To the Editors:

In his review of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System [NYR, May 13], E.D. Hirsch Jr. attributes the failure of Bush’s signature education program, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), to practitioners: “The law would have had a much more beneficial effect if educators had reacted with more insight to its provisions.”

Thus he continues the false refrain espoused by much of the mainstream media and business interests: if the teachers’ unions and other education interests were not so lazy and selfish, they would do what is needed for the nation’s children and youth. But NCLB failed for the same reasons Obama’s efforts will fail: it was based upon a misunderstanding of how children and youth learn and the limitations of classroom teaching.

Ravitch reminds readers of the results of the national Assessment of Educational Progress (AEP) that show charter schools have never outperformed public schools since the tests were given in 2003. Hirsch, in his eagerness to embrace charters, ignores the AEP results. They both fail to mention that charter schools transfer public funds from local schools to (in some cases) for-profit schools and management firms with no local control and often with questionable financial and educational accountability.

Neither Ravitch nor Hirsch addresses the need for structural changes. Yet these do matter: how school board members and administrators are selected and how they perform their duties. Elected board members who, typically, serve four years or less often demand dramatic changes by new superintendents, who in responding try new instructional systems. These frequent changes, common in urban districts, often occur before enough time has elapsed to acclimate teachers and help students. Nor did they consider the long-term consequences for short-term gains of placing schools under the control of mayors as in New York and Chicago.

Thomas M. Stephens
Professor Emeritus
College of Education and Human Ecology
Ohio State University
Executive Director Emeritus
School Study Council of Ohio Columbus, Ohio

E.D. Hirsch Jr. replies:

I agree with Professor Stephens’s observations about ill-informed and impatient school board members and too-rapid changes of personnel and policies. But except for his direct quotation of my comment about No Child Left Behind, his description of the views expressed in my review are violently off the mark. Neither there nor in any of my educational writings over the past thirty years have I implied that “teachers’ unions and other educational interests” are “lazy and selfish.” And as to my “eagerness to embrace charters,” I wonder if he could have read my comment that “the average results of charter schools have been a disappointment to every disinterested observer.”

Perhaps more important even than the policy questions Professor Stephens raises is why many professors of education vigorously distort their critics’ views. A possible reason for this, which I advanced in my recent book, The Making of Americans, is that child-centered theory is a secular theology, and that people who point to the harm it has done must be morally insensitive, or conservative, or allied with “business interests.”

This Issue

June 24, 2010