War is hell, but it has the advantage of clarity. That's why it's the metaphor of choice, even of peaceniks, in so many peacetime arguments. No one wants to argue from the mushy middle. Polarities clarify arguments and marshal facts in opposition.
William Butler Yeats famously observed that "the center cannot hold," but the center can shift -- and arguments over education have shifted from center to right. Maybe the right can't hold, either. One important new argument sets two prominent conservatives against each other, and it's a fascinating face-off. The antagonists are old friends and allies in the war over how best to teach our children.
In one corner stands Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University who once championed school reform with market-oriented strategies, such as school choice and charter schools, and who now waxes nostalgic over the neighborhood public school that she wants, against all odds, to revive. The title of her book ignites the war: "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."
In the other corner is Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, who has given up on public schools and supports the tax-supported free-market system of improving education. Both are disappointed with reform as we know it, but they reach opposite conclusions over what to do about it. Finn says his friend wants to "re-empower" the public school systems; he has been radicalized. He wants to "blow up the system." Figuratively speaking, of course.
Finn has no further patience with the educationists of the power establishment, which he calls "the blob." The blob encompasses a multitude of villains, including the powerful teachers' unions, schools of education, textbook publishers and the educationist bureaucracies. Ravitch once shared his antipathies, but she now believes that experienced teachers can make a difference -- and it was a mistake to blame teachers for poor performances of students and to tie their pay to the test scores of their students.
Teachers love her, naturally, especially the bad ones. She's right that teachers, with their jobs on the line, will "teach to the test" to raise achievement scores and skimp on subjects that aren't specifically covered on standardized examinations. Moreover, standards have been dumbed-down to make them easy to reach.