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Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform Paperback – August 7, 2001

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Editorial Reviews


Alan Wolfe The New Republic Left Back is the most important book written in many decades about America's most important public institution.

Gail Russell Chaddock The Christian Science Monitor Diane Ravitch's latest -- and best -- history of education reform in the United States...could help frame the education debate for the twenty-first century.

Joseph Adelson The Wall Street Journal Does much to convey what went wrong with the schools -- and what is still right about them.

Richard Rothstein The New York Times An important new book.

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 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. She currently holds the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution, edits Brookings Papers on Education Policy, and is a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 7, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743203267
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743203265
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.4 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #744,284 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Diane Ravitch

I was born in Houston, Texas, in 1938. I am third of eight children. I attended the public schools in Houston from kindergarten through high school (San Jacinto High School, 1956, yay!). I then went to Wellesley College, where I graduated in 1960.

Within weeks after graduation from Wellesley, I married. The early years of my marriage were devoted to raising my children. I had three sons: Joseph, Steven, and Michael. Steven died of leukemia in 1966. I now have four grandsons, Nico, Aidan, Elijah, and Asher.

I began working on my first book in the late 1960s. I also began graduate studies at Columbia University. My mentor was Lawrence A. Cremin, a great historian of education. The resulting book was a history of the New York City public schools, called "The Great School Wars," published in 1974. I received my Ph.D. in the history of American education in 1975. In 1977, I wrote "The Revisionists Revised." In 1983 came "The Troubled Crusade." In 1985, "The Schools We Deserve." In 1987, with my friend Checker Finn, "What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?" In 1991, "The American Reader." In 1995, "National Standards in American Education." In 2000, "Left Back." In 2003, "The Language Police." In 2006, "The English Reader," with my son Michael Ravitch. Also in 2006, "Edspeak." I have also edited several books with Joseph Viteritti.

My last book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education," was a national bestseller. It addressed the most important education issues of our time. It was read by teachers, parents, and students and was a source of great joy to me.

My newest book "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools" is a call to arms. It documents the false narrative that has been used to attack American public education, and names names. It also contains specific and evidence-based recommendations about how we can improve our schools and our society.

To follow my ongoing work read my blog at, where there is a lively conversation among educators and parents about the future of education.

Diane Ravitch

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

58 of 65 people found the following review helpful By J-Rock on July 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
I'm a math teacher, and I decided to read this book because I'd like to have some strong background on the history of school reform as I try to understand the national debate on policies such as No Child Left Behind. Also, I'm deeply interested in creative answers to the issue of democratically educating the Underclass. This book met some of my needs, but I can't give it an unqualified recommendation.

Really, Ravitch devotes most of her efforts to giving a history of Progressivism in education. Consdierable time is spent on Dewey, Kilpatrick, and their followers. The book starts around the time of Eliot's Committee of Ten Report detailing how all should receive a college preparatory education and discusses how progressivism chipped away at this democratic ideal. There is a little bit of respect for Progressivism's desire to make classroom less dependent on rote memorization. But Ravitch gives an accurate critique of Progressivsm's ultimate consequences: in an effort to make the child's experience the center of the classroom and the focus of learning, the academic content of the curriculum was diluted. Ravitch clearly holds Progressivism to be largely responsible for why our nation lags behind other nations in most international evaluations of school quality. I learned from this book that Progressivism's core concepts have remained the same under different rhetorical incarnations. I also learned that ultimately, Ravitch considers Progressivism to be antidemocratic because it made college preparatory content optional; only the children of elites or the most highly motivated students opted for the rigorous college preparatory track.
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38 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Henry Cate III on December 22, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book does a good job of covering the last hundred years of the debate about education in America. A seemly simple question has been at the root of this debate: "What is the purpose of education?"
Through the 1800s for most teachers the answer was to teach children how to read, write, and do arithmetic. This was called the academic curriculum. By the late 1800s there was almost universal schooling.
Starting in the early 1900s, some education leaders thought it was best to prepare children for the job market, and especially once the IQ tests become popular, children were tested and slotted for a college track, or other tracks, as early at age six and seven. Some people pushed to improve self-esteem as the only real goal of education. Additionally many leaders of education started seeing schools as a place to "improve" society, and they wanted to go behind the backs of the parents and mold the children.
Over the years there has been a wide variety of programs, some of which have been a bit useful or effective, most have been destructive. For example in the 1920s and 1930s there was a push to be efficient in education, and that by figuring out where children would be working as adults and giving them only the education they would need, the schools could be good use of resources. There was a belief by some of the experts that students had little ability to transfer knowledge. As an extreme example of what this belief mean, just because students had been taught the basics of addition, they would have to learn from scratch the basics of subtraction. Because of this belief there was little interest in teaching children more than they really "needed" to know.
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41 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Jose R. Vazquez on October 11, 2002
Format: Paperback
Once again, historian Diane Ravitch shows with great articulation how our educational system has failed our children under false pretenses. She illustrates how progressive movements and certain loud voices such as Dewey's and others have "dumbed down" our educational system.
This book is an eye-opener for those who have been misinformed by other sources. It vividly portrays how our students have been guinea pigs of educational fads which did not provide reasonable solutions to the problems they were attacking.
Kudos to Diane Ravitch for not being afraid to expose how education reforms have failed for over a hundred years.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on March 2, 2009
Format: Paperback
Diane Ravitch's "Left Back" is both a history and a polemic. As the subtitle suggest, Ravitch does not only cover the history of educational ideas over the past century, but the history of "failed" educational ideas. As other review rs suggest, Ravitch's book is a history of, and argument against, progressivism in education.

Most of this book centers around two recurring dualisms of 20th century educational theory: essentialism v. utilitarianism, and learning as transmission between teacher and student v. learning as natural student-led proces.
The debate between essentialists (like Bagley) and instrumentalists (like Dewey and Thorndike) was over whether educational learning was valuable in itself or whether its value derives from its utility. In Left Back, Ravitch demonstrates that the concept of justifying education in utilitarian terms (how useful it is to students' lives) may have been an interesting idea at one point, but, like many ideas, it was pushed too far. Not many people - even the eseentialists - would argue that education should not have utility to students lives, but the overselling of this idea by progressives resulted in everything from hastily done tracking (tailoring instruction to students' predicted 'station' in later life), to the stripping away of academic rigor (why take biology when one can take a class on how to grow plants?).

The debate between those who argued for teacher-led education versus those who argued for student-led education was an outgrowth of the previous debate. The 'student-led' advocates (William Kilpatrick, Carl Rogers) rediscovered and revamped the Rousseauian idea that the best education is a non-coercive process of letting the student explore what she likes, and fostering her creativity.
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