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Moving beyond good intentions in schools

By Gail Russell Chaddock Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2000


If at least three authors hadn't already claimed the title "Paved with Good Intentions" for their books, it would have served well for Diane Ravitch's latest - and best - history of education reform in the United States.

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"Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms" turns on a simple idea: that children learn when they are taught intensely and well. Not when they are coached. Not when they are appeased. But when they are systematically instructed in a rigorous, academic curriculum.

Sounds old-fashioned, and it is. While she insists that there never was a golden age for American schools, there were periods when schools had a compass. They were centers of learning, and knew it. Her book is an effort to find that compass again.

Fairly read, it could help frame the education debate for the 21st century.

Here's a preview of what that exchange could look like. Author Alfie Kohn, a leading advocate of progressive education, has yet to read this book, but commented on its core message:

"Most of the trouble we are experiencing with education is a result of a stultifying traditionalism regarding many aspects of school structure and assumptions about learning," he says. "The history of 20th-century education is the history of a refusal to implement sensible, research-backed ideas in a progressive vein that take children seriously and see them as meaning-makers rather than passive receptacles into which facts are poured.

"The problem, in short, is that progressive education has had far too little impact, rather than the bizarre notion that it has taken over our schools."

Use Mr. Kohn's comment as a point of reference as you read this book. Test what you're reading on the experience of your children or those of people you know. Talk about it with teachers and those who face these issues daily - and who (surprisingly, for a book so critical) emerge as some of the most courageous thinkers in the narrative.

Ms. Ravitch has been both activist and analyst on these issues. A senior research scholar at New York University, she was an assistant US Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993. She helped draft the California K-12 history curriculum, a model for the high academic standards she urges. Excerpts of her conversation with the Monitor follow:

On the decline of academics:

The one thing that school-reform movements across the 20th century have in common is the idea of reducing the academic curriculum, of making it less important, of making schools more fun, of making it easier, and pushing children into vocational education whether they want it or not, pushing them into job training when they were too young. And I thought: This is a story I want to tell.

At the beginning of the century, there was a widely shared understanding among educators, parents, and local school boards about what schools were supposed to do. There was also tremendous restriction of educational opportunity, especially among minorities and poor kids. But the fundamental understanding on the part of educators was that as long as kids stayed in school, the poor kids would get the same education as the rich kids. And that's the understanding that came under attack at the beginning of the century.

On whether all children can learn: