Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms

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9780684844176: 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.

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Review:

In Left Back, Diane Ravitch explodes pervasive myths of how American schools developed in the last hundred years: "The conventional story of the twentieth century told by historians of education is about the heroic advance of the progressive education movement, how it vanquished oppressive traditionalism in the classroom, briefly dominated American schools, then lost its vitality and withered away in the mid-1950s." Ravitch, herself an eminent historian of education and the author of The Great School Wars, calls this so much malarkey. She reveals how an endless wave of reforms prevented schools from doing what they were built to do: educate children. "Whenever the academic curriculum was diluted or minimized, large numbers of children were pushed through the school system without benefit of a genuine education," she writes. These words may not be welcome at teacher-training colleges, where so many of the ill-begotten theories and half-baked ideas she chronicles now percolate. But classroom veterans will appreciate Ravitch's insights: "What was sacrificed over the decades in which the schools were treated as vehicles for job training, social planning, political reform, social sorting, personality adjustment, and social efficiency was a clear definition of what schools can realistically and appropriately accomplish for children and for society."

The bulk of Left Back--and it is a bulky book, both in size (467 pages of text) and intellectual heft--is a history of progressive education reforms and the bad consequences that often follow them. Yet it is more than just history; Ravitch constantly keeps her eye on lessons the present can draw from the past, and isn't afraid to reach controversial conclusions, as when she writes, "If there is a lesson to be learned from the river of ink that was spilled in the education disputes of the twentieth century, it is that anything in education that is labeled a 'movement' should be avoided like the plague." Ravitch may add to that river of ink, but to everyone's benefit. Left Back is a fine book that should find a wide audience--the jacket features glowing blurbs from liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and conservative author William J. Bennett. More important, it deserves a wide audience. --John J. Miller

About the Author:

Diane Ravitch is one of the nation's foremost historians of education and a leading education policy analyst. Her landmark books deeply influenced the national discussion of education standards in the 1980s and 1990s. She is a graduate of the Houston public schools, Wellesley College, and Columbia University. She has been a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and at New York University. She served in the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary in charge of education research and currently holds the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution and edits Brookings Papers on Education Policy. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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