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Great minds (if there are such) also differ


Dear Deborah,

Well, that was a useful car ride if you were able not only to produce this list but to remember it when you reached your destination. Sometimes I have great ideas in the middle of the night, but I never have great ideas while driving!

You are right that we disagree about the role and meaning of progressive education. You refer to only one variety of progressivism, however, the one that you like, the Deweyan strand, the one that you believe produced greater concern for equity and democracy in education. I would argue that there were many varieties, as I do in my book Left Back, some of them repulsive even to you. For example, the psychologists who invented I.Q. testing considered themselves progressives; they thought they were the very models of modern progressivism, bringing scientific thought to the backwater that was American education. Similarly, men like W.W. Charters and John Franklin Bobbitt thought of themselves as progressives, and they invented the curriculum field. In their version of progressivism, they wanted to oust most academic subjects and replace them with activities and tasks that would be useful in the adult world. David Snedden was a progressive, and he wanted to discard the academic curriculum and put most children into vocational programs. Ellwood P. Cubberley was a progressive educator, and he believed that most immigrant children and working-class children lacked the brains for academic studies; he advised educators to give up their naive democratic ideas and get on with sorting kids into tracks with different life outcomes.

There were non-progressive educators—you would call them believers in traditional academic studies—who were fervently devoted to demcracy and equity in education, no less than John Dewey. The American public—and especially American educators—need to become acquainted with the ideas of William Chandler Bagley and Isaac Kandel. These are men who were quite critical of the extreme romantic individualism of progressives like William Heard Kilpatrick, yet they carried the banner for democracy in education, more surely I would argue, than many of their progressive colleagues. It is still thrilling to read Bagley's debate with Snedden from 1914 over whether the schools should emphasize a liberal education or vocational education. And Kandel takes a back seat to no one in his devotion to democratic ideals in society and education.

It is because we disagree about progressivism—even in its most exalted form—that we disagree about other particulars. Like Bagley and Kandel, I do think that there is a common body of knowledge in the disciplines that is shared by educated people. You are right that I believe there are "particular facts, information and stories that are at the essence of being well educated." In every nation, and in particular cultures, there is a shared body of information and factual knowledge—and yes, stories—that educated people know. In this culture, I can't imagine that someone would call herself or himself educated who had never heard of the civil rights movement, the Brown decision, Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, Jr. I can't imagine that such a person could say, "Abraham Lincoln? Who was that?" I can't imagine an educated person who had never heard of Michelangelo or Mozart or what they had done. There are certain fundamental ideas, events, and principles that educated people know; they don't know them by osmosis. They know them because they have been educated. They are not educated by happenstance but because adults have designed a curriculum to teach them "the best that has been thought and said in the world." The "best" is not elitist; we might argue about what is "the best," but I suspect that we might agree more than we disagree, if you weren't so darned insistent that it is impossible to have any agreement on curriculum at all!

I also believe that a large part of the rationale for public education is its mission to build and sustain a shared democratic culture, which it cannot do if every school and every local community teaches its own thing rather than our common democratic ideas.

I am not troubled about the idea that some authoritative group establishes a curriculum. If the decision is left to each school or each teacher, then schools in elite communities and private schools will have a superb curriculum, and schools for everyone else will have a pastiche of this and that. The question for me is not whether there should be a set curriculum (I think there should), but who should set it, and how we can make sure that it does not serve anyone's political or ideological agenda. That is a practical task, and I believe it can be solved, if we can agree that it is worth doing.

My view is that schools have a moral obligation to diffuse knowledge widely, not haphazardly, to the entire population. That is their reason for being. To do that, they need to agree on what knowledge is of most worth. I believe that can be done here, as it is done in many other nations.

Yes, we disagree on the value of standardized tests. I don't condemn them out of hand; I don't think they are invalid on their face. Testing is a part of modern life; testing has been a part of education throughout the past century. Testing is not going away, because there must be a means of determining whether programs are working or failing, whether students are making progress or falling behind. We must do our best to make sure that tests are valid, reliable, and fair, and that they are used intelligently. We must make sure that they include essays, constructed responses, and much more than filling in a box or a bubble. We must also do our best to make sure that schools are not converted into testing factories and that inordinate amounts of time and money are not devoted to prepping kids for tests.

Is our nation in crisis? No, I don't think so. I think we are losing jobs to India and China because employers can get well-educated workers there for far less than they must pay here. But I do think we have serious problems in education. Our kids do poorly in math and science on international tests like PISA and TIMSS. Check out the AIR report showing that we consistently rank about 8th or 9th of the 12 nations that have these tests. What's worse is that the spread of achievement in this country is far too wide, an evidence (I think) of our not having a common curriculum, an agreement about what children should learn in these subjects. I must say I am also disturbed by the steady erosion of the humanities, which I suspect has taken a back seat to the popular culture, which requires no study or preparation to enjoy (mainly as a spectator).

I'll save our agreements for a future posting. I don't want to wear out our readers!



The question isn't whether or not kids should learn about Mozart and Michelangelo. There's no serious educators that I know of who argue that. The problem as I see it is that these M boys and others are just names on a test in our traditional schools, names to be memorized without any serious, critical thought.
The question isn't whether or not we should test. I don't know any serious educators who are against testing. It's really about your throw-away line, "We must also do our best to make sure that schools are not converted into testing factories and that inordinate amounts of time and money are not devoted to prepping kids for tests." Isn't that exactly what we have under NCLB?
As for some "authoritative group" establishing the curriculum; isn't that how the high school math curriculum of Algebra, Geometry, and Trig (alphebetical order) and the science curriculum of Biology, Chem and Physics (alphebetical order) was established. What some people call "progressive"...

Students today learn the specifics only if it is part of a planned curriculum, and if it is not, then it is happenstance. I argue against happenstance.
The math and science curricula tend to be sequential from necessity. I support national curricula because where these do not exist, then what is expected and taken for granted in one district is not in another district. Where the students have active, involved parents, they tend to get a better curriculum.
Is it progressive to have a sequential curriculum? Then I am for it! Bagley was one of the great proponents of curriculum planning, of not leaving everything up to the individual teacher, of ensuring equity for all students through careful planning. I'm for that.

Diane Ravitch

Bravo, Diane! You hit the nail on the head. A short while back I wrote in this blog that prior to ed reform in this country teachers taught whatever they wanted. THEY DID! In many rooms in my district and schools all over the country that's (in)exactly what happened. Talk about organized chaos. It was almost beyond belief. And the educational establishment couldn't see the forest for the trees. School boards, superintendents, administrators, teacher unions, and worst, ed schools/teachers' colleges all thought our schools were wonderful. A little tweaking here and there would fix everything. What a joke! Again, it was an embarrassment of epic proportions. Taxpayers/parents had no idea how sorely they'd been duped. Deborah didn't believe me. She and her dughter had, "never heard of a school where teachers taught whatever they wanted." She wanted to know all about where and what I taught. Prior to ed reform I was genuinely embarrassed to admit in public that I was a teacher. Since ed reform, that has changed dramatically. We finally have a pragmatic plan (almost) in place nd we're following through with it, despite the protestations of the educational establishment and those uninformed who don't know the whole story.

I am with you, but I think we are very far from the rich liberal arts and sciences curriculum that I would like to see in every school. I think we should have a curriculum--like the Core Knowledge curriculum--in the elementary and middle school grades, so that every student and every parent can feel assured that they are getting the knowledge and skills that are available in the very best schools. High school courses too need to be based on a sound curriculum so that the labels signify that students will learn what is advertised. Of course, having the curriculum is only one step; we must also have teachers who are well-prepared to teach it, textbooks (and/or other materials) that are enlightening instead of boring, assessments that go beyond the lowest common denominator, etc.
Diane Ravitch


I agree completely. The important aspect of all of this - we're FINALLY headed in the right direction. There's a plan, a direction all can follow and depend upon. My only additional wish: individualized/customized pacing for all students. As educators we all know kids show up every September with different strengths and weaknesses and they all learn at different rates. That is the missing pedagogical reform for me. It needs to be addressed. After one year of teaching the "traditional", whole group method I harkened back to my time in school and realized there had to be a better way; a system where the brightest would not be bored and the slower kids would not be overwhelmed, and I don’t mean teaching to the middle of the class either. There was. I individualized the instruction for every subject, every student. It was a lot of work getting established, but once in place it worked great. It empowered kids and gave true meaning to how they were doing, where they were going, and what THEY could do about their education every day.

You might want to learn about Carleton Washburne, who was supt of schools in Winnetka, Illinois, and a prominent progressive education (he was president of the Progressive Education Association at one time). Washburne believed that the teachers needed to develop a clear, coherent, sequential curriculum--and they worked hard to do that--and then individualize it so that students moved at the speed appropriate for each one.
Diane Ravitch


I am familiar with the Winnetka Plan but never really subscribed to Washburne's "creative group activities" in my classroom. While I was never opposed to these enrichment kinds of lessons, I had all I could do with individualizing the academics and trying to keep up with the "faster" learners in the room. I studied John Dewey at Teachers College but felt it would take a rare disciplined individual to pull off that kind of a classroom and have everyone guaranteed to be learning. It's why I believe his method never really caught on with mainstream pedagogy. It was too impractical, too cumbersome. Most schools today have an art, music, and physical education teacher. I felt they could address these "creative group activities" better than I could, given my time constraints. I also know the Winnetka Plan exists in different forms in districts around the country but am disappointed it's never really caught on in our public schools. If we have IEP’s for kids with learning disabilities why shouldn’t we have an IEP for every student? I always analogized to anyone willing to listen: if doctors and attorneys attempted to address their patients/clients the way teachers address their pupils (most of the time via whole group instruction) the doctors and attorneys would be out of business by the end of the week.

"I individualized the instruction for every subject, every student. It was a lot of work getting established, but once in place it worked great. It empowered kids and gave true meaning to how they were doing, where they were going, and what THEY could do about their education every day."

I see differentiated instruction as another irrational tenet of the dominant ed creed. It would be much better to have flexible ability grouping in the upper grades. Differentiated instruction is inefficient and adds tremendously to the workload of teachers who are already frazzled because of another tenet of the dominant ed creed: the need to reinvent the wheel every day in order to be "creative".


I agree with your comments on differentiated instruction. I've read Carol Tomlinson and others regarding this method. I also believe it is inefficient because it's so much more demanding to have to formally identify the best way each student learns (few kids learn only through one mode). My individualizing the pace for every student is flexible skill grouping, not ability grouping. I do not believe in ability grouping. To me, that's code for tracking. Even when it's labeled "flexible", in fact, kids rarely move from one "level" to another. They're too often locked into their original group unless there appears to be significant rationale or pressure for movement. Ability grouping can lead to discriminatory, segregationist placements and is clearly not child-centered. Did I try to reinvent the wheel? No. I simply thought back to what school was like for me when I was there and felt there had to be a better way. Smarter kids should be entitled to a learning pace where they won't be bored and kids at the other end of the spectrum should be entitled to a pace where they won't be overwhelmed trying to keep up with anyone. As long as each student does the best they can each day, individualizing instruction works. One of my primary functions in this classroom was to “romance” (Alfred North Whitehead) kids into believing: “do your best every day and you’ll be satisfied with your school performance as will your teacher and your parents.”

"My individualizing the pace for every student is flexible skill grouping, not ability grouping. I do not believe in ability grouping. To me, that's code for tracking. Even when it's labeled "flexible", in fact, kids rarely move from one "level" to another."

I like your idea of flexible skill grouping, but I am afraid there will be some who will say that it is code for ability grouping.

Regarding differentiated instruction in terms of learning styles and MI, I have been greatly influenced by an article by cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham called Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction? http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/summer2005/cogsci.htm

In his paper, Willingham argues that a child should be taught in the content’s best modality. ("All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality.") This makes enormous sense to me.

In a key passage, Willingham says:

"We have seen that the mind uses different representations to store different types of information and that these representations are poor substitutes for one another. That indicates that teachers should indeed think about the modality in which they present material, but their goal should be to find the content’s best modality, not to search (in vain) for the students’ best modality. If the teacher wants students to learn and remember what something looks like, then the presentation should be visual. For example, if students are to appreciate the appearance of a Mayan pyramid, it would be much more effective to view a picture than to hear a verbal description.

Many topics may call for information in more than one modality. In a unit on the Civil War, in addition to lectures and reading, it might be appropriate to include recordings of martial music used to inspire the troops, visual representations (maps) of battlefields, and perhaps a chance to handle the pack and equipment the troops carried so that students could appreciate their heft. Similarly, if students are to learn the form of an English sonnet, they should hear the stress forms of iambic pentameter, and then see a visual representation of it.

There are other ways in which modality of instruction can influence the effectiveness of a given lesson—but the influence applies to all children (see box, p. 34). Experiences in different modalities simply for the sake of including different modalities should not be the goal. Material should be presented auditorily or visually because the information that the teacher wants students to understand is best conveyed in that modality. There is no benefit to students in teachers’ attempting to find auditory presentations of the Mayan pyramids for the students who have good auditory memory. Everyone should see the picture. The important idea from this column is that modality matters in the same way for all students."

You also say:

"Smarter kids should be entitled to a learning pace where they won't be bored and kids at the other end of the spectrum should be entitled to a pace where they won't be overwhelmed trying to keep up with anyone. As long as each student does the best they can each day, individualizing instruction works."

This makes a lot of sense but I am less sanguine about its effects on slower kids than you are. I have different skill levels in my classes and the slower kids know what the more advanced kids are doing. Some of the slower kids have come to the unfortunate conclusion that they are "stupid." I tell them they are not stupid, they just need to have things explained well and need more practice. I wonder if you have encountered these effects on confidence in cognitive ability and how you deal with them?


You're correct. Everyone in the room figures out after the first few weeks how this system works and where they all are on the sequence of progressions for each discipline.

I rationalized it to the class this way: Different kids have different strengths and weaknesses. Some kids are very smart in school. Some kids are simply good readers. Other kids might excel in math or science. Some kids are good musicians, others good artists, while others are good athletes. Some kids are also good at most everything they try. Some kids are physically attractive and have good personalities and have tons of friends and admirers. Some kids “seem” to have it all. Others might have limited strengths. The only thing you can do with YOUR life is to find interests and pursue them with passion. You might not be the best piano player but if you work hard at it you'll be pleased with yourself. You might not get to play the piano for the Boston Symphony Orchestra but through hard work you could get a job playing the piano and earn a decent living. Hard work is a virtue EVERYONE can master. Hard work and a good effort almost always make a person feel good about themselves. Keep searching. They're will be something you are very good at, maybe the best. Pursue it. It will satisfy you." This is where "romancing" kids into believing in themselves is important.

This message was acceptable to everyone in varying degrees. Most kids, after hearing it day after day, bought into it. Cannot ever recall a child throwing in the towel, essentially admitting to the rest of the class, and themselves, they could not learn. That was also an important message to the class. EVERYONE can learn. Some kids learn at a very rapid rate while others need more time. That's OK, as long as you're doing the best you can. EVERYONE in this room respects people who work hard.

Anyone who spends thirty minutes in my room will never confuse what I do with ability grouping. Ability grouping essentially locks kids in. Skill grouping is the ubiquitous movement of kids from the mastery of one skill or concept to the introduction of the next in the sequence. Some kids move quite readily for awhile, then, perhaps they could stumble. Other kids move right along from September through June with few, if any, hiccups. Other kids might be best termed "plodders". They don't go as fast as others but they simply make steady progress at a slower rate. I told them every day, "That's OK. I know you're working hard and doing your best. I appreciate your effort. I also know you're learning. Your parents will be pleased with you."

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