Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms
by Diane Ravitch
Random House. 555 pp. $30.00
Diane Ravitch has long been one of the sanest voices among the country’s education experts. A prolific writer whose career has included professorships at Columbia University’s Teachers College and New York University, a stint as assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, and now a senior post at the Brookings Institution, Ravitch has championed the idea of national education standards and been an outspoken critic of the ethnic cheerleading that goes by the name of multiculturalism. For both of these positions, needless to say, she has been scorned as a conservative and an elitist by the education establishment.
In her new book on the various “progressive” reforms that have swept over the country’s schools during the last hundred years, Ravitch confirms her standing not only as our preeminent historian of education but also, despite her detractors, as the most consistent of education egalitarians. Convinced that most children, including racial minorities and the poor, benefit from a content-rich curriculum and can meet high academic goals, Ravitch is a strong advocate of universal “liberal education,” by which she means nothing fancier than making available to all children “the systematic study of language and literature, science and mathematics, history and the arts, and foreign languages.” As her meticulous research shows, however, this democratic ideal has been under relentless assault in the U.S. for over a century—and from a most unexpected direction.
Around the turn of the 20th century, America’s still-nascent public-school system was at an important crossroad. With a rapidly modernizing economy, public officials began to realize that education could no longer end, as it then did in most of the country, at the elementary level. At the same time, school enrollments began to grow at a phenomenal rate, driven primarily by the arrival of waves of immigrants but also by the first comprehensive efforts to educate American blacks. Devising an education system appropriate to these various needs became a public question of the utmost urgency.
For the country’s leading thinkers on the subject, the answer was “progressive” education, an approach that they considered at once practical, humane, and informed by the most advanced science of the day. Ravitch devotes particular attention to the work of G. Stanley Hall. The first American to earn a doctorate in psychology from Harvard, a professor at Johns Hopkins (where the philosopher John Dewey was one of his star pupils), and eventually the president of Clark University, Hall tirelessly promoted a mode of learning that, in keeping with the ideas of Rousseau no less than of Darwin, would “keep out of nature’s way.” In a 1901 address to the National Education Association, he spelled out what this meant practically:
We must overcome the fetishism of the alphabet, of the multiplication table, of grammars, of scales, and of bibliolatry. . . . There are many who ought not to be educated, and who would be better in mind, body, and morals if they knew no school. What should it profit a child to gain the world of knowledge and lose his own health? Cramming and over-schooling have impaired many a feeble mind, for which, as the proverb says, nothing is so dangerous as ideas too large for it.
Another key figure among turn-of-the-century progressives was Edward L. Thorndike, a young professor at the recently opened Teachers College of Columbia and a pioneer in the field of intelligence testing. For Thorndike and other elite educators, the IQ test furnished another scientific justification for doing away with the traditional curriculum. After all, if intelligence was a fixed and heritable human quality, what was the point of encouraging less capable children to study difficult academic subjects?
Within a couple of decades, this agenda was being promoted not only by the great university centers of pedagogy at Columbia, Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford but also by teachers themselves, through the good offices of the National Education Association. Thus was born the “child-centered” classroom, in which teachers, especially in the early grades, abandoned the traditional task of conveying knowledge and instead attempted to facilitate their pupils’ “self-discovery.” The idea was that children learned best, and most happily, by doing—that is, by taking part in activities related to their daily lives. At the same time, schools took it upon themselves to sort children into categories according to ability, with the promising few given the academic background necessary for college and the less-bright multitude directed into more practical courses of study.
Ravitch describes in mordant detail the real-life consequences of these “crackpot” ideas. Entire school districts virtually eliminated difficult academic subjects, substituting “life-adjustment” studies and occupational training. The most obvious losers, she notes, were black children, who were now more easily denied access to the basic knowledge and academic skills that were the keys to their advancement. Stereotyped because of their low IQ scores, they were often deemed suitable only for studying agricultural and industrial trades.
The progressives did not always have their way, of course. Individual parents, teachers, and school districts resisted, as did a number of prominent intellectuals. In 1940, the journalist Walter Lippmann lambasted progressive schools for possessing “no common faith, no common body of principle, no common body of knowledge, [and] no common moral and intellectual discipline.” In a more positive vein, Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, tried to breathe new life into traditional liberal education with his “Great Books” program—an effort denounced as protofascist by a number of progressive educators.
Eventually, Ravitch observes, the movement for progressive education was forced to bow to certain realities. With the postwar economy beginning to shift from manufacturing to services, and with some 70 percent of American children earning a high-school diploma by the end of the 1950’s, it became clear that students needed high-order skills if they were to succeed economically. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision desegregating the schools, as well as the subsequent civil-rights revolution, focused attention on the huge gap in achievement between black and white children. Relegating large numbers of students to vocational education was no longer an option.
By the 1960’s, Ravitch shows, what remained of the old progressive mix was a deep hostility to serious academic study and to the “imposition” of adult authority in the classroom—ideas that received a strong boost from the decade’s wider countercultural currents. A number of best-sellers formed the vanguard of what Ravitch calls the “pedagogical liberation movement.” Authors like Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, James Herndon, Neil Postman, and AS. Neill not only attacked the admittedly terrible conditions in urban public schools but ended up arguing that formal education was altogether oppressive and damaging to children.
One result of this liberationist philosophy, Ravitch believes, was a precipitous decline in academic standards—and performance—from which the country has yet to recover. From 1963 to 1980, she notes, the average score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test fell by more than 50 points on the verbal section and 35 points in math. In keeping with the results of earlier progressive “reforms,” the biggest victims were not the children of the middle class but disadvantaged minority children whose only path to social advancement lay in academically rigorous schools.
Ravitch carries her critique right up to the last decades of the 20th century, citing such recent atrocities as the “whole-language” movement and the “new math,” both of which emphasize the spontaneous and “natural” way in which children can supposedly become literate and numerate on their own. Her book ends on an encouraging note, however, with a chapter about the standards movement of the late 80’s and 90’s, in which she herself played a prominent role. As she concludes, only by setting high academic goals for all students—and holding the entire education system accountable for meeting those goals—can we hope for genuine progress in our schools.
If there is one shortcoming in Ravitch’s otherwise masterful book, it is her failure to discuss how these destructive educational ideas, originating in a handful of elite institutions, spread so quickly into every corner of the country. It seems clear, after all, that the extent of the damage has a great deal to do with the long-standing existence of a coercive public-education monopoly linked directly to the nation’s education schools, thus making it easier for “progressives” and other theorists to influence classrooms simply by winning over the right bureaucrats and union leaders. Breaking this stranglehold is one of the chief attractions of giving parents real educational choice by means of vouchers and charter schools; these are policies that Ravitch supports, but, unfortunately, she here neglects to make the connection.
All the same, Ravitch’s richly documented chronicle of a century of educational folly makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing debate about our schools. In particular, it will provide embattled parents with much-needed historical perspective, helping them to say no the next time teachers and administrators try to pass off the latest educational fad as if it were confirmed scientific truth.