Diane Ravitch didn’t make a U-turn--Senechal
My guest is Diana Senechal, who taught for four years in the New York City public schools and is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture. She was a research assistant to education historian Diane Ravitch.
By Diana Senechal
Over the decades, throughout her work, Diane Ravitch has shown how far educational fads can stray from the essential purposes of schooling. In her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” Ravitch continues in this vein, explaining how she herself got caught up in a movement only to see its flaws and dangers.
Now a cliche has arisen in the media about Ravitch herself: the assertion that she has made an “about-face,” a “U-turn,” or a “180-degree turn,” that she now says she was “wrong about everything.”
Reviewers, reporters, and bloggers have latched onto these phrases as though they were established truths, quoting each other instead of reading the book closely. In doing so, they distort and distract from her points.
As Ravitch’s research assistant, I had the great honor of reading her book many times and assisting with documentation and editing. In addition, I have read all the books she has written and some of those she has edited. In the spirit of her work, which challenges fads, clichés, and jargon, I dispute the “about-face” bromide.
It is honorable to admit to being wrong. But to recognize our error in the first place, we need lasting principles. How otherwise are we to assess our actions and views?
It is Ravitch’s long-standing values, combined with recent evidence, that have brought her to criticize the reforms that she once endorsed. She has always been critical of rushed reforms and educational fads. She has always championed independent thinkers who spoke against the damaging trends of their time. She has spoken often in favor of a strong, rich curriculum and warned about the pitfalls of standardized tests. And she has a profound understanding of the challenges that teachers have faced over the past century.
In chapters 18-20 of her first book, "The Great School Wars" (1974), Ravitch described how policymakers hurried to expand a reform model without adequate thought and planning.
In the spring of 1914, New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel visited Gary, Indiana, to see the reorganized schools, where students spent the day in workshops in large spaces rather than classrooms. He liked what he saw and approved a pilot plan at a school in the Bronx, based on the Gary model. Soon afterward, a Brooklyn school was added.
Despite the skepticism (and, later, the scathing report) of Supt. William Henry Maxwell, despite parent concerns about the weak curriculum, despite growing protests in the community, Mayor Mitchel insisted on expanding the plan throughout the city.
“Why the haste to install the Gary plan?” Ravitch asked. “The Mitchel administration had decided that it was the answer to the problem of overcrowded schools and had stopped the school-construction program.” The expansion was both reckless and academically unsound — two recurring characteristics of reforms that Ravitch criticizes in her new book.
Ravitch has consistently honored independent thinkers who stood apart from the fashions of their time, whose insights lasted long past their day.
It is thanks to Ravitch’s work that I became acquainted with the works of William Torrey Harris, W. H. Maxwell, William C. Bagley, Isaac Leon Kandel, Michael John Demiashkevich, Charles Beard, Boyd H. Bode, Mortimer Smith, and others. Their work, like Ravitch’s own work, lit up many days and evenings for me.
I have spent many hours with Ravitch’s anthologies, reading aloud speeches from “The American Reader,” memorizing poems from “The English Reader” (co-edited with her son Michael Ravitch) and reveling in education writing (in “Forgotten Heroes of American Education,” co-edited with J. Wesley Null). My “favorite characters” in Diane Ravitch’s new book are likewise those who think and speak on their own—John Maynard Keynes (quoted in the first chapter), Terrel Bell, Mrs. Ratliff, and others, not to mention the author.
Throughout her career, Ravitch has criticized the tendency of reformers to latch onto the newest educational idea at the expense of a rich curriculum. In “The Troubled Crusade” (1983), and later, in “Left Back” (2000), she describes the curriculum revision movement of the early decades of the twentieth century.
To bring themselves in line with the times, many school districts tossed out their academic curricula and engaged in ongoing cooperative curriculum planning. The schools of Kingsport, Tennessee, abandoned their traditional high school curriculum, dropped mythology and Hebrew history from the elementary curriculum, merged history and geography with social studies, and committed themselves to further revision. The story of constant revision — overhaul after overhaul without regard for what should stay — recurs in her new book as well.
Many assume that Ravitch was previously an ardent supporter of accountability and testing and has switched her views completely. But she has warned over the decades that standardized tests could narrow the curriculum.
In her 1984 essay “The Uses and Misuses of Tests” (included in "The Schools We Deserve"), she observes that “overreliance on standardized testing may be dangerous to the health of education.” The SAT, which is curriculum free (at least the verbal component), “left many high schools without a good argument for requiring students to take history, literature, science, or anything not specifically demanded by the college of their choice.”
In “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” (1987), Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr. make compelling arguments about the drawbacks of multiple-choice tests: in particular, that students “have learned, sometimes from experience, sometimes from direct instruction, that there is a technique to answering the multiple-choice questions”; the authors warned that this path, “if followed long enough, will produce a nation of guessers.” This problem is now compounded by the high-stakes nature of the tests, as Ravitch powerfully demonstrates in her new book.
Ravitch’s work shows compassion for teachers and understanding of their extraordinary responsibilities. In “Scapegoating the Teachers” (1983, in The Schools We Deserve) she points out that “the most common response to the current crisis in education has been to assail public school teachers.” This is unfair, she argues, because there are “many guilty parties still at large”; moreover, “as teaching conditions worsen, it is teachers who suffer the consequences.”
In “Left Back,” she describes the overwhelming demands on teachers over the past century, as one drastic movement replaced another. These themes recur in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”
“As one innovation follows another,” she writes in the final chapter, “as one reform overtakes the last, teachers may be forgiven if from time to time they suffer an acute case of reform fatigue.”
Yes, Ravitch has changed, but to call her changes an “about-face,” “U-turn,” or “180” is to trivialize their nature. Hasn’t each of us at some point in life reassessed a course of action? Haven’t we all been wrong at some point? I know I have, and without some guiding principles I might not have recognized my mistakes. There are reasons for her changes; there is wisdom and experience behind them. Should we not pay attention to the reasons, the experience, the wisdom? Should we not focus on the arguments and see what they hold? Should we not consider what is at stake for our public schools, the dangers she describes, the reform illusions she lays bare?
An earlier version of this piece appeared on the Core Knowledge Blog; some of the revisions were inspired by readers’ thoughtful comments. She previously wrote on The Answer Sheet about effective teaching.
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| March 25, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind | Tags: Diana Senechal, Diane Ravitch
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