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'F' Is for Failure

Can a Single Curriculum Satisfy Our Diverse Democracy?

LEFT BACK A Century of Failed School Reforms; By Diane Ravitch; Simon & Schuster: 544 pp., $30

September 10, 2000|HERBERT KOHL | Herbert Kohl is the author of more than 40 books on education, most recently "The Discipline of Hope" and "A Grain of Poetry." He is director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco

My father, who is 90, recently complained about the current state of public education and claimed he knew how to reform it: a good dose of Latin, Milton and strict discipline. I reminded him that he hated Latin when he was in school, memorized Milton but never understood a word of his poetry and hadn't been in a public school since 1929 (except in 1943 when I was causing trouble in the first grade).

Ironically, he's not that wrong in his thinking. Just about everything, it seems, that one can throw in the pot nowadays--even Latin, Milton and discipline--falls under the rubric of school reform, and everyone fancies himself or herself a school reformer. Teachers, parents, students, business people, foundations, community groups, politicians and educational experts all have ideas on how schools need to be changed. Some advocate vouchers and the privatization of schools. Others talk about returning to phonics, arithmetic drills, memorization of facts in history and constant testing. Yet others talk about the need for spirituality in the schools, prayer and the Ten Commandments or argue for schools centered on multiculturalism, social justice, whole language, cooperative learning and inquiry.

But there is some middle ground. Conservative, liberal and progressive visions of public school reform share a few basic premises: developing learning standards, holding teachers accountable for student performance, assessing student performance and preparing students to live and work in a technologically oriented society.

Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education during the Bush administration and currently senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and research professor at New York University, identifies herself as an intellectual progressive and a liberal traditionalist. However in her new book, "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform," she reveals herself as a conservative who believes that society's only responsibility to its children is to provide the occasion for education. According to Ravitch, it is the role of schools to provide one curriculum, based in the classics of Western literature, to all children, and it is up to the children and their parents to apply themselves, no matter what resources for learning they have. She places the burden for success upon the children and their parents and disregards both the desire of many people to determine the content and nature of their children's schooling and the difficulties faced by educators who work in undersupplied schools in poor communities.

In "Left Back," Ravitch takes a look at the last 100 years of public education through these lenses. She documents the conflicts between what she calls progressivists and traditionalists and provides a useful account of their disagreements over the role of education. Her basic dichotomy is between those progressive educators who believe schools should teach thinking skills, community involvement and social responsibility and those traditionalists who see intellectual rigor and the mastery of a traditional curriculum as the core of education. Though at times she indicates that there may be no necessary contradiction between these two goals, she comes down strongly on the side of a Western-oriented curriculum grounded in, as she calls it, "the cumulative experience of the human race"; it is the equivalent of a national curriculum mandated from the top. She identifies the curriculum she advocates as part of the democratic tradition of one academic education for all and contrasts it with the diverse approaches to learning, work and citizenship that characterize the Progressive Education Movement. By implicitly attacking multicultural education, community-based learning and other forms of learning that relate more closely to the needs and wishes of individual communities, she assumes that it is democratic to provide everyone with the same education no matter what resources they have or don't have.

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