BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Diane Ravitch, author of "Left Back: A Century of Failed School
Reforms," i--are there--are there--I know I wan--I wanted to use the
word `norms,' but I'm looking for other cliches about schools
that--that are true and some that aren't true when you just--you know,
there--are there givens?
DIANE RAVITCH, AUTHOR, "LEFT BACK: A CENTURY OF FAILED SCHOOL REFORM": Well, what kinds of schools? I mean...
LAMB: Well, any school, though.
Prof. RAVITCH: Any school.
LAMB: We--we--you know, we talk about this. The e--in politics right
now, there's a lot of talk about education, a lot of statements are
made. What do you agree with and disagree with?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I mean, the first thing that one would say, as
a generality, is that there's a broader range of schools today and
there had been in the past. We have schools in this country, public
schools, that are absolutely spectacular, where kids get a first-rate
education, and we have some that are awful schools, and there's a huge
range in between. So the first generality is to be aware of
LAMB: What's in your book? What's the purpose?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, the purpose of this book is it's a history of
the 20th century, and it's a narrative, and I've tried to document it
and show the evidence as best I can to show how our--our philosophy of
education became what it is. And we don't, as Americans, tend to
think we're philosophical, and we tend to think we don't have a
philosophy; we j--we just do what works. But what I try to show in
this book is that, over 100 years, there has been a philosophy at
work. It's a philosophy that, in most cases, parents are not in sync
with and even teachers are not in sync with, and it's been a raining
down of theory--and in many cases, bad theory--on the schools. So
that it's 100 years of arguing about who should be taught and what
should they be taught and how--how we should run schools.
And I guess one purpose was to show that the kinds of debates we're
having to--today didn't come from nowhere; there's a history. And so
that's the story I've been trying to tell.
LAMB: Who's the most important writer in history or philosopher in
history about education, from your standpoint?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I would say that far and a--wide, it's John
Dewey. Don--John Dewey was very, very important; had a huge
influence, both for good and for ill.
LAMB: What was good about his philosophy?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I would say that the--the good--and I--I can't
define his philosophy in general because he--I have a--I think two
shelves at home filled with Dewey's books, and I won't pretend to have
read them all, but I've read his educational work. He's very
sensitive to children. He, I think, makes people aware that how
children learn is very important, that their motivation is very
important and that their interest level is also very important. That
ha--was a very positive contribution that Dewey made.
The negative side is that he fuzzed things up an awful lot. He tended
to make statements that, `Interest was more important than effort,'
and his followers took this to mean that effort wasn't important at
all; that interest was the only thing that counted. And a lot of--of,
to my mind, unsuccessful education movements came about because of
people either misreading D--Dewey or sometimes reading him accurately,
but picking out the parts of Dewey that led them to say, `Let's throw
away curriculum. Let's throw away subject matter. Let's let kids do
what they want to do,' or in some cases, `Let's meet the needs of
society,' thinking that they were following Dewey, and tracking kids
LAMB: Th--this may not work, but if John Dewey was alive today, which
of the presidential candidates would have him as their chief adviser
Prof. RAVITCH: Neither one. Dewey was a socialist, and I suspect he
would be very unhappy with both candidates.
LAMB: As a socialist, what would he stand for vs. what they stand
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I would say that, on the whole, Dewey primarily
stood for the child-centered school, the idea that you try to find
whatever is interesting in the moment and build on that to--to take
the child up to higher levels of understanding. I think that we can
all learn from reading, for instance, about the school that Dewey
himself ran. And whereas--the cliche is that he was the great
exponent of child-centered schooling where there was no subject
matter, in fact, in the Dewey School, which he started at the end of
the 19th century, children were learning about history; they were
learning about the--the explorations of--of the Americas; they were
learning wonderful history and literature, but his teachers sat
together every day and talked about, `How can we make this engaging?
How can we take the traditional subject matter and make it exciting
and lively for the children?'
I think that would be--that--that's an exciting kind of education.
Unfortunately, the way it g--tended to get translated in public
schools was, `Let's track kids, and let's have some kids get the
really good academic stuff, and others don't need subject matter at
all because subject matter's not very important.'
LAMB: When did John Dewey live?
Prof. RAVITCH: Dewey died--I think it was in 1948. He was born in
1859. He had a very long life. He lived to see lots and lots of
changes. But I think his educational philosophy was consistent, and
he was a very--very large influence.
LAMB: Where did he live?
Prof. RAVITCH: He was born in Vermont. He taught in Michigan,
University of Chicago and Columbia and lived most of his life in New
LAMB: And if we found him in a debate with somebody who'd be directly
opposite, opposed to what he had to say back during that time, who
would it be?
Prof. RAVITCH: I'd say it would be probably William Torrey Harris,
and I write a fair amount about Harris. Harris was commissioner of
education, and he believed that subject matter was very important;
that i--the different major subject matter, and by that, I mean like
history and literature and mathematics and science, language--that all
of these represented very concrete, important forms of human
experience and that it was the job of the school to expose all
children to these subject matters.
And Harris was also a great reformer in his time. He introduced the
kindergarten when he was superintendent of schools in St. Louis. But
he was mainly a--a strong proponent of a liberal education for all
LAMB: You went to school where?
Prof. RAVITCH: Houston, Texas.
LAMB: Your original elementary school level?
Prof. RAVITCH: Oh, I went all the way through public schools in
Houston: Montross Elementary School, Seton Elementary School,
Albertson E. Johnson Junior High, Sancho Seno High School. I don't
think any of those schools still exist anymore in Houston.
LAMB: What do you remember about your Houston education?
Prof. RAVITCH: There was--I had some wonderful teachers. I had some
terrible teachers. It's--we--we also had racially segregated schools.
The high school was strongly tracked. The kids who--some kids, like
me, were put into the college track. Others, the majority, were
tracked into vocational programs or what they called at that time
distributive education, where they were sent off to work for half the
day. And a decision was made--as I show in this book, a decision was
made pretty early on about which kids were going to be college bound
and which were not.
LAMB: How was it decided that you were going to be college bound?
Prof. RAVITCH: Oh, I'm sure there were tests. They gave us all
kinds of tests and--IQ tests, aptitude tests. It was a lot of testing
to track kids. What I found in my book was that the--the--these were
all progressive movements. I mean, the--the great discovery for me,
as I was doing this research--and I should say that I've been writing
history of education now for 30 years. And what I've tried to do here
was to bring together a lot of work that I've done to say, `I want to
step back and look at the 20th century and see how--what light it
sheds on what we know today and what we're debating today.'
But what I found was that we've had a series of reform movements, and
the first great reform movement, at the beginning of the
century--this--the 20th century was industrial education. And the
idea of the industrial education movement was, `Let's make schooling
prepare kids for work.' But not everybody needed to be prepared for
work, and so they selected kids out. The children of immigrants, the
children of farmers, the children of industrial workers would be
slated for that kind of work.
And then along comes the IQ-testing movement. This, it turns out--the
guys who developed the IQ test were progressive reformers. They
wanted education to be scientific. After all, Dewey had said that
science h--that education should meet the needs of society; that it
should be scientific. And here, they had the IQ test, which they
thought would sort kids early and decide who would go into the
college-bound track. So when I was in high school in the 1950s in
Houston, Texas, I was actually living the legacy of this history that
I'd just wrote because, in fact, the schools were using the test to
identify kids early on and to select those that would be college
material. And the majority, they believed, were not college material,
and the majority were sent off into different vocational kinds of
LAMB: Did you have an IQ test?
Prof. RAVITCH: Absolutely.
LAMB: Did you ever know what your IQ is?
Prof. RAVITCH: No. They didn't disclose--at the time I was in
school, they never disclosed to us what our tests were. In fact, I
went to school at a time where we weren't even told what our SAT
scores were. That was considered confidential.
LAMB: What i--what is the IQ?
Prof. RAVITCH: The IQ test is an--it's an aptitude test, and the
distinction between IQ tests and achievement tests is--is this. IQ is
a predictor, and an achievement test tests what you've learned. And I
find myself thinking achievement tests are pretty good because if
you've studied and--you'll do well on the test, and that's fair
because if everyone has a chance to learn the same material and then
be tested on it, you can--with--with effort, you can do well. With
the IQ test, it's a test of: Can you solve problems? Can you figure
out puzzles? Do you know the analogy between these words and these
The SAT is based on the IQ, or at least the verbal part of the SAT is
a--a--a quasi-intelligence test, and it's a test of capacity and
not--it's not supposed to be a test of what you've learned. What I
show in the book, though, is that hi--even IQ is highly conditioned by
your back--parent background, whether your parents went to college or
not or whether they were high school dropouts. So the I--even the IQ
test is not a pure test of your innate IQ, but an awful lot of
educators believed that it was a test of innate IQ, and so they felt
that they could very early on, say--in fourth grade or fifth grade,
say, `This child's going to--is college bound, and these children are
LAMB: I--who invented the IQ test?
Prof. RAVITCH: Oh, the IQ test was invented by a Frenchman, Galton,
in--in France, obviously, and he created the IQ test as a way of
identifying children who were--who had problems, children who had
different kinds of special--what we would call special needs children.
And his idea--and this was back in the beginning of the century--his
idea was you could use the IQ test, identify these children, use
a--use the test in a diagnostic way and then use the test to help them
When the IQ test came to the US, it was translated by a man named
Lewis Terman at Stanford University, and it was then turned
into--during World War I, the psychologists of America offered their
services to the US Army and said, `We can develop a test that will
allow you to immediately classify the almost two million people coming
into the--the Army and quickly decide who's officer material and who's
not.' And the IQ test results made--were--were--leant themselves to
all kinds of generalizations about ethnic groups and racial groups.
And there were a number of books and articles that followed the
re--release of these IQ results from--from World War I where leading
psychologists were making all sorts of very racist statements about
black people, white people, about different white ethnic groups and
saying that, `Southern--Southern Europeans were stupid b--based on the
What the IQ s--tests were really measuring, I believe, was partly
innate ability, but to another large extent, they were measuring
educational opportunity. And so recruits from the South--white
recruits from the South didn't do as well as black recruits from the
North. But it took--it took several years before there was a
And one of the results of IQ testing during World War I was
immigration restriction because so many Americans were convinced, as
the IQ testing people said, that the average recruit--or the average
American IQ was only 13. So they said, `Well, this is the end of
democracy. How can we have a democracy when our people are so
stupid?' And there was just enormous misinformation spread around the
country based on these IQ tests. But the--you know, the next step in
the I--with the IQ test was that they just were adopted en masse in
American public schools...
LAMB: Do they still give them?
Prof. RAVITCH: ...and in private schools also. No, I think the IQ
tests are given now on an individual basis for sp--particular kids,
particular problems to identify extremely talented kids or kids with
extreme problems. But they are not, so far as I know, being given en
masse the way they were during the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s and even
well into the '60s.
LAMB: Who started the SAT?
Prof. RAVITCH: The SAT was developed by the College Board. The
College Board now still is responsible for the SAT.
LAMB: Who's the College Board?
Prof. RAVITCH: The College Board is an organization. It was created
at the beginning of the century, and it was a collaboration of a lot
of different colleges. And they had all been given--giving individual
examinations, and they realized at some point that this was very
inefficient. If--if it--if a young person wanted to go to college,
they would have to prepare specifically for the exam given by that
college, and then they wouldn't be prepared for the exams given by all
the other colleges.
So the colleges got together and, around 1900, 1901, they created
something called a College Entrance Examination Board, and they would
every year give examinations. And it would be a common examination,
mainly essay tests, in which teachers would--and professors would sit
together, write the exams, and then students would meet and take
several hours of exams, and their scores would be reported to wherever
they wanted to go to college.
In 1941, when the war--World War II broke out, the colleges decided to
abandon the old college boards, these kind of rigorous, handwritten
exams, which had to be hand-read or individually read, and they
adopted the SAT. The SAT had been developed by a man named Carl
Brigham with--working with other people. Carl Brigham was one of the
psychologists who created the group IQ test. He also wrote one of the
most infamous racist books--I think it was called a "Study of American
Intelligence"--in which he warned the American people, after World War
I, looking at these IQ test results, that the nation would be in grave
danger if it didn't stop immigration because the people flowing into
the US in large numbers from Europe were--had the lowest IQs and that
it was going to be a serious threat to the future of the nation.
Brigham's work was widely reported at the time, and it took him
several years before he wrote a tiny article saying, `I think I may
have been wrong'; that it may have been a mistake to do--make the huge
leaps he had and to use the IQ test scores the way he had. But by
then, the Congress had passed immigration restriction, and by
then--this was by the late '20s--he was working for the College Board
developing the SAT. And the College Board, which is this group of
colleges which had collaborated--the College Board then encouraged
Brigham and--and other educational psychologists to begin developing a
And they--there was such interest in multiple-choice testing in,
particularly, IQ testing, and the College Board began to--saying,
`Well, you know, maybe--maybe these written exams and these essay
tests and the performance exams that we're giving--maybe
they're--they're--they're old-fashioned. Maybe we should turn to
science.' And modern science was represented by these psychologists,
who were considered to be the avant-garde. So the psychologists
developed a multiple-choice test, and when World War II broke out, the
colleges--the--the leaders of the College Board got together and said,
`We're switching en masse to the SAT,' and they did that. It was
a--basically, a--almost a--I would say it wasn't a snap judgment
'cause they had been preparing for it for almost 15 years, but they
did switch. And since then, the--the SAT has been the key; that--plus
the s--the ACT have been the key tests for entrance to college.
LAMB: Is there a differ--excuse me--much of a difference between the
ACT and the SAT?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, the SAT traditionally has been a test of verbal
and math. And the verbal test is very much like an IQ test. The math
is a pretty rigorous math test. The ACT test, which most kids in the
Midwest take, i--is mainly subject matter. On the SAT, if you want to
do subject matter, you take other tests, achievement tests, which were
a different set of tests.
LAMB: Back to your Houston experience. What were your parents doing
for a living?
Prof. RAVITCH: My parents ran small liquor stores, like Joe
Lieberman's parents. They had package stores. They both worked long
hours; they'd work till--early in the morning till late at night. And
I was the third of eight children.
LAMB: And where are the other eight today--or the other seven?
Prof. RAVITCH: Oh, all over the place. They're all alive; my
parents are not. My--I have a--a brother in Los Angeles, a--a sister
who runs a wild animal farm in Florida. I have a brother in Chicago
and four siblings still in Houston.
LAMB: And y--think--again, think back to your education in Houston.
Who was your best teacher and why?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, my best teacher was my homeroom teacher. She
was also my English teacher. And I used to correspond with her until
she died. She died in an old-age home in--in South Carolina.
LAMB: What was her name?
Prof. RAVITCH: Mrs. Ratliff, Mrs. Ruby Ratliff. And I--I remember
when I first called her, and this must have been 15 years after I'd
graduated and I'd just published my first book. So it was--oh, I
guess it was about 1975. My first book was "A History of the New York
City Public Schools." And so I called Mrs. Ratliff and said to her I
had published a book and that I wanted to a--let her know she'd been
my very best teacher, and I told her what I loved about her, which is
that she had given me so much wonderful poetry that I had memorized
and committed to heart. And I could look back at having learned bits
of Pope and Wordsworth and--and all of the great poets--English and
And so she started crying, and I said, `Mrs. Ratliff, what's the
matter?' And she said, `I was teaching out of license. I was really a
social studies teacher, but I loved English.' And I once gave a speech
at the National Council of Teachers of English, and I told that story,
and everyone started applauding because they remembered those kinds of
teachers, the teachers who really loved literature. And I feel very
sorry for--for kids today who are--are getting their reading from
textbooks and--and from--I--I've read a lot of the current textbooks
in use. They tend to prefer stories written by their own staff or--or
written by a kind of chop shop, where they write stories that have the
right number of male, female characters, the right ethnic
representation. There'll be a grandma who's handi--who's not
handicapped. The grandma'll always be very active and vigorous.
But they'll--they'll--having that kind of balance is more important
than having literary quality, and I--I think it's--the literature is
not literature. It's usually totally non-memorable. It's just words.
And since I--I can still think about the poetry that I've read
and--and that it gave me this great love of--of literature, I--you
know, that strikes me as one of the great things about why I still
love Mrs. Ratliff, even if she was teaching out of field.
LAMB: Who else? Can you name another teacher or two?
Prof. RAVITCH: Oh, yeah, sure. I had a social studies teacher who
had also taught me English and social studies, Nelda Davis. And Miss
Davis later became the supervisor of social studies for--for Houston.
And another English teacher, Mrs. Reeves. And many years after I
graduated, I was invited back to Houston by the man who was then the
superintendent of schools, and I got an honor, and none of my teachers
were still around, except Mrs. Reeves, and she was the supervisor of
English for the school system. And I said, `Mrs. Reeves, I am so
glad that when I was in the Houston public schools, that I learned
grammar. And at the time, I didn't think it was worth my time, and it
was often dull, but now I write and this is what I do most of the
time. And--and knowing grammar, knowing how to diagram a sentence has
been wonderful for me.' And she said, `Oh, we'd wasted so much time
teaching you kids grammar.' And I said, `No, it wasn't a waste.' But
she had already, in--in essence, gone with the flow to say, `We
shouldn't be doing that.'
I'd later had the experience of--I have two sons, and I went into my
second son's class. The--with my first son, I didn't really feel
confident enough to ever question what was happening, and he went to a
wonderful school, so I didn't have any reason to. But with the second
son, I spoke to his fifth-grade teacher, and I said, `You know,
Michael really loves writing. Do you--do you think you could teach
him how to diagram a sentence?' And she said, `Oh, we don't do that
here. You know, we're very--that's behind the times.' And I said,
`Well, could you just show him because I think h--I think he'd enjoy
it.' And she said she would show him how to do it.
So she showed him how to diagram a sentence, and within three weeks,
the whole class was diagraming sentences because all the kids thought
this was a great thing to do. And...
Prof. RAVITCH: ...I thought it was a great thing to do.
LAMB: You keep saying not--you know, `don't go with the flow,' and
it's not as--who changed all that? When did it change? And--and
how--how widespread is the change?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, this is what my book is about, is I wanted to
understand how it changed. There--there was a kind of a commonsense,
I think, approach to teaching that, first of all, said all children
should have access to a high-quality education. The philosophy, at
least at the beginning of the century and for many teachers and
parents as well, if you had to sum it up, it would be with a metaphor
of: the educational ladder. And the idea was the ladder was there
for all children, and they could go as far as they could go. As long
as they wanted to stay in school, they'd get the same quality of
education. And that--that simile of a ladder, that metaphor of a
ladder, got eliminated at some point, and it started to be eliminated
with the industrial education movement, this idea that some kids
really don't need access to the same quality of education because
they're never going to go to college, so why bother?
And then this common curriculum that we had for most kids or for all
kids got called the college prep curriculum, and there were actually
educators saying, `We should try to reduce the number of kids in the
college prep curriculum.' That was in the 1930s. So what I tried to
document there was this kind of constant battle of ideas, with some
parents--certainly parents and a lot of teachers still committed to an
ideal of the educational ladder, keeping--keeping the door open as
long as possible for all kids to have a good education and others
saying, `Well, let's just divide kids up. These kids get the good
stuff, these kids get vocational, and the great majority'--and
there--there were people in the '50s saying, `The great majority of
kids, 60 percent of the kids, had neither the brains nor the wit to
learn either college prep or a good trade.' And so they were just
being given custodial care. That's what the great theorists thought
they should have.
LAMB: Houston--what year did you leave there?
Prof. RAVITCH: 1956.
LAMB: And where did you go?
Prof. RAVITCH: I went to Wellesley College.
LAMB: Coming out of a family of eight, where were you in the rundown,
older or younger?
Prof. RAVITCH: Oh, I was the third from the top. I was the third
LAMB: And did your parents do well financially, or was this is a...
Prof. RAVITCH: No. I mean, you know, they were solidly middle
class. I mean, my mother was an immigrant; she came from Bessarabia
in 1917. My father's parents had immigrated. We were--I was a child
of immigrants. My grandparents--one of my grandmothers didn't speak
LAMB: How'd you get to Wellesley?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, my rabbi's wife had been to Wellesley, and when
they saw that I was doing well in school, she said to me, `This is
where you should go. I went there, and you'll love it.' And so I
followed her advice, and I th--it was a wonderful experience. It's
also made me a supporter of women's education.
LAMB: And--and Wellesley's located where?
Prof. RAVITCH: In Wellesley, Massachusetts?
LAMB: Is it still an all-women's college?
Prof. RAVITCH: It's still a women's college, and I was just there
recently for my 40th reunion. And I'm just amazed at what these women
have accomplished and--the women in the classes just before and just
after me. Madeleine Albright was the class just ahead of me. I had
remarkable women all around me, classmates and--and--and those who
went before and those who are there now. There are women there now,
who just graduated, who are astronauts and leaders of their community.
So I'm--I'm very proud to have been part of a women's college, and
it's made me, in my current--you know, in my grown-up life, continue
to be a supporter of both women's college education, but also of
trying to help promote some women's scho--girls' schools, which I
think is a good experience.
LAMB: What'd you study there?
Prof. RAVITCH: Political science, which was a major waste of time.
Prof. RAVITCH: Because I wish th--you know, I wish now, now that I
am a historian--I have a doctorate in history of American education.
I think that history and literature are better studies, or--or
they're--they're more firmly rooted. The political science that I
learned at Wellesley has changed so much that it's virtually of no
use. We spent a lot of time studying the politics of the construction
of some dam out in the West Coast. I learned a lot more in the couple
of years that I worked in Washington, DC, and hands-on experience in
terms of political science. I think that the rooting in history and
the grounding that--that history and that literature give you are
be--are a lifelong possession.
LAMB: When did you get interested in h--the whole business of
education and the history of it?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, when I left college, I didn't go to graduate
school. I was really a--a--very much a late bloomer, I guess. I
started writing. I was working for a small magazine called the New
Leader, and the New Leader was where, I guess, I'd say I'd got my
political education. I--I learned all about the writers of our--of
our time, which I had never learned about in high school, and not
really--I--I wasn't immersed in--in sort of the politics of our day,
except that I was very involved in political campaigns. I worked in
Kennedy's campaign and Johnson's campaign and Humphrey's campaign, but
I w--I started my working life at the New Leader.
LAMB: What we--who owned the New Leader then?
Prof. RAVITCH: The--it was owned by something called the Tammamin
Institute and the old editor w--that, for many years, was a man named
Saul Levitos, and I got to the New Leader because I read Saul Levitos'
obituary. And I called, the day after his funeral, to ask if I could
get a job, and they said they were in chaos and that I should come
down and talk to them. So I came down and was interviewed while they
were in chaos, and they said, `Sure. You know, you can be an
assistant.' So I was an editorial assistant there and--and met writers
like Daniel Bell and Irvin Christler and Nathan Blazer and got
it--introduced, in effect, to the great ideological and political
battles that were going on at that time. So that was a wonderful
I also was having children, and I had one child in '64, another in
'66. A child--my second child died of leukemia in '67. And it was at
that point that--I'm sorry, he died in '66. And I had a--a--my second
ch--child--or now my third child. Michael was born in '67. So I now
have two sons. But I was having children, working at the New Leader,
trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my life work and
recuperating from the death of a child and, at that point, got very
interested in--in writing a book. And I wrote a proposal to an editor
at The New York Times Magazine. I said I wanted to write an article
about the New York City schools, and he wasn't interested because I
had not published.
And so I got so interested. The schools in New York City--this was
1968. Now we're in the midst of a two-month-long teachers' strike,
and it was on the front pages every day, this terrible strike closing
down the schools. And I got so intrigued with what was happening that
I began doing research, and I decided, `Well, if he won't publish my
article, I'll write a book.' And that was my first book--was "The
History of the New York City Schools," which came out in 1975. And in
the course of writing that book, I ended up getting a--a--a doctorate
in history of American education.
Prof. RAVITCH: At Columbia University.
LAMB: Now go back to Wellesley for a moment. Tell us about a teacher
or two, a professor there, that had an impact on you and why.
Prof. RAVITCH: At Wellesley, I had a lot of extraordinary teachers.
They cared mightily about, I don't know, some sort of intellectual
excitement, I guess. My--my favorite teacher was a fellow named Pete
Stratton, who was a political science professor. I had another one,
Kitty Turner, who taught intellectual--American intellectual history.
Very exciting people.
LAMB: What'd they do, though, that excited you?
Prof. RAVITCH: They loved--they l--they knew their stuff, and they
loved it. And it was--they were able to share their enthusiasm. And
they were very, very rigorous. I--I had been to public schools, and
I--I can't remember ever getting anything less than an A, and I got to
Wellesley and found myself struggling for a B. And that was a
tremendous shock to me just to discover that I was going to really
have to work hard to--and I would never be best anymore. I couldn't
be first. There were so many brilliant young women around me that it
was--it was no longer possible to be the best and certainly not in the
easy way it had been in--in high school or earlier.
LAMB: You mentioned Columbia, and you s--talk a lot in your book
about Teachers College. What--what is it? What is it? What was it?
And what impact has it had on education?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, Teachers College is where I took a lot of
education courses, and--and my mentor--my personal mentor was the--the
great professor at Teachers College, Lawrence Kremmin. And he is,
undoubtedly, the--the greatest historian o--of American education, and
that's--it was with him that I studied and got my doctorate.
LAMB: Why is he the greatest?
Prof. RAVITCH: Because he's just written incredible books. I mean,
he's--he's written these very broad surveys of--of American education.
He won the Pulitzer Prize. And he was a very rigorous, wonderful
scholar and a great person to study with. I mean, he always made me
feel so--I had to--he just had, again, this tremendous joie in what he
was doing. He loved what he was doing, and he was constantly learning
and sharing what he had learned. As a teacher, he was spectacular,
and as a scholar, he was extremely painstaking. And being his student
was both a privilege and--it--it was hard. I mean, I constantly felt
that I had inherited his voice in my brain, telling me that what I did
had to be better.
So it was wonderful working for him, but I do write a lot about
Teachers College, and part of this great ideological battle that I
describe between the people who wanted to have standards, to have an
educational ladder open to all--they were professors at Teachers
College. William Chandler Bagley is one of my heroes. He's probably
the hero of this book. But the other side was probably the majority
of the teachers at--professors at Teachers College, led by William
Heard Kilpatrick, who thought that subject matter was ridiculous and
standards were silly, and a child should be unpressured and should be
happy all the time. And if they did things that interested them, that
it didn't really matter what they did, and if they learned to fly a
kite, that that could be just as important as learning mathematics.
And so there was this battle going on within the Teachers College
faculty during the '20s, '30s and--and the '40s. And as I said,
Bagley and--William Chandler Bagley and Isaac Candell were the men
that I found to be heroic dissenters. But it's interesting that--to
me, that if I look at all of the other histories that have been
written about American education, there's hardly a line about either
one of them.
LAMB: Let me ask you what may sound like a naive question. If--well,
let me first ask you this. What is, in your opinion--and just fairly
briefly--what is the state of American education?
Prof. RAVITCH: I think that we're going in the right direction. I
think that since that Nation at Risk report in 1983, the message has
gotten through that all children can learn; that doesn't mean that all
children are going to learn as much or as fast, but that we should
have high ex--higher expectations than we do. I think there's a
struggle going on all over the country about whether we're serious
about this. But what my book tells people is that this is different
from the tradition that we've inherited.
LAMB: What I started to ask you was you hear a lot, in the political
discussion, that the education is horrible, and you hear a lot of
things written--I mean, you see a lot of things written about it. And
I want to ask kind of a naive question. If things are so bad, why is
this country doing so well, or is it?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, firstly, I'm not one of those people who say
things are so terrible, that they're hor--I don't say that. I don't
think that things are now worse than they ever were. I don't believe
that either. I don't think that--i--if you read my book, you'll see
I'm not arguing for a golden age. I don't think there was a golden
age. I think today that we offer greater opportunity than we ever
have in our schools, and this is a good thing. We have more kids.
We're trying to educate more kids. And I don't think that our
expectations are as high as they should be, but I do think we're going
in the right direction.
As to why--why does our country do so well when our educational
systems o--so often stacks up poorly, if you look at international
tests, we don't do terribly well, particularly in the upper grades.
And I think it--the--the answer to your question is that this is such
a large country that if we educate the top 30 percent, we have a
lot--a huge pool of talent in our top 30 percent. If we
educate--excuse me--only the top 60 percent, that's a huge pool of
talent. But I--I have, in here, perhaps an idealistic hope, an
egalitarian hope, that we could educate far more than the top 30
percent or 60 percent.
LAMB: Does any other country in the world educate as many people as
Prof. RAVITCH: Oh, yes.
LAMB: ...in higher education?
Prof. RAVITCH: Oh, absolutely. There are many countries now--I
mean, it was the case--30 years ago, we took more kids through high
school graduation than any other country in the world. That's not
true anymore. Now there are about 15 or 16 countries that have a
higher high school graduation rate than we do. That's new. And there
are still many Americans, including people who've reviewed my book,
who said--who said, `Jeez, you know, we're still educating more than
anyone else.' That's--that's no long--that was true, but it's not true
LAMB: What about college, though?
Prof. RAVITCH: In college? We probably have more in college than
other countries. Other countries have been slower to catch up with
us. But their--what--what many other countries are doing is bringing
their population along to a higher level of learning by the time they
reach the end of high school. And so when kids go into a technical
institute, they're not in a dumbed-down program; they're actually
studying technical skills that they can use in the workplace.
The problem we have with having--I mean, I'm--I'm for the open door in
college, but the problem we have is that about a third of the kids who
go on to college, by the latest Department of Education
statistics--about a third of them need remediation in reading, writing
or math. Now the ideal would be if all these kids could go to college
and more and didn't need remediation when they started college.
LAMB: You are residing where now?
Prof. RAVITCH: I live in Brooklyn, New York, and Southhold, New
LAMB: And what do you do now?
Prof. RAVITCH: What do I do? Well, what I do is I'm recovering from
writing this book. What I plan to do, I don't know. I plan to
recover some more, perhaps do a little more gardening, make some jam,
enjoy my grandchildren who've just moved back from Hong Kong. And...
LAMB: Are you attached with any institution?
Prof. RAVITCH: I'm a--I'm at New York University. I'm also
associated with the Brookings Institution. And I--I run an annual
education conference at Brookings. I'll continue to do that. I'll
continue to be at New York University. I may even write some more.
But right now I feel as though I--I'm in a recovery phase.
LAMB: What book is this for you?
Prof. RAVITCH: What book? I think it's the 16th, but I'm not sure.
I've--I've written a lot of books, and I've edited a lot of books.
LAMB: And--and what's the importance of this book compared to all the
others you've done?
Prof. RAVITCH: I'd say that this book is the summation of--of--of
the things that I've learned over 30 years in this profession, in
trying to be a historian of education, trying to understand what we
can learn from history. And--and I know that everybody's not going to
agree with it, and that's OK. I--I've learned in--when you do
history, people argue and that's a good thing.
LAMB: I've got a review that I know you haven't--haven't seen in the
Los Angeles Times over the weekend by Herb Kohl, who is an author of
more than 40 books on education. Do you know him?
Prof. RAVITCH: I don't know him. I know his work.
LAMB: He's the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and
Social Justice at the University of San Francisco. He says, `Diane
Ravitch identifies herself as an intellectual progressive and a
liberal traditionalist.' I'll stop there and ask you if that's
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I--you know, these labels confuse me, I mean,
because I--I never know when people call me things. I mean, I--I get
labeled all the time, and mostly I find that I don't know how to fit
LAMB: What does it mean to be an intellectual progressive?
Prof. RAVITCH: I'm--I'm not sure. I mean, my own children went to a
progressive school, and I guess what I've tried to do in the book is
to say I like progressive methods, but I think progressive methods
have to be used to teach children traditional subject matter. And...
LAMB: What d--what does progressive methods mean?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, active learning and--and hands-on projects and
activities. And I think that's great. You know, my--my own kids did
that. I didn't do that as much in school as I would have liked to.
And so if--if being a--an intellectual progressive means that I
associate myself with--it's good to have excitement and fun in
learning, that's--that's good. But I think that it has to be in the
service of learning valuable subjects.
LAMB: Herb Kohl writes that, `However, in her new book "Left Back: A
Century of Failed School Reforms," she reveals herself as a
conservative who believes that society's only responsibility to its
children is to provide the occasion for education.'
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I don't think so. I don't think that's
society's only responsibility to children.
LAMB: He says that...
Prof. RAVITCH: As a mother and a grandmother, I would say that
society owes a lot more to kids than to educate them, but I would say
it owes them at least an education and, you know, more besides.
LAMB: He says that you--`It is the role of schools to provide one
curriculum based in the classics of Western literature to all children
and is up to the children and their parents to apply themselves no
matter what resources for learning they have.'
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, it's just not true.
LAMB: Not true.
Prof. RAVITCH: No. Of course not. First of all, I do like the
classics of Western literature, but the book doesn't recommend them.
I've--in--in part of my life, I was one of the writers of the
California history curriculum, and we instituted, in California, the
first world history requirement and--and, for three years, the world
history in the country. And part of that was learning about the
world, learning not only about Europe, but the rest of the world:
Africa, Asia. I think it's wonderful. The more you can learn, the
better. And I--so, yes, the classics, Western literature, but also
the classics of other world literatures, too.
LAMB: In the LA Times review, Herb Kohl writes, `In an analysis that
leans on the personal'--and then in parenthesis, `the book is filled
with snide asides and judgments masquerading as fact. She says John
Dewey was, quote, "far too tolerant of fellow progressives who adored
children, but abhorred subject matter,"' then the closed parenthesis.
Do you want to deal with that?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I think that's--I think that I tried to
document that, you know, as I was...
LAMB: Do you have snide asides in the book?
Prof. RAVITCH: Not a--I--I think they're judgments, but if you don't
like the judgments, then I guess you'd call them a snide aside. But I
think that they're judgments based on the evidence that I've put
together. I think that everyone who writes a history will reach some
judgments, and whether you like those judgments or not is the way you
react as a reader.
LAMB: He says, `Ravitch simplifies and stereotypes the late 19th
century progressive education movement, vestiges of which can still be
seen in schools throughout the country.'
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, the--what I--I described, and I don't think
it's a simplification--the reason the book is so thick is because of
the documentation. And what I described was a very elitist attitude
that was found amongst many of the progressives, and the elitist
attitude comes out in the--the statements made about which children
should be able to get what they then called the college prep
curriculum and which children would not.
The--the--the kinds of judgments made, for instance, about black
education were not what we would consider today to be either
progressive or liberal. It was a major federal report that I
described, written in 1916. It was called Negro Education. And
it--it fundamentally argued that black schools in the South should be
devoted to industrial education; that children should not be taking
academic subjects because they would never be able to use them; that
they should, instead, have agricultural education, industrial
education. They should learn blacksmithing and trades. And in this
report, which was considered very modern and progressive in 1916, the
author of it, who was at that time a leading progressive, suggested
that black parents were wrong when they wanted their children to have
the same thing that white children had, and that even white children
shouldn't want what their parents wanted, which was that the poor
parents wanted what the rich parents got for their kids.
I don't know if that's a conservative point of view. I think it's an
egalitarian--I don't know. It's egalitarian. I don't know how else
to label it. But I find that--you know, Herb Kohl and I are on
different sides of the ideological spectrum of--at least on--on
whatever these judgments he's making. So I would assume that he would
not like my book, and he doesn't.
LAMB: Now you--you said you got a master--a PhD from Columbia.
Prof. RAVITCH: Right.
LAMB: What happened then to your life?
Prof. RAVITCH: I wrote a book, which came out about the same time I
got my doctorate, called "The Great School Wars." It was a history of
the New York City schools. I then wrote a book in which I criticized
Marxist historians, and at that time, they were saying that
American--this was in--in the mid-'70s. They were saying American
education was a terrible failure, and I was defending education
against the class analysis of the Marxists. It was 1977. And then I
wrote several other books, one of which was a history from 1945 to
1980 called "A Troubled Crusade."
LAMB: Where did you live?
Prof. RAVITCH: I've always lived in--in New York, except for three
years in DC. I was in the Department of Education for two years and
worked at the Brookings Institution for one year.
LAMB: You mentioned, though, California. What i--what was your
Prof. RAVITCH: Oh, I was just invited by the superintendent of
schools, Bill Honig, and I used to go out once a month during--this
was in the mid-'80s--and came as an invited participant to help with
the writing of a history curriculum for the state of California. At
that time, California, like most states, had a rather insubstantial,
subjectless curriculum of social studies, and I was one of those who
helped make it a very substantive, knowledge-rich history curriculum,
beginning in the early grades.
LAMB: So all your life, you've lived up in the New York City area,
other than Houston.
Prof. RAVITCH: Right.
LAMB: And you got involved in politics. Earlier, you said Johnson,
Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey.
Prof. RAVITCH: Right.
LAMB: Did your politics change then?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, in the '68 campaign, I was very disheartened by
the attacks from the left on Humphrey and had one experience where I
had organized a campaign for Humphrey that was invaded by yippies, who
drowned out the speaker, who, at that time, was John Kenneth
Galbraith. That was--I--I would say that--that broke my heart at that
point in '68, and I--I--I've been a Democrat all my life until fairly
recently, when I became an Independent.
LAMB: And the administration you worked in?
Prof. RAVITCH: I worked in the Bush administration, and when I came
in, I said--told them I was a Democrat and that I would not be
partisan, and they said that was fine. And after I worked in the Bush
administration, I cha--after I left the Bush administration, as--a
couple of years later, I registered as an Independent, and that's what
I am now.
LAMB: And what job did you have in the Bush administration?
Prof. RAVITCH: I was the assistant secretary in charge of education
Prof. RAVITCH: In the Department of Education.
LAMB: So what's your reaction when you had a group of politicians on
Capitol Hill, the Gingrich group, saying, `Let's abolish the
Department of Education'?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I guess it--that didn't happen while I was
there. I was there working for Lamar Alexander, and he wasn't going
around saying, `Let's abolish the department.' After I left and
that--and people were saying, `Let's abolish the department,' I
stopped and I thought, because I try to step back--and I thought all
the important things the federal department does or that the federal
government does, not the department, preceded the department and would
be there, whether there was a department or not. So I didn't--I
didn't feel that education and--or even at the federal role hinged on
there being a department.
I mean, the Head Start program is in the Department of Health and
Human Services. The GI Bill created the great college loan program.
The Title 1 program preceded the department and pre-existed it. So I
didn't feel that the federal government was going to get out of
education, and whether there's an agency called the department or not
didn't strike me as a critical issue, so much as the federal role.
And I believe there is a federal role and that that role will survive,
no matter who's president.
LAMB: And what is the federal role?
Prof. RAVITCH: It's pri--it's mainly a role to help disadvantaged
kids and, also, to provide access to college education. The GI Bill
was the--the first kind of large investment--federal investment, and I
think that's been a terrific investment in education. And
the--the--the federal role that's evolved over the past 35 years has
been one of the federal government being on the side of disadvantaged
kids, kids who don't have resources.
LAMB: What's your reaction when you hear the president say there
should be more teachers in the classroom, and the federal government
ought to fund another 100,000 teachers?
Prof. RAVITCH: I--you know, I think that there--it's--I--I believe
in smaller class size. I--I--I think that, as a parent, I know that
that's better than large classes. But I think that the federal role
would be better served if the federal government were, for instance,
to pick up the cost of special education, which is draining so many
districts and states. And if the federal government paid f--just for
what it mandates, it would release billions and billions of dollars,
and then districts could then make the decision about whether they
want to have higher teacher salaries or a smaller class size or some
combination of both.
But I worry about this becoming the federal role because I don't think
the capacity is there from the federal government side to run the kind
of program where either the federal government is paying teachers'
salaries or hiring teachers. I don't know how that would work from
the federal level, other than just to be sending money to districts.
And if they want to send money to districts, then I think the easiest
and most direct way to do that would be to pay for special education,
which for many districts and states consumes a huge part of their
LAMB: You mentioned a man named Albert Shanker in your book quite a
bit. What'd you think of him?
Prof. RAVITCH: I was a great friend and admirer of Al Shanker. He
was the leader, for many years, of the American Federation of
Teachers. He was very influential, I think, because of his
brilliance; devoted to public education, devoted to education w--of
a--of all sorts. And I'd say that I--I would have fol--you know,
followed him wherever he went because he was one of the most incisive
commentators and--and thinkers about American education, about the
need to establish standards, to have reasonable tests, good tests, not
some of the kind of Mickey Mouse tests that we have been using, until
recently, and to have some real accountability that--and he wasn't
saying that to be mean to children, but because he--he would always
say that a--he--kids would ask him, when he was teaching math, `Mr.
Shanker, does it count?' And if it didn't count, they didn't study,
and if it did count, then they would prepare. So I--I think I was
persuaded by him that there was a reasonable incentive that comes
about from saying, `Yes, it does count.'
LAMB: When did the first teacher group unionize?
Prof. RAVITCH: The AFT started unionizing in the early part of the
century, and New York City had one of the very first chapters. It
w--it was largely--the--the AFT was largely an urban union. The NEA
did not begin as a union. The NEA began as a supervisors'
organization, and it didn't become a union until much later, after the
AFT. But the American Federation of Teachers was the original
LAMB: You said that the AFT is close to a million teachers?
Prof. RAVITCH: The AFT is about a million, and the NEA is about two
LAMB: What's the difference between the organizations?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, at this point, there's not a lot of difference;
just size would be the big one, and the fact that the AFT is mainly an
urban union, and the NEA is--is mainly not. But they did try to merge
a couple--last year, I think, and the--the merger didn't go off.
They'll probably try again. I don't think there's a great deal of
difference between them.
LAMB: Are all teachers Democrats?
Prof. RAVITCH: No, I don't think so.
LAMB: Why are the unions so Democratic?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, the unions are, I'd say, largely Democratic
because education's run by the government, and so--and the--the union,
therefore, has an interest in seeing government spending more on
schools. It's g--can mean more--more programs, more money. And if
education weren't run by the government, they probably wouldn't be.
LAMB: And is--is it a good idea, in your opinion, that the NEA and
the AFT ad--endorse a candidate, a national candidate, in the
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, you know, I think they're--they're
organizations that have a right to do what they want to do. I--I
would, I guess in--in my heart of hearts, wish that they didn't take
partisan roles, but it's their right to do so.
LAMB: You also mentioned in your book, especially in the conclusion,
a lot about television, and there are asides in there about television
and its impact on the attention span of people today. Talk more about
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I think--I--I know as a parent and, also, from
studies and talking to lots of other parents and children, that
television has changed a lot about the way children learn. It's given
many children a shorter attention span, a desire to be entertained a
lot and less willingness to--to read. And reading continues to be the
one activity that's most closely aligned with how kids do in school
and how they do on their tests. Reading is where you get a large
vocabulary, and I know from having worked on a--a small number of
television shows, that in commercial television, there is a tendency
to use a very simple vocabulary, and there's almost a race to the
bottom not--not to challenge viewers. I know that's not true with all
television, but that's been the case with network television.
LAMB: Why do you think that's the case?
Prof. RAVITCH: It's been my experience that--writers have said to
me, `The general viewership is not very smart. They're not educated,
and you have to write for them,' so that they're doing very little to
enhance vocabulary. Reading does enhance vocabulary, which is why if
parents say to me, `What's the one thing I can do to help my child?,'
I say, `Read to them, read with them. Encourage them to have private,
quiet time to read.'
LAMB: Now you've watched this educational system for a long time.
Based on your experience and your thinking about the past, where is it
all going? What will happen in the next 25 years?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I think we will see constant challenges to
schooling and to the idea that we even need to have kids in school.
There will be so many competitive ways to learn. We're seeing an
increase in home schooling that's remarkable.
LAMB: Good or bad?
Prof. RAVITCH: Is it good or bad? It--it all depends on--I, as a
parent, could not have home-schooled. I--I'm--I guess that I'm amazed
that so many parents are willing to do it. And, clearly, there are
some home-schooled children that do incredibly well. I don't know
what happens to most of them because I've never seen any evidence
about what happens to home-schooled children and whether they're being
well-schooled. But, clearly, it's a growing phenomenon. We're seeing
more and more charter schools. We'll see more distance learning.
We'll see children learning through the Internet. We'll see lots of
opportunities to learn.
I guess the reason that I continue to put my money on schools,
wherever they may be, is the presence of having well-educated adults
who care about kids. And I happen to think that schooling is not just
about books, it's not just about learning, it's also about character.
And what we want from the adults who--who work in schools is--is that
they know the kids, that they care about them, that they can become
involved with the problems they have, talk to them; that schools can,
at their best--and--and the best is what I always hope for--schools
can help to compensate for poor home environments. They can't do it
alone, but we don't have public schools just to confer advantages on
the advantaged kids. We have them to try to equalize the advantages.
And so I--I continue to think that there's a role for schooling
because of the quality of mind and heart and character of teachers and
what they can bring to kids in school.
But I guess the one--I--I didn't have a lot of policy in that book.
It's really about trying to describe the sea in which we swim, or the
world in which we--that we've inherited. The one policy that I was
very strong about was that we've created too many very large schools,
and as I was writing the conclusion, I was thinking about what had, at
that--just happened then in Columbine High School, and I began finding
out and getting the data on how many high school students are in very
large schools, and it's about half of American high school students in
these very big, anonymous schools--over 1,500 kids. And I think
that's too many. I think that the reason that--a--as--as you find out
in reading this book, the reason we have these big schools is to make
tracking possible; to make it possible to say that a certain
percentage get the college prep, a certain percentage go into
vocational and divide up the kids. And the reason that the reformers
didn't want to have small schools was they really didn't want kids
having access to a common curriculum.
So I think that we have to restore the sense of personalness in
schools, the commitment of adults to children, the commitment to
helping children grow up to be responsible, good adults.
LAMB: And what's the--what do you think the chances are that that
Prof. RAVITCH: I see it happening. I see it happening in--in
different cities. I think it--that communities are moving in that
direction. I think that parents understand that the school's, in some
ways, an extension of the home, and they don't want the school to be a
place where their children will be ignored, misassigned, treated like
a number. So I--I feel that there are some good things happening in
American education, and despite the history that I described, I'm
LAMB: Our guest has been Diane Ravitch, the author of this book,
published by Simon & Schuster, called "Left Back: A Century of Failed
School Reforms." Thank you very much.
Prof. RAVITCH: Thank you.
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