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Public schools and the public trust


Dear Deborah,

You know, I am sure, the old saw about how I knew all the answers when I was 21, and now that I am older, the answers are not so clear. I recall the days when educators lamented that no one paid much attention to the schools. Those days are gone forever. Now every politician, every corporate leader, every college junior, is supposed to have a plan to reform public education in their breast pocket (to paraphrase a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson about a very different reform era). Now we look to the CEO of GE or IBM to hear the latest wisdom on how teachers should teach or principals should lead.

I have nostalgia for a time when principals and teachers were authority figures in their own right. And yes, there was broad respect for the American public school (which you refer to as "the American romance about public education"). On my office wall is a beautiful, hand-tinted poster titled "Our Public School: The Bulwark of This Country." It was created in 1895 and reflected a time when public education was truly cherished in this country and recognized as a national treasure, which it was.

I am less nostalgic about the multitude of school boards than you, only because I associate them with the one that I knew from my hometown, which launched all sorts of cranky, extremist political crusades into the schoolhouse. Mention of the U.N., for example, was forbidden, because the school board thought it was a Communist organization; ditto the Urban League and the NAACP. The only obstacle to their constant interference and efforts to impose a far-right political agenda was the professionalism of the principal and teachers. Going back before my own lifespan, I know that school boards were the ones who demanded religious tests of educators, didn't allow teachers to marry or smoke or go dancing or lead a normal life, and found myriad ways to interfere with the personal lives of teachers and students.

You cannot fairly blame the crisis rhetoric surrounding the public schools on the Bushies. It has a long bipartisan pedigree. Just look at the signers of the "Tough Choices" report, who included Tom Payzant, Joel Klein, Richard Riley and others who served in Democratic administrations.

And I have to associate myself with the view that all of our schools must do better. The dropout rate continues to be too high. Ignorance of history and literature continues to be appalling. Achievement in math and science is far from satisfactory. Graduate programs in technical subjects continue to be dominated by students from other nations that care more about these vitally important fields.

Unlike other critics, I don't place the blame—not most of it anyway—on the schools. I got a call the other day from a national television program (Lou Dobbs) asking me to come to the studio to talk about our broken public school system. Knowing that these interviews usually produce 30-60 seconds of on-camera comments, if that, I asked what they wanted me to say. She said, "We want you to say why we have a broken public school system." I said, "That's not what I want to talk about. I want to say that our popular culture is disruptive, seductive, and anti-intellectual. I want to say that many parents have abandoned responsiblity for their children, expecting the school to do everything. I want to say that lawyers have undermined the ability of educators to educate." She was a little taken aback, but said, "come on." So I did, and I said what I wanted to say, including saying that the public schools today were better than they were a generation ago. Anyone who wants a good education will get one, if they are prepared to work at it. Don't know if they used any of my interview as it conflicted with the thesis of the show.

Now, you ask if I think that science, history, and literature should be tested. It wouldn't bother me if they were, in fact, I think it would be a huge improvement if tests were content-based rather than skill-based as they are now. I recall taking tests in all those subjects when I was in school and never thought that the tests were illegitimate or soul-destroying. However, I am not calling for more testing but for a stronger curriculum. Please bear in mind that a curriculum "mandate," as you call it, is not a test or a testing requirement.

I would like to see districts and states that have a well-planned, grade-by-grade curriculum sequence in literature, history, science, the arts, mathematics, and physical education. I would like a school and school system where everyone understood that children must have time for chorus, debate, sculpture, and dancing. I would like to know that educators shared an understanding of what is to be taught in each grade and that teachers are free to teach history or science or mathematics or literature in the ways they think best.

I don't think it is sufficient to say that the state Regents' exams define the curriculum. Why not spell it out so that everyone knows what it is? That works for most countries; it works in most elite private schools; it works for AP and IB.

If we had public schools with a rich, knowledge-based curriculum in the arts and sciences and physical education, with teachers prepared to teach it, we would once again have a public school system to be proud of, one that was not being circled by the vultures from every corporate headquarters, editorial office, foundation boardroom and think-tank in America.



What if there were several respectable tests of high school science, history, and civics? Could the world be organized so each test development team would articulate a clear idea of what was important, in partial competition with the other teams?

What I've seen of state development of curriculum expectations, I'd expect us to get statements that are too long to allow deep learning, with little integraton of the vast array of pieces. It occurs to me that if there were a handful of tests, each could have a more workable statement of what students should learn. Then families or schools or districts could choose from the set--with some influence from college admissions advisors about what they respect.

Except, none of that will work if each test cost so much that there can only be one or two, or they all need state contracts to happen at all.

Diane--I am following your recent comments with interest and trying to untie a knot I see in current debates on curriculum, testing, and policy. The knot is this: over the past decade both you and E.D. Hirsch have promoted what might be called a "strong content" view of the curriculum and done it partly by opposing such a view to "progressive" approaches. Yet my experience as a teacher has been that the strongest commitment to content--to using good literature and teaching history from exciting trade books and original sources comes from those who think of themselves as progressive, often as "whole language" teachers. So now I see you and Hirsch saying that the skills-based, test-driven, content-poor curriculum is the problem--exactly what progressive educators have been saying is the problem for the thirty years I have been teaching. Connect this to the experience I have had that virtually all top-down approaches to school reform that I have experienced have also been dumbing-down approaches, and I am left confused about your apparent commitment to a mandated curriculum and wondering about your sense of where the base of support for such a move would lie.

A response to the comments previously posted.
First, to Susan Perkins Watson: We do have several tests right now, sort of, in competition, sort of. High school students can prepare to take AP exams or IB exams. Students also take state exams and in some cases, nationally standardized tests. College admissions officials use or don't use whatever suits their needs. Other groups, like Achieve, have proposed creating new exams for states that want them.

I support the idea of national exams, because I don't see the point of lots of different exams. It works for other nations, and I can't see why it wouldn't work here. A national exam would be highly scrutinized for accuracy, fairness, validity, reliability, and all the other important features. If it were dumbed-down, it would be criticized for that too. It would certainly be far less costly to have one exam than 50 or 100 or 200 exams. Will it be easy? No. Will it be better than what we do now? I think so. Am I certain? No.

Second, to Tony, who asks about my commitment to a "strong content" view of the curriculum. If you read my book "Left Back," you will see that I have not been opposed to all progressive approaches. Indeed, I think that a combination of progressive pedagogy and strong content may be ideal. What I have strongly opposed is anti-intellectual progressivism, which I documented in great detail in that book. This is the strand or strands of "progressivism" that says that a) every child should do his or her own thing, so that doll-making is better than learning math, if that is what the child prefers; or 2) that book-learning is too abstract for most children and that the overwhelming majority of students should not be exposed to academic learning; or 3) that real-life activities are always preferable to anything learned in the classroom. Read the book, I think you will be surprised at how many progressive thinkers were in one of those camps. Better yet, read the writings of William Chandler Bagley or Isaac Kandel, who took issue with their anti-intellectual colleagues at Teachers College.
If a mandated curriculum means (as it does to me) that all students will study history, the arts, sciences, etc. beginning in elementary school, then I am for it. And I always have been.
Diane R

I think you set up a straw man with your example of math vs. doll making. I think even Kandel would find this too simplistic of a critique of "anti-imtellectual progressivism." What is it you are really attacking here? Is it student choice about what or how they learn? Not to beat the doll example to death, but couldn't you learn math through doll making, or engine design or music composition? I don't even think the "anti-intellectual" tag would stick to A.S. Neill and Summerhill, a model that you would obviously detest. You make a good case for learning through the traditional disciplines. You just fail to recognize that there may be other ways. Perhaps you should also recommend that your readers look at the 8-year study which offered the possibility that non-traditional approaches could be just as intellectually challenging.

Diane--Your response actually helps me get more directly to my concern. It's this: Comments like the "doll-making is better than learning math" one help prevent what I think could be a natural alliance between progressive perspectives and people like you and Hirsch. I did read Left Back and wouldn't presume to question your account of educational history. But if I walk into the teachers' lounge today and read a paragraph from this blog or your writings about the value of a curriculum rich in history, the arts, science, etc., it's the teachers who most strongly identify themselves as child-centered or progressive, etc. that will respond most in the most positive way.

Tony and Mike,
You raise the same issue, which I address together. William Heard Kilpatrick was one such prominent progressive that I had in mind. David Snedden was another. Also G. Stanley Hall. They all inveighed against traditional academic subjects, no matter how creatively they might be taught. Kilpatrick--the "million dollar professor" at Teachers College who taught so many thousands of teachers and administrators, insisted that mathematics "had little in it to serve the needs and interests of children, or for that matter grownups," and that we taught algebra and geometry to too many, not too few. It was one of Kilpatrick's graduate classes that voted that Greek, Latin, and mathematics were less valuable to students than dancing, dramatics, and doll playing." Snedden attacked the study of history, mathematics, almost anything that was non-vocational. Hall scorned almost all formal instruction, and even argued that learning to read was not all that important, since lots of powerful people in the past were illiterate.
As for A.S. Neill and Summerhill, I see little positive in a school where children decide not only what to learn and when to learn, but if they should learn anything at all. Some may find that admirable--presumably children will eventually decide it is a good idea to have a lesson or two--but it is not my cup of tea, nor my educational philosophy. I confess that I read Summerhill with a mixture of amazement and amusement but not admiration.

Diane Ravitch

if it helps, let me reiterate that I greatly admire the fusion of progressive pedagogy and traditional academic studies. Some of the best teachers I have seen knew how to blend projects, activities, experiences, research, debate, role-playing, experimentation, etc. while teaching history, literature, and science.

Diane Ravitch

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