Mike Rose’s Why School? is a compact and potent collection of essays about the state of primary and secondary education reform in the United States. It is also a distillation of the key arguments Rose has made during his forty-year career as a teacher and an advocate for students. "For some time now," Rose writes, "our national discussion of education has been dominated by a language of test scores and economic competitiveness. To be sure, a major goal of American education is to prepare the young to make a living. But parents send their kids to school for many other reasons as well: intellectual, social, civic, ethical, aesthetic." Rose has written a primer on the language used to frame educational debates and a warning about the dire consequences of crassly utilitarian values. Purposes is one word he examines. Other words that get scrutinized are intelligence and opportunity, achievement and public responsibility. So does value, the root of the much-abused word evaluation. Each can be framed narrowly or more expansively, which is to say democratically.
Why school? One of Rose’s answers to the question takes the form of a story about Stephanie Terry’s first-grade classroom in Baltimore. Terry has designed a science unit that enables her students to study live hermit crabs with care and passion; they are budding Darwins, thinking and reporting on what they see, forming hypotheses. Rose writes: "you see, you feel something: it’s the experience of democracy itself. The free play of inquiry. The affirmation of human ability. The young person guided to the magnifying lens, the map, the notepad, the book." Against one-size-fits-all formulas, Rose proposes a democratic vision of schooling that rests on plural definitions of intelligence and achievement, and allows for human variety and many different kinds of opportunities for students to develop. Rose demands, among other things, that we respect and reinforce our public education system by giving poor kids the same opportunities—the good teachers, the same curriculum—enjoyed by those more well-off.
Diane Ravitch does not disagree with Rose, which is one of the many surprises in her masterly new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch is a well-known conservative who has played a prominent role in US education since the 1970s. Though she has long backed teacher unions (as a young girl in Houston, she saw right-wing groups harass her teachers), she is more renowned as a flinty critic of multiculturalism and an advocate for a national curriculum, school choice and standardized tests, a vision she defended as Assistant Secretary of Education in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Like her mentor, the great educational historian Lawrence Cremin, Ravitch is also an cultural historian. Her first book, The Great School Wars (1974), remains one of the best political histories of New York City schools. The Death and Life of the Great American School System suggests that like E.D. Hirsch, the conservative reformer whose Core Knowledge Program have put into practice a thoughtful and well-designed version of a traditional curriculum, Ravitch turns out to be a conservative with more faith in democracy than in late capitalism. (The book also demonstrates that she possesses one sovereign quality of an educated mind: revising ideas in response to changing evidence.) For Ravitch the goal of education is inclusive, one that Lincoln might have called democracy’s unfinished work: all students should graduate with a capacity to engage in important civic and intellectual debates.
Toward the end of Ravitch’s Left Back (2000), a historical appraisal of progressive school reform, there is a conclusion that takes a surprising turn. Ravitch praises a small group of reformers she thinks of as intellectual progressives, among them Theodore Sizer and Deborah Meier, who, she warmly concedes, do have humane and intellectually rigorous goals for the kinds of participatory classrooms they favor, and have even put them into practice. "My own children grew up in New York City, where they attended a private progressive school that was academically rigorous and pedagogically venturesome," Ravitch writes. She speaks of teachers who "dreamed up projects that fired their students’ minds and imaginations. If I could wave a magic wand, this is what I would want for all children." Though she doubts that most conventional public schools are capable of offering such instruction, her conclusion hinted she was in the midst of changing her mind about other aspects of education reform. Indeed, Ravitch now writes a blog called "Bridging Differences," for Education Week, with none other than Deborah Meier. Their exchanges amount to one of the most interesting, well-informed and least solemn of the bewildering myriads of commentaries on US education today. Most striking is the extent to which the progressive and the conservative agree.