Education historian Diana Ravitch has been getting press lately over her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, especially played up in such accounts is her repudiating the policies of No Child Left Behind–the Bush Administration’s education reform initiative. However, it is presumptuous to cite this as a significant change in her positions or that the new specific policies that she advocates are any more palatable to the critics of NCLB.
In her prior book Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, Ravitch begins her conclusion by writing:
“If there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century, it is that anything in education that is labeled a ‘movement’ should be avoided like the plague. What American education most needs is not more nostrums and enthusiasms but more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths. It is a fundamental truth that 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. It is another fundamental truth that adults must take responsibility for children and help them develop as good persons with worthy ideals.
“Massive changes in curricula and pedagogy should be based on solid research and careful field-tested demonstration before they are imposed on entire school districts and states. There has been no shortage of innovation in American education; what is needed before broad implementation of any innovation is clear evidence of its effectiveness. Schools must be flexible enough to try new instructional methods and organizational patterns, and intelligent enough to gauge their success over time in accomplishing their primary mission: educating children.”
In a new Washington Post op-ed, Ravitch outlines her new agenda for school reform. Why new? As she previously stated, data should drive decisions; she cites the lack of significant improvement in reading and math test scores as evidence that the current policy has failed. She states that idealistic goals of 100% proficiency have corrupted education by dumbing down standards as a means of defrauding the process. Further, she states that parental choice through charter school programs has failed to create improvement in public schools, while these alternatives do not outperform them.
The focus of her new agenda is fixing failed public school management. First, she advocates enhanced standards for teacher certification, including rigorously testing teachers for competence in their core subject, literacy, and numeracy. Second, she advocates a shift in the expertise of principals and superintendents from administration to experience as excellent teachers. Third, she calls for more effective and substantial tools for assessing student knowledge. Finally, she repudiates the practice of identifying and closing schools that fail to improve, and instead calls for additional investments in solutions tailored to those schools’ specific demographic challenges.
Ravitch is consistent; she uses data to identify that prior school reform efforts have failed and then pragmatically asserts a new program of reforms. She attributes her prior erroneous advocacy to a foundation in belief and faith; hardly, the data driven rigor she aspires to. As she did in the conclusion to her prior book, she explains her new agenda Rationalistically, by starting with an asserted truism disconnect from its context that should link it back to reality.
Ravitch remains in the tradition of John Dewey’s Pragmatism, which has dominated the failed century of school reform criticized by Ravitch. As Tara Smith explained in her article “The Menace of Pragmatism,” William James wrote that pragmatism does not stand for any results or specific substantive doctrines; rather, it is distinguished by its method of ‘clarifying ideas’ in practical terms by tracing the practical consequences of accepting one idea or another. Abandoning a conceptual framework of integrated principles tied to Reality, the fundamental causes of failure are not examined; instead, the cycle restarts with new and different action proposals based upon consensus derived truisms.
In embracing a renewed drive to fix public schools, Ravitch fails to correct one of her fundamentally flawed premises: that schools should be public. She criticizes hybrid efforts to bring business principles to school reform, while missing that the public nature of schools is one of the education’s key problems. Government is force, which puts force—and not Reason—as the fundamental driver in public education.
In addition, the teaching methodology used in our schools, and re-enforced by Ravitch’s proposals, share the flaws exhibited by Ravitch’s processes: Rationalism and Pragmatism. Currently, instruction lacks conceptual integration and fails to tie the material back to reality; which causes students to repeatedly wonder what the lessons have to do with their lives. Meanwhile, our schools foster unprincipled actions focused upon ephemeral outcomes without regard to enduring values.
While a famed historian of education, Ravitch admits to recently promoting failed school reform, and advocates a new action agenda. However, she has not learned the lessons from the history that she has studied and lived. By evading the need for principles as a guide to action, she advocates marginal improvements instead of identifying the transforming changes required by our schools and students.
Reposted from The PrometheusInquiry
Update 4/4/2010: Video version