Stuart Buck has all ready done the heavy lifting analyzing the flaws in Ravitch's book, so there's no need for me to pile on.
I would like to address, however, Ravitch's proposed solution to our education woes -- a national core curriculum which many other education pundits also endorse. I'm going to use Don hirsch's review of Ravitch's book as my stepping stone. Hirsch's review should be read in conjunction with Buck's analysis becasue they approach the flaws in Ravitch's book from different angles and are comlementary.
... Ravitch argues that the recent nostrums of “choice” and “accountability” have not worked very well. What new ideas will?
She makes strong arguments in favor of a widely shared core curriculum. This reform, she asserts, would carry multiple benefits. 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. It would, in short, offer American education the advantages enjoyed by high-performing school systems in the rest of the world, which far outshine us in the quality and fairness of their results.
There are a few flaws in this line of argument.
The first flaw is that there is no actual field-tested commercially available "shared core" curriculum having a research base in a public school (without selection-bias effects) which shows that the benefits that Ravitch and Hirsch think will flow have actually or will necessarily flowed. There is some cognitive science research that suggests that some of these benefits might accrue, but there is a large gap between that research and a real-world curriculum that achieves actual results. And mind you, I'm as sympathetic as the next guy that a (voluntary) common core curriculum is better than the alernatives.
The second flaw is the failure to see the elephant in the room -- the current education system -- which will do its darnedest to thwart, subvert, and otherwise screw-up any reform that upsets the status quo (which they very much like) as they've done in the past with every other "reform."
Under the current system, educators are not responsible for educating anyone. If the student fails to learn, its the student's fault, not the schools. Educators have a host of excuses (poverty, lack of parental support, etc.) and labels (learning disabled) they can use to excuse their failure to teach. Under the current system, they get to largely teach how they want and at the end of the year will point to the kids that learned something (the easily educable) and say "I taught them." They do what they want to do and the kids that have the cognitive ability to make the inductive leaps needed to learn the material are the ones that benefit. The others not so much. And, since most of the "reforms" are mostly directed to the other kids, the plan tends to be to do as little as possible to implement the reform, complain as loudly as possible, and wait until the next reform comes down the pike.
Good luck overcoming that.
Ravitch recognizes that consensus on a core curriculum would not be automatic and that “any national curriculum must be both nonfederal and voluntary, winning the support of districts and states because of its excellence.” She continues:
If it is impossible to reach consensus about a national curriculum, then every state should make sure that every child receives an education that includes history, geography, literature, the arts, the sciences, civics, foreign languages, health, and physical education. These subjects should not be discretionary or left to chance. Every state should have a curriculum that is 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.
Really? Haven't educators been using "their own methods" to teach the stuff they've been trying to teach without much success? Those methods simply don't work for a large demographic slice. How can changing what is taught fare any better if those methods are deficient? The problem of education today is not only what is taught, but how it is taught.
Another improvement over existing state standards is the recognition by the authors of the “Common Core” of its own limits—they devote a section to “What is not covered by the Standards.” The omissions turn out to be major, among them both teaching methods and the curriculum itself. Such acknowledgment of limits is very important. The new multistate document is unique in conceding that it is neither a curriculum nor a curriculum guide, and insisting at the same time that proficiency in reading and writing can be achieved only through a highly specific curriculum—still to be developed—that is “coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” If these admonitions are taken seriously by the states, Ravitch will have powerful allies in advocating a core curriculum.
Agreed as to the reading and writing. Now throw in math, science and all the rest of the "content" that is desired to be taught. That is the main problem -- how to teach everything such that is actually learned and retained by the students. Somthing heretofore that has remained largely unaccomplished.
To teach that curriculum Ravitch evokes a vision of good neighborhood schools (often destined for closure by the new reformers
I don't remember these good neighborhood schools being able to actually educate the demographic that we want to educate today. Those kids used to drop out long before high school and often even middle school. The demographic that gets educated today is the same demographic that used to get educated back in the "good old days." That's not good enough any more.
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.
See Don gets it.
Except for the "Ravitch has roundly attacked the entrepreneurs’ invisible-hand business model as not corresponding with the reality or the fundamental purposes of education." comment. To quote the great Adam Smith once again: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." The main problemof education is that the incentives of educators are not aligned with their providing a quality education to everyone. They get paid no matter how poorly the services are provided with little risk of their losing their tenured sinecures. They don't have to provide a good service and so they don't, because it is much easier not to.