Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch
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Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms
ISBN: 0684844176
Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms
For the past one hundred years, Americans have argued and worried about the quality of their schools. Some have charged that students were not learning enough, while others have complained that the schools were not in the forefront of social progress. In this authoritative history of education in the twentieth century, historian Diane Ravitch describes this ongoing battle of ideas and explains why school reform has so often failed.

Left Back recounts grandiose efforts by education reformers to use the schools to promote social and political goals, even when they diminished the schools' ability to educate children. It shows how generations of reformers have engaged in social engineering, advocating such innovations as industrial education, intelligence testing, curricular differentiation, and life-adjustment education. These reformers, she demonstrates, simultaneously mounted vigorous campaigns against academic studies.

Left Back charges that American schools have been damaged by three misconceptions. The first is the belief that the schools can solve any social or political problem. The second is the belief that only a portion of youngsters are capable of benefiting from a high-quality education. The third is that imparting knowledge is relatively unimportant, compared to engaging students in activities and experiences.

These grave errors, Ravitch contends, have unnecessarily restricted equality of educational opportunity. They have dumbed down the schools by encouraging a general lowering of academic expectations. They have produced a diluted and bloated curriculum and pressure to enlarge individual schools so that they can offer multiple tracks to children with different occupational goals. As a result, the typical American high school is too big, too anonymous, and lacks intellectual coherence.

Ravitch identifies several heroic educators—such as William T. Harris, William C. Bagley, and Isaac Kandel—who challenged these dominant and wrong-headed ideas. These men, dissidents in their own times, are usually left out of standard histories of education or treated derisively because they believed that all children deserved the opportunity to meet high standards of learning.

In describing the wars between competing traditions of education, Ravitch points the way to reviving American education. She argues that all students have the capacity to learn and that all are equally deserving of a solid liberal arts education. Left Back addresses issues of the utmost importance and urgency. It is a large work of history that by recovering the past illuminates a future.
—from the publisher's website

TRANSCRIPT
Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms
Program Air Date: October 8, 2000

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 generalities.
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 relentlessly.
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 on education?
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 for?
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 York City.
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 children.
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 programs.
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 words?

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 not.'
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 learn more.

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 IQ test.'

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 corrective.

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 multiple-choice test.

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 American poets.

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...
LAMB: Y--you...
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 oldest.
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 English, so...
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.
LAMB: Why?
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 experience.

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.
LAMB: Where?
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 we do...
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 anymore.
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 York.
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 accurate.
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 into them.
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 relationship there?
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 research.
LAMB: In...
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 budget.
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 teachers' union.
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 million.
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 presidential election?
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 that.
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 will happen?
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 optimistic.
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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