Is Our Children Learning?

Peter Wood

The American Conservative

Ignorance is easy. Left to themselves, most children do not become literate. They don’t learn math. They don’t drink in large amounts of history. Basic ideas about how the world works remain beyond their reach. And ignorant children grow up to be ignorant adults—provided they survive the sometimes perilous passage.

To combat this natural frailty, every group of people from time immemorial has organized some way to get the little ones—squirming, distracted, cranky, bored, breathless, or all at once—to pay attention. “This is rock worth chipping, and here’s how to chip it.” “Eat the root, not the leaves.” Civilization eventually acquired a lot of knowledge that seemed worth preserving. To get the children ready for this intellectual inheritance, civilization invented schools. They are an artificial contrivance intended to do a more or less difficult thing: organize the brains of young primates to perform unnatural acts such as reading and long division.

That’s my view as an anthropologist. Schooling is, inevitably, difficult—and more difficult for some children than for others. The difficulty is a mystery only if you begin with the assumption that children are just so bursting with curiosity that, absent some external check on their eagerness, they will take to the alphabet as readily as infants take to climbing and crawling. But we are climbers and crawlers by nature and alphabet spelunkers only by outside intervention. When we learn to read, we are at one end of a long cultural rope that extends back though history beyond Shakespeare’s Stratford Grammar School, past Aristotle troubling young Alexander, to whatever lessons were taught in the cuneiform academy for Sumer’s scribes. Literacy has always been an achievement—and often a precarious one.

I mention this by way of coming alongside a book of groaning frustration by one of America’s best-known advocates of school reform. Diane Ravitch first registered on the national scene as the co-author with Chester Finn of the 1987 study What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know? It reported on a history and literature test administered to a national sample of 8,000 students. That was 23 years ago—an eon in educational reform—but Ravitch’s and Finn’s lucid examination of their findings remains the gold standard for this sort of enterprise. Back in 1986, a good 92.1 percent of students could locate the Soviet Union on a map of Europe, and 65.8 percent could pick out France. Geography, however, was one of the students’ strong suits. Only 57.3 percent could place World War I between 1900 and 1950. Some 40.2 percent recognized Walt Whitman as the author of Leaves of Grass.

Ravitch and Finn ended up recommending—no surprise here—that “all schools teach a solid core curriculum of history and literature to all students at every grade level.” They also called for better textbooks, improvements in teacher education, and other measures that would seem uncontroversial. Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, went on to write other important books, including Left Back (2000), a history of school reform movements in the U.S., and The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (2003), an evisceration of the textbook industry.

Her work in toto is a portrait of American schooling as a mighty engine of social assimilation pulling a trainload full of educational triviality. The school reform movements in the U.S. come off like the plot of Agatha Christie’sMurder on the Orient Express. Who killed American education? Pretty much everyone aboard.

In her new book, Ravitch confesses that she, too, had her hands on the knife. The Death and Life of the Great American School System belongs to that fascinating genre, the I-changed-my-mind-and-am-switching-sides manifesto. Ex-atheist Sir Anthony Flew gave us There Is a God; Anita Hill profiler David Brock self-profiled inBlinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. Quite a few contributors found their way intoDestructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties, and before them came the communists disenchanted by Stalin’s gentle ways. Whittaker Chambers abjured his career as a Soviet agent to embrace both God and political freedom in Witness.

Ravitch’s volte-face is less existential. She is now convinced that she erred about the means she pursued but not the goal. She continues to believe that the key to getting schooling right is a good substantive curriculum. But she has lost faith in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB, pronounced “nickel-bee” by those in the trade) regime of “high-stakes testing.” She has decided that teachers’ unions are a good thing because teachers best understand what students need and because organized teachers can best resist the often wrong-headed nostrums of giddy reformers. Ravitch, once an ardent proponent of vouchers and school choice and then of charter schools (school-choice lite), now favors public schools. She has deep doubts about the role of wealthy foundations such as Gates, Walton, and Broad in promoting school reform. She is above all disenchanted with the idea that schooling can be improved by treating it like a business and using business-based ideals of accountability.

Ravitch’s new views don’t unanchor her two core convictions: that American public schools do a poor job and that we are capable of building a much more successful system of public education. Are we? Maybe. It depends on things that are not likely to be within the reach of reformers or elected officials. Children who grow up in intact traditional two-parent families generally far outperform other children in school. But as a society, we have more or less abandoned policies that discourage illegitimacy and divorce.

Children who have genuine aptitude for school learning thrive in settings where that aptitude is recognized and nurtured. But as a society, we have grown uncomfortable with “tracking” and other forms of intellectual distinction. Even Advanced Placement courses, which were one of the few public school nods to the academically talented, are now opening their doors to the not so talented. More than a quarter of graduating seniors last year took at least one AP exam—and 43 percent failed.

Most children take education seriously when they see that it has some urgency in the larger culture. In America today, no one feels particularly abashed by not knowing stuff. “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” asks the popular Fox TV show. “So what if I’m not?” is the implied answer. It is OK for adults not to know the difference between the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of the Bulge. We know that’s just “book knowledge” and could Google it if we really needed to find out.

Mark Bauerlein struck this chord in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008), but he may have been too generous to generations past. America has a long tradition of adult dumbness, or at least numbness to the kinds of knowledge that don’t bear directly on earning a buck. “History is more or less bunk,” Henry Ford told the Chicago Tribune in 1916. Our whole land-grant university system is laid on the foundations of a Civil War congressman, Justin Morrill of Vermont, who saw no need to teach the liberal arts. America’s most distinctive contribution to philosophy is the get-to-the-bottom-line school called pragmatism. Huck Finn was not alone when he reflected on the prospect of being “sivilized” by Aunt Sally and chose instead to “light out for the territory.”

If we chose to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into schooling, America might well do a much better job of it—but that is a highly unlikely choice for Americans to make. As a people, we are just not that interested in the tedious work of learning or teaching things that don’t appear to have direct application. We expect from schools more in the way of affirmation of popular conceits than the slow building up of knowledge. A great many Americans actually want schools that promote faddish ideologies, though, of course, dressed up as cutting-edge insights. Right now, one of the most popular teaching videos in the country is a crudely anti-capitalist, pro-sustainability video, The Story of Stuff. We want schools that promote equality, which has come to mean mingling as much as possible the talented with the untalented and the enthusiastic with the bored. We want diversity. We want creativity. But we have never been of a single mind whether we actually want education.

Ravitch offers some terrific chapters on school-reform efforts in New York City and San Diego. These alone make the book worth reading, for they dispel forever the idea that well-meaning businessmen with all the institutional freedom and funding they could dream of can actually make much of a dent in America’s educational lassitude. Ravitch’s critique of NCLB mostly hits home, too. President George W. Bush won support for his signature program by decoupling “standards” from content. States were required to test students frequently and report their progress, but individual states were free to establish their own standards. This became an invitation to aim low: you can’t miss when you are shooting at the ground. Schools also quickly figured out that the way to deal with a regime of testing was to establish their own counter-regime of “teach to the test.” Hence, as Ravitch and many before her have pointed out, schools across the country sacrificed a balanced curriculum and thoughtful pedagogy to concentrate on teaching students how to score well on multiple-choice exams in reading and math. Ravitch is especially deadly on the rank impossibility that NCLB supporters had to profess: that by 2014 all students in all schools will be “proficient in reading and mathematics.” Or else what?

Ravitch remains, as she has always been, a good advocate of her ideas. She is least convincing, however, in her newfound defense of teachers’ unions and her turnabout on charter schools, which she now sees as draining away the more talented and motivated students from public schools. They may well do that. But I don’t see a compelling case that the students should sacrifice their only opportunity to get a halfway decent education just to advance the cause of classroom equality with kids who don’t care, kids who lack ability, and kids who haven’t been able to surmount the disorganized homes and culturally impoverished backgrounds that life has dealt them. We do indeed need to help these kids, but a one-size-fits-all public-school system hardly seems the answer.

“Accountability” has been the watchword of a reform movement centered on the not implausible idea that at the root of school ineptitude are many teachers, principals, and other administrators who do poor work year in and year out without ever facing significant professional consequences. They are protected by unions, by bureaucratic inertia, and by a school culture that fosters intellectual laziness. The accountability movement attempts to rescue schools from this miasma by rewarding teachers whose students excel and punishing those whose students don’t. Ravitch’s most dramatic reversal is her change of heart on accountability, which she now sees as essentially a business concept misapplied to schooling. Students are not products to be quality-controlled, and teaching cannot be stuffed into accountability formulas without destroying the fabric of education.

There is certainly something to this. The widget-factory approach of some accountability-inspired reformers is deeply unappealing. Moreover, schooling really is a distinctive human activity with its own logic. Conflating it with other institutions inevitably leads to confusion. But the accountability mavens with whom Ravitch now parts company do have some powerful points of their own. Our schools are chockfull of teachers who, as graduates of ed schools, possess thin knowledge of the subjects they teach, are hostile to the civilization they are supposed to transmit, and are steeped in the nonsense of progressive pedagogy. It was bad enough when this meant teachers earnestly believed children are natural-born dynamos of intellectual inquiry. These days it means something even worse: that teachers should be eagerly promoting race and gender politics and the claptrap of leftist “social justice.” If accountability is a deadening doctrine in one sense, it is in the eyes of many Americans a way to constrain teachers from doing still worse. Ravitch is silent on this score.

Ravitch at several points smiles on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the one great exception in an era of educational incompetence. In the 1990s, Massachusetts developed and implemented school curriculum frameworks that were far and away the most rigorous in the country and that vaulted the state to the top of national standards. I’ll immodestly own that I played a small part in writing those frameworks. But it is more to my point that Massachusetts now has a governor elected with the support of the teachers’ unions who is doing everything he can to compromise and eliminate that reform. At some level, Americans just can’t stand to have excellent schools; when we get too close to having them, we come up with an excuse for undoing them. As Kipling reminds us, “The burnt fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the fire.”

It is not that we want to relax into a state of complete natural ignorance. We just value some things more than we value schooling. The reformers are to be honored for wanting to change the equation in favor of more people knowing more important stuff. Many of the reformers, as Ravitch shows, have blind spots. All of them underestimate the difficulty. Ravitch herself, I suspect, still does. But she has made a useful reality-based contribution to the conversation.

My own view is that America will never be as good at schooling as some other nations that are more profoundly attached to learning for its own sake and have the benefit of being proud rather than ashamed of their cultural inheritance. We would do better for ourselves if we chose to emphasize a little more the thrill of outstanding intellectual ability and a little less the solace of multiculturalism and leveling equality. We do breed a certain kind of exceptional student in our public schools—usually one who is ill at ease with the school itself and has by an early age diverged into lonely or geeky individualism. Our future scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and culture creators typically shape themselves against what the schools have to offer. I suspect we could do better by them—but then, we might have to give up some of that utopian dream in which all students can be proficient, and everybody gets to dance.

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