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26th May
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, May 26, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

There can be no doubt that Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch are two of the most influential figures in American education today. But usually not to the same people. Their philosophies are so different that it would seem impossible for them to find common ground.Yet, in an article in the new issue of Education Week, that is what they did.

Ms. Meier is a central figure of the small school movement. She believes that things like curriculum are best decided school-by-school and is at home among the so-called “progressive” educators who believe in the “child-centered” approach by which students are to construct their own knowledge, facilitated, but not directly taught, by a teacher. Tests? Ms. Meier seems never to have found one of which she wasn’t suspicious.
On the other hand, Ms. Ravitch believes in national standards and doesn’t shy from national tests. She welcomes them, secure in her belief that students who are systematically taught by teachers following a carefully thought out curriculum, will both do well on tests and become productive and informed citizens.
Ms. Ravitch sees the rigorous national standards and assessments she favors as unifying devices that will insure the equity that comes from all children being measured by the same yardstick.

Despite these fundamental disagreements, there is common ground. Both women are distressed by one element of the assessment controversy, the widespread practice of “teaching to the test.”They charge that this has “displaced good instruction in far too many urban classrooms and … narrow[ed] the curriculum to nothing but math and reading.”

Both are also concerned with how the tests are scored, calibrated, and used.They warn of “unwarranted claims from many cities and states about ‘historic gains’ that are based on dumbed-down tests, even occasionally on downright dishonest scoring by purposeful exclusion of low-scoring students.”

Ms. Meier would probably fix the problem by eliminating the tests, while Ms. Ravitch proposes to fix them by moving the control of testing to the national level, insulating the process from possible manipulation by local and state educrats more concerned with their reelection prospects than the future of our children.

Ms. Ravitch, twice appointed by President Clinton to the Governing Board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, suggests the use of that highly-regarded assessment device nationally. To Ms. Meier the scoring of NAEP is politically determined and produces an “absurdly high” bar for students to meet.

Even here, the two have found common ground. They both reject the status quo and suggest a continuation of their dialogue on the national stage, which, they believe is “essential to democratic decision-making.”
Ms. Meier is a pioneer of the small school movement, which heightens her concern with the direction of a movement of which she has been in the vanguard. She, more than anyone, can sense trouble. While Ms. Ravitch doesn’t oppose the idea of small schools, she is more cautious about their down side, particularly at the high school level. She is concerned over the possible lack of critical mass needed to satisfy the diverse needs of students, such as a paucity of choices of elective subjects, advanced placement courses, and even clubs and teams.

Where they both agree is that in the zeal to implement Ms. Meier’s good ideas, educrats have moved too quickly and incautiously. “A good idea has too often been subverted by the mass production of large numbers of small schools without adequate planning or qualified leadership.”

This is a thinly veiled slap at the New York City Department of Education and also at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that is bankrolling the effort. This is not the only area in which the two take aim at the Tweed Courthouse.

Ms. Ravitch has been a critic of what many feel has been the micromanagement of classrooms and instructional time coming out of Tweed. Although the net result of micromanagement is classrooms that largely conform to the “progressive” model that Ms. Meier favors, she is equally critical, believing that “the very idea of constructivism is mocked by the city’s too-often lock-step and authoritarian approach to implementing such ideas.”

Even New York’s newly-minted “autonomy zone,” already renamed as the “empowerment zone,” has found its way into their joint cross-hairs. Mmes. Ravitch and Meier suggest that “New York’s latest plan of ‘devolution’ is once again the work of a small cadre of corporate-management experts, formulated without public input, even from those most affected by it.”

If Mmes. Ravitch and Meier can find common ground in the education wars, it certainly seems that anything is possible.As they conclude their article, “we hope that we have it in our power to provoke the thinking that must precede, accompany, and follow any attempt to reform — perhaps, even better, to transform — our schools.”

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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