The other day I turned up some notes from a talk by Diane Ravitch at Franklin & Marshall College on 1/11/88. At the time, she was regarded as a knowledgeable scholar who not only knew but was contributing to the latest trends. For many years now, she has been described as the foremost historian of American education and she is just as active in writing (and blogging) as ever.
Here is how she describes that earlier part of her career “Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform: Federal testing has narrowed education and charter schools have failed to live up to their promise,” Wall Street Journal, 3/9/10:
I have been a historian of American education since 1975, when I received my doctorate from Columbia. I have written histories, and I’ve also written extensively about the need to improve students’ knowledge of history, literature, geography, science, civics and foreign languages….
Here is what my now 25-year-old notes show:
Liberal education is becoming rare in the US. But “knowledge is power,” “ideas move the world,” and “the person who knows how will always have a job; the person who knows why will be the boss.”
Humanities–fields like history, foreign languages, and philosophy–are shrinking. Yes they help students think for themselves and become intellectually free, as early women’s colleges saw.
We depend on public knowledge of issues. Knowledge forms values; skepticism develops judgment. “What our society most needs today is cultural literacy.” A student’s mind doesn’t belong to the state.
Social Science,unfortunately, “can be taught by teachers who never studied history (e.g., in NY, California, etc.). William Bennett’s Madison High program used to be standard.
Can everyone be educated? Or just go to school? Only half of students are in a non-vocational track; but to say that only college-bound students need to study subjects like history is elitist.
Education helps make a life, not just a biography.
In response to questions, she added: Lynne Cheney goes too far. Then, I can’t tell if she said, or I annotated my notes with: You can’t separate what from how; all learning includes process.
Further background: Lynne Cheney was chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities 1986-93; her predecessor William Bennett was US Secretary of Education from 1985-88. Both of them, Reagan appointees in office when Ravitch gave her talk, were leaders in the conservative movement to reaffirm traditional studies and standards which is still going on today (with, one might add, depressingly little to show). The phrase “cultural literacy” refers to E. D. Hirsch Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), a listing of facts and data that the author believed were shared by Americans and denoted adequate education.
I pretty much agreed with Ravitch’s basic philosophy: I believed in traditional learning, lamented the decline of the humanities in our educational system, but also thought understanding is even more important than knowledge per se. I still do.
I liked that she did not promote what were beginning to be the trendy ideas of standardized testing and government domination of education planning; rather, she took a sympathetic and humanistic approach to the reasons for learning.
So where did Ravitch go from there? Still from the Wall Street Journal:
So in 1991, when Lamar Alexander and David Kearns invited me to become assistant secretary of education in the administration of George H.W. Bush, I jumped at the chance with the hope that I might promote voluntary state and national standards in these subjects.
By the time I left government service in January 1993, I was an advocate not only for standards but for school choice. I had come to believe that standards and choice could co-exist as they do in the private sector. With my friends Chester Finn Jr. and Joseph Viteritti, I wrote and edited books and articles making the case for charter schools and accountability.
Subsequently, she emerged as a leading critic of charter schools, educational vouchers, No Child Left Behind, and Race To the Top, and the currently pervasive testing of students outside of their regular courses. She wrote in 2012
…Because the law demanded progress only in reading and math, schools were incentivized to show gains only on those subjects. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in test-preparation materials. Meanwhile, there was no incentive to teach the arts, science, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages or physical education.
In short, accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else….
When charter schools started in the early 1990s, their supporters promised that they would unleash a new era of innovation and effectiveness….
But the promise has not been fulfilled. Most studies of charter schools acknowledge that they vary widely in quality. The only major national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond and funded by pro-charter foundations. Her group found that compared to regular public schools, 17% of charters got higher test scores, 46% had gains that were no different than their public counterparts, and 37% were significantly worse….
What we need is not a marketplace, but a coherent curriculum that prepares all students. And our government should commit to providing a good school in every neighborhood in the nation, just as we strive to provide a good fire company in every community.
On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it. Most significantly, we are not producing a generation of students who are more knowledgeable, and better prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship. That is why I changed my mind about the current direction of school reform.