Ravitch Speaks to ND Forum: Crisis, Caution, Hope

April 13, 2012William Schmitt

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America’s K-12 schools, both public and Catholic, are in crisis, said NYU historian and education scholar Diane Ravitch in an April 10 address at the University of Notre Dame. But she pointed out that both have their enduring strengths, and she warned against some of the most popular solutions being proposed to their current problems.

Ravitch, whose talk entitled “Is There a Crisis in Public Education?” was part of the year-long “Notre Dame Forum” series exploring issues in K-12 education, expanded on the arguments in her best-selling book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Pointing out that public education has come under sharp attack by a movement pushing privatization and free-market disciplines for schools and “de-professionalization” for teachers, Ravitch acknowledged that schools need to solve a range of problems today. But “they are not declining and they are not failing.”

The drive among policy-makers for more testing and “accountability” for teachers tied largely to children’s success in tests shows that “we have lost sight of the ends of education,” Ravitch said.

“One of the reasons I admire Catholic education is because it focuses on the full development of every child—intellectually, spiritually, physically, and morally—not just on their standardized test scores and how they rank in comparison to others,” she commented.

Earlier, Ravitch talked about her introduction to Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), part of the Institute for Educational Initiatives and co-sponsor of the Notre Dame Forum event.  She said of ACE, “they said their mission was to prepare children ‘for college and heaven.’ I like that so much better than ‘college and career ready.’ There’s something totally non-utilitarian about it that appeals to me.”

Ravitch cautioned against seeing voucher programs and charter schools as panaceas for the problems in public or Catholic schools. She said some voucher programs might be risky for Catholic schools if they only serve children from so-called “failing” public schools, and she cited statistics that suggest an influx of charter schools in an area results in Catholic school shutdowns. Becoming a charter school would make a Catholic school subject to government regulations and “reform” policies like those that have hurt public schools, she added.   

There are lessons to learn from countries such as Finland, Japan, Korea, and Singapore that score high in international rankings of educational success, said Ravitch. These countries recruit outstanding students into the teaching profession, prepare them well, support them in the classroom, and respect their professionalism, she said.

If the United States does not enact such policies, many excellent teachers will be lost. Nevertheless, she said, much of the debate about education reform today is focusing on testing, ranking, accountability, and competition in ways that demoralize teachers and hurt students.

“What’s missing today from the national discourse are the values deeply embedded in Catholic education,” said Ravitch. “I speak now of respect for teachers and respect for students. I speak of the teacher who looks on each child as a unique individual. I refer to the recognition that education is a mission to help other human beings and improve society. In the public system, other values have been imposed.”

Prior to her Notre Dame Forum address, Ravitch was introduced by Rev. Timothy Scully, C.S.C., co-founder of ACE and director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives.

Scully referred to Ravitch—a research professor at New York University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution—as “one of America’s most distinguished public intellectuals.” He said her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “strikes a deep chord of resonance with those of us at Notre Dame who believe the purpose of education is the full human flourishing of our children and the creation of citizens for this country and for heaven.”

Ravitch, accompanied by Mary Butz, longtime educator and innovator with the New York City Public Schools, both received a Lifetime Distinguished Service Award presented by ACE.