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Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform Paperback – August 7, 2001
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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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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. By contrast, the 'teacher-led' advocates (Leon Kandel, Michael Demiashkevich), believed that learning was as often an artificial process that necessitated the teacher being a teacher, and that part of s good education was learning things beyond what one would learn on one's ow.
In each debate, the progressives (utilitarians, student-led believers) won the day, often in spite of public outcry against them. In fact, one ironic theme in Ravitch's book is that while the progressives constantly invoked the word "democratic" to support their various cure-alls, the movement was, at every turn, undemocratic. Progressives always saw themselves as superior to the clamor of "reactionary" parents (who audaciously wanted their kids to learn subject-matter), were constant enthusiasts of tracking students at an early age by their predicted 'stations' in life, and constantly spoke of "creating a new social order," rather than educating independently-thinking students.
The undoubted hero of the book is William Bagley (an education philosopher that may have been John Dewey's most serious rival that is unjustly all but unheard of today). For his part, Dewey is portrayed as an out of touch intellectual whose "innocence was [often] comical" [p. 207) Many will object to this characterization of an educational icon, but Ravitch is certainly not the first to suggest that Dewey was entirely too aloof to articulate a philosophy with any real clarity.
Some negative reviewers comment that Ravitch's characterization of the various progressive movements is an unfair and mistaken straw-man. While I have only read a handful of the plentiful original sources she cites, it is difficult to see how an author who quotes so frequently from primary sources can be said to have gotten them (many unambiguous in meaning) wrong. My thoughts are that this book is a fair portrayal of progressivism, and that the reviewers may be mad because Ravitch is not afraid to mix history and polemic.
All in all, this is a stunning work for anyone who wonders how we got here - social promotion, self-esteem movement, flexible standards - from "there." Ravitch may have mixed history with polemic, but the book is well-researched history and necessary polemic. Ravitch's conclusion:
"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. What American education most needs is not more nostrums and enthusiasms but more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths." (p. 453)
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.
The questions people asked about the purpose of education are good questions to ask. It is helpful to know why children are going to schools. The author clearly feels that many of the leaders of education make big mistakes, and millions of children have suffered from an inadequate education. For example many people in the 1950s and 1960s felt that black children would grow up to have the menial jobs, so it was best to only teach them the basics; that it would be bad to try and force them to learn more than they would ever use.
And on the flip side, in the 1980s many experts felt that self-esteem was the only thing that matter, once children had good self-esteem, they would learn what they needed to know. So there were whole programs designed to help children have a strong positive self-image. Out of these schools came large numbers of children with little knowledge, but they felt good about themselves.
The author mentions program after program that were inflicted on children. The author goes over some of the various types of damage the children suffered. Then a group of education leaders would come up with a new program, lead another national movement, and a new group of children would suffer.
This is a good book for anyone who is trying to understand the current set of problems schools in our nation are facing. One of the fascinating things is how many of today's proposals have been tried in the past, and sometimes they have been tried several times.
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Must have been summarized in a much shorter book with plenty of endnotes for further...Read more
The book was in excelent condition, it arrived a stated.Read more