Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In Today's World, Geography is More Important than History

This is the follow-up post I promised to write in my last, a review of Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error.

I like history. I read history books (occasionally) in my free time, and I include the subject in my (mostly English) teaching. But in The New History of the World, which I rely upon as one source for a general overview, author J. M. Roberts argues that the pace of change has increased since the Neolithic era and that that increase continues, and this is something we can feel almost daily, rendering the lessons of history steadily more remote.

Last year two important new education books appeared at almost the same time, Amanda Ripley's the smartest kids in the world and Professor Ravitch's Reign of Error. I wanted to read both, have now completed both, am glad I read both, since they both make valuable points -- but at the time I was unsure of which to read first. I ultimately chose to read Ms. Ripley's book first, largely because my career in international and domestic education has led me to conclude that, in today's world, geography is more important than history -- that is, knowing more about the way the world is today is more important than knowing how one's country was yesterday; and a corollary of this is that being able to see where today's American education stands in relation to that overseas is more important than understanding how it compares today with what it was in the past. Finishing both books has confirmed me in that opinion. Professor Ravitch does not ignore international educational data, but the value of Ms. Ripley's work continues to shine, for example in a new Slate article published today.

I agree with Professor Ravitch's opinion that American K-12 education has gotten worse in recent decades, especially because of the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind. I also agree with those who believe the Common Core standards are better than those state standards that were taught to in the previous decade. But unless American educators know that, for all the ballyhoo accompanying the Common Core, once implemented their students will still be 2-3 years behind their peers in east Asia in mathematics, or understand that pursuing the strategy of Wendy Kopp's followers to prepare all children for college in spite of the enormous financial and opportunity costs involved, which Marc Tucker's commendable blog post in Education Week yesterday, which highlights vocational education in Switzerland, which like Singapore, which has a still better education system, only prepares 20-30% of any cohort for tertiary education but ends up with a better educated, more employable population -- until Americans get out of their limited domestic box and are aware of these real options that are being successfully implemented overseas now, our nation will continue to blunder down fruitless reform paths while other countries leave our young in the dust, an outcome surely no one in America's education debates wants.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Diane Ravitch's Most Important Point in "Reign of Error"

This post should be read as a companion to one I wrote in review of Amanda Ripley's the smartest kids in the world: both books appeared at almost the same time last year, and I was torn as to which to read first. I believe I read them in the right order, a point I will return to in my next post.

I believe Professor Ravitch's most important point in Reign of Error, which I think a better book than its predecessor, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, since this offers positive solutions rather than merely the insightful criticisms of her previous book, is found on page 310, where she discusses out-of-state contributions to school board races across the country:

"It is a troubling pattern that raises questions about who is bundling the money and why it is sent to certain races. It is not illegal to give campaign contributions to races in other districts and states, but local and state school board races should be determined by those who live in those districts and states, not by the organized power of big donors.
     "The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase education policy in this nation".

This is precisely on point. A fascinating expose last weekend in The Washington Post revealed how Bill Gates apparently purchased education policy in the form of support for a common core of standards throughout the majority of the states in this country in just two years, in at least one case before they had even been written. Not that this was some evil plot to get rich, an absurd charge, or was otherwise ill-intended; but the extra political access available to the world's richest man, a genuine philanthropist but also one without a record of solid returns on his educational investments made so far (although I continue to be thankful for his support in our attempt to turn around Locke High School in 2007) -- a man able to convene 80 senators to hear a speech on education he gave in March -- should trouble anyone who reveres America's democratic traditions, including Professor Ravitch.

Barack Obama was the first candidate to turn down public financing of a presidential campaign, and the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court has made a bad trend worse. American democracy has morphed into plutocracy. This should trouble all who care about America's civic traditions, and in this respect Diane Ravitch speaks clearly and forcefully for a dwindling breed of Americans who (adapting the words of President Kennedy) ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.