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Published in Print: September 13, 2000, as Book Excerpt

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The following excerpt is from Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, by Diane Ravitch:

Large social organizations cannot succeed unless they focus on what they do best. The same is true for schools. What is it that schools and only schools can and must do? They cannot be successful as schools unless nearly all of their pupils gain literacy and numeracy, as well as a good understanding of history and the sciences, literature, and a foreign language. They cannot be successful unless they teach children the importance of honesty, personal responsibility, intellectual curiosity, industry, kindness, empathy, and courage.

Schools must prepare youngsters to have the "versatile intelligence" of which William T. Harris wrote, the intelligence that allows individuals to learn new tasks and take charge of their lives. They must teach them to use symbolic language and abstract ideas. They must teach youngsters about the culture and world in which they live and about cultures that existed long ago and far away.

If schools know and affirm what they do well, they can liberate themselves from the fads and panaceas that have often been inflicted on them by pressure groups, legislators, and well-meaning enthusiasts. Schools cannot compete with the visual drama of television, the Internet, and the movies. But the mass media, random and impersonal as they are, cannot compete with teachers, who have the capacity to get to know youngsters, inspire them, and guide them to responsible maturity.

The three great errors demonstrated in these pages are, first, the belief that schools should be expected to solve all of society's problems; second, the belief that only a portion of children need access to a high-quality academic education; and third, the belief that schools should emphasize students' immediate experiences and minimize (or even ignore) the transmission of knowledge. The first of these assumptions leads to a loss of focus, diverting the schools from their most basic mission; the second contributes to low achievement and anti-democratic policies; the third deprives youngsters of the intellectual power that derives from learning about the experiences of others and prevents them from standing on the shoulders of giants in every field of thought and action.

Perhaps in the past it was possible to undereducate a significant proportion of the population without causing serious harm to the nation. No longer. Education, today more than at any time in the past, is the key to successful participation in society. A boy or girl who cannot read, write, or use mathematics is locked out of every sort of educational opportunity. A man or woman without a good elementary and secondary education is virtually precluded from many desirable careers, from full participation in our political system, and from enjoyment of civilization's great aesthetic treasures. The society that allows large numbers of its citizens to remain uneducated, ignorant, or semi-literate squanders its greatest asset, the intelligence of its people.

Vol. 20, Issue 2, Page 7

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