Frank Wilson

is a retired Inquirer book editor who blogs at

Diane Ravitch was for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) before she was against it.

NCLB became law in January 2002, and Ravitch - a former assistant secretary of education - says her support for it "remained strong" for nearly five years, until Nov. 30, 2006. "I can pinpoint the exact date because that was the day I realized NCLB was a failure," she recounts in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The occasion was a conference at the American Enterprise Institute examining "whether the major remedies prescribed by NCLB - especially choice and after-school tutoring - were effective."

As it happened, "only a tiny fraction of eligible students asked to transfer to better schools" - 2 percent or less. Figures for after-school tutoring were not much better: 20 percent of eligible students in New Jersey took advantage of it, but in California only 7 percent; in Colorado, 10 percent; and in Kentucky, 9 percent.

There is nothing partisan in Ravitch's critique of NCLB. The law, she notes, was passed with broad bipartisan support. "In retrospect," she writes, "NCLB seems foreordained. . . . Elected officials of both parties came to accept as secular gospel the idea that testing and accountability would necessarily lead to better schools."

Ravitch's book is a must-read if you want to get some idea of just how chaotic educational thinking in this country has become.

"For the past century or more," she writes, "education reformers have tried out their ideas in the schools. . . . With the best of intentions, reformers have sought to correct deficiencies by introducing new pedagogical techniques, new ways of organizing classrooms, new technologies, new tests, new incentives, and new ways to govern schools. In every instance, reformers believed that their solution was the very one that would transform the schools, make learning fun, raise test scores. . . ."

Instead, Ravitch notes, we find ourselves quite possibly on the way toward "a paradoxical and terrible outcome: higher test scores and worse education."

Ravitch is very good on what ails the current system, and her ideas for improving it are, so far as they go, sound. She understands that to improve education "we must first of all have a vision of what good education is." She also is aware that education and training are not identical, though she does not explore the distinction. Unfortunately, to the extent that she discusses these matters, she seems almost as in thrall to the conventional contemporary pedagogical theorizing she deplores as anyone. Her insistence on "a well-conceived coherent, sequential curriculum" sounds good at first but ends up seeming just one more variation on an overplayed tune.

So Ravitch should perhaps do some further reading herself.

She might find two books in particular useful and instructive. Here is a quote from one:

"Method after method, device after device, readjustment after readjustment, have been tried, scrapped, revived and modified, and then tried again. . . . One cannot too much wonder at the high hopefulness attending this unconscionable revel of experimentation. Yes, yes, yes, we kept saying, let us but just install this one new set of curricular changes . . . or this one grand new scheme . . . and in a year or so it will prove itself to be the very thing we have all along been needing; and this, that or the other batch of pedagogical problems will be laid to eternal rest."

And here is a quote from the other:

"From early childhood, the young are subjected to a lockstep increasingly tightly geared to the extra-mural demands. . . . The aptitude and achievement testing and the fierce competition for high grades are a race up the ladder to high-salaried jobs in the businesses of the world, including the schooling business. . . . he colleges and universities go along with this spiritual destruction, and indeed devise the tests and the curricula to pass the tests. Thereby they connive at their own spiritual destruction; yet it is not surprising, for that is where the money is."

Exactly three decades separate the works cited. The first passage is taken from Albert Jay Nock's 1932 book, The Theory of Education in the United States. The second is from Paul Goodman's 1962 book, Compulsory Mis-education. Both passages demonstrate that Ravitch is quite right when she notes that educational tinkering on a grand and expensive scale has been going on for a very long time - and has accomplished next to nothing.

Nock and Goodman largely share a vision of what good education is. Nock casts it in terms of a defense of a classical curriculum:

"The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us, of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity. . . . This record covers 2,500 consecutive years of the human mind's operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, politics, medicine, theology, geography, everything. Hence the mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind; a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage-point of an immensely long perspective. . . ."

Goodman makes no reference to the classics, but what he sees as the purpose of education is not much different: "The development of [the student's] confidence that he can, that he is adequate to the nature of things, can proceed on his own initiative, and ultimately strike out on an unknown path, where there is no program, and assign his own tasks to himself."

It's not surprising that the solutions Nock and Goodman propose are virtually identical. "Let us simply discard this unsound theory," Nock writes, "and substitute a sound one, one that answers to the facts of experience, just as we discarded Ptolemaic astronomy for Copernican, and as we substituted chemistry for alchemy." As for Goodman, he simply notes that "in principle, when a law begins to do more harm than good, the best policy is to alleviate it or try doing without it."

Ravitch would probably disagree. She is surely correct when she says that "our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory." But when she refers to "decisions that properly should be made by professional educators," she seems to forget that the failed system she is writing about is itself largely the creation of those same professional educators. Indeed, that is the reason Nock thought any fundamental change in the system "could not be carried out, for very powerful interests have grown up around our theory, tending to hold it firmly in place."

Goodman was hardly more sanguine. He concludes his book by enunciating a set of what he thinks are "right principles." Among the more specific:

"To make it easier for youngsters to gravitate to what suits them, and to provide many points of quitting and return. To cut down the student hours in parroting and forgetting, and the loss of teacher hours in talking to the deaf. To engage more directly in the work of society, and to have useful products to show instead of stacks of examination papers."

He adds, however, that "I do not think we will change along these lines." As Ravitch's book attests, we certainly haven't changed along those lines in the 48 years since his book was published. Nock and Goodman are adamant that education and schooling are by no means the same thing. As Nock observes, people used to say they studied under someone, not at someplace or other. For his part, Goodman thinks it would be useful "to find how many people who grew up from 1900 to 1920 and have made great names in the sciences, arts, literature, government, business, etc. actually went through the continuous 16-year school grind."

Goodman further notes that from 1900 to 1960 "we simply aggrandized the existing framework." As a result, "Educational Administration became very grand. . . . Stuck with a bad idea, the only way of coping with the strains was to have more Assistant Principals, Counsellors, Truant Officers, University Courses in Method and Custodial Care, Revised Textbooks."

It is unlikely that any effective change will occur if we continue to think along the lines that have brought us to where we find ourselves, including many of the lines Ravitch suggests. In Goodman's view, instead of trying to make a system that is fundamentally unsound limp further along, "the best educational brains ought to be devoting themselves to devising various means of educating."

As he notes in passing: "Our word school is the Greek word for serious leisure."

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