Rod Dreher

The educational reformer talks to Slate about what she now sees as her big mistakes on school reform. Whatever you think of Ravitch, who was for many years a key thought leader among conservatives, and a big backer of No Child Left Behind (which she now repudiates), it’s so rare to see someone of her stature admit forthrightly that she was wrong. Excerpt:

[Ravitch:] You know, I’ve always had a concern for the one person with the dissenting voice, so it was OK with me to discover that I was that one person. I’ve written and thought a lot about civic education, and many years ago I went to Eastern Europe–this was right after the fall of the wall–and in a presentation there I talked about the importance of dissent, about being wary of crowds and open to the possibility that the loner is right. I’ve always been intrigued by books like Brave New World and 1984 and [Eugene Zamiatin’s] We–that whole genre of books about the lonely individual in a totalitarian society, about what happens to you when everyone agrees and you’re the one who says the whole thing is a facade.
[Slate:] One thing that’s hard about such situations is that the crowd consensus effectively becomes reality. So if you’re voicing a dissenting opinion, people don’t just think you’re wrong. They think you’re crazy.
That’s why the Soviet Union dissenters got sent to psychiatric institutions: because everybody else was so strongly part of the consensus. When I go out lecturing now, I talk about how there is this dominant consensus that’s funded by big foundations with tons of money, and they fund the think tanks, and the think tanks churn out advocacy materials that go to editorial boards, and then the corporate people say we’re onboard with this, the Bush administration was onboard, the Obama administration is onboard. To me it’s almost self-evident that No Child Left Behind is a failure, but people will say, “Well, Congress doesn’t think so.” It’s like everybody agrees except for the teachers, who are the ones who have to do it.
Have you gone back and looked at the initial criticisms of No Child Left Behind from 2001, the year that it passed?
No. I’m sure there were people who predicted everything that would happen. But–you know, as I often say, I was wrong, but I was in good company. Almost 90 of Congress voted for it, including more Democrats than Republicans. Ted Kennedy never, ever backed off from his strong support. He said it was underfunded, but that wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t underfunded. It was the wrong idea.
Now I think, “Well, if Teddy Kennedy didn’t know, why should I have known?” Everybody thought it was a good idea. The difference between me and its supporters at the time is that I’ve decided it’s wrong and they’re still defending it. I’m trying to repair the damage and they’re trying to keep it alive.
Do you remember how you felt about those criticisms at the time?
Yeah, I thought, you know, “These are just a lot of people who are afraid of tests.”
Has the experience of changing your mind on this one belief caused you to question any other beliefs?
I’m trying to think. I can’t say that I have deep passionate beliefs about other things where I would need to reconsider. I don’t have any strong religious commitments. Politically I’ve been independent for years. Being a skeptic to start with, I don’t have a whole lot that I have to re-examine. I’m always re-examining.
What do you think about the role of wrongness in education? It seems to me that making mistakes is crucial to learning, yet by and large mistakes are discouraged and punished in our schools.
We have reshaped the education system–largely through federal legislation–to an approach of “right answers, right answers, right answers.” But life’s not like that. We’re putting a tremendous amount of value on being able to pick the right one out of four little bubbles. But this turns out not to be a very valuable skill. You can’t take this skill out into the workplace and get paid for it.
My research assistant did a blog for the Washington Post about this mantra of “Failure Is Not an Option.” Her point was, you can’t learn anything unless you fail. Failure has to be an option. What does success mean if there’s no failure? It just means that you’ve dropped the bar so low that everyone can walk over it.

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