by Diana Senechal
In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, as in her previous work, Diane Ravitch takes apart many education fads and clichés, and explains the changes in her views on testing, choice, and accountability. Now a cliche has arisen in the media about Ravitch herself: the assertion that she has made an “about-face,” a “U-turn,” or a “180-degree turn.” Reviewers, reporters, and bloggers have latched onto these phrases as though they were established truths.
As Ravitch’s research assistant, I had the great honor of reading her book many times prior to its publication and assisting with documentation and editing. In addition, I have read all the books she has written and some of those she has edited. In the spirit of her work, I will challenge the “about-face” bromide.
She has changed some views and retained others, and the change has not always been 180 degrees (sometimes more like 45, 90, or 115 degrees). Or perhaps, like many of us, she has several concentric circles, some staying still, others rotating. She has always been critical of rushed reforms and educational fads. She has always supported a strong, rich curriculum and warned about the pitfalls of standardized tests. And she has a profound understanding of the challenges that teachers have faced over the past century.
In chapters 18-20 of her first book, The Great School Wars (1974), Ravitch described how policymakers rushed to expand a reform model without adequate thought and planning. In the spring of 1914, NYC Mayor John Purroy Mitchel visited Gary, Indiana, to see the reorganized schools, where students spent the day in workshops in large spaces rather than classrooms. He liked what he saw and approved a pilot plan at a school in the Bronx, based on the Gary model. Soon afterward, a Brooklyn school was added.
Despite the skepticism (and, later, the scathing report) of Superintendent William Henry Maxwell, despite parent concerns about the weak curriculum, despite growing protests in the community, Mayor Mitchel insisted on expanding the plan throughout the city. “Why the haste to install the Gary plan?” Ravitch asks. “The Mitchel administration had decided that it was the answer to the problem of overcrowded schools and had stopped the school-construction program.” The expansion was both rushed and academically unsound—two recurring characteristics of reforms that Ravitch criticizes in her new book.
Throughout her career, Ravitch has repeatedly criticized the tendency of reformers to latch onto the newest educational idea without regard for the substance of a curriculum. In The Troubled Crusade (1983), and later, in Left Back (2000), she describes the curriculum revision movement of the early decades of the twentieth century: it typically began with an administrator learning that “his own school’s program, no matter how successful it might seem, was outmoded.” The efforts to bring the school in line with the times invariably destroyed the academic curriculum. In her latest book, too, she shows the futility of reforms that ignore the substance of learning.
Many assume that Ravitch was previously an ardent supporter of accountability and testing and has switched her views completely. But she has warned over the decades that standardized tests could narrow the curriculum. In her 1984 essay “The Uses and Misuses of Tests” (included in The Schools We Deserve), she observes:
Overreliance on standardized testing may be dangerous to the health of education. It is certainly dangerous to the integrity of the high school curriculum. The introduction of the SAT, which (in its verbal component) is curriculum free, left many high schools without a good argument for requiring students to take history, literature, science, or anything not specifically demanded by the college of their choice.
A decade later, after serving as assistant secretary of education, she wrote in National Standards in American Education (1995):
The SAT tested linguistic and mathematical power and had no connection to any particular curriculum, which left secondary schools free to require whatever they chose. The literature curriculum, which had been anchored by the college entrance examinations for many years, was completely abandoned by the SAT, allowing secondary schools to teach whatever books they wished and even to drop the traditional classics altogether.
Ravitch’s work shows compassion for teachers and understanding of their extraordinary responsibilities. In “Scapegoating the Teachers” (1983, in The Schools We Deserve) she points out that “the most common response to the current crisis in education has been to assail public school teachers.” This is unfair, she argues, because there are “many guilty parties still at large”; moreover, “as teaching conditions worsen, it is teachers who suffer the consequences.” In Left Back, she describes the overwhelming demands on teachers over the past century, as one drastic movement replaced another. These themes recur in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Yes, Ravitch has undergone a significant transformation. For those who insist on reducing her views to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” her change may resemble a 180-degree turn. She herself describes the change as wrenching; in the first chapter of her new book, she recalls her own bewilderment: “But why, I kept wondering, why had I changed my mind? What was the compelling evidence that prompted me to reevaluate the policies I had endorsed many times over the previous decade?” She freely admits: “I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures; I too had drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems.” This is not to be taken lightly. But there is much more to her views than a flip or a turn. There is wisdom, scholarship, and a sense of the complexity of education. If her changes can be reduced to a U-turn, then the earth does not orbit, nor does a room have shape.