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Diane Ravitch: Battles Over School Reform

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch and her BookTalk book, Left Back.









We cannot understand where we are heading without knowing where we have been. We live now with decisions and policies that were made long ago, said author Diane Ravitch in Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. "Before we attempt to reform present practices, we must try to learn why those decisions were made and to understand the consequences of past policies. History doesn't tell us the answers to our questions, but it helps to inform us so that we might make better decisions in the future."

At the November 1st BookTalk, Ravitch, who is one of the nation's foremost historians of education and a leading education policy analyst, discussed her book's relationship to TC and how it introduces a different interpretation of American education history. The TC Discussants were David M. Ment, Head of Special Collections at the Milbank Memorial Library, and Cally L. Waite, Assistant Professor of History and Education, moderated by Richard Heffner of "The Open Mind" on PBS.

Her book critiques various reform theories during the 20th century and traces the origins of America's debate about school standards, curricula, and methods.

Ravitch said that her book is a dialogue with her mentor and former TC President Lawrence A. Cremin's 1962 Bancroft prize-winning book called The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957.

Ravitch said she picked up where he left off. She disagrees with him about progressivism's endpoint. "The progressive education movement did not disappear in the 1950s; at the very time that Cremin thought he was writing its obituary, the movement was at a low ebb, but it sprang back to life in the early 1960s," she said in her book. "More troubling, it sprang to life with anti-intellectualism at the forefront."

"We need to educate all children as if one of their parents was the Mayor of New York City," said Ravitch. "Like John Dewey said, we should educate all children the way we would educate our own."

The progressivist movement, championed by John Dewey, stimulated schools to broaden their curricula, making education more relevant to the needs and interests of students.

"Ultimately, my vision is in line with Dewey's," she said. It's dangerous to have a citizenry that doesn't understand science, literature, history or other aesthetic treasures."

Teachers need to be well educated, not just well trained, she added.

Her heroes of philosophy and education include William Chandler Bagley and Isaac Leon Kandel. Both philosophers believed education was entwined with the social, political and cultural structure and history of society.

Bagley, an essentialist, stressed teaching students the essentials of academic knowledge and character development. These essentials, which come from a conservative philosophy that accepts the social, political, and economic structure of American society, include respect for authority, perseverance, fidelity to duty, considerations for others and practicality. Kandel, proponent of the school of thought in comparative education known as historical-functionalism, believed that schools are best understood by examining historical, cultural, political, social and economic environments and contexts.

There are many variations of progressive theories, said Ravitch, who doesn't disagree with them all. Some of them are better than other ones.

In the early 20th century, there was a split between those who favored liberal education for all students and those who identified with the progressive education movement and only wanted education for the college-bound students. Creating alternatives for the students who weren't planning on going to college-mostly the poor, immigrants and racial minorities-encouraged the racial and social stratification in American schools, Ravitch explained.

Ravitch defines academic curriculum as "the systematic study of language and literature, science and mathematics, history, the arts and foreign languages. These studies commonly described as 'liberal education,' convey important knowledge and skills, cultivate aesthetic imagination and teach students to think critically and reflectively about the world in which they live."

"A liberal arts curriculum transforms the student beyond-or helps to rise above-where he or she is today," said Ravitch. "Virtually everyone should have access to this, not just the children of the elite."

In the 1940s, an education theory called, "life adjustment education" was deeply anti-intellectual, she said. That is when kids were tracked, I.Q. tests were used to determine who was eligible for education.

"Schools should be better than the culture," said Ravitch. "With the flood of images children see each day via the Internet and media, it's tough for schools to compete. However, it's no tougher than it was on the frontier when parents had to choose between farm work and school work for their children. People often put a lot of emphasis on utility."

In response, Ment noted that though he liked Ravitch's book, combining the different forms of progressivism into one book was a problem. "The book is useful as a potential teaching tool," he said. The way the various movements and sub-movements were laid out along with the critics and proponents of each "give you the tool for saying 'What do you think about this?'"

Ment noted that in Cremin's book on the transformation of the school, he says there is no definition of progressive education. "The nearest he gets is that it was the educational manifestation of progressivism and American history at large."

Waite commented that in the view of Horace Mann, schools were meant not just to be centers of intellectualism but also a place where students learn how to be good Americans. She added that in Ravitch's evaluation, the economic context is missing. Schools, she said, had to serve new purposes and had to be much more than they had been in the past.

Heffner, in summarizing the discussion said that after reading the book he thought, "I agree with her. I'm not supposed to agree with Diane Ravitch." That, he said, is how it can be with John Dewey. We think we are supposed to agree.

"Our job is not to be partisan or make a book part of a political party," Heffner concluded. "What happened on September 11th is so important we have to make ourselves find the areas where we can agree among us."

Ravitch, former Adjunct Professor of History and Education at TC, is a Research Professor at New York University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. She was a visiting fellow in Governmental Studies at Brookings. From 1991 to 1993, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to the Secretary of Education and was responsible for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education. She has published several books including What Do our 17-Year-Olds Know?, The Schools We Deserve, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, The Revisionists Revised, and The Great School Wars: New York City (1805-1973).

A native of Houston, she graduated from Houston public schools. She earned a B.A. from Wellesley College in 1960 and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 1975.

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