Monday, March 13, 2006

Diane Ravitch to Bill Gates: "Focus on improving curriculums"

I have a lot of respect for Diane Ravitch. She has written a number of good books about education issues. I really enjoy Left Back: A Century of Battles of School Reform. It helps to explain the current mess we are in today. One of her more famous books is The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. If you haven't read any of her books, check at your local library to see what they have.

The Seattle Times ran a column by her in which she gives advice to Bill Gates. Diane's basic point is that the Gates Foundation has the wrong focus. Bill recently gave a speech about how important education is, and that small high schools do a better job than big high schools. Diane Ravitch agrees that education is very important, but disagrees that small high schools are some how better than big high schools. She says you can have great academic success in either situation. She says that one of the big problems with public education today is that the curriculum today is so very poor. Students are bored. The meat of the subject matter gets watered down as it goes through various committees. Diane Ravitch challenged Bill Gates to use technology to provide a more interesting and improved curriculum.

As a side note, the ideal school size has been a topic of conversation for years. There are some advantages to economies of scale. But there are also limits to economies of scale. As I've mentioned before, high schools with more than 5,000 students is a recipe for allowing students to fall through the cracks and get lost.

Diane Ravitch makes many good points about how a better curriculum would greatly help education. To a point she is right. The presentation of knowledge, ideas, wisdom, and information, greatly helps a student to master the material. Poor curriculums will turn a student away from a subject they could master, and might be interested in.

But I think she misses the larger issue: “Why do we have poor curriculum?” Her own book, The Language Police, addresses this issue. Even if the Gates Foundation helps to greatly improve the curriculums available to public schools, the road block is the political structure which allows special interest groups to derail a good book for a more "politically" correct book. As homeschoolers we have found curriculums that are very effective and that our daughters enjoy.

Maybe she hopes that the Gates Foundation will help create some good materials, and then push them through the public school system. Having yet another special issue group involved in monkeying with how text books get approved would only make the process worse.

We do need better curriculums, but more importantly we need to change the way textbooks are approved. Maybe we should let teachers buy any book they want. Or maybe we should drive let school districts pick what they’ll use. The problem with having states approve what textbooks can be bought is it provides a few places special interest groups can have a great impact. Instead of letting a small number of committees from Texas, California, and a few other states dictate the market, maybe the right answer is to let the school districts pick. Then the textbook publishers would be greatly motivated to create interesting curriculums and they could ignore the demands of the special interest groups.

Technorati tags: homeschooling, homeschool, home school, home education, education, , , , ,


Anonymous said...

Both the discussions of school size and of curriculum miss the mark. Public education has largely become irrelevant. Unless a student sees a need for what he is learning, he will opt out...further evidenced by the article (EdWonk?) cited about how good students were dropping out.

A way needs to be found to connect individually with each child and find what drives his passions. And clearly demonstrate to him why he needs whatever the curriculum is to achieve his goals.

Henry Cate said...

Education can be more interesting and engaging; however, I think there are things children should learn even if they don't understand why it is important.

Anonymous said...

Connect with each child and convince them that the curriculum will help them achieve their goals? Show of hands please: How many of you believe that the average high school student has any idea what his or her goals actually are? Good. Hands down please.

The point, gentle reader, is that most kids don't have a clue what they want to do or be in a week, let alone in a year. That being accepted as reality (and virtually any teacher can tell you that it is), how could you possibly connect their goals to the curriculum. In fact, many kids will never understand that the curriculum exists primarily to build bigger better neural connections in the brain, thus making them more capable human beings. It does not exist primarily to open their little skulls and pour in content (the retention of which can be conveniently measured through mandatory state or federal testing).

In short, Henry Cate is correct. Most kids haven't a clue. And while any good teacher will do their best to inspire and engage students in many ways, ultimately, the best a teacher can do is to provide the best educational opportunity their ability and resources allow. If a given student chooses not to take advantage of that opportunity (and/or their parents care not), it is not the fault of the system or the teachers.