The nation is awash in reforms and would-be reforms that promise to improve--or even transform--public schools. In Left Back, Diane Ravitch conveys a sober message: Schooling in the United States has suffered from "a century of failed school reforms."
Ravitch is an influential historian and herself a seasoned school reformer who served as assistant secretary in the Department of Education during the Bush administration. Though a skilled controversialist, she wishes to speak here as the voice of objective history. "If there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century,"
Ravitch writes, "it is that anything in education that is labeled a 'movement' should be avoided like the plague." She is not referring here to her own campaign to restore traditional academic subjects to their former place of pride in the curriculum. She is targeting, instead, the John Dewey-style innovators who once marched under the banner of "educational progressivism."
Ravitch argues that progressive leaders dominated policy talk and educational practice for most of the century. They succeeded all too well in implanting their ideas in schools. But Ravitch calls their reforms "failures" and devotes most of the book to showing how educational pioneers led their troops into the pedagogical swamp of progressivism; only briefly at the beginning and in the conclusion does she have much to say about roads not taken or how reform today might seize the academic high ground.
Ravitch disputes Lawrence A. Cremin's classic 1961 account, The Transformation of the School. He tells the tale, she says, of "the heroic advance of the progressive education movement, how it vanquished oppressive traditionalism in the classroom, briefly dominated American schools, then lost its vitality and withered away in the mid-1950s." Her story is different. In Ravitch's view, the progressives undermined the traditional course of study and put in its place a junk food curriculum. They cloaked themselves in "expertise," manipulated teachers into following their plans, and sorted children by IQ tests into tracks that reinforced inequalities of class, race, and ethnicity. All in the name of democratic education.
It started early in the twentieth century. Progressives began trivializing history, English, mathematics, and science. By the 1940s, the movement had fallen into the pretentious nonsense of "life adjustment education." But, Ravitch says, it didn't die out in the 1950s. Progressive ideas resurfaced with a vengeance in the 1960s and early 1970s as disciplined learning went into "meltdown," and electives drove out solid subjects.
There are many grains of truth in her indictment of the progressive leaders--some of them were absurdly antiintellectual--though the book often reads like a morality play. Ravitch's heroes are the educators who defended traditional learning in the public schools--men like William T. Harris, William Chandler Bagley, and Isaac Kandel. By contrast, advocates of "child-centered learning" such as William Heard Kilpatrick and Charles Prosser are the villains.
Left Back is primarily a history of the ideas of such influential educators, most of whom taught at Columbia's Teachers College. Yet I wonder how much the thunderous debates on Columbia's Morningside Heights resembled the battles of the old Chinese warlords, who assembled their armies, hurled insults at each other, and then departed, leaving the landscape as it was.
Focusing on the clash of doctrines, the book deals only glancingly with alternative explanations that recognize the importance of politics and demographics. Educators with "wrong" ideas make inviting targets, but there is much more to the educational change than that. Expansion of nontraditional curriculum owed much to the gung-ho lobbies of citizens who persuaded legislatures to require the teaching of new, nonacademic school subjects. School leaders did not have autonomous power, for the public also flexed its political muscle.
Throughout the twentieth century, dozens of interest groups have stood ready to cure civic ills or help business by adding another course to the curriculum (usually on a subject remote from the traditional academic disciplines). The National Association of Manufacturers supported vocational education. The Women's Christian Temperance Union lobbied states and the federal government until they legislated an antialcohol message in every school in the nation. Driver education was cheerfully advocated by car dealers and insurance companies. Students initiated high school varsity sports programs, those icons of the complete secondary school. State legislators enacted laws requiring compulsory physical education after huge numbers of draftees failed their physical exams. When public health officials battled an epidemic of venereal disease around 1900, they proposed classes in sex education. The American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution lobbied tirelessly to Americanize America. A major challenge to educational leaders was to create some coherence in the many programs added to the curriculum.
And the biggest practical problem that educators faced during most of the twentieth century was how to educate nearly all the youth instead of a small fraction of them. No matter what they discussed in their meetings or in their journals, this was the daily challenge: how to educate and retain the wave of students entering secondary school. In 1900 about one in 10 youths age 14-17 attended school; in 1930 three out of four; and in 1970, better than nine in 10. In 1900 only about 3 percent of the age cohort graduated from high school, but more than half did in 1940.
Many streams flowed together to produce this extraordinary surge. Child labor laws pushed young workers out of the workplace, and compulsory attendance laws pulled them into school. Parents had fewer children, and many thought schooling would help their sons and daughters in the job market. Progressive educators sought to redesign schools so that they would have more holding power for students now entering secondary education (most of them were the first generation of their families to attend or graduate from high school). These "new students" were disparate in their cultural backgrounds, interests, talents, motives, and goals.
Cremin proposed a thought experiment about the effects of all this. Suppose, he asked, that John Dewey and the Progressive movement had not existed. He concluded that "the mere fact of compulsory attendance would have changed the American school." The new students "provided both the problem and the opportunity of the progressives," conditioning every phase of reform.
That seems right to me. Progressive leaders were not arguing in a social vacuum but were responding to an enormous challenge: adapting the school, especially its curriculum and pedagogy, to a new student population. There had always been "educational misfits" in American schools, students who did not learn what teachers tried to impart. In the nineteenth century, educators usually attributed students' poor performance to qualities of character, calling them "lazy" or "depraved." And students then had a choice: Shape up, or ship out. In the twentieth century, hookey cops swept up "ne'er-do-wells" and placed them in school. Educators relabeled the reluctant youth with more "scientific" names--"pupils of low IQ" and "slow learners"--and decided to make specialized niches for them in the school.
Instructors in the upper-elementary grades and in high schools were accustomed to teaching a traditional academic course of study to motivated middle-class youngsters. They did not succeed so well with working-class students. In fact, study after study found that blue-collar youths actually preferred working in a factory to going to school. Progressives agreed that something was really wrong with the old one-size-fits-all curriculum and that it was their job to refashion schooling.
The logic was simple enough: People are different in their academic abilities (the IQ test allegedly showed that), their talents, their career goals, their home backgrounds. Why shouldn't the curricula reflect those differences? Most progressives, school boards, and local citizens were unabashedly proud of the large new high schools that offered a whole cafeteria of programs. In 1973 high school principals reported more than 2,100 different titles for their course offerings that year. That was progress, which was the business of progressives, and burgeoning enrollments seemed to prove the value of the wider course of study.
Ravitch clearly demonstrates what was intellectually obtuse and nondemocratic about the progressives' agenda to differentiate programs. They may have enhanced the high school's holding power, but at a high price. Because the conventional wisdom of reform today reverses most of the earlier logic, Ravitch's message will be welcome to many educational policy makers as a justification for standards-based reform. Left Back will appeal to those who believe that academic focus and coherence are better than a long menu of choices, that the purpose of standards is to decide what every student should know, and that knowledge is best packaged in the traditional academic disciplines.
In the new reform strategy, standardized tests hold educators and students accountable for following a prescribed curriculum. If some groups do poorly on such tests, the remedy is more effective instruction to narrow the achievement gaps, not separate curricula for different groups. If all this works according to plan, there need be no marginal students; all can become full members of the same democratic school and intellectually prepared to compete in a global economy.
But in its own way, this contemporary vision is as utopian as anything proposed by the progressives in 1900. Ravitch admits that creating standards is itself a Sisyphean task. Some find history standards unpatriotic, while others complain that they are not multicultural enough. The field of English seems in perpetual deconstruction. Even old disciplines won't stand still. The New Math wars with the Old Math.
And if educators and citizens can agree on what every student should know and be able to do, these standards can be unfair and futile in schools with diminished opportunities. Early in this century, so many children were held back when they flunked grade-promotion exams that sometimes half a city's students were in the first two or three grades. Mass failure became a way of life in schools at exam time.
Progressives often considered that students were hard to mold (their abilities and destiny supposedly fixed by genes). They thought curriculum should be fluid. Today some prefer the curriculum to be monolithic, and think students are easily moldable. Either way, masses of students are still having trouble reaching even moderate levels of academic proficiency. Today they are more likely to be called "struggling students" than they are "slow learners," but the problem is similar to that faced by the progressives: how to teach "school weary" children.
Ravitch dismisses most of progressivism as "a century of failed school reforms," but when she suggests what actually works in classrooms, the ideological arguments seem less relevant. Ravitch claims the middle ground of "fundamental, time-tested truths" in education. She claims that education needs fewer nostrums and more common sense.
The stakes in educational reform are high, for schools have been "society's best hope for teaching ... the cultural and scientific heritage of humankind, and purposefully developing the knowledge, self-discipline and thoughtfulness that a democratic citizenry requires." And, she says, "children need well educated teachers who are eclectic in their methods and willing to use different strategies depending on what works best for which children."
Exactly. Even John Dewey-style progressives would agree. In her conclusion, she argues that both traditional and progressive education "have made valuable and sometimes complementary contributions to American education."
Why, then, give such a thorough drubbing to a familiar target, educators, in a morality play about "failed school reforms"? As I see it, the history of reform has had many acts with many actors. It's had its moments of heroism and farce, wisdom and folly. All along there has been a neverending search for ways to adapt public schooling to the ever-higher expectations the American audience has held. ¤