Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Diane Ravitch

29 Mar

The fundamentals of good education are to be found in the classroom, the home, the community, and the culture, but reformers in our time continue to look for shortcuts and quick answers. Untethered to any genuine philosophy of education, our current reforms will disappoint us, as others have in the past (Ravitch, 2010, pg. 225).

These words come from Diane Ravitch’s most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Is she just another political figure berating the state of education without offering any successive solutions?

The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how school systems should be organized, managed, and controlled (pg. 225).

But wait… she wants to “improve” curriculum. Does this mean taking away teacher freedom in content choice and allowing business and government leaders to decide our curricular goals?

Congress and state legislatures should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations. Nor should the curriculum of the schools be the subject of a political negotiation among people who are neither knowledgeable about teaching nor well educated. Pedagogy – that is, how to teacher – is rightly the professional domain of individual teachers. Curriculum – that is, what to teach – should be determined by professional educators and scholars, after due public deliberation, acting with the authority vested in them by schools, districts, or states (pg. 226).

Ravitch goes on to state:

Our schools will not improve if we value only what tests measure… what is tested may ultimately be less important than what is untested, such as a student’s ability to seek alternative explanations, to raise questions, to pursue knowledge on his own, and to think differently (pg. 226).

Our schools will not improve if we continue to close neighborhood schools in the name of reform (pg. 227).

Our schools cannot improve if charter schools siphon away the most motivated students and their families in the poorest communities from the regular public schools (pg. 227).

Our schools will not improve if we expect them to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises. Schools are not businesses (pg. 229).

Schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children’s ability to learn (pg. 229).

As a person who questions the legitimacy of NCLB, opposes the Detroit Public School District closings, and is leery of the charter school movement and business advances into the public sphere, I am glad to hear Ravitch trumpeting my causes. As the prior Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush, Ravitch has room to talk; she helped devise the policies she now opposes, and is not afraid to say a phrase all too rarely spoken in politics – “I was wrong.”

Yet while I have much praise and admiration for this outspoken voice in education, Diane Ravitch and I disagree on one important point: she supports a national curriculum. However, unlike the boorish uncompromising voices of bipartisan politics, Ravitch proposes a unique solution: let’s work with the opposition.

We can now see, with the passage of years, that it is possible to forge a consensus in every contested subject-matter terrain if the various factions accept the necessity of working together and the futility of trying to impose their views on everyone else” (pg. 232).

And this is the heart of the matter: compromise. We cannot always get what we want – while Diane Ravitch might with gusto support the “need” for a national curriculum, I will stand on the opposite side of the field and wave my banner with equal strength. However, it is not until we are able to meet in the middle of the field that we will champion any changes for that which we believe in most – reform in education to benefit all children equally. If positive, comprehensive reform means that I will have to allow a few of my political agendas to fall in ranks, then so be it; if the sacrifice is equal and is reaching toward a common goal, idealistic or failing doctrines must be set aside.

This March, National Women’s History month, I salute you, Diane Ravitch. Keep fighting the good fight!

See Ravitch’s Website!

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

*Also, a shout-out to my mom: thanks for engaging in the educational literature of someone whom I much admire; your support means everything – I love you!


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