Curriculum Opinion

Our Overarching Disagreements

By Diane Ravitch — April 15, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Maybe I should not have thrown George Counts’ famous challenge into the mix. I sometimes have to remind myself that most people—even most educators—know very little education history and never read about why Counts asked “Dare the schools build a new social order?” At the time (1932), Counts was in his most radical phase, openly admiring the Soviet Union; his address was delivered to the Progressive Education Association, which at the time was enraptured with child-centered individualism. Counts said, in effect, dare to indoctrinate children, dare to throw aside your anachronistic beliefs in individualized education, dare to join the revolution, dare to demand a collectivist society. The convention was convulsed with discussion and debate, and for years educators argued about the role of schools in “building a new social order.”

By the end of the 1930s, Counts turned against the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party; he was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, and he continued to write important books about education and society.

On the whole, I would say that the judgment of wise heads about the question he asked was not dissimilar from the one you offered: The schools cannot get too far ahead of the culture; they are not, by their nature, revolutionary organizations. Indeed, we look to the schools to pass on the wisdom, knowledge, and skills that have been accumulated over the years, and, in that sense, they are a conservative agency. And yes, they can change the social order by making us wiser, more civilized, smarter and better able to collaborate with others. But they can’t improve the social order if they do no more than reflect what is.

Where I do disagree most vehemently with you is in your statement that the schools “must include ‘the street’ and the ‘popular culture’ if they are to influence it.” No! No! No! I respect your right to believe that, but I think it is a truly horrible idea. Parents do not send their children to school to learn the vulgar language, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes, racism, violence, and crude behavior that are common on “the street,” but to learn language, values, and behavior that is better than what they encounter outside school. Kids have plenty of time to indulge in the highs and lows of popular culture without wasting precious time in school. Maybe there are parents out there who do want their kids to go to school to find “the street” and “popular culture,” but I suspect they would be a small minority.

I speak for myself here, as do we all, when I contend that schools have the responsibility to introduce children and youth to the behavior, language, values, knowledge, and skills that they need to improve their lot in life, to prepare for college or the modern workplace. I also think that character-formation and citizenship are important goals of schooling. Schools cannot accept rudeness and crudeness and bullying, even if it is acceptable on “the street.” I do think schools exist to raise our sights, to make us better citizens, to encourage us to understand our rights and responsibilities, and to take charge of our lives as individuals. And, yes, I would like them to teach “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”

Now, can we reach agreement on what students should learn?

I certainly agree with the importance of preparing young people for citizenship, as voters, jurors, and members of the larger political society. To me, that implies a knowledge of American history, world history, civics, and government. A friend who teaches in a private university told me that his students have no idea what a grand jury is, or where the state of Illinois is located in the U.S. I think that preparation for good citizenship implies knowledge of the Constitution, our political institutions, and our history.

And I endorse every other recommendation you offer, except that I don’t agree with your statement that “we not try to mandate any course specifics [in science] or define levels of competence.” Both Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate courses do mandate course specifics; that is what most people find valuable in both approaches. Instead of a generic “biology” or “chemistry” or “U.S. history” course, there is actually a syllabus that is understood by the teachers and the students. I think that is a good idea that is helpful to everyone concerned. Of course, people who don’t want to do A.P. or I.B. don’t do them.

I guess where we disagree is on that phrase “with the details and assessment left to those closest to the students.” I think there is value in establishing a state framework for courses and for end-of-course exams. Teachers are usually the best judges of whether their students are learning and how well they are learning. Yet there is value, I contend, in external assessments. Just as we do not expect people to judge their own worthiness to practice law or medicine or to drive a car, we should accept external measurements of classroom learning.

I grant you that in the current atmosphere, testing has a bad odor. Under pressure from NCLB to produce dramatic results, states and districts are over-testing, are emphasizing basic skills to the exclusion of almost everything else, and are really missing the opportunity to use testing to help inform teaching and learning. Now, there are districts that are using test scores to judge students, teachers, principals, and schools, even though the tests are not built to sustain these weighty judgments.

We must somehow develop the educational leadership to put testing into perspective and use it more wisely. So long as we have school systems run by non-educators, that is not likely to happen. But I do not think the day will ever come—or should ever come—when every teacher and every school will decide what to teach and how to assess themselves. No other profession does it. No public institution gets public dollars without some form of public accountability. The question that must somehow be solved is how to provide public accountability while ditching the stupid and non-educative regime of sanctions and incentives that is now being fastened around the necks of American educators.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.