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Progress v. Progressive Education

Sunday, October 1, 2000

Diane Ravitch.
Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms
Simon & Schuster. 560 pages. $30.00

Edward B. Fiske and Helen F. Ladd.                                                                       When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale.                                               Brookings Institution Press. 313 pages. $47.95 cloth, $18.95 paper

It is striking how little change has occurred over the years in the tenor of the education reform debate. In an exchange that is frequently echoed in today’s voucher battles, a leading figure of the education establishment and defender of the status quo, Harvard president James B. Conant, suggested in 1952 that critics of the public schools should be asked two questions: "Would you like to increase the number and scope of private schools?" and "Do you look forward to the day when tax money will directly or indirectly assist these schools?"

A prominent critic of the education establishment, Albert Lynd, fired back that the defenders of public schools were questioning the motives of their critics so as to deflect attention from anti-intellectual practices in the schools, adding, "I should greatly prefer that the public schools provide for more children the quality of education provided by the very private schools to which Mr. Conant sent his own children, before he was moved to lecture the rest of us on our duty to send children to the public schools."

And this 1934 comment by a critic of the educational reformers is equally apt today:

If I were seriously ill and in desperate need of a physician, and if by some miracle I could secure either Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, or a young doctor fresh from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, with his equipment comprising the latest developments in the technologies and techniques of medicine, I should, of course, take the young doctor. On the other hand, if I were commissioned to find a teacher for a group of adolescent boys and if, by some miracle, I could secure either Socrates or the latest Ph.D. from the Teachers College, with his equipment of the latest technologies and techniques of teaching, with all due respect to the College that employs me and to my students, I am fairly certain that I would jump at the chance to get Socrates.

In Left Back, Diane Ravitch traces the long history of American school reform movements and shows how and why they have failed to produce better educational outcomes. Beginning with the nineteenth century giants Herbert Spencer and Lester Frank Ward, this highly readable survey manages to include at least a capsule description of every influential figure and movement of the last 110 years, with the principal focus on the major educational theoreticians of the first half of the twentieth century and their critics. The leading progressive educational reformers of this period, men such as John Franklin Bobbitt, Ellwood P. Cubberly, Harold Rugg, and William Heard Kilpatrick, were faculty members at graduate schools of education, particularly Teachers College, Columbia University. Influenced by Rousseau, John Dewey, and the attitudes associated with political progressivism, their creed, according to Ravitch, consisted of four ideas:

· That education might become a science and that the methods and ends of education could be measured with precision and determined scientifically. This was the basis of the mental testing movement.

· That the methods and ends of education could be derived from the innate needs and nature of the child. This was the basis of the child-centered movement.

· That the methods and ends of education could be determined by assessing the needs of society and then fitting children for their role in society. This was the basis of the social efficiency movement.

· That the methods and ends of education could be changed in ways that would reform society. Proponents of this idea expected that the schools could change the social order, either by freeing children’s creative spirit or conversely by indoctrinating them for life in a planned society. The first version was the faith of the child-centered movement and the second was the basis of the social reconstruction movement.

What united an otherwise disparate group of reformers was their intense antipathy to the traditional academic curriculum and pedagogical methods. In general, these progressive educators did not believe that the study of subjects such as algebra, chemistry, literature, and foreign languages was appropriate except for a small elite. They valued training in how to teach above knowledge of subject matter in teachers, and they believed that the role of teachers was not to make rigorous academic demands of students.

The reformers dominated (and, through their ideological heirs, still dominate) the education schools, but were never able to gain complete control of public elementary and secondary education. The opposition included parents who wanted a liberal academic education for their children notwithstanding the opinion of the experts, teachers who cared about the subjects they taught and quietly continued to use the methods they knew to be effective, and eloquent outside critics such as Walter Lippmann, literary critic Howard Mumford Jones, classicist Paul Shorey, and "great books" advocate and University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins, along with a few brave dissidents within the education schools.

Although she views the progressive reformers as misguided, Ravitch fairly and respectfully presents their theories of education, usually in their own words. She recognizes that some of their ideas about how children learn have merit and are beneficial when carefully implemented by dedicated teachers. By all accounts, some progressive schools with enthusiastic, well-educated faculty and staff have been successful.

But the overall impact of educational progressivism on American education is another and much bleaker story. Ravitch’s sympathies clearly lie with critics like William Chandler Bagley, a longtime professor at Teachers College. For over 40 years Bagley argued for an education grounded in the liberal arts and sciences for all children, at least through the eighth grade, taught by well-educated, cultured teachers. His reward was to be dismissed as a "hurtful reactionary" by most of his colleagues.

In the 1950s, particularly during the Sputnik era, educational progressivism fell on hard times, as schools threw themselves into the task of preparing students for the engineering challenges of the Cold War. But progressivism quickly made a comeback in the early 1960s, particularly with the child-centered and social reconstruction movements. Perhaps in part because memories of the period are still fresh, not to say raw, Ravitch’s treatment of the unraveling of academic standards in the 1960s and 1970s, and the predictable reaction in the 1980s, is somewhat cursory. And she touches only lightly on more recent expressions of progressive thinking such as the multicultural, self-esteem, standards, whole language, and constructivist movements. In truth many readers by this point will have begun to grow weary of the seemingly endless parade of educational fads, nostrums, and panaceas that she has chronicled, so the brevity is appreciated.

The conclusions that Diane Ravitch draws from this history are similar to those of her intellectual predecessor, Bagley: Anything in education that is labeled a "movement" should be avoided like the plague. American education needs more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths, not more nostrums and enthusiasms. We need teachers who are well-educated in their subject matter, eclectic in their methods, and willing to use different strategies depending on what works best for which children. Massive changes in curricula and pedagogy should be based on solid research and field-tested before they are imposed on entire school districts and states.

Ravitch’s "fundamental, time-tested truths" are the pedagogical equivalent of Kipling’s "gods of the copybook headings." Unfortunately, there is little in Left Back to inspire hope that "the burnt fool’s bandaged finger" will not go "wabbling back to the flame." The obvious, if unspoken, lesson of this tale of folly is that the twenty-first century also is likely to be a century of failed school reforms. What is to keep half-baked new "progressive" movements from again sweeping through the education world? As the inevitable disappointing results come in, the old fads will be discarded and replaced with new panaceas (or old panaceas dressed up to look new). Level-headed critics like Bagley and Ravitch may hasten the departure of failed reforms, but the education schools will continue to be impervious to the unappealing old time-tested truths. And we can be sure that the effects of both the reform movements and the reactions against such movements will be heavily muffled by the enormous inertia of public school systems. At least to this parent, Ravitch and others who share her views are beacons of light, eminently sensible voices; but then so were Bagley and the other largely forgotten critics of educational progressivism. There is nothing in the history that Left Back recounts to lead one to believe that this Sisyphean cycle will be broken.

Fortunately there are some signs that perhaps we are not fated to endlessly replay the education reform wars of the twentieth century. Forces are stirring that promise to change the familiar dynamics of educational reform. Parents are beginning to have more choices, including home schooling, charter schools, magnet schools, "schools within schools," and a wide variety of other specialized and alternative schools. And the school choice movement is not simply the latest educational fad, soon to fade away as others have. Once parents are given choices, they want more, and are very reluctant to surrender the ones they have. And having choices ultimately means competition among schools, and a fundamental shift in control over what schools teach and how they teach it from professional educators to parents.

Is it really broadly beneficial to an education system for schools to compete for students? This is the question thoughtfully addressed by the husband and wife team of Edward Fiske, the former New York Times education editor, and Duke University public policy professor Helen Ladd in When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale. The educational system that is the subject of this "cautionary tale" is that of New Zealand, which from 1989 to 1991 implemented market-based reforms that transformed a highly centralized, tightly controlled public school system into a decentralized system based on parental choice and competition between schools. As Fiske and Ladd observe, "Its cultural similarity to the United States and other English-speaking countries, the presence of significant [Maori and Pacific Islander] minority groups within its student population, and the fact that it implemented the reforms boldly make New Zealand as reasonable and useful a laboratory to observe these ideas in practice as one could hope to find."

The New Zealand reforms did not incorporate all of the features that proponents of market-based reforms view as desirable. They did not include vouchers, except for a small (and apparently successful) pilot program for low-income students. Individual schools have no control over teacher salaries, which are established at the national level in collective bargaining between the government and teachers’ unions. Crucially, the Ministry of Education retains ownership of the school buildings, and will not allow new schools to be built as long as spaces are available in existing schools. This barrier to entry prevents strong schools from adding significantly to capacity and protects weak schools from being driven out of business. Yet notwithstanding these market imperfections, most New Zealand families today enjoy a significant degree of choice among schools, and most schools exist in a competitive environment.

Unfortunately, New Zealand lacks a national testing program comparable to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the United States. There is therefore no measure available to permit comparison of academic outcomes before and after the reforms. However, in surveys, a large majority of New Zealand parents express satisfaction with the new, decentralized, competitive school system, and "no one wants to return to the old system," the authors note. Perhaps more surprising is the assessment of teachers and administrators: Solid majorities of principals and teachers believe that the reforms have improved the quality of children’s learning, and the content and style of teaching. Only about one in 10 view the effect of the reforms as negative.

So why is When Schools Compete subtitled "A Cautionary Tale" rather than "A Success Story"? Fiske and Ladd identify three broad areas of concern. First, they present evidence that after school choice became available, enrollment patterns became more segregated ethnically and socioeconomically. They believe that ethnic and socioeconomic polarization, even if the result of parental choice, is an inequity that state school systems should attempt to offset. In this belief, Fiske and Ladd reflect both the social engineering tradition of the early twentieth century progressives and the preoccupation with "diversity" as the preeminent value that is so characteristic of today’s educators. Second, they found that the reforms had a "significant differential impact on the fortunes of many schools":

Schools that were successful in adapting to the new conditions saw their enrollments increase, and those with enrollment schemes gained control of the mix of students they admitted. Unsuccessful schools, on the other hand, watched their rolls decline, sometimes in a spiraling fashion, and many became repositories for a disproportionate number of dysfunctional students.

Fiske and Ladd acknowledge that this "showed that the system worked." The problem is that the unsuccessful schools are "worse off than they were before." But presumably the students who moved to more successful schools are doing better. And the authors present no data suggesting that the level of academic achievement of the students who remained behind in less successful schools is lower than it was before the reforms. Finally, Fiske and Ladd are concerned that the new system, by giving primacy to the rights of current parents in a particular school, and relying on a competitive marketplace to balance competing interests, has eliminated the old centralized system’s political mechanisms for balancing the interests of different "stakeholders" in the schools — students, parents, teachers, taxpayers, the local community, etc. Well, yes. One of the features of a free market is that when consumers switch to new providers of goods or services the old providers and others with an interest in preserving the status quo cannot use the political system to block the change or extract some sort of payoff.

Like Ravitch, Fiske and Ladd close with the admonition that there are no panaceas in school reform. One can hardly disagree with this conclusion. Yet Fiske and Ladd take a dim view of the New Zealand experiment precisely because it has proven to be, not a panacea, but simply a major improvement over the centralized, noncompetitive system that preceded it. They disparage reforms that have succeeded in lifting most boats because all boats were not lifted equally.

The chances are nil that a single comprehensive package of market-oriented reforms similar to those of New Zealand will be adopted in the United States. Our educational and political system presents too many obstacles for anything other than gradual and piecemeal reform on a national scale. Yet incremental changes may eventually transform our schools even more profoundly than in New Zealand.

The beneficial effects of school choice are greatly enhanced if parents have access to reliable information about the quality of schools and teachers. State testing programs already provide many American parents with better information than is available to their counterparts in New Zealand. Two other developments in the area of academic assessment are particularly promising. Since 1992, Tennessee has administered a Value-Added Assessment System (VAAS), the brainchild of a statistician named William Sanders, for students in Grades 3-8. All students take comprehensive tests each year in five core subjects, and scores for each student are compared to that student’s previous scores. VAAS shows the "value-added" by teachers by fully correcting for the socioeconomic and other factors that ordinarily make valid comparisons of teaching effectiveness difficult or impossible. VAAS and similar assessment programs are attracting great interest, and have the potential to become the Consumer Reports of the education world.

At the other end of the pipeline, the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program has increased enormously in size and significance in recent years. In 1999, nearly 1.15 million exams were taken, in 32 subjects, by over 700,000 students. Today 56 percent of American high schools have an AP program. The College Board expects the number of exams taken to increase to at least 2 million by 2010, and to establish AP and "pre-AP" programs at nearly all high schools. The result is that academically ambitious high school students are increasingly being taught a national curriculum, with uniform national grading standards, making it easier for parents and administrators to distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers and between schools that have high expectations for their students and those that do not.

And so there is reason for optimism, notwithstanding the discouraging history of the past century. The introduction of a substantial degree of consumer choice and competition among schools, together with the availability of better information, will not lead to an educational utopia. Some parents will make unwise choices, and some parents will have more choices than others. But the schools will be more rewarding to effective teachers and administrators and increasingly intolerant of incompetent ones, and more resistant to unproven ideas. American primary and secondary education may begin to acquire some of the dynamism of American higher education, which, despite its flaws, is generally recognized as far superior to the system which feeds it. And perhaps one day Professor Ravitch’s successors will look back upon the early years of the twenty-first century as the time when an era of real progress in American education finally began.