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.
She too easily lets teachers off the hook for their failure to teach substance, however. A good teacher knows better than to rely on "process" and "how to" skills rather than achievement based on real learning. For all of her reservations about how tests are abused, Ravitch concedes that tests are important for measuring success in the classroom. Students tested on reading depend on what they've been taught; successful reading strategies depend on background knowledge.
But she's wrong to give up school choice and charter schools. Schools that fail to live up to standards -- and there are some -- should be improved or eliminated, but the charter-school approach shouldn't be abandoned. Chester Finn observes that you can find some of the best teaching in the most competitive charter schools. They could be the models. Successful charter schools have built on creative vision and insight, unimpeded by bureaucracies that foster mediocrity with narrow rules and regulations. Charter schools offer alternatives to students who would otherwise be stuck in the worst urban schools.
Ravitch's idea for schools to begin to teach a core curriculum that is both non-federal and voluntary, and "wins the support of districts and states because of its excellence," would be a promising start, although the dead hand of political correctness and interest-group politics will make that difficult. She might find common cause with the new Standards for English Language Arts as released by the National Governors Association, with its emphasis on history, social studies and science aiming for "rich content knowledge."
E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation, seeks a common middle between Finn and Ravitch. "If following Miss Ravitch's recommendations, a state were to define a grade-by-grade elementary curriculum, then early reading tests could be based on definite subject matters, giving the schools a strong incentive to impart substantial knowledge rather than waste time on how-to drills," Hirsch writes in the New York Review of Books. Ideally, these incentives would extend to neighborhood schools, enabling parents to choose a good school near them.
Warren Buffet once observed that the way to fix public schools is to make private schools illegal and randomly assign children of politicians and businessmen to public schools. That's a little like Finn's idea to blow up the system. That's not war -- that's a revolution.