Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

Education’s ‘Grand Departure’

February 20, 2007 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Members

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’


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP