Hirsch on Ravitch: Saving our schools

In How to Save the Schools in The New York Review of Books, E.D. Hirsch responds to Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Hirsch supports Ravitch’s call for a “widely shared core curriculum.”

It would assure the cumulative organization of knowledge by all students, and would help overcome the notorious achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups. It would make the creation of an effective teaching force much more feasible, because it would become possible to educate American teachers in the well-defined, wide-ranging subjects they would be expected to teach—thus educating students and teachers simultaneously.It would also foster the creation of much better teaching materials, with more substance; and it would solve the neglected problem of students (mostly low-income ones) who move from one school to another, often in the middle of the school year.

Ravitch wants a voluntary national curriculum that will be adopted by states because of its excellence, not because of federal coercion. If there’s no consensus, she hopes states will adopt curricula “rich in knowledge, issues, and ideas, while leaving teachers free to use their own methods, with enough time to introduce topics and activities of their own choosing.”

Ravitch “evokes a vision of good neighborhood schools” that anchor their communities. Hirsch praises Ravitch’s “detailed, real-world stories of what has actually happened under the reforms of recent decades.”

Yet if Ravitch’s proposals for a coherent, cumulative national — or at least widely shared — curriculum are to carry the day, she needs to put forward a more effective critique of the intellectual and scientific inadequacies of the anticurricular, child-centered movement. Her vision can hardly be put into effect while an army of experts in schools of education and a much bigger army of teachers and administrators, indoctrinated over nearly a century, are fiercely resisting a set curriculum of any kind. Ravitch has roundly attacked the entrepreneurs’ invisible-hand business model as not corresponding with the reality or the fundamental purposes of education. She needs to expose in greater analytic detail the inadequacies of the invisible-hand theory of child-centered schooling.

Ravitch is too dismissive of charter schools, which challenge “the intellectual monopoly of the educational world,” Hirsch writes. He wants a middle stance between Checker Finn’s desire to “blow up the (public) system” and Ravitch’s desire to rely on “better teacher education and school-by-school improvement in the hands of experienced, well-trained teachers and administrators.”

Good neighborhood schools are great. But what about the children going to bad neighborhood schools staffed with novice teachers and run by excuse-making principals?

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