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Enabling Ignorance

By From the September 2010 issue

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The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining EducationBy Diane Ravitch
(Basic Books, 296 pages, $26.95)

BARACK OBAMA'S VERSION OF THE "No Child Left Behind Act" (NCLB) easily made it through Congress this year. Originally passed at the instigation of George W. Bush in 2002, NCLB shows what happens when "expertise" and political huckstering replace common sense and experience. Fortunately, Diane Ravitch has published a new book showing why the ideas driving NCLB promote the weaknesses in American public schools without doing anything for their strengths. The Death and Life of the Great American School System stands as a cautionary tale on the delusion that something as complex as education can be reformed with quick fixes and federal dollars.

The declining quality of instruction in American public schools became a perennial political issue in 1983 when the Reagan administration issued its "Nation at Risk" report, which called attention to the declining standards and the steady erosion of meaningful, content-rich curricula in many if not most districts.

Ravitch, a Columbia PhD who had earned widespread admiration as a critical historian of American public education, became a prolific leader of the reform movement. She insisted that without attention to the substance of what is taught in schools-the curriculum-change under any name is mere cosmetics.

Ravitch shows that, just when it thought it had reached its goals with the passage of NCLB, the reform movement was subverted by the throw-money-at-it artists in the political and policy-making classes, encouraged by all manner of snake-oil salesmen who saw the get-rich opportunities of school reform (and, for the pinheads, of writing about reform without understanding the public schools' complex social conditions). Instead of restoring guts to education, NCLB, in effect, gutted instruction. At the center of the racket: "testing."

Tests have inherent pedagogical functions beyond their usefulness in assessing students' learning. But in the NCLB scheme, testing became the link to everything-most ruinously, federal money. Districts and schools raised test scores or lost money and eventually were shut down. By corollary, principals and teachers got merit pay, or pending that, strongly favorable evaluations, according to their kids' test performance. Never had corruption been introduced so brazenly into American schools.

Since the easiest actors to blame for failure in this shoddy program were the teachers, they and their unions were turned into the culprits of America's educational shortcomings. Neither the administrators, who usually knew nothing about anything; nor the politicians, like New York City's Mayor Bloomberg, who were thinking only in terms of administrative efficiency; nor the chancellors, like New York's Joel Klein or Washington, D.C.'s Michelle Rhee, who were thinking only in terms of meaningless test numbers: none could conceive of anything more intelligent than to tell teachers they were not doing their jobs properly. This resonated with one of the stupider slogans of the NCLB era, which was that "the kids" deserved "excellent teachers." What were they supposed to have-mediocre teachers?

On the other hand, NCLB diminished accountability at the leadership level. While embroiled in disputes with the teachers' union on how to introduce merit pay-a dubious idea-into the school system, it became evident that Ms. Rhee either did not understand or chose to fudge her own budget numbers, and this in a relatively small school system (by big-city standards). Nor has anyone in the D.C. schools system ever explained how one of the two or three richest districts in the country, if you count the amount of money nominally available per pupil, is one of the most run-down and under-achieving.

"Not my job" is the usual response of employees of the education industry, most of whom are not teachers, when confronted with their own failure. Teachers, who tend to be sweet souls even if prone to kvetching, are not finger-pointers by nature, and they take responsibility for what goes on in their classrooms. But what they often tell you is that they are required (by stuffed shirts who are never in classrooms) to concentrate on teaching kids "how to learn."

You cannot, however, teach kids "how to learn" if you do not give them learning -- facts, substance: what the education writer E. D. Hirsch, Jr. calls a content-rich curriculum. History, complete with dates, events, and heroes; math, complete with formulae, equations, and systems of computation; foreign languages, complete with vocabulary drills and verb declensions; music, complete with scales and sheet music; physical education, complete with fitness drills and sports rules-all this has been replaced by "learning to learn" and math-problem and reading-comprehension "strategies." And Hirsch, whose devastating critiques of these trends are supported not only by common sense but by hard science (and by visible results), is viewed as a marginal crank by an education establishment that blocks any real reform by invoking "kids first" slogans the same way the Communists used to invoke the "working class."

Teachers know content must come first, but are advised to stop wasting time transmitting knowledge when they should be showing kids how to think for themselves and ace a test. When a teacher observes that you cannot think for yourself if you have nothing to think about, the principal, superintendent, school counselor, or Department of Education specialist responds that this represents an example of "teacher-centered" learning, sort of like being called a Trotskyist in Stalin's Moscow, and insists students working in small groups can educate themselves.

Undermining teachers' authority in the classroom erodes the democratic and egalitarian premises of public education, since it undercuts the opportunity schools are supposed to provide.

Arguably Ravitch should have explored this theme more deeply, by examining the specific flaw that renders the educational establishment incapable of defending the public service role of public schools. The establishment includes the teachers' unions, whose disputes with district leaderships all too often look like shadow boxing. That unions invariably support liberal Democratic candidates at every election strengthens the sense that they are committed to a status quo amounting to a kind of plantation system for poor and disadvantaged children. Nobody can object to a labor union trying to get better pay and benefits for its members, just as no one should object to criticizing a union for undermining its own industry's economic viability or public credibility.

OF COURSE, one should never ask an author to write the book she did not set out to write, but The Death and Life of the Great American School System leaves the impression that the kind of teachers' union Ravitch pines after has its source in her one, untypical indulgence in historical romanticism, which in turn grows out of the author's admiration for the late Albert Shanker and his successors at the American Federation of Teachers, Sandy Feldman and Randi Weingarten. These are exceptional figures in American education and in American labor history. Too many education union leaders talk the talk of serious reform, then walk the walk of the failed and failing policies Ravitch criticizes so eloquently.

Ravitch passionately lays out the argument that public school teachers are, or should be, missionaries of social advancement and opportunity. They fulfill their role by imbuing children and adolescents with love of learning-a corny idea, maybe, but not a cynical one. They do this not by teaching them "how to learn," but by giving them real knowledge. Teachers must be counselors, pastors, coaches, and community leaders, but knowing and loving what they teach comes first.

The simplicity of this idea is deceptive. Of course, the layman thinks, a teacher has to know his stuff and love it. But the reform movement, as it was hijacked in the '90s and implemented in the '00s under the guise of NCLB, does not know this. By its lights, an excellent teacher is one who raises scores on tests designed to assess not knowledge learned but "skills" in fill-the-bubble exercises that require the same level of talent as choosing lottery numbers. It is only partly whimsical to observe that state-sponsored lotteries became widespread in our nation around the same time as public schools became driven by bubble-tests rather that curricular content.

It is small consolation to observe that the cynicism and corruption introduced by NCLB's testing requirements-which include lowering the bar on tests and laundering their results-reflect a larger rot in American society. It is unfortunate the teachers' unions have not denounced this trend, but they cannot if they trade professional integrity for the American mania for "getting yours." However, pursuing this question would take us beyond the scope that Ravitch wants to cover in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

One of Ravitch's most sensible and profound prescriptions is to know our own history. It comes as no surprise to see how little American history the "experts" know or care for, even as they happily go about burning billions in tax dollars to inflict further damage on our public schools.

Schools are not businesses but civic and neighborhood institutions, and pedagogy is not a how-to-succeed program, but the hard, incremental, frustrating, and exhilarating work of turning savages into civilized citizens. It is not rocket science, but it is a vocation.

The teachers represented by the UFT, the New York teachers' union, know this. So does the author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.