The Two Faces of American Education

1.

In 1898, the Boston writer and editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson published a memoir entitled Cheerful Yesterdays. One of the memories that cheered him was of lying before the hearth while his mother read aloud. As for “the children of to-day who have no such privilege,” he wrote, one must regard them with “pity.” Here we have the keynote of much that has been written about education before and since: praise for a bygone age when children were well served by their elders, and pity for the ill-served children of today.

When Higginson was a child, public or “common” schools were just emerging, so education remained largely the province of families and churches. Today, when the state of teaching and learning is bemoaned, it is usually the public schools that get the blame. Politicians and pundits hold them accountable for how students perform on standardized tests. Principals are fired and schools closed for poor results. Teachers feel besieged. The American Federation of Teachers has become a popular target for anti-union sentiment. The tide of anger has been rising ever since a national commission released a report in 1983 called “A Nation at Risk,” which opened with these often-quoted lines:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.

Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch; drawing by James Ferguson

In the thirty years since, the public mood about schools has only darkened, so it is striking that Diane Ravitch, arguably our leading historian of primary and secondary education, strongly dissents. “The public schools,” she says in her new book about education policy, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, “are working very well for most students.” She points out that over the last few decades high school drop-out rates have declined. Average test scores have risen, if modestly. Nor is it clear, as often assumed, that American children lag significantly behind their foreign counterparts in science proficiency.

But if Ravitch disputes prevailing assumptions, she does not gloss over the fact that school performance by the large minority of American children who grow up poor or in segregated neighborhoods is disproportionately weak. On the contrary, she thinks that their plight is a national scandal, that today’s school reformers are misguided in their efforts to redress it, and that, along with the persistence of poverty and residential segregation, we should be alarmed by the current reform movement itself.

2.

The public face of that movement is Michelle Rhee. Among young educators who have come lately to prominence, Rhee is the best known. Her closest rivals for celebrity are Wendy Kopp, who, as a Princeton senior in 1990, founded Teach for America (TFA), an organization that deploys graduates from elite colleges to teach in public schools; and…


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