Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?

By Diane Ravitch — April 08, 2008 3 min read

Dear Deb,

We do agree: Violence is not the essential reason that schools are unsuccessful. We agree that violence is not caused by schools, and that in every community the schools are the safest environment that students are likely to encounter. That was not the point, however, that I was making. The point was that we live in a society where authority of all kinds has been eroded, that the media regularly and consistently undermines adult authority, and that schools are no longer safe from the intrusions of the street and the popular culture. No matter whether schools are progressive or traditional (are there any such?), no matter what their curriculum, they still must worry about knives, guns, disrespect, theft, drugs, alcohol, pregnant 14-year-olds, and what happens in the bathrooms. It ain’t “Little House on the Prairie” anymore.

OK, that’s just the way it is. We have learned, these past few decades, to lower our expectations, even our ideals. We have learned to tolerate intolerable behavior.

I also wrote that this climate change was not a function of whether a school was traditional or progressive. You responded to my post with a ringing defense of progressive schools, and I was left to ponder a conundrum. We have in the past disagreed about where to place the burden of social reform. Sometimes I have argued, perhaps too strongly, that schools—or rather, great education—could build a better social order (echoing the famous 1932 challenge of George Counts to his colleagues “Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?”). You, Richard Rothstein, and many others, have taken the opposite tack, that schools—no matter how wonderful—cannot alone reverse the corrosive effects of poverty. Over time, I have altered my views about what schools can accomplish on their own and about their limited ability to replace or compensate for other social and economic policy changes. They can provide educational opportunity but they cannot build a new social order.

Thus I am left confused and dumbstruck—well, not really dumbstruck—when you switch gears and propose that the problems of disconnected, angry adolescence can be solved by creating the right kind of progressive school. I am not persuaded.

Last week, I went to hear Professor Richard Pring, the director of the British evaluation team called the Nuffield Review. He spoke passionately about the wrong turn that British education has taken in the past generation. His complaints about over-testing and about the marginalization of teachers would have heartened you, I feel certain. He had a few choice words for Sir Michael Barber, who moved rather smoothly from advising the government of Tony Blair to working for McKinsey & Company, where the mantra is (and I paraphrase): “What matters most is what can be measured; whatever can be measured can be controlled.” Professor Pring commented that Barber was bringing to America the same dismal regime of testing and accountability that had proved so toxic and ineffective in England (see my earlier blog in which I released—with his permission—Pring’s unpublished letter to The New York Times). He also was amused that the New York City Department of Education was paying several millions of dollars to British educators (the Cambridge Education Group) to evaluate the schools, because their “expertise” is no greater than that of local N.Y.C. educators. And his comments about the Orwellian nature of the business language that has invaded the vocabulary of educators were priceless.

At one point in the discussion, a teacher asked Mr. Pring whether he was proposing that schools should make up their own curriculum, and he said he was not. He said that there must be a framework, some overarching agreement on what should be taught in school.

I like that idea. What would such a framework look like? That would be a good starting point for our next exchange.

Diane

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