In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the educational consultant and historian, Diane Ravitch, tells us that she has changed her views on the very public school reforms that she herself, during the past 30 years or so, did so much to fashion, promote, and support.
In particular, the school choice movement of the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush junior presidencies, charter schools during the Bush senior, Clinton, Bush junior, and now Obama years, and the push, primarily by means of testing, towards higher standards and greater school, teacher, and student accountability, as in the Ted Kennedy and Bush junior No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Now Ravitch has this to say:
“As I flipped through the yellowing pages in my scrapbooks [containing articles accumulated over a lifetime's reading in education], I started to understand the recent redirection of my thnking, my growing doubt regarding popular proposals for choice and accountability. Once again, I realized, I was turning skeptical in response to panaceas and miracle cures. The only difference was that in this case, I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures; I too had drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems. I too had jumped aboard a bandwagon, one festooned with banners celebrating the power of accountability, incentives, and markets. I too was captivated by these ideas.
They promised to end bureaucracy, to ensure that poor children were not neglected, to empower poor parents, to enable poor children to escape failing schools, and to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. Testing would shine a spotlight on low-performing schools, and choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for bettter schools. All of this seemed to make sense, but there was little empirical evicence, just pormise and hope. I wanted to share the promise and the hope. I wanted to believe that choice and accountability would produce great results. But over time, I was persuaded by accumulating evidence that the latest reforms were not likely to live up to their promise. The more I saw, the more I lost the faith.”
Her new position regarding the schools is certainly understandable. Recent school reform movements have done little if anything to change things fundamentally for the better in our public schools. Too many children are still either dropping out of school altogether or graduating with few useful skills and little useful knowledge of themselves and the world. Many too many of those who do receive a high school diploma cannot demonstrate having achieved even 8th. grade, let alone 12th. grade, proficiency levels in English language, mathematics, history, or science.
What now is Ravitch’s position? For the schools still need help. Having all her life been a reformer, having always sought to improve the schools, she is not now about to turn her back on public education. I’m pretty sure that the problems of the schools are no less her concern today than during the past 30 years while a major player in the school reform movements.
But now, rather than get behind new fads and fashions, her terms for reforms that won’t change a thing, she is going after the whole nine yards of public school education, addressing the problem globally rather than piecemeal as in the past. And she is correct to say there is no silver bullet, no one approach, be it school choice, national standards, accountability, or as the Unions would have it, additional monies, now called “stimulus,” or anything else that will do the trick.
Ravitch would have us look clearly at what we’re doing, not to fundamentally change or reform what we’re doing, but just to do what we’re now doing a lot better. According to Ravitch there are any number of things that we might do to improve our schools and we should get at it. And in her book that’s what she does.
We need to fix the school buildings, educate the parents, involve them in the education of their children, train the teachers, make sure they have the resources they need to teach, standardize and improve the curriculum, motivate the kids, make sure they are well provided for in regard to all their needs, make everyone in the entire process accountable…
The list, and her list, goes on and on, and Ravitch is once again correct in arriving at the realization that there are not single items on the list, silver bullets as represented by the successive reform movements of her own lifetime, that by themselves are going to fix our schools.
Again, everything she says is not unreasonable. However, I think she is mistaken in her most fundamental assumptions about the schools, and about how kids best learn. She assumes, I conclude from what she says, that there is something there at the very heart of our system of public school education that is precious, that should be held onto, and yes, where broken, fixed, and helped to grow and prosper. This is the idea of the public school, probably dating from Horace Mann, and perhaps even before that, from Thomas Jefferson.
Both Mann and Jefferson believed that political stability and social harmony depended on universal, public education. Mann believed that nonsectarian common schools should be open to all children, for “education,” he said, “is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery,…” and in addition “education was the absolute right of every human being that comes into the world.”
The mistake that Jefferson, Mann, and Ravitch make, and that we as a country continue to make, is not to think that all children should be give the opportunity to learn, to be given free public schooling. Their mistake is to believe that the country’s political stability and social harmony depends on “universal, public education.”
And that mistake may be why so many things seem to be going wrong in the country today. We have put off on the schools probably the most important responsibility of a liberal democracy, that of making of our rapidly growing population of people citizens who are willing and able, and ready, to take on the full responsibility of governing themselves.
The role of the schools ought never to have been this, to make good citizens. Children are not ready for that. Classes will no more impart citizenship than temples of worship good behavior. The schools ought to have confined themselves to reading, writing, and arithmetic. And in fact, when they did as in the early one room school houses there were few or no school problems.
That’s one incorrect assumption that Ravitch and too many school leaders make. Although it may very well be true that as she says, and as Thomas Jefferson said earlier, “a democratic society cannot long sustain itself if its citizens are uninformed and indifferent about its history, its government, and the workings of its economy,” it is not true, not borne out by our experience, that our school graduates through their time in school have become caring and knowledgeable citizens.
The other major, incorrect assumption that Ravitch and other school leaders make is that the present structure of our schools is the right one.
It’s not. We gave the schools the wrong structure from the very beginning. And in the years since we have not been willing to change that structure, only reform it. That’s the biggest reason why reforms have failed. For the problems of the schools lie in its structure, in the how of it, in how we have tried to realize Mann’s vision.
Opening the schools to everyone, based on our belief that education is the absolute right of every one coming into the world, was not the mistake. The mistake was putting all children at age 5 or 6 into a single classroom with a single teacher and keeping them there for some 9 months, and then moving them all together into another classroom with another teacher and so on with a few adjustments along the way through 10 years or more of mostly compulsory schooling.
Why wasn’t it, why isn’t it now, obvious that with everyone of the same age in the same classroom there would be winners and losers, those who would be far ahead of everyone else, those in the middle, and those far behind, and that nothing the teacher could do would change that situation for the better.
From the beginning we should have adopted a different school structure, one that didn’t make winners of some and losers of others. Imagine that we were to place every five year old at the starting line of a running race, blow the whistle, and then watch the five year olds race one another, some falling way behind the others.
Well that’s what we’ve done, and what we’re still doing. And at the finish line the child’s place there, the order of the finish, will do much to determine his or her place in life from then on. And of course there will be many who don’t even finish, who drop out along the way, not being able to keep up.
To change this school structure much more than reform is needed. Vision and attitudes have to change. Right away there should be as many races as there are kids. For kids, 5 year olds and up, and people too, should only be racing against themselves. That’s the only race that counts.
We should be asking ourselves the question whether there is a school structure that would allow everyone at the starting line a real possibility of being “ahead” at the finish line. Is there such a structure?
Well, yes, there is, but only if being ahead means being ahead of oneself, and ultimately being measured by what one can do with what one has, no longer being measured by what one can’t do with what one doesn’t have, as is too often the case today in our schools….