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Did We Bridge Our Differences?

By Diane Ravitch — November 02, 2010 4 min read

Dear Deborah,

Your last blog takes us back to a time when we were on opposite sides of the pedagogical fence. I was aware of your work in the “open classroom” movement, and none too appreciative of that movement. I tend to prefer students in classrooms with walls and a door and have vivid memories of visiting “open” schools where four classes were at work in the same space, divided spontaneously by bookcases or other physical markers pushed into place to allow the teachers to have almost a room of their own. Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, I engaged in verbal duels with advocates of bilingual education, whole language, constructivist math, multicultural education, and many variants of progressivism.

I recall how I met you. First, as you note, you slammed my book, The Troubled Crusade, in Dissent in 1983, and we exchanged some verbal salvos in that journal. Then, in 1988, you again let me have it when you blasted “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” in the pages of Dissent (my co-author was Chester E. Finn, Jr.). I don’t recall if or how I responded, but I expressed my frustration to Al Shanker, and he said very simply, “I think you and Deb would like each other. Why don’t you call her and make a date to see her?” I confess that the thought had never crossed my mind. I took his advice. I called and still remember what I said when I reached you on the phone at Central Park East, your school in East Harlem. I said, “Hello, this is Diane Ravitch. I know you are familiar with my work, but I have never seen yours. May I come and visit your school and meet you?” There was a fairly long silence. I felt that you were drawing a very long breath. And, then you said, “Of course,” and we made a date. You took me on a tour, we talked for about two hours, and we found that we could indeed find much about which we agreed. At least we agreed that neither of us was an ogre!

When we started this blog, the assumption was that we had long argued, but that we now saw some common ground around the central issues of the day. I still find this a compelling reason to continue our dialogue. As the issues of our day grow sharper, people who used to be adversaries are finding common ground. The disastrous policies of No Child Left Behind and now the Race to the Top have succeeded in ending old animosities. I have heard directly from many people who once considered me a bitter foe, but who now recognize that we are in the same boat. Somehow our old disputes about whole language, bilingual education, and the new new math pale in comparison to the coordinated assault by powerful forces on the very foundations of public education.

I now freely concede that I was wrong to support the expansion of testing and accountability. I believe that this approach has created a major national fraud, as the more we rely on testing, and the more we emphasize accountability, the less interest there is in anything that you or I would recognize as good education. I am reminded that at the end of Experience and Education, John Dewey said that we need to think less about “progressive education” and “traditional education,” and think instead about good education. Who today even talks about “good” education? Instead, we are entrapped in empty discourse about meaningless data, and more and more children go through their schooling without any real engagement in the arts, science, history, projects, activities, or anything else that does not raise their scores in reading and math.

Here is a crowning irony: The New York City Department of Education announced that it is closing the John Dewey High School in Brooklyn because of low test scores. I regularly hear from staff members there who insist that it is a good school and who are outraged that it will be closed. I wonder if those who made the decision ever read anything written by Dewey? My hunch is that they have not, as they seem to be squarely in the camp of Frederick W. Taylor and the efficiency movement (bet they never read him either).

I now freely concede that I was wrong to support choice as a primary mechanism for school reform. It has become a mechanism to promote the privatization of public education and to create a cash flow of government funding for clever entrepreneurs. I testified before the New York state legislature in 1998 on behalf of charter schools. What a mistake that was. I can’t change what happened in the past, but I can sure admit that I was wrong and do my best to stop this movement from consuming even more of the public sector.

I am sure there are many specific pedagogical issues on which we disagree. But right now and for the foreseeable future, the biggest issue is the survival of public education and of the education profession. The same powerful groups support both the movement to privatize public schools and efforts to put inexperienced people into the schools as teachers, principals, and superintendents.

These are terrible ideas. They do not reflect what is done in any of the world’s most successful school systems. They represent a power grab by people who believe that the private sector always knows best. People often ask me why President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan are in the camp of the privatizers, and I have to say that I don’t understand it.

So, what I have seen these past few years is that old animosities over pedagogical issues fade to insignificance when compared with the present struggle for the future of public education. And in that battle, we stand together.

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.

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