Assessment Opinion

Why history matters

By Diane Ravitch — April 30, 2007 4 min read
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Dear Deb,

It is valuable to reconsider the history of progressive education not just as an arcane matter, but to see how good ideas go astray. You identify with the Deweyan tradition, but it is informative to see how much trouble Dewey had trying to keep his followers from distorting his ideas. One of the things that we learn from history is how easily the best of ideas gets distorted, hijacked, misinterpreted.

This is one reason that my favorite book of Dewey’s is “Experience and Education,” where he tries to correct the misunderstandings of his writings, especially among his disciples. In the concluding paragraph, he says that "...the fundamental issue is not of new versus old education nor of progressive against traditional education but a question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education. I am not, I hope and believe, in favor of any ends or any methods simply because the name progressive may be applied to them.” A book well worth re-reading, in my view.

Even earlier, in an article in 1926, Dewey chastised those progressives who said “let us surround pupils with certain materials, tools, appliances, etc., and then let pupils respond to these things according to their own desires. Above all, let us not suggest any end or plan to the students; let us not suggest to them what they shall do, for that is an unwarranted trespass upon their sacred intellectual individuality...Now such a method is really stupid. For it attempts the impossible, which is always stupid; and it misconceives the conditions of independent thinking.” His point was that experienced adults were responsible for guiding children, not leaving them to educate themselves.

Dewey knew quite well how hard it was to reign in or redirect those who claimed to be working under his banner. Despite his best efforts, all sorts of ideologues created schools where they invoked his name and violated his principles.

I mention the well-known problem that Dewey had in keeping his ideas from distortion because it brings us back to contemporary affairs. Both of us, I think, have had the experience of seeing ideas that we championed picked up by others and turned into something quite different from what we intended. I have supported testing as a means to see whether children were learning what was taught, but now see testing turned into a blunt instrument to denude the rich knowledge-based curriculum that I prize. Testing has become an end in itself and a means to punish students and teachers, rather than a diagnostic tool for improvement. You have championed small schools, but I doubt that you can be happy with recent and current efforts to turn them out in cookie-cutter fashion, with inexperienced leaders and inadequate planning.

Now we see in the past few days that two of our billionaire philanthropists—Bill Gates and Eli Broad—have created a fund of $60 million to advance their ideas about curriculum, the length of the school day, and merit pay and to make sure that the Presidential candidates in 2008 listen to them. I don’t question their right to do this, but it disturbs me that their financial resources are so vast that they can set the nation’s agenda. This is fundamentally anti-democratic. This really goes to the heart of another discussion that we have had, and that you in particular have stressed, about the need for democratic, public engagement in shaping the means and ends of education. How can there be a dialogue when one set of participants has such enormous sums of money and is ready to spend whatever it takes to push its program? Are these two men our nation’s leading education thinkers? How do they know what is most needed to improve education?

I also noticed that Congress is now considering new legislation to “reform” the high school. This scares me because Congress doesn’t have a clue about how to reform high schools. Whatever they pass will mean more mandates and regulations. This is a great flaw in NCLB. Presumably, the myriad people who wrote that legislation thought that they were doing the right thing when they wrote detailed sanctions for schools that don’t make “adequate yearly progress.” But none of the sanctions, to my knowledge, is based on research or experience. They represent hunches, guesswork, hopes, fears, whatever. Yet, now those sanctions have the power of law, the power to stigmatize schools and misdirect the energies of educators, and that is frightening.

I still think we would be better off with national standards and national tests, instead of fifty state tests. But I would couple such a system with a flat prohibition on any federal sanctions tied to those tests. The federal role, in my view, should be limited to supplying information; information, please, and good data, of which we don’t have nearly enough. That is what was written into the first legislation enacting the U.S. Office of Education in 1867, that it should supply reliable information and research on “the condition and progress” of education in these United States. That is still, I believe, the right role for the federal government, in addition to providing additional funding to help educate specific groups of children who have unusual needs and enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws. The federal government should not be in the business of telling schools how to teach or how to organize themselves. Decisions about how to help schools should belong to states and localities. That would preserve our federal system of education, and place responsibility with those who know the schools best.



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