Saturday, February 25, 2017

Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch

In my never-ending endeavor to be a good teacher, I am reading as many recommended education books as I can. One of these was Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch. It was fascinating to read of the history of education in America. I think I marked up the entire book. 

As with any study of history, one of the major benefits is to know where we came from to better understand where we are going. Ravitch states, "The aim of this book is to trace the origins of America's seemingly permanent debate about school standards, curricula, and methods. In particular, it recounts the story of unrelenting attacks on the academic mission of the schools." (p. 14-15). She gives her biases away in the introduction. Unlike other historians, she argues that the progressive philosophy that took over education had an inescapable anti-intellectualism at its core. She gives credence and voice to the movements critics. The reasons these controversies matter is because once the door was opened away from a classical, liberal education, anything was possible. There was no defensible reason to say, "No" to whatever educational fad held the day. The students suffered. 

In today's environment, Ravitch asserts, "The schools must reassert their primary responsibility for the development of young people's intelligence and character. Schools must do far more than teach children 'how to learn' and 'how to look things up'; they must teach them what knowledge has the most value, how to use that knowledge, how to organize what they know, how to understand the relationship between past and present, how to tell the difference between accurate information and propaganda, and how to turn information into understanding." (p. 17)

The big changes and reforms came to education once it was decided that all children should be required to attend school. Prior to the 20th dentury, most children received some education, but few continued all the way through high school. "The aim of the [new] common school was clear: to promote sufficient learning and self-discipline so that people in a democratic society could be good citizens, read the newspapers, get a job, make their way in an individualistic and competitive society, and contribute to their community's well-being." (p. 25) No longer was education about creating a "well-souled man." 

As a higher percentage of students poured into high schools, the debate grew over what was the purpose of secondary schools. As the century dawned, the emphasis became on training for manual jobs. The schools began to try to make education useful and attractive to students. It appeared to be just the right preparation for the new Industrial Age. 

A group of educators, known as the Committee of Ten was convened to lay out the groundwork for what education should look like going forward. "The report of the Ten was a reform document. It urged colleges to admit students who had not studied the classical languages. It supported new subjects such as history, the sciences, and modern foreign language as coequal with Latin, Greek, and mathematics. It recommended active teaching methods instead of rote memorization. It endorsed the democratic idea that all students should receive a liberal education." (p. 43) 

So, the 20th century began with a commitment to a broad liberal education for every student as a democratic right. The idea was that all children would access what had only been available to the elite up to that point. But opponents soon began to attack the idea that the children of workers and farmers even needed this kind of an education. It quickly became clear that education would proceed on one of two paths. Either a broad liberal education would be offered to all or education would become differentiated based on the likely future occupations of the students. 

Progressive schools of education came into being, with the mission "to refute the assumptions of traditional education, demonstrate the inutility of teaching academic subjects, and encourage schools to replace traditional subjects with practical studies." (p. 53) "In education, the progressive movement had numerous, related aims: It sought to make the schools more practical and realistic. It sought to introduce humane methods of teaching, recognition that students learn in different ways, and attention to the health of children. It sought to commit the schools more to social welfare than to academic studies." (P. 54) In addition the educational establishment began trying to make teaching as a profession only open to highly-trained educators. Towards this end, centralized school bureaucracies and civil service systems in urban districts began. 

The movement encompassed 4 significant ideas, which together questioned why anyone should receive a solid academic education.
1. Education was a science and could be measured = standardized testing
2. The methods and ends of education could be derived from the child = child-centered education
3. The methods and ends of education should fit the needs of society = social efficiency movement
4. Schools  had a duty to reform society, changing the social order = social reconstruction movement

The latest scientific research seemed to suggest that what a student studied was irrelevant. Any subject could produce a "good thinker." Education's role was to produce an improved society and any subject studied could produce the kind of people that would reform society. It was believed that "transfer" did not occur. That is learning in one area would give students skills and knowledge to be used elsewhere. What was needed was solid vocational skills. Later this thinking would be called a "misuse of experimental evidence" and "a major scandal in the history of educational thought." (p. 69) Even so, progressives continued to attack traditional education for being "repressive," "monarchical,' "barren and repellant," and out of touch with America, producing “automatons”. 

"The various reform movements springing up had three things in common. They all discredited the ideal of a liberal and general education for all. In addition, they sought to move education into the realm of experts and away from parents and teachers. Third they all advanced the claim that "a democratic education was synonymous with a differentiated curriculum." (p. 88) Education needed to be utilitarian and testable. This new way of thinking meant that a banker's child would get a very different education than the coal miner's child, being "fitted to occupy the status of their parents." (p. 90) This led to different tracks for different children. In practice this meant that children of immigrants and the poor got put into more vocational tracks. Critics defended the desire of working people to have a full education for their children, but the experts won out. Without any examples, they claimed the "common man" was clamoring for an "efficient" education for their children.  Progressives made clear that the previous focus of education on the individual was misguided and pedagogy should be left to the experts who would work for "social harmony, social efficiency and social survival." (p. 90) 

To the educational establishment’s horror, when given a choice, students would continue to take the college preparatory, academic classes. The experts decided this could not stand. Student would be directed at the discretion of the professionals. The drop-out rates were attributed to "the absurd emphasis on ancient history, composition and algebra." (p. 103) This, despite the evidence that students tended to drop out for economic reasons. Ironically, progressives suffered from a lack of imagination at to what economic progress would actually look like. Their highly regimented educational systems assumed an unchanging society. Boxing students into a particular track highly impacted the most vulnerable - the black students. The progressives were horrified that anyone would try to teach Latin to "negro" students. 

While the Classicists recognized the threat, they did not unify to combat the new developments. They were attacked as "conservative" and against progress. Despite their claims that a true democratic outlook necessitated a liberal education for all, since one never knew where talent would manifest itself, they were shouted down. In the push to make education more democratic, education became increasingly dumbed down. Unspoken was the idea that the students were simply too stupid to benefit from a liberal, classical education. Therefore, academic subjects were adjusted and changed. "History" became "Social Studies" and the goal shifted from educating the child, satisfying his curiosity and imagination, teaching him to become a more fully realized human being, to providing relevant and useful activities designed to produce good citizens. 

Early in the century, "progressive reformers believed that the scientific movement in education had 'exploded' the theory of mental discipline and demolished the rationale for the academic curriculum. They agreed that the academic curriculum was archaic, but they did not agree on what should replace it." (p. 162) While Dewey is often credited with this movement, his "child-centered" school actually did promote particular academic subjects. His innovation was to try to make learning more fun and interactive. Yet he tolerated progressives who had a similar desire to make education child-centered, but abhorred subject matter. This new way "would unleash creativity, self-expression, and originality." (p. 194) Educators took advantage of the chaos of the Great Depression to try to reconstruct society, using children as guinea pigs. 

"In the 1920s, well before the Great Depression began, intellectuals were highly critical of American society. They looked with contempt at a society that seemed self-absorbed, narrow-minded, puritanical, repressed, materialistic, indifferent to poverty, and easily swayed by religious evangelists." (p. 202) These were the same intellectuals that sought to change our educational system. They opposed the "rugged individualism" to which most Americans held. Their real goal was to change society and education was the key. “At this point in the evolution of the progressive ideology, an important shift occurred: the radical, free-spirited individualism associated with the child-centered schools of the 1920s disappeared, replaced by calls to ‘adjust’ the individual to the requirements of collective society.” (p. 261) They watched as the Communists in Russia put their dream into reality. They loved the central planning and the devotion to experts. “The key to this shift from individualism to cooperative group living was clear: it required a de-emphasis of the academic curriculum, which stood in opposition to child-centered schools, social reconstructionism, and social conformism.” (p. 261)

Ravitch comments that, "It was odd that the Russian Revolution inspired educators to want to build new social order through the schools, because the schools in Russia had not created the Russian Revolution; nor did any of the progressive educators wonder how their own social ideals had been forged, since all of them were products of a subject-centered, traditional education." This is what I believe is the fatal flaw of progressivism. It depends on the capital of the traditions that came before it, while working to destroy those very foundations. They have no appreciation for the forces that gave them the institutions they take for granted. The irony that they supported collectivism, focused on the society over the individual, desired centrally planned economies and centrally planned education, all the while decrying the lack individuality in traditional education did not occur to them. While critics were not able to convince the educational establishment to abandon its love affair with Marxism, the results of Marxism finally did. The failures of Russia's new school system, resulting in intellectual purges in the Soviet Union, could no longer be ignored. 

Taking advantage of the disruptions caused by the Great Depression, public schools set about to revise their curriculum. With almost no pushback, "every curriculum revision project of the era echoed the rhetoric of progressive educators, declaring its intention to 'meet the needs of the whole child' and achieve 'democracy in education.' Educators agreed that the curriculum must be dynamic; that education was a continuous reconstruction of experience; that education had to embrace the total life experience of the child; that the goal of education was effective living for all; that instruction had to shift from subject matter to the child's experience; that college preparatory studies were narrow and aristocratic; that promotion and failure were anachronistic concepts; that marks and other extrinsic rewards were undemocratic." (p. 241) No one spent any time studying whether or not these good-sounding ideas actually worked. Engaging activities became the means and the ends. 

The public school system decided that elementary schools would be centers of activity, while secondary schools would emphasize lifestyle-focused curriculum. In high immigrant areas, these changes were easier to foist upon unsuspecting and unsophisticated parents with little grasp of English. “These changes…imposed on uncomprehending students and parents, were described by the principal as ‘a living object lesson in democracy,’ but in retrospect they seem more like a class-biased, racist effort to restrict educational and social opportunities.” (p. 269) Educational leaders expressed surprise at the desire of black parents to give their children a traditional academic experience. It was believed that black youth should be raised to support the status quo and not be taught to challenge it. They were to have a vocational education which would more properly “fit them for society.” “The high schools that adopted these progressive reforms became…’an enormous, complicated machine for sorting and ticketing and routing children through life,’…Because this sorting process was linked closely to race and social class…it had the effect of ‘sharpening rather than eliminating divisions along class and racial lines.’” (p. 282-283) 

After World War II, a new educational tool provided the progressives and racist alike with a "scientific" way to segregate students - the IQ test. "Mental testing was the linchpin of the scientific movement in education." (p. 130) Many devotees of intelligence testing were also supporters of eugenics. Intelligence testing gave educators a number which "could then be used to group students, define what they would learn, and determine their future vocation." (p. 139) These tests held the promise of enormous power over people's lives. It was no surprise that since immigrants and the poor were being given inferior educations, they scored lower on the tests... Therefore the progressives had justification to further block immigrants and the poor from academic educations. "The intelligence testers promoted fatalism, a rueful acceptance that achievement in school is the result of innate ability, not sustained efforts by teachers and students." (p. 161) 

It wasn’t that the critics of progressive education failed to speak up. It was simply that they were unsuccessful at pushing back on the modern orthodoxy. The times were so uncertain, that the public had little time to notice what was going on in education, and the voices for a traditional, liberal education were not heard. William Bagley, a prominent dissident, “believed that the common school in a democratic society should not decide whom to educate. And he believed that the knowledge built up by the human race over many centuries was a precious heritage that must be taught to each succeeding generation in order for progress to continue.” (p. 286) He spoke out very early against vocational education. He decried the idea of each district creating its own curriculum. “People need a fund of common knowledge so they can discuss common problems in terms that are widely understood.” (p. 287) Besides, Americas were so mobil, it made no sense to try to educate a child differently from one district to another. 

Other critics pointed out what the classicists had always known. A democratic society demands an educated population. Only despots would restrict the knowledge given to children. Russian immigrant, Michael J. Demiashkevich, “wanted the schools to ‘introduce students to the highest standards of accurate and fertile thinking, through direct or indirect contacts with the best minds of humanity, and in that way to put them on solid ground for the critical judgment of their own thinking and that of others.’ Students must be able to capitalize on accumulated human experience, to learn efficiently what others have learned slowly and painfully. It was antidemocratic, he wrote, to allow students to remain ignorant of accumulated human experience and knowledge.” (p. 292-293)

In 1930, University of Chicago President, Robert Hutchins, teamed up with Mortimer Adler to establish a “Great Books” curriculum to combat progressives insistence on abandoning academic subject matter. They ridiculed the notion that the purpose of a school was to provide real life experience. “Only the school and college could supply intellectual discipline, and if they abandoned this responsibility, no other agency would do it.” (p. 302) They were attacked by no less a progressive light than John Dewey. Hutchins attracted an extreme amount of vitriol simply for calling for the reading of Great Books. Ironically, it was the conservative critics that recognized that without a thorough understanding of the best that humanity had achieved, actual progress was not possible. “To study every problem with ‘an open and empty mind, without preconception, without knowing what has already been learned about it, must condemn men to a chronic childishness.’ … Society could be progressive only by conserving its traditions.” (p. 312)

Bagley’s colleague, Isaac Kandel, was a particularly insightful critic. “He charged that progressive education had become a hollow doctrine, empty of any intellectual vitality or moral purpose. Progressivism, wrote Kandel, celebrated change for its own sake, blithely tossing away trident and experience, leaving only a legacy of ‘nihilism and anti-intellectualism.’” (p. 319) He railed against progressive education’s “failure to confront alarming deficiencies in American education.” (p. 319) The results of their experiment were abysmal, by any metric. 

“By the end of World War II, progressivism was the reigning ideology of American education. Educators at every level of public education spoke the same pedagogical language and claimed to be implementing the very programs that progressive educators had been advocating for decades.” (p. 322) “By the end of the war… progressive education had become calcified, the property of professors of education who spoke and wrote in an obscure jargon understood only by their colleagues and students. Having set aside the earlier ideal of child-centered schooling that liberated individualism and creativity as well as  the ideal of leading a socialist revolution through the schools, all that remained was the belief the schools should adjust children to fit into their society.” (p. 326-327) Schools began to focus on life issues - dating, socialization, consumer math, home budgeting, and home economics. Students would be educated for the society as it existed and were considered unable to master the hard, academic subjects. 

“By midcentury, the public schools had become agencies dedicated to socializing students, teaching them proper attitudes and behaviors, and encouraging conformity to the norms of social life and the workplace. Educators at the national, state, and local levels who subscribed to life adjustment education thought that the schools were meeting the needs of their students and of democratic society admirably.” (p. 343) Therefore they were totally unprepared for the overwhelming backlash. “Rudolf Fleisch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read reached the national best-seller lists, where it remained for more than thirty weeks.” (p. 353) He gave voice to what society was beginning to notice. The schools were failing to actually educate students. Progressive education suddenly became a joke, progressive ideas were old and stale, and parents clamored for a return to traditional education. Then the Russians launched Sputnik and the nation’s failing educational system was fully revealed. American education simply had to return to actually educating students. 

But, along came the 60s. After decades of the schools doing what the parents should have done, and no one actually educating the children, teenagers began “living in their own society, seeking approval from one another rather than from adults, and participating in a subculture with its own language, symbols, and values… What were the values of the adolescent society?… Anti-intellectual and materialistic.” (p. 369) Decades of putting black students on certain tracks that reinforced the status quo lead to a stifled and subjugated people desperate for the liberties enjoyed by other Americans. After bruising civil rights battles, black students were finally given access previously withheld from them. “Ready or not, American schools were confronted with the necessity of educating black children from a wide variety of backgrounds, many of whom's parents had been denied a decent education.” (p. 383) 

“The upheavals of the era changed the public schools in important ways. Confronted with violence, disciplinary problems, and litigation, school officials backed away from acting in loco parentis. In an effort to reduce conflict, academic demands were minimized. Students were increasingly left to fend for themselves, without adult guidance. The withdrawal of adults from their responsibility for instructing their students had implications both for students’ behavior and for the academic coherence of the schools.” (p. 386) Faced with overwhelming problems, the educational bureaucracy turned to old ideas, dressed up as a fresh and radical. Back was the child-centered learning, experience and experimentation, gone was the idea of tests and an academic curriculum. The child should learn what the child wanted to learn. 

“The radical critics of the 1960s were legitimately angry at the appalling condition of urban schools for black children, but their rage turned into a rejection of virtually all manifestations of formal education: textbooks and tests, marks and grading, curricula and lesson plans, and knowledge itself.” (p. 391) “Freedom” was the mantra. “The progressive educators of the 1960s seemed unaware that these issues had been debated a generation earlier and asserted their quasi-religious belief that unfettered student freedom must necessarily produce a better society…. The critics expected that children left free to choose would always make wise choices and that in time the world would be a far, far better place, where racism, war, and hatred no longer existed.” (p. 393) 

Once again, parents were well aware that the schools were failing their children. In the mid to late 1970s, they pushed for more traditional schooling and accountability. The experiments on children had to end. “Donald A. Myers, part of a team that evaluated open classrooms in New York State, wrote in 1974 that ‘open education appears all but dead in America.’ It had died, he said, not only because it had not improved student achievement, because it had been oversold by yellow journalists and irresponsible evangelists. ‘The time has come in American education,’ he declared, ‘when teachers should stage a walkout when education evangelists propose innovations that have not been validated by careful research over a long period of time. Instead of being paid and applauded, these hucksters should be set packing and ‘should be thankful they are not jailed as would representatives of a pharmaceutical house for dispensing a drug before it had been tested.’ “ (p. 401)

By 1980, academic scores had plummeted, yet self-esteem had gone up. “Changes in the curriculum in pursuit of relevance accentuated narcissistic themes. Social studies courses focused on immediate personal and social issues; chronological history and civic knowledge, which required students to think about worlds larger than their own acquaintance, were relegate to minor roles in social studies departments. ‘Values clarification’ courses, which encouraged students to make their own decision about whether to use drugs or engage in other dangerous behaviors, proliferated. English became ‘English language arts,’ with more attention to self-expression and social issues than to classic literature. The study of heroes, once popular among students in search of models to emulate, fell into disfavor. In an effort to promote self-esteem and group identity, schools reduced their once-customary attention to the values of self-restraint, self-discipline, and humility.” (p. 406-407)

"By the early 1980s, there was growing concern about the quality of the nation's schools. The sustained assault on the academic curriculum in the late 1960s and early 1970s had taken its toll." (p. 408) Ronald Reagan's secretary of education produced a report titled, A Nation at Risk. "Written in stirring language that the general public could understand, the report warned that the schools had not kept pace with the changes in society and the economy and that the nation would suffer if education was not dramatically improved for all children. It also asserted that lax academic standards were correlated with lax behavioral standards and that neither should be ignored." (p. 411) Unlike earlier national commissions, this one did not find in favor of differentiated instruction, but rather held to the premise that all children can learn and are entitled to the tools necessary to develop their individuals strengths. 

Into this time of actual academic improvement came the multicultural and self-esteem movements. Both had the effect of sowing discord and possibly derailing much needed reforms. Fortunately, by the end of the 1980s, another, more beneficial movement came on the scene, standards. Initially conceived as six national goals for the year 2000, states began to construct their own goals for academic content. It started in History, long neglected under the Social Studies rubric, and then moved to English. However, it was not smooth sailing as different groups fought over what should be included. Math teachers weighed in as well, creating a set of standards with the likeliest chance to succeed. After "new math" and the reactionary "back-to-basics," the math departments needed serious reform.  The "Whole Language" versus Phonics also threatened a pursuit for unified standards in the instruction of reading. 

Eventually, "the powerful middle ground" won out. "In history, children need big thematic concepts, but they also need a solid grounding in factual knowledge, a secure scaffolding of dates, names, and events on which to build the big concepts... In mathematics, children need to engage in active problem solving , and they also need to master the basic skills of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing in order to become successful problem solvers. In English, children need to learn the skills of correct language usage as well as have opportunities to read excellent classic and contemporary literary works and write their own compositions." (p. 450) Finally, it was acknowledged that teachers need to actually teach, not "facilitate." It appeared that after a century of "reform," education had finally found a common sense approach that might actually work. 

"If there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century, it is that anything in education that is labeled a 'movement' should be avoided like the plague. What American education most needs is not more nostrums and enthusiasms but more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths. It is a fundamental truth that children need well-educated teachers who are eclectic in their methods and willing to use different strategies depending on what works best for which children. It is another fundamental truth that adults must take responsibility for  children and help them develop as good persons with worthy ideals." (p. 453) 

The three great errors demonstrated in these pages are, first, the belief that schools should be expected to solve all of society's problems; second, the belief that only a portion of children need access to a high-quality academic education; and third, the belief that schools should emphasize students' immediate experiences and minimize (or even ignore) the transmission of knowledge. 

Why did it take a century to discover the aforementioned"fundamental truths"? Ultimately, schools lost their way when they lost sight of their purpose. In 1897, John Dewey "proclaimed that the school was the primary means of social reform and the teacher was 'the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.' " (p. 459) Once again, it appears that rejection of the actual, true God led to disaster. 

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