Education Letter to the Editor

Education’s ‘Grand Departure’

February 20, 2007 3 min read
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To the Editor:

We respectfully disagree with Diane Ravitch’s characterization of the “Tough Choices or Tough Times” report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce as “pie-in-the-sky theorizing,” and its recommendations as “risky gambles with one of our most vital social institutions” (“‘Tough Choices’: Radical Ideas, Misguided Assumptions,” Commentary, Jan. 17, 2007).

As members of the bipartisan commission, we can assure the reader that, contrary to Ms. Ravitch’s assertions, there was no “horse-trading” involved in its creation. We proposed a total redesign of the system because we knew from past experience with piecemeal reforms that, however worthy, they have little hope of producing the improvements needed now.

Interestingly, Ms. Ravitch says the criticisms we made of the American education system are “unassailable.” Most prominent among those criticisms is that, while we have the second-most-expensive system in the developed world, our results are mediocre. There is a strong likelihood that we will suffer a steep long-term decline in our standard of living if we do not make major changes. In these circumstances, the biggest gamble we can take with our system is not to change it.

Because we propose getting 95 percent of high school students to a new bar, Ms. Ravitch concludes that it must be set very low. Not so. We recommend the bar be benchmarked to our best competitors’ and set at what it would take to get into state community and technical colleges without remediation. We propose to move the bar to a 12th grade level, from the current 8th grade level.

Ms. Ravitch dismisses our call to provide high-quality early-childhood education to young children with the observation that no one has yet demonstrated the political will to pay for it. She ignores a distinguishing feature of our report: We actually show where the money will come from. Our plan is based on a major reallocation of resources.

One of the commissioners, John Engler, was a three-term governor of Michigan. Early in his governorship, he concluded that the welfare system was broken. When he told his staff what he intended to do about it, they told him he would never get elected dogcatcher if he went ahead with welfare reform. Well, the rest, as they say, is history. Why should grand departures like this occur in welfare but not in education?

As a historian, Ms. Ravitch knows America is one long history of social revolutions, each one a case of overturning long-established institutions and ways of doing business. This only happens, however, when the people have reached the limits of their frustration with the status quo. Continuing to do something because it is the way it has always been done, and because there will be those who vehemently object, is, in fact, not the American way.

Some wag has observed that if Rip van Winkle were to wake up today after a century asleep, the only social institution he would find essentially unchanged is the public school. A little less than 100 years ago, disgusted with the way the politics of the ward heelers had corrupted the management of our schools, we introduced professional district management, nonpartisan school boards, and civil service appointments to teaching positions. The reformers succeeded because enough people were fed up with the system as it was to fundamentally change it. The response our report has already produced suggests we may have reached the same point again, with the same readiness for fundamental change. It has happened before. There is no reason to believe that it cannot happen again.

Contrary to Ms. Ravitch’s assertions, there is plenty of evidence from the experience of other nations that these ideas can work. Unfortunately, it is also true that there is plenty of evidence that the status quo does not work. It is time to draw the obvious conclusion.

Thomas W. Payzant and Charles B. Reed


The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce

Washington, D.C.

Thomas W. Payzant is a senior lecturer at Harvard University’s graduate school of education and a former superintendent of schools for Boston. Charles B. Reed is the chancellor of the California State University system.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Education’s ‘Grand Departure’

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