Campus & Community

Ravitch slams school reform: Ed School forum shows the failures of progressive education

6 min read
Diane Ravitch supports reducing class size.

From “social efficiency” to “curriculum integration” to “open classrooms,” the history of American education is littered with failed school reform efforts that mobilized support and generated momentum for fits and starts, only to be displaced in short order by even newer ideals.

Author and scholar Diane Ravitch, whose new book “Left Bank: A Century of Failed School Reforms” (Simon & Schuster, 2000) recently hit the store shelves, assailed a litany of so-called “progressive” educational movements during last week’s Askwith Education Forum at the Graduate School of Education (GSE). A large audience at Longfellow Hall appeared captivated by the dialogue.

“The ideal at the end of the 19th century was that students should be treated the same in high school whether they planned to go to college or go to work,” Ravitch explained. “There would be different courses, but not different curricula. All students would have the same opportunity to study a foreign language, history, literature, mathematics, or science, even though they would have different destinations in life.”

That paradigm began shifting in the early 20th century, according to Ravitch, when the ideals espoused by sociologist Lester Frank Ward and philosopher Herbert Spencer took hold as the two “poles of thought” in the education debate. Ward favored equal access to knowledge, while Spencer adopted a more utilitarian approach that was quickly gaining popularity.

“What began to come through in many of these [early] movements was a revolt against the classical curriculum … and an effort to restrict the academic curriculum only to those who were going to college,” Ravitch said. She described the conceptual tug-of-war as a “battle of ideas … about what to teach and who should learn.”

An attempt to ‘redefine_democracy and education’

Ravitch, who references about 20 distinct educational movements in her book, highlighted several during her appearance at the forum, including the “social efficiency movement,” which she portrayed as a significant attempt in the early 1900s to “redefine the meaning of democracy and education to say that equal opportunity meant providing everyone with a different kind of curriculum.

“The social efficiency experts suggested that it was anti-democratic and elitist and aristocratic to expect all students to be able to participate in the academic curriculum [suggesting that] immigrant children needed a different kind of education from native children,” Ravitch explained. Thus, the concept of vocational training was born.

A problem emerged, however, as educators struggled with the question of which students to place on the academic track and which to place on the “industrial” track. The “solution” arrived in the form of IQ tests, developed for the military during World War I, then mass-marketed to American schools in the 1920s.

“[The tests] made the schools feel that they were doing this [student] ‘sorting’ on a very scientific basis. IQ testing [grew in popularity] in large part because of all the hoopla that went with it that this was truly scientific,” Ravitch said. “You could use the test to quickly determine the native, innate, inherent, fixed, unchangeable IQ of children … Some experts said you could predict as early as first grade what the potential of a child was.”

Many schools were soon offering courses in carpentry, furniture-making, forging, gardening, even poultry-raising, ironwork, hairdressing, and domestic service. “Every place there was a curriculum revision in the 1920s and ’30s, the goal was to de-emphasize academic subjects and to reduce the number of students on the college track,” Ravitch stated.

Making education ‘more appealing’

As educational theorists continued their debates through the mid-1900s, a number of new movements took hold. The “activity movement” declared that students learn through play, making schooling more fun. The “curriculum integration movement” aimed to merge academic subjects or to remove them altogether to make school “more appealing” to children.

During the Depression, the “social reconstruction movement,” based on collectivist theories coming out of the Soviet Union, gained favor among many progressive reformers. The “mental hygiene movement” was another radical idea hinged on the belief that educators should focus the curriculum on, in Ravitch’s words, “the personal and social needs of youth.”

Later, during the early days of the Cold War, the “open classroom movement” emerged, with its proponents espousing a more interactive environment between teachers and students. Ravitch describes the strategy as “take down the walls, have four teachers teaching in the same classroom, and let kids find out things for themselves.”

Focusing on social goals rather than teaching and learning was the common thread running through almost all of these movements, according to Ravitch. “I suggest that it was wrong and unnecessary to say that we shouldn’t worry about knowledge, that knowledge takes care of itself,” she said. “When schools diminish their intellectual purposes, their central mission, others quickly rush in to fill the vacuum with their own agendas — religious, social, or political.”

A belief in ‘having standards

‘While taking questions from the audience, Ravitch addressed a number of issues concerning modern educators. She spoke out strongly in favor of maintaining equal access to knowledge for all children and reducing class size. “More than half of our kids in this country are in schools where there are more than 2,000 children,” Ravitch said. “I strongly support the notion of smaller schools because [they] have to deal with each child as an individual.”

Ravitch also defended the idea of school vouchers, saying they are appropriate for low-income families. Sounding off on the MCAS debate, Ravitch backed the strict new state high school graduation requirements. “I do believe in having standards,” she said. “And having standards without accountability is pretty empty.”

Ravitch’s message resounded strongly with the audience. Jerome Murphy, Dean of the Graduate School of Education, called the discussion “very provocative.” Patricia Graham, Charles Warren Professor of History of American Education, who introduced Ravitch, lauded her “contribution as a thinker, as a writer, as a person who engages educational issues passionately and with a great concern for data and for accuracy.”

One of eight children and a graduate of the public schools in Houston, Ravitch is now a research professor at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has two children of her own.

Last week’s discussion was one in a series of Askwith Education Forums scheduled this fall. More information is available on the Web at The discussions are free and open to the public.