Education Opinion

Who’s Failing Whom?

By Diane Ravitch — March 18, 2008 3 min read
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Dear Debbie,

I must say that I do not see mandatory schooling as incarceration, and I suspect that you really don’t see it that way either. We surely know of many nations in the world where the availability of schooling is very limited, and there is no surer guarantee of inequality and social stagnation than not gaining access to education. I sometimes have libertarian sympathies, but I have never felt that compulsory schooling was akin to prison for children.

Not long ago I was invited by a Pakistani government agency to do a paper about “standards” in that nation. I spent quite a lot of time reading about educational opportunity in that country and was struck by one stark fact: Very few students get much schooling beyond primary school. About a third of the nation’s children were not enrolled in primary school, only 40 percent made it to high school, and only 3 percent enrolled in higher education. Overall, barely 10 percent of young people managed to make it through high school. It seems friviolous to think about “standards” when so many children don’t even have a basic education.

I daresay that no one would have the chutzpah to say that Pakistani children are “free” because so many of them are not in school. I think we are very spoiled about schooling. We take it for granted. People make money saying foolish things along the lines of school=jail. Given the importance of literacy and education for everyone’s future roles as citizens and as members of society, it is irresponsible to disparage the necessity of compulsory schooling (for individuals and for society) and the availability of equal educational opportunity (also for individuals and for society).

Like you, I am shocked that New York City’s Department of Education is set to endorse a policy of retaining students in eighth grade. I have seen estimates that as many as 18,000 students may be held back. Like Pedro Noguera, I have wondered how it is possible that so many students have reached eighth grade unable to pass state tests in reading and math when the city previously “ended social promotion” in 3rd grade, 5th grade, and 7th grade. As we both know, the research on this issue is unequivocal: Get-tough policies of this kind invariably produce higher dropout rates among the kids held back.

I am aware of research by Robert Hauser of the University of Wisconsin, as well as Melissa Roderick and others from the Chicago Consortium on School Research, all pointing in the same direction, against retention policies. My understanding is that the New York City Department of Education will defend their decision by referring to a study of the Florida retention policy, written by Jay Greene and Marcus Winters. Greene and Winters are best known for their writings that support merit pay and vouchers in education.

Under the current system of mayoral autocracy in New York City, no one has the power to stop this latest change in policy. There is no board of education, only a powerless advisory board. Four years ago, when three members of that board planned to vote against the new retention policy for third-graders, asking for more time and study, the three were fired on the day of the vote and replaced. See an account of this controversy on the current issue of the New York City Public School Parents blog, in an item titled “On the fourth anniversary of the Monday night massacre; what have they learned?,” by Leonie Haimson.

So, the question is, are we punishing kids by compelling them to go to school, or punishing them by humiliating them when they didn’t learn what they were supposed to? I don’t think that compulsory schooling is a punishment. I do worry about the harm that is done when we pack kids into overcrowded classes, force-feed them deadly textbooks, inflict failed methods of teaching on them, test them with dumbed-down tests, and then fail them. Most of the time, it seems to me, it is we who have failed them.


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