Federal Opinion

Reality check

By Diane Ravitch — June 27, 2007 4 min read
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Dear Deb,

Sometimes I feel that we are having a discussion that is way too theoretical, while the world of American education is moving hard and fast in completely different directions. You may be comfortable with a school where the kids spend four years on biology, or four years (or is it one year?) taking apart cars and remaining ignorant of Shakespeare. It’s a free country, and there are surely teachers and even principals who agree with you. But this is not the policy debate in Washington or the state capitals, it will not be part of the reauthorization of NCLB, no matter who is elected President or who controls Congress; it will not enter the heads of the business and foundation leaders who now seem to be in the driver’s seat in many states and districts.

In other words, even if I agreed with you—which I don’t—it would be irrelevant, because the policy environment is going elsewhere and not giving even a second’s thought to the ideas you propose. There will be science taught because it will be tested this year, in accord with NCLB. All fifty states will have their own science test, and I have not heard them agonizing over which science to teach. My guess is that the science tests will reflect the science that is contained in the most widely used textbooks.In the early grades, and perhaps through middle school, science will likely be life science, environmental science, not much more than basic biology. I doubt that there will be much chemistry or physics on these state tests, for fear that the tests will be too “hard” and the state leaders want good news, not bad news. I doubt that there will be much chemistry or physics on these state tests, for fear that the tests will be too “hard” and the state leaders want good news, not bad news.

I confess that I cling stubbornly to the idea of a liberal arts curriculum, one that includes history, literature, the sciences, mathematics, physical education, and the arts. Forgive me for not including a foreign language. I would love to see every American student learn to speak and read a foreign language. Is that sort of liberal arts program too much to expect? Is it impossible? I don’t think so.

Nor do I think it is necessary to get stymied by the question of “whose” history, “which” science or mathematics, any more than one should get stuck over which foreign language. Twenty years ago, I helped to write the K-12 history curriculum for California, and those who wanted no curriculum insisted that no one could decide “whose history” to teach. In fact, while the committee had some good debates, the content wasn’t all that difficult to agree on. We all agreed that American children should know the basic ideas, individuals, turning points, and debates in our own history, and we agreed to expand the study of world history from one year to three years (that was hard, deciding which civilizations to include and which to leave out). The content of the U.S. history curriculum was straightforward; we had no problem agreeing on the inclusion of certain key events—like the American Revolution, the shaping of the Constitution, the Civil War, the progressive era, the Great Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, etc. The interpretation of those events is left to teachers. At the very least, all the students should be able to discuss the Great Depression, for example, because they will know that it happened and will know something about its effects in American politics, its effects on the lives of many people, the art and literature associated with that era.

Will they remember all their life what they remembered in the history class in fifth grade or tenth grade? Will they remember everything they read or heard or studied? Maybe not. Probably not. But I would still argue that we must try our best to teach kids what we think is valuable, what history, literature, science, mathematics, etc., will be important to them in their lives as citizens, as individuals, as people who will work in the modern economy. After they leave school, I hope they will have a solid foundation for continued learning and have the knowledge and vocabulary to participate in our democratic society and the skills to make it ever more democratic.

Speaking of Shakespeare, as you did, reminds me that a couple weeks ago I heard a political leader say that our society will stand or fall, a century from now, not on whether anyone knows Shakespeare but on whether they have the right job skills. We would probably disagree with him, but for different reasons. If, a century from now, we have forgotten how to read Shakespeare, this would be (from my point of view) a culturally impoverished society. We will, of course, be long gone, but I hope that my grandchildren’s grandchildren do not live in such a cold, hard place.

To switch subjects, I wonder if you saw the excellent piece about the NYC public schools in the current issue of The Nation (subscription required) by Lynnell Hancock? Quite a lot of teachers and parents are buzzing about it. Hancock, who is a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has done her homework. She sees a corporate style takeover of the public schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, and I think she nails her thesis. Their latest scheme—to pay students for taking tests and for passing tests—is yet another example of the corporate mindset, which devalues education and assumes that the schools will be “fixed” if only the scores on tests go up (no matter the quality of the tests), by any means possible. As usual, the editorial boards of the local newspapers are cheering for an inane idea.


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