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Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform Paperback – 1 Aug 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.

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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In the closing years of the nineteenth century, Americans prided themselves on their free public schools. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 15 reviews
58 of 65 people found the following review helpful
Okay, better to think of this a history of progressivism 25 July 2004
By J-Rock - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I'm a math teacher, and I decided to read this book because I'd like to have some strong background on the history of school reform as I try to understand the national debate on policies such as No Child Left Behind. Also, I'm deeply interested in creative answers to the issue of democratically educating the Underclass. This book met some of my needs, but I can't give it an unqualified recommendation.

Really, Ravitch devotes most of her efforts to giving a history of Progressivism in education. Consdierable time is spent on Dewey, Kilpatrick, and their followers. The book starts around the time of Eliot's Committee of Ten Report detailing how all should receive a college preparatory education and discusses how progressivism chipped away at this democratic ideal. There is a little bit of respect for Progressivism's desire to make classroom less dependent on rote memorization. But Ravitch gives an accurate critique of Progressivsm's ultimate consequences: in an effort to make the child's experience the center of the classroom and the focus of learning, the academic content of the curriculum was diluted. Ravitch clearly holds Progressivism to be largely responsible for why our nation lags behind other nations in most international evaluations of school quality. I learned from this book that Progressivism's core concepts have remained the same under different rhetorical incarnations. I also learned that ultimately, Ravitch considers Progressivism to be antidemocratic because it made college preparatory content optional; only the children of elites or the most highly motivated students opted for the rigorous college preparatory track. For those immigrants and minorities who desperaely needed college to gain access to the American mainstream, Progressivism's goal to satisfy the desires of the students [but not their parents!] had tragic consequences.

I have a few criticisms of this book. I don't think that much original scholarship was done for this book. Cremin and Krug, two noted historians, are often referred to. I think Ravitch's emphasis is different than prior scholarship in that she gives more room for the opponents of Progressivism. But I don't know how much is new.

I'm really critical over the focus on the educational establishment. So much of this book describes rhetorical debate between proponents and critics of reforms in the educational schools. As a teacher, I know that much of what ed schools desire doesn't get put into practice. I wanted to hear more of the voices of the students and the teachers who were most affected by the reforms.

Lastly, for a book that claims to focus on "a century" of school reform, the 60s were covered too quickly for my tastes. Brown

v Board of Ed is not introduced until page 367 and it gets about 15 pages. The debate over school busing is barely mentioned. Charter school issues and school choice, a key complement to the standards movement of the 90s is also barely mentioned. These were some of the issues that I care most about. The relative lack of discussion on these areas reveals that Ravitch is more interested in Progressive curriculum reform than reform efforts in school structure [introduciton of junior high schools is an exception to this]. Also, for those who seek to understand contemporary debates, the last 20-30 years is covered in a rather cursory fashion.

This book was a quality discussion of Progressivism and how it hijacked democratic rhetoric for covert and overt antidemocratic ends. It falls short of being a total history of school reform and it misses a valuable opportunity to introduces more voices of teachers, parents, and students into the traditional histories that usually emphasize the debates in the ed schools and the history of the bureaucrats.

I learned some stuff, but wanted to learn a lot more.

3 stars

38 of 43 people found the following review helpful
A good history of education in America 23 Dec. 2003
By Henry Cate III - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book does a good job of covering the last hundred years of the debate about education in America. A seemly simple question has been at the root of this debate: "What is the purpose of education?"
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.
41 of 48 people found the following review helpful
A must for those interested in the history of education! 12 Oct. 2002
By Jose R. Vazquez - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Once again, historian Diane Ravitch shows with great articulation how our educational system has failed our children under false pretenses. She illustrates how progressive movements and certain loud voices such as Dewey's and others have "dumbed down" our educational system.
This book is an eye-opener for those who have been misinformed by other sources. It vividly portrays how our students have been guinea pigs of educational fads which did not provide reasonable solutions to the problems they were attacking.
Kudos to Diane Ravitch for not being afraid to expose how education reforms have failed for over a hundred years.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Of Schemes and Schools: How We Got Here From There 2 Mar. 2009
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Diane Ravitch's "Left Back" is both a history and a polemic. As the subtitle suggest, Ravitch does not only cover the history of educational ideas over the past century, but the history of "failed" educational ideas. As other review rs suggest, Ravitch's book is a history of, and argument against, progressivism in education.

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)
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Educational Reform: Start Here! 24 Mar. 2004
By Robert P. Marino - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Ravich's book is sharp and focused. As an historian, Ravich has proven her skills time and again. As an educator, she brings the lens of history to a very close examination of how it all happened, all happened, all happened again and again. A more detailed history would certainly comprise a tome, but Ravich's intent, I surmise, is much more than a history lesson. She answers the questions most critical for substantive, sustained school reform: "How did this happen?" "Why did this happen?" "Where did we go wrong?" "Where did we go right?" and "Where do we start to fix this historical mistake called Progressivism?"
I highly recommend this book to school principals faced with whole school reform and for executive educational administrators who have a deep and committed interest in success for all children. This is essential foundational reading for all educators engaged in instructional/school reform.
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