Opinion
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A Good Word or Two About Schools

By Diane Ravitch — January 13, 2009 2 min read

Dear Deborah,

I acknowledge that I have been influenced in my thinking by my frequent exchanges with you. A friend warned me the other day that I have been giving aid and comfort to the anti-testing crowd, which he said was a terrible thing. I think he got it wrong. I am not (nor have I ever been) “anti-testing,” but I am surely more alert to the misuses and abuses of testing. To the extent that I have been sensitized to these things by you, then I thank you.

However, I am not prepared to follow you to the next step, which is to question why we “incarcerate” kids in schools at all. In my research, I have occasionally come across progressivist thinkers who asked the questions you now raise, who dream of a day when work, play, and learning all wondrously merge, and “education” takes place in the fields and the activities of daily life. I have never succumbed to the lure of abolishing institutions, especially the institutions of schooling that we have. I continue to hope that we can make them better places for learning—and you have done a good bit in your lifetime to advance that aspiration.

The “down with schools” and “liberate the child” from the classroom types have never persuaded me that children will in any way be better off if they grow up in fields and factories, if they are left to find their way without adult supervision, if they are left to the tender mercies of employers, the media, and even (in some cases) their families.

And still I fear the mantle of conformity that seems to have descended on American childhood. Last week, I wrote about the eccentric and highly accomplished Claiborne Pell, and one of our most brilliant readers, Diana Senechal, wrote to ask what happens to eccentric children today. I responded that they are probably put on Ritalin or assigned to special education. How sad! I think of my own grandchildren, whose lives are closely monitored, and compare them with my childhood, when I was free to roam far and wide on my bicycle after school, so long as I was home in time for dinner.

Is it that we live in a more dangerous time? I don’t know. But I don’t think that the obvious answer is to “de-school” children. I don’t think you will pull me along with you on that journey.

As you well know, I have done my share of complaining about the business types—and the phonies who think they are thinking like business types (when in fact they are clueless about teaching and learning and therefore lean on incentives, data, and an attitude of toughness to mask their ignorance of curriculum and instruction). Nonetheless, I share their expressed concern about improving the achievement and knowledge of our nation’s children. As a nation, I do believe we will be helped or harmed in the future by the way we educate our children today.

Where I part company with today’s so-called reformers is that they think that test scores alone are adequate measures of “achievement.” I, however, do not. I hope for the day when schools are expected to teach not only reading and math but history, geography, science, the arts, literature, civics, and a foreign language, and to attend to students’ health and personal development. To me, such a rounded approach to education seems self-evident. It is what the “best and wisest” among us want for our own children. I wonder why our society is so willing to listen to the small-minded “reformers” who are willing to inflict on other people’s children what they would never tolerate for their own?

Diane

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.