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Education's Failed Fads

A new book describes a century of bumbling school reforms and their toll. The author says early 'progressive' educators helped create the low expectations still present in many schools.


Misguided and bumbled attempts to fix schools are nothing new, as education historian Diane Ravitch relates in painful detail in her new book, "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms" (Simon & Schuster, $30).

Whole language? That 1980s and 1990s movement, so maligned of late as the pendulum swings back toward phonics, had its roots in the "whole word" methods of the 1920s.

Tracking? Now largely discredited, the practice of shunting disadvantaged young students into vocational or industrial programs began decades ago.

Anti-intellectualism? Education schools' disdain for academic subjects such as math, literature and science has permeated curriculum battles for much of the last century.

Ravitch levels harsh criticism at early "progressive" educators, who, in a bid to make schools more "socially efficient," urged them to limit the number of students taking academic studies and to use IQ tests to determine which students were college-bound and which belonged in fields, stores and factories.

Their untested fads, she says, helped give rise to the climate of low expectations that pervades many schools today.

Throughout much of the last century, Ravitch writes, these "educationists" lost sight of schools' chief purpose: teaching knowledge. As a result, she argues, American schools have cheated generations of children out of a good education.

Ravitch, 62, a Texas native who attended Houston public schools, received a bachelor's degree in political science from Wellesley College and a doctorate in the history of American education from Columbia University.

From 1991 to 1993, she served as the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the administration of President George Bush.

Ravitch has been variously described as a moderate-conservative, a liberal traditionalist and, in her own eyes, an "egalitarian."

She is a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. She also serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national testing system.

Question: In your view, progressive education created all sorts of problems in schools that remain unresolved today. What was progressive education?

Answer: Progressivism took many different forms, some of which eventually were contradictory. Some of the progressives were in love with the idea of social efficiency, and that led them to embrace vocational education. Other progressives were very in love with the child-centered school, where finding out what the child was interested in was more important than subject matter.

And then there were the ones who thought that education could become a science and who then took this idea into IQ testing and trying to predict from the earliest ages--first and second grades--what children's innate IQ was and what their potential in life would be. The IQ testers tended to discount the importance of education because they believed that some people had such a low IQ that education wouldn't make a difference for them.


Q. Were progressive educators a bunch of conservative white guys trying to preserve the class structure?

A. They themselves certainly didn't think so.

One progressive was David Snedden [a California schoolmaster and superintendent who helped found the field of educational sociology], who considered himself to be very practical. He advocated a "differentiated" curriculum. "All this book learning is a lot of hogwash," he would say. "Why should girls learn math? Why should anybody learn chemistry?" But if no one needs to learn anything, how do you maintain the knowledge base of society?

The irony is that people who called themselves progressives in those days would now look conservative.


Q. Your book gives the distinct impression that the battle between progressivism and traditionalism is never-ending. What drives that battle?

A. One of the big issues that divides people in education is over child-centered education versus teacher-led instruction. That debate has gone on throughout the century. To what extent should children be left to lead the way and figure things out on their own and to what extent should teachers actually teach them?

You'll find a lot of teachers these days calling themselves facilitators. They do this because they have been inculcated with the idea that as teachers they should not instruct children but stand on the side and help them learn. The more traditionalist approach is that the teacher decides what should be taught and steps in and teaches them because the teacher knows more.


Q. When did vocational ed get its start?

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