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Interview: The Needs Of The Many

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Throughout her career, education historian Diane Ravitch has relentlessly chronicled the ill effects that the progressive emphasis upon "meeting the needs of the child" has had on America's most disenfranchised children. Indeed, her new book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (Simon & Schuster), is an exhaustive look at the subject. In the 560-page tome, Ravitch argues that, while the white and well-to-do have always had access to what she calls "the good stuff"—rigorous treatments of history, mathematics, and English, for example—other students have been saddled with consumer math and exercises in self-esteem. Much of this tracking has been done under the auspices of "meeting needs." But educators who provide children with learning experiences that match their social situations are inadvertently promoting a form of educational predestination, Ravitch argues.

While serving as an assistant secretary of education during the Bush administration, Ravitch played a central role in launching a standards movement she hoped would give all students access to solid curricula. Despite her association with Republicans and a movement resented by some as authoritarian, Ravitch insists she's an independent, both in politics and in education. This is a credible claim. In Left Back, as well as earlier books, Ravitch clearly states that she is not attacking all progressivism; in fact, she praises contemporary educators such as Ted Sizer for focusing on the needs of individual students. She also notes, without embarrassment, that her children attended a progressive, albeit academically rigorous, private school in New York City.

Contributing writer David Ruenzel recently reached Ravitch, now a research professor at New York University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, at her home in Brooklyn. She spoke of her new book, the vagaries of the progressive movement, and her hopes for American education.


Q: What inspired you to write such an extensive work on the influence of progressivism on American education?

A: What intrigued me, and what became the theme of Left Back, was this constant attack on the academic curriculum—so much so that the very phrase "academic" had become a term of derision. It didn't start out that way, but somewhere along the way there had been this redefinition of who was supposed to learn the good stuff—a rigorous academic curriculum—and what this good stuff was. So I was trying to understand how we came to this idea that the good stuff was reserved for only a small portion of our population, which struck me as a deeply anti-democratic idea.

Q: You argue that limiting an academic curriculum to a select few goes back a long way.

A: Yes, the idea first became popular and forceful with the industrial education movement of the early 20th century. The intelligence test was the mechanism for deciding who could get the good stuff and who could not.

Q: Is it possible to give a concise definition of progressive education?

A: It means different things at different times. It also means different things in public school and private school. Some private schools have done remarkably rich things with progressivism. But in public schools it has usually turned into tracking, IQ testing, dividing up the curriculum—rich offerings for a few, weak offerings for the rest.

One of the most pernicious progressive ideas, the one that led to the worst excesses of tracking, is that you fit the education to the needs of the child. Once you add to that, "Let's fit the education to the needs of society," you get people saying things like, "The children of farmers should learn agriculture." Soon education becomes tied to a specific vocation; what a child's parents do is what the child should be educated to do. It's not hard to see how this easily becomes a racist and classist way of apportioning out educational opportunity.

Q: Historically, how have teachers reacted to progressivism?

A: As far as I can tell, there was always a very strong resistance on the part of classroom teachers to its excesses because they always saw themselves as prepared to actually teach something like languages, science, and math. Then they were told by the "experts" that this wasn't needed anymore because they were going into a utilitarian mode of teaching kids. After World War I, curriculum experts like John Bobbit and W.W. Charters would survey school districts and tell educators, "You don't have enough IQ testing, vocational ed; you're not modern because you're trying to teach foreign language to everyone." Teachers were usually not the ones leading the progressive movement and were usually considered a problem by leading reformers.

Q:I get the impression from Left Back that you hold ed schools responsible for these excesses of progressive education.

A: I try not to have villains. But it's true that there has always been a child-centered ideology in ed schools. Their stance against the academic curriculum has very deep roots. Ed schools will only change when they see that the public is serious when it says that it wants all kids to be well-educated.

Q: How much is the current emphasis on constructivism part of the problem?

A: The idea that kids can invent knowledge for themselves—what most educators mean by constructivism—seems fairly empty. My own kids would be exposed to this kind of thing and laugh about it. "Today I was a salmon swimming upstream," they'd say. This kind of thing is particularly disastrous for poor kids. Kids from privileged backgrounds, whose parents have a house of books and newspapers, will learn in almost any situation, regardless of how educationally successful they are. But other kids should not be left to add and subtract. I do find this troubling and obviously a vacuous idea.

Q: I was surprised to read that your own children attended a progressive school.

A: They went to a progressive school and studied Latin. As in most progressive schools, there were lots of projects, but the projects were always tied into learning real things. One of my kids prepared to be general counsel in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. Everything was always well thought out and connected to subject matter.

Q:In Left Back you write that anything "labeled a movement should be avoided like the plague." But isn't the effort to establish standards, with which you're deeply associated, a movement?

A: I don't think so, because I believe that the very nature of education requires that adults agree on what they want children to learn, conscientiously shape a curriculum that defines what it is to be taught, seek means of determining whether children have learned what was taught in order to improve instruction, and help those who are falling behind. Every profession, every organized activity—be it medicine or basketball—operates within a context of consensus about what its purposes are. Absent standards for students and teachers, education becomes aimless and episodic.

Q: What is your own hope for school reform?

A: My book is an argument for having kids educated in the same way the most favorably situated people in society educate their own children. I'd like to see all kids get the education I was able to provide for my children, and a lot of education in the last century has been about finding ways not to let that happen.

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:: Web Resources

  • The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation provides a selection of Diane Ravitch's articles.
  • Diane Ravitch gave congressional testimony on Title 1 federal school-funding reauthorization, Dec. 14, 1999.
  • A number of highly positive customer reviews of Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms have been posted on Amazon.com.
  • A less-than-enthusiastic review of Ms. Ravitch's new book appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, July 22, 2000.
  • A recent installment of Slate.com's Book Club features a lively discussion of Diane Ravitch's Left Back and Jonathan Kozol's Ordinary Resurrections.
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