Education’s Failed Fads


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?

A. Around World War I. IQ testing fastened it in place and made it “rational and scientific.” That continued until quite recently. Even in the 1920s and ‘30s, you could see children being tracked into agricultural education. When I was in public schools in the 1950s in Texas, large numbers of students were sent off to work in factories and shops for half the day. They never got a chance to find out if they were college material.


Q. Have we improved on that score?

A. We now have 65% of kids who graduate from high school going to college. We have a much more open door compared to the past. We understand that people make decisions later in life.

The other legacy of this [progressive] history is low expectations. The teaching of literature has been compromised. It has been replaced by language arts. We’ve seen history pushed out and replaced by social studies, in many cases taught by teachers who have never studied history.

You can’t teach the future. If you don’t understand the past, you can’t understand the present.


Q. Why does this country appear to be so anti-intellectual?

A. There’s this popular frontier mentality of “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” There was a downgrading of book learning in favor of being able to handle tools. There was some validity to this in frontier times, but not so much anymore. I find it upsetting to find this attitude launched in educational institutions. You want them to value knowledge and respect learning.

The first important impetus was the revolt against tradition and the classical curriculum [subjects such as Latin, Greek and math]. Progressives said we had moved beyond those stale and aristocratic ideas.

Education schools, first launched at the beginning of the century, were started with the idea that they would create a new approach to education. They wanted to make education more practical, using the new social sciences, particularly psychology. They thought they could use those to create a much better, more rational and efficient world. The IQ movement was also key.


Q. Is there any place for progressivism in today’s schools?

A. Progressive methodology is most important in understanding that kids need to be interested in learning. We should wed it to the academic discipline. We don’t have to abandon progressivism--active learning--but use it as a methodology. We must use it to make things like math and science and history and literature come alive for kids.


Q. Can the problems of public schools be solved?

A. Whenever I see them solved in one school, I think they can be. The first thing that people in education and parents need to get on the same page about is having higher expectations for students. That doesn’t mean calculus for everybody. It does mean we will expect everyone to be able to read and write at least a short essay. This does not mean a set curriculum that’s in lock-step but rather that everyone has some shared knowledge about America and world history and has read certain works seminal in American culture. Also, I want [education schools] to train the best teachers of math and English and science.

We’re struggling to move in the right direction. More states are putting more money into education, for smaller classes and the like. The next step is to make sure that pre-kindergarten classes are intellectually stimulating. We see almost every state worrying about teacher quality. Legislators aren’t going to continue putting out lots more money unless they have some way of saying whether it’s making a difference. What’s reasonable is to put the standards out there and have tests to reflect the standards.

I’m ever hopeful.