Moving beyond good intentions in schools

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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.

"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.

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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:

Where the progressive movement went wrong was when it had different goals for different groups of children. The theme I keep coming back to is having the same goals for children, but recognizing that they will reach those goals at different rates of speed. They may need extra help to meet the same goals. They may need different materials. But the goal should be the same: to have a solid liberal education that allows people to make choices in their own lives.

On the role of parents:

One thing I noticed throughout the century is that time and time again, when education theorists came up with what were ultimately very harmful schemes for kids, such as directing kids into industrial education when they were much too young, parents somehow - even though they were not educated - had the good sense and the wit to rebel.

In the African-American community, there was this longing to have a classical education from parents who were themselves the children of slaves. What they wanted for their children was what the children of the elite had. Somehow, this fundamental common sense came to the fore and protected them.

On a common goal for schools:

My own hope would be that some day we would reach a point where parents and educators would both say that we want to make sure that all children get what children in the most favored community get - the same kind of education. It may be that kids will take different amounts of time to get there, but we'll make sure that they all have access to the best education.

On the power of a good example:

One of the amazing things in education is that you can often find that a small school or a single example has a very large resonance. Such as the Kipp Academy [a public charter school in Houston] or, at the other extreme, Summerhill, which was [a progressive school in England] for about 50 children.

It's usually not a school system that causes everybody to sit up and look, so much as it is a single school. What's encouraging about education is that it doesn't take an enormous activity to make a huge difference. It takes one wonderful school.

On what to do if you're a kid in a bad school:

If I were speaking just to the child or the child and parent, there are two things I would say. The first is: Change schools. And if you can't change schools: Read. The most important determinant of SAT scores and other kinds of test scores is reading. Try to read the best books you can. Expand your vocabulary. Regardless of what is happening in the school, the individual who does this can rise above that, although you hope that as a system you don't put kids in that situation.

On achievement gaps:

I was surprised to see [from recent data from the National Assessment of Education Progress] that the achievement gap [between black and white students] is widening, especially for the children that had the best-educated parents.

This is not about bad schools, it's about kids that have access to the better schools.

What I would say is not based on research, but based on having lived over these years: There is something about the coarsening of the culture that must be having an impact.

I am thinking in particular of the anti-intellectual message of the powerfully influential lyrics that kids listen to all the time, where they are not taught to aspire and not encouraged to read and not encouraged to challenge themselves intellectually. This deeply anti-intellectual, anti-academic message has got to have an impact. It's almost a form of advertising, and we know that advertising influences behavior.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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