in specialized colleges for education, the anti-bookish, child-centered viewpoint had taken over the schools. The consequence was a steep decline in twelfth-grade academic achievement between 1962 and 1980, after which, despite vigorous reform efforts, reading and math scores on the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress have hardly changed.

With the current emphasis on testing and accountability it might be assumed that the days of child-centeredness are now over. But that assumption would miss an essential point. The schools still lack a definite, pre-set, year-by-year curriculum (though this is changing in math) and yet at the same time schools are being required to make measurable progress on year-by-year tests.

This contradictory and self-defeating situation has arisen because of a quirk in child-centered educational theory. Though it is opposed to imparting facts in a definite curriculum, it is not against inculcating all-purpose general skills—such as reading strategies and critical thinking. “Rote learning” and a set curriculum are to be regarded with scorn, but students may be subjected to drills in how-to skills that will prepare them to pass tests. Many of the weekly hours that are assigned to language arts in the early grades are now being devoted to practicing reading strategies such as “questioning the author” and “finding the main idea.” Ravitch describes in detail a highly touted reform in New York City and San Diego called “balanced literacy,” which requires students to spend a lot of time practicing such reading strategies but does not prescribe any particular books, poems, and essays to practice them on.

She shows that the claims made for the success of “balanced literacy” have been disputed by researchers. This is a consistent pattern of her new book. Some researchers assert that a given reform has worked, yet other researchers (whom Ravitch tends to credit) question the claim. This pattern of conflicting conclusions has led to skepticism regarding the use of educational research in deciding large-scale educational policy. If the effect of a reform is so ambiguous, it cannot have been very significant. Only big improvements in schooling are going to restore public education and the well-being of the country.

Many of the reforms Ravitch describes have yielded ambiguous results because they were not sound. The “balanced literacy” project in San Diego and New York City yielded uncertain results because no literacy program can be effective if it is not accompanied by a curriculum that builds up in children the background knowledge necessary for reading ability. Similarly, in the case of research on the effectiveness of charter schools, where researchers line up in opposing ranks, there is a good reason for ambiguity. “Charter school” is not an intrinsic educational category that is inherently correlated with any particular curriculum or educational effects.

Another basic reason why educational research has been unhelpful is that the various school experiments have, of necessity, been incompletely controlled. School experiments are very unlike laboratory experiments. Many key classroom variables remain unmonitored and unknown. This black-box problem of educational research is supposed to be ameliorated by the device of random assignment of students to control and experimental groups. But in one very expensive randomly assigned study—the famous Tennessee study of class-size effects—the finding that class size is important proved to be inapplicable in California, a discovery made at a cost of billions of dollars. There is a straightforward solution to the problems of small or nonexistent outcomes and of hidden variables. We need to institute reforms that are so soundly based that they will yield large, unambiguous educational effects.

That can only be done on the basis of reliable basic research. Ravitch points out that early in balanced literacy reform, the researchers P. David Pearson and Janice A. Dole warned:

We have to consider the possibility that all the attention we are asking students to pay to their use of skills and strategies and to their monitoring of these strategies may turn relatively simple and intuitive tasks into introspective nightmares.” They suggested that “what really determines the ability to comprehend anything is how much one already knows about the topic under discussion in a text.” Knowing reading strategies is not enough; to comprehend what one reads, one must have background knowledge.

Ravitch is right to be skeptical of the latest panacea, “teacher effectiveness,” as the solution to the disappointing performance of our schools. (Until recently the term was “teacher quality.”) She does not doubt that good teachers are supremely important, but argues that reformers are guilty of an oversimplification when they isolate this variable from the many factors that have made schools ineffective. She believes that, in general, good teaching is chiefly a matter of good training and having a coherent school setting in which to teach, based on a coherent, multiyear curriculum. She concludes that many public school teachers are currently ineffective partly because they have been poorly educated.

  1. 1

    I have known and admired Ravitch a long time, and have supported many of her positions. She is a trustee of the Core Knowledge Foundation, which I started, and I once invited her to give the keynote address at the annual Core Knowledge conference of school teachers and administrators.

  2. 2

    Nick Anderson, “Business Principles Won’t Work for School Reform, Former Supporter Ravitch Says,” The Washington Post, February 26, 2010.

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