As the reader would expect and demand, Diane Ravitch ends her discussion of the American education system with a number of suggestions for improving it. While she mentions the proper use of professional evaluations, the importance of family support, and the need to revive behavior and conduct expectations, the bulk of her ideas address issues of curriculum and instruction. We’ve seen much educational reform–the rise of small and charter schools, the doctrine of choice, and the mandate for accountability–that is informed, driven by, and consequently judged by research and data that are almost entirely quantitative in nature. From the siphoning of motivated students by charter schools to the tendency to “teach to the test,” it’s clear that such reform efforts have in many cases weakened the education system and left students ill-prepared for a quality life rich with engaged thought and innovation. The recent onslaught of reform, because of its close ties to test scores, has spurred an approach to curriculum that is more reminiscent of training than it is of teaching. That is, teachers and administrators, wringing their hands over ways to meet AYP, feel they have little recourse aside from, at best, teaching to the tests, and at worst, engaging in outright cheating and falsification. Reform that leads well-intentioned teachers to falsify test scores, as in the APS scandal, is certainly not in the best interest of anyone. That is reform that needs to be reformed.
Let’s consider for a moment the “better” option of focusing instruction on test-taking skills and teaching an unbalanced curriculum of reading and math. Such a methodology is likely to increase scores on tests that measure those skills, but “Schools that expect nothing more of their students than mastery of the basic skills will not produce graduates who are ready for the modern workplace” (Ravitch, 226). So we have schools meeting AYP, teachers receiving bonuses for improved test scores, and administrators patting themselves on the back, but students are leaving high school lacking the kind of education that builds productive and thoughtful members of society. To build on my previous reflections on Elliot Eisner’s conception of reading, students enter adulthood lacking an ability to “read the whole.” Because the balance of their education focuses on building discrete skills and taking tests that measures those skills, they have very little practice actually using the skills they devote so much energy to acquiring. As Eisner suggests, an educational framework based on skills per se is not necessarily conducive to helping students derive meaning from and make sense of the world around them.
Ravitch, then, seems to be channeling Eisner when she writes, “The great challenge of our generation is to create a renaissance in education, one that goes well beyond the basic skills that have recently been the singular focus of federal activity” (224). For Ravitch, the “renaissance” begins with giving instruction and curriculum the attention they deserve. Well-trained teachers who have a deep knowledge of their subject matter are bound to bring to class an enthusiasm and love for learning that students will notice. A curriculum that ceases to sacrifice complexity and controversy for political correctness and universal appeal will inject liveliness into the school environment. Addressing those criteria can put us on the track toward improving what is taught in school and how it is taught. Moreover, the education students receive will no longer be marked by vanilla summaries of courageous historical events or by perfunctory treatments of classic works of art and literature. Instead, learning can become infused with excitement, enthusiasm, and joy. Ravitch speaks to this need when she writes, “Sit down and read a textbook in any subject. Read the boring, abbreviated pap” (237). It’s no wonder that kids lack the motivation to learn and read: Their overstimulated experience outside of the classroom contrasts with the ennui of school, creating a perfect storm of apathy and disruptive behavior.
To be sure, the American school system is in a rough spot. The political climate in this country is one that demands results come quickly and decisively. No politician wants to wait through an election cycle while educators hammer out and implement real curriculum standards rather than ones solely based on skills. It is also difficult to prevent foundations from injecting market-based ideology into the education system via huge donations and grants. And there is no way to ensure that families provide home environments that ready their children for success in school from an early age. These are big problems, but the first step toward solving them seems to be admitting that there is no easy solution. It’s going to take much hard work and dedication from administrators, teachers, families, and students to get the country on the right track.