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Published in Print: July 14, 2010, as Even Galileo Changed His Mind

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Even Galileo Changed His Mind

Diane Ravitch and the Evolution of Learning Theory

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Ten years ago, several colleagues and I made a forceful argument to Diane Ravitch and her fellow members of the governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress that NAEP scores should not be used to evaluate student performance in relation to the goals of a federal program such as the No Child Left Behind Act, adopted not long thereafter. We failed to convince the board.

Four months ago, I almost drove into a ditch as I listened to Ravitch’s voice on the car radio describing similar arguments presented in her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I raced home and e-mailed her a short passage from Scripture: “There is more joy in heaven for one sinner who repents than for ninety-nine just men …” (Luke 15:7).

Diane Ravitch’s thoughtful and disciplined observations, along with her honesty and courage in laying out positions that differ from those she held in earlier years, merit the serious attention of all of us who are concerned about the education of our young fellow citizens.

In the book, Ravitch refers nostalgically to her neighborhood-school experience as a child in Texas, and to Mrs. Ratliff, her favorite teacher. Like Ravitch, most of us can vividly recall one or two elementary or secondary school teachers who made a strong impression on us.

But these lasting and warm human memories contrast powerfully with her book’s stunning litany of failures associated with multiple, complex, “scientifically based,” technology-rich, and enormously expensive reform projects of recent years. Most of these reforms, despite their supposed promise, have failed to improve student test scores, much less students’ learning.

The arguments supporting the elaborate design of these reform programs seem to conflict with the reality of the American experience: Schools have, despite their flaws, successfully educated our presidents, our secretaries of education, and many of our children and grandchildren. These stubborn and obvious successes seem to suggest the value of considering repairing the existing system, rather than developing a whole new one.

And in planning that repair work, Ravitch seems to say, there is much to learn about how we evaluate success. She calls attention to important questions about the validity of using test scores to measure the effectiveness of new programs designed to improve learning. Psychometricians have been warning researchers for decades against using test results, which are more accurately referred to as “estimates,” rather than “scores,” as proof of the effectiveness of new teaching processes or new instructional materials.

Complex learning environments—the variety represented by a classroom of 30 unique young people, all influenced by the random personal tragedies that occur among students and educators, and by the outside pressures exerted on their teachers and school officials—argue strongly against relying on test scores to determine the impact of a new teacher, a new textbook, or a clever computer.

Ravitch’s testimony in this powerful book invites wider reflection on the evolution of learning theory. The courage it took for her to reverse 15 years of support for reforms she now critiques, as well as her re- examination of past calls for accountability measured by test scores, place her in a long line of questioning and adaptive educational thinkers.


Thousands of years of human experience suggest that teaching and learning may, in fact, be intuitive, a product of natural human behaviors. And the history of learning theory resounds with this knowledge. Socrates: Ask students questions, identify errors, correct them. Thomas Aquinas: Nothing is in the mind unless through the senses. B.F. Skinner: Reward appropriate behaviors, and even pigeons can learn. Ernest L. Boyer: All children learn. It’s what they do. And now Diane Ravitch (with a touch of Vince Lombardi): If all else fails, go back to basics.

Most of the world’s cultures have a single accepted theory or tradition of teaching and learning. But in multicultural America, we enjoy the luxury of several competing theories, and a confusing array of instructional practices. Our characteristic impatience and our attraction to innovation also encourage us to try risky experiments.

Moreover, in the United States, if someone puts $4 billion on the table, a lot of very smart people will be willing to suspend not only their disbelief, but their belief as well to consider additional alternatives.

During my 14 years of responsibility for managing the Educational Testing Service’s NAEP contract, we collected and analyzed data on a wide range of teacher and student behaviors. Whenever a new idea or an important issue was raised, the NAEP staff would assemble a small committee of experts, and we would reanalyze all the relevant data available, searching for the ever-elusive “cause and effect.”

I don’t remember any “conclusive” findings. And I believe it will be equally difficult to interpret the new data being collected today.

Having visited and worked with educators in more than 50 countries, I am always struck by the warmth and affection I find in their educational environments, the relationships among teachers and young students. In the vast majority of even the poorest countries, the children, out of respect for learning, “dress” for school, even if the classroom may be only the shady side of a large tree.

It may be productive to consider borrowing ideas from our more successful international competitors. My personal list of favorites, for consideration by those who would educate my future great-grandchildren, includes these:

For primary education, Italy, where centuries-old wisdom is contained in the phrase La maestra e piu mamma che maestro (“The primary school teacher is more mother than teacher”).

For secondary education, France’s lycée, where broad curricula, “disputations,” and a multicultural sensibility are on display.

For higher education, the United States, because of the variety and quality of its colleges and universities.


As for our current national experiments in K-12 education, one can only admire the intentions, the focus on the lowest-performing schools, and the generosity of funding. But in my experience, it is difficult to predict the consistent rigor of the funded projects, and therefore the reliability of the findings.

Having had some experience in textbook publishing, I feel comfortable in predicting that experienced teachers will make independent decisions about what and how they will teach. Less experienced teachers will more closely follow instructions and textual content. All teachers, regardless of years of experience, will skip over any text content with which they disagree.

It also seems reasonable to predict personnel changes in teacher and management assignments during the course of these reform projects. And then there are the inevitable anomalies—unexplainable events and data. We should anticipate problems, as well as some useful outcomes.

But we should also consider a fail-safe position. I have a suggestion based on history.

As Apollo 13 hurtled toward disaster in April of 1970, after an oxygen-tank rupture, NASA engineers worked with the Apollo crew to assemble all the resources available within the spacecraft that could be used in devising a solution. The process wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

As American education “races to the top,” much like Apollo raced to the moon, it may be wise for us to simultaneously enhance the resources already available, as a fail-safe for ensuring the educational success of the current generation.

Here is but a partial list of these resources: (1) more than 3 million educated, certified, and experienced teachers; (2) a large number of trained teachers’ aides; (3) a large number of university-based experts able to assist classroom teachers on an on-call basis.

It may be that a series of “demonstration projects” across the nation, involving and supporting existing teachers in their current endeavors, could generate some useful results.

Diane Ravitch, a disciplined historian, makes a compelling case for re-examining the effectiveness of traditional models of transmitting knowledge and skills to the next generation. We should listen to her.

Vol. 29, Issue 36, Pages 30-31, 33

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