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Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms Hardcover – August 29, 2000

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; y First edition edition (August 29, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684844176
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684844176
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #810,660 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews 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

From Publishers Weekly

HPlainly written and abundantly documented, this opinionated history of the "permanent debate" about school standards, curricula and methods should initiate new discussions about the purpose of American schools. Taking a firm stance in favor of liberal education, Ravitch argues that the ascent of so-called progressive education has undermined the intellectual development of students and the democratic principles of American society. For example, she writes that by the end of WW II, progressives had reserved academic education for an elite of college-bound students while they directed other children (mainly the poor, immigrants and racial minorities) toward undemanding vocational and general programs. In doing so, she argues, progressives "institutionalized white supremacy" and set a precedent for the present-day tracking of African-American students into vocational subjects. Ravitch depicts the century as falling into two halves, divided by the 1950s, when a sudden and concerted backlash against progressive ideas was sparked by teachers' and parents' resistance to education "experts," and she draws clear parallels between early-century ideas and contemporary trends. Along the way, she persuasively advocates a return to the "fundamental mission of teaching and learning" as the cure for the anti-intellectualism that ails American schools. Like The Closing of the American Mind, this is a personal crusade, but unlike Allan Bloom, Ravitch is anchored in a dispassionate history of the ways education has failed this country's children. Agent, Lyn Chu of Writers Representatives. Author tour. (Aug.) FYI: Ravitch served as assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education from 1991 to 1993.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

This is an important work that will be praised by some and ridiculed by others.
A. Wolverton
For the layman who is interested in gaining insight about the thinking, and decisions that have gone into educating our children, this book is an absolute must.
Duke Smith
The book provides detailed information about significant people throughout the 20th century who have influenced American education to this day.
Marilyn Keller Rittmeyer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

56 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Marilyn Keller Rittmeyer on August 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I have personally known Brookings Institution education scholar Diane Ravitch for almost five years. She has become my most trusted adviser on education issues. We have debated frequently and disagree occasionally, but we are in complete agreement on the most important issue of all, the need to restore explicit and systematic instruction in American classrooms, at least as a choice for those educators and parents who fervently believe that traditional/classical education is best for children.
I have just completed reading her latest book, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, which is the culmination of a dozen years of research and writing. Although I am very knowledgeable about the history of the two opposing philosophies of education (progressivism vs. traditionalism/classicalism), Dr. Ravitch's book introduced new material to me on every page. This is a must-read book for all education professionals and education policy makers and I encourage parents to read this book so that they more fully understand the schools their children attend and the education their children are receiving.
The book provides detailed information about significant people throughout the 20th century who have influenced American education to this day. One thought-provoking chapter explains how leading progressivist John Dewey and project method advocate William Heard Kilpatrick were impressed with the progressive education in schools in the former Soviet Union in the early decades of the 20th century. Dr. Ravitch writes on page 209 that Dewey was convinced that "education was the key to social transformation, for he wrote repeatedly that the most significant aspect of the Russian Revolution was not political or economic but psychological, moral, and intellectual.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Since the death of Lawrence Cremin, Diane Ravitch has been the nation's premier education historian, especially adept at tracing and untangling the knotty history of philosophies, ideas and ideologies-and their influence on the policies and practices of our schools.
Left Back is her most important work yet, a magisterial account of the ideas-mostly bad ones-that for a century and more have persisted as the intellectual mainstream of the education profession, gushing forth from the ed schools and teacher colleges into hundreds of thousands of classrooms and touching the lives of tens of millions of children.
It is not, for the most part, a happy tale. It is more like a chronicle of folly, folly that has blindly and stubbornly persisted in the face of piles of research, tons of experience and oceans of common sense. Why and how it endured and spread and came to dominate the practice of education in America-to the immense disadvantage of our children, especially the neediest among them-is the main thrust of Left Back.
But this tale has heroes, too, men and women who swam against the stream's flow, who listened to common sense, heeded experience and paid attention to evidence. Their endurance in the face of heavy odds and sometimes heavy abuse is heartening to those in the year 2000 who persist in trying to revitalize American education despite the many forces arrayed against them.
Anyone who would understand how American education came to be the way it is needs to attend to the lessons imparted by this superb work of intellectual and educational history.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
After over twenty-five years as a public school teacher/administator finally I am able to read something that speaks the truth! Ravitch's book is honest, thorough and refreshing. She has provided the reader with a detailed synthesis of the varied and many educational reforms of the past hundred years. She analyzes "the flavor of the month" reforms of the last century for what they really are - just another distraction; another diversion - that prevent the teacher from teaching. Bravo someone has finally told our story. Teachers read this book!
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Richard Munro on August 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Diane Ravitch's LEFT BACK is a triumph-her best book yet. America's foremost historian of education-knows how to write, how to think and think deeply. Ravitch has an Orwell-like integrity and clarity in her writing and she gives credit where it is due to great writers and educational theories of the "Progressive" non-traditional perspective such as Theodore R. Sizer, Deborah Meier and Howard Gardner. One has a very real sense while reading LEFT BACK that the Age of Dewey is being eclipsed by a rising new sun with a positive, intelligent vision for better schools for all the children. What is at stake is no less than the survival and success of our country, our civilization and our Democracy for as Ravitch compelling writes " the society that allows large numbers of its citizens to remain uneducated, ignorant or semi-literate squanders its greatest asset, the intelligence of its people" and "knowledge built up by the human race over many centuries {is} a precious heritage that must be taught to each succeeding generation in order for progress to continue."Ravitch's highly readable tale explains that the decline of American education in general and public schools in particular is a very real fact. Some of the blame, surely, is due to wrong-headed educational policies and an unwillingness by educational leaders to identify failures or to take responsibility for them.
The Guru par excellence of American educational theory is the celebrated and almost universally praised John Dewey. Ravitch shows that this demigod of Progressive Education had feet of clay and a narrow vision. John Dewey dismissed critics who called for a defense of academic rigor as "reactionaries in politics and economics". Dewey's colleagues William Kilpatrick, George S. Counts and Boyd H.
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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