The Book Club

Curriculum Isn’t Everything

I wonder what kind of education Jonathan Kozol had, before he went to Harvard? Somewhere he learned to write like this: “There’s something about silence and not being in a hurry and not being in an overly convivial or overly determinative state of mind, or one that’s loaded with too much intentionality, and something also about being unaccompanied, that seem to give a message about receptivity.” I sense the fine hand of progressive education lurking somewhere in his background, yes?

But it would be wrong to go on flailing at him. As for Ravitch: I have a feeling we’ve been talking past each other, a bit, on the whole issue of Uncle Sam’s role in education. I favor voluntary national standards, not federal control. Hard as it has been in practice to arrive at them, they just seem to be the most efficient way to summarize hard-won lessons such as the simple wisdom that the best way to teach reading is through a combination of phonic instruction and “whole-language” exposure to delightful books. I can’t help thinking that enshrining those in a statement of federal approval makes it just a little bit harder for the next wave of “reform” to gain a foothold.

The only thing I can see wrong with your faith in local control is that it requires believing in parental wisdom at the same time as you believe in parents as the dumbing-down force that will rail against any curriculum that doesn’t yield A’s for their kids. (Or, as in a famous recent case in an elementary school in Potomac, Md., as a group that will both stoutly support rigorous testing and also pressure the schools so badly to achieve No. 1 status that the faculty ends up encouraging cheating.)

Ravitch, too, somewhat glosses over this contradiction. Parents (along with some teachers) are the heroes of her book: Whatever else they know, they know they want Suzie and Johnnie to be able to read and add and subtract and maybe even say what happened in 1492, and as a result they’ve resisted all the more outré chapters of educational reform. But parents are also the people who, according to her last chapter, have abandoned their children to education by MTV and Mortal Kombat.

I find myself wondering, as we wind down this club, about what our focus on Ravitch’s book leaves out of the discussion. Perhaps she is right in identifying the Three Great Errors of educational reformers (“first, the belief that schools should be expected to solve all of society’s problems; second, the belief that only a portion of children need access to a high-quality academic education; and third, the belief that schools should emphasize students’ immediate experiences and minimize [or even ignore] the transmission of knowledge”).

But curriculum isn’t everything. Ravitch makes clear, but only in her mild, fair-minded, passing way, that one of the most implacable barriers to good, content-based education is the fact that we educate our teachers badly. (As you noted in an earlier dispatch, in 1998, only 38 percent of public school teachers had majored in an academic field of study.) There’s the low pay and lower respect we accord people who choose teaching careers. There are the fell bureaucracies that surround educators everywhere.

I know, I know, this isn’t what Left Back is about; Ravitch can’t be expected to do everything. But I live in a city (D.C.) in which discussions of curriculum look almost like luxuries in the context of everything else that plagues the school system.

I shouldn’t end, though, on such an unhappy note. In general, Ravitch’s book produced a kind of tired optimism in me, at the thought that schools have survived so much well-intentioned meddling.  

I’ve enjoyed mixing it up with you again, too.