Education Opinion

“Decline” Is Not the Issue

By Diane Ravitch — April 07, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Were the olden days better or worse? In some ways, they were better, in some ways worse. The answer to every question, I find, is: It depends. Certainly the schools were not the punching bag that they are now. Certainly as we both agree (I think) there was a reverence for the idea of the public school that seems to have seriously eroded. And, for better or worse, both principals and teachers were respected by parents and the general community more than they are today. In this last respect, education may be the victim of its success; half a century ago, teachers were often among the best educated members of their communities. Not necessarily true today.

I have never argued--not here and not anywhere else--that our schools are in decline (although it is true that SAT scores went into a dive from about 1964-1980, and while the math scores have rebounded, the verbal scores never did). No, they are not in decline. In fact, I think that the schools are better today than they were a generation ago. But the world is not standing still. Being better than they were a generation ago is not good enough at a time when many other nations are ratcheting up their education systems and trying to overtake us. That’s like saying that our cars are designed as well as they were forty years ago. Who cares? To stay abreast of new technology and new energy needs, they have to be far better than they were forty years ago. A generation ago, we had the highest high school graduation rate in the world. There are now more than a dozen other nations whose graduation rate is higher than ours.

I said in my earlier post that anyone who wanted a good education would find it in most public schools today; the opportunity is there, no question. Are students as willing to work hard for their education as students in China and India and other striving nations? Thomas Friedman, in his best-selling “World Is Flat” book, says they are not. He says that the difference in motivation between our students and students in other nations is obvious.

My personal frame of reference is not the 1930s and 1940s but the 1950s and 1960s (I graduated from high school in 1956). My professional reference as a historian is longer. Again, no question that schools today expect more, teach more, have more resources than they did half a century ago. And, having gone to segregated public schools, I am very glad about the social changes that have eliminated segregation and created a better society for more of us. Nonetheless, I still think we must do better in our education outcomes. Too many kids leave school without graduating. Too many coast through school hardly exerting any effort, just watching their teachers work hard. Too many graduate without the knowledge and skills to make their own way in higher education or the modern workplace. Nationally about a third of all college freshmen require remedial work; in some states, half of all entering freshmen require remediation in reading, writing, or mathematics.

You yearn for the good old days when there were 100,000 school boards. Were those “good old days” better? I yearn for a time that may have never been: a time when teachers are well-educated, well-respected, and imbued with a love of learning; when principals are admired for their thoughtfulness and love of learning; when students come to school eager to learn; when parents provide the support and encouragement at home that kids need. We will never go back to the days of 100,000 school boards; the way things are going, school boards may become obsolete. And we may never realize the utopia for which I yearn. But for me, those are the ideals that guide my work.

Meanwhile, both of us see a wave of change taking place that borrows from ideas that we have both embraced at various times: And as others take hold of what we thought we valued and as they transform these ideas into our nighmares rather than our dreams, we are left to wonder where we went wrong.

Last week the state of Missouri took over the public schools of St. Louis; one shudders to think what “solutions” the state managers will impose and whether they will revive the Alvarez & Marsal cost-cutting model that helped to bring down the St. Louis schools. And just a couple of days ago, the school board in Detroit voted to close more than a dozen schools to try to reduce its deficit. Is public education endangered? Yes. Will it survive? I don’t know.


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