Education Opinion

Public schools and the public trust

By Diane Ravitch — April 04, 2007 4 min read

Dear Deborah,

You know, I am sure, the old saw about how I knew all the answers when I was 21, and now that I am older, the answers are not so clear. I recall the days when educators lamented that no one paid much attention to the schools. Those days are gone forever. Now every politician, every corporate leader, every college junior, is supposed to have a plan to reform public education in their breast pocket (to paraphrase a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson about a very different reform era). Now we look to the CEO of GE or IBM to hear the latest wisdom on how teachers should teach or principals should lead.

I have nostalgia for a time when principals and teachers were authority figures in their own right. And yes, there was broad respect for the American public school (which you refer to as “the American romance about public education”). On my office wall is a beautiful, hand-tinted poster titled “Our Public School: The Bulwark of This Country.” It was created in 1895 and reflected a time when public education was truly cherished in this country and recognized as a national treasure, which it was.

I am less nostalgic about the multitude of school boards than you, only because I associate them with the one that I knew from my hometown, which launched all sorts of cranky, extremist political crusades into the schoolhouse. Mention of the U.N., for example, was forbidden, because the school board thought it was a Communist organization; ditto the Urban League and the NAACP. The only obstacle to their constant interference and efforts to impose a far-right political agenda was the professionalism of the principal and teachers. Going back before my own lifespan, I know that school boards were the ones who demanded religious tests of educators, didn’t allow teachers to marry or smoke or go dancing or lead a normal life, and found myriad ways to interfere with the personal lives of teachers and students.

You cannot fairly blame the crisis rhetoric surrounding the public schools on the Bushies. It has a long bipartisan pedigree. Just look at the signers of the “Tough Choices” report, who included Tom Payzant, Joel Klein, Richard Riley and others who served in Democratic administrations.

And I have to associate myself with the view that all of our schools must do better. The dropout rate continues to be too high. Ignorance of history and literature continues to be appalling. Achievement in math and science is far from satisfactory. Graduate programs in technical subjects continue to be dominated by students from other nations that care more about these vitally important fields.

Unlike other critics, I don’t place the blame—not most of it anyway—on the schools. I got a call the other day from a national television program (Lou Dobbs) asking me to come to the studio to talk about our broken public school system. Knowing that these interviews usually produce 30-60 seconds of on-camera comments, if that, I asked what they wanted me to say. She said, “We want you to say why we have a broken public school system.” I said, “That’s not what I want to talk about. I want to say that our popular culture is disruptive, seductive, and anti-intellectual. I want to say that many parents have abandoned responsiblity for their children, expecting the school to do everything. I want to say that lawyers have undermined the ability of educators to educate.” She was a little taken aback, but said, “come on.” So I did, and I said what I wanted to say, including saying that the public schools today were better than they were a generation ago. Anyone who wants a good education will get one, if they are prepared to work at it. Don’t know if they used any of my interview as it conflicted with the thesis of the show.

Now, you ask if I think that science, history, and literature should be tested. It wouldn’t bother me if they were, in fact, I think it would be a huge improvement if tests were content-based rather than skill-based as they are now. I recall taking tests in all those subjects when I was in school and never thought that the tests were illegitimate or soul-destroying. However, I am not calling for more testing but for a stronger curriculum. Please bear in mind that a curriculum “mandate,” as you call it, is not a test or a testing requirement.

I would like to see districts and states that have a well-planned, grade-by-grade curriculum sequence in literature, history, science, the arts, mathematics, and physical education. I would like a school and school system where everyone understood that children must have time for chorus, debate, sculpture, and dancing. I would like to know that educators shared an understanding of what is to be taught in each grade and that teachers are free to teach history or science or mathematics or literature in the ways they think best.

I don’t think it is sufficient to say that the state Regents’ exams define the curriculum. Why not spell it out so that everyone knows what it is? That works for most countries; it works in most elite private schools; it works for AP and IB.

If we had public schools with a rich, knowledge-based curriculum in the arts and sciences and physical education, with teachers prepared to teach it, we would once again have a public school system to be proud of, one that was not being circled by the vultures from every corporate headquarters, editorial office, foundation boardroom and think-tank in America.


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