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An educator
I know once said that trying to change or reform our schools is like trying to
change a flat tire on a speeding car—something that needs to be done but is
nearly impossible to achieve. Apparently, that is the conclusion of one of
America’s most gifted and respected “mechanics” of school reform.

has changed her mind. The educational historian, policy wonk and
one-time Washington bureaucrat has given up on federally mandated
accountability and school choice. She is discouraged by the negative effects
resulting from the government’s focus on intensive testing of math and
literacy, citing the lack of attention to other subjects, such as the arts,
history, science and literature. So, too, with the mediocre academic improvements
of charter schools, reported in several studies. In a recent Wall
Street Journal op-ed piece
, Ravitch concluded:

On our present course, we are
disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students false reports
of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public
education without improving it. Most significantly, we are not producing a
generation of students who are more knowledgeable, and better prepared for the
responsibilities of citizenship. That is why I changed my mind about the
current direction of school reform.

For nearly
one hundred years, attempts have been made to bring about change in American
schools with very mixed results. Many of these reform efforts have been fueled
by philosophical debates as to what the purpose of schools should be. For
example, in the early 1900s, with the development of factories, which were seen
as a more efficient way of producing goods, some people argued that students
could be more efficiently educated if schools looked and functioned more like
factories. They also thought that students would become better adult workers if
their schools used more industrial techniques such as standardization and
assembly lines. Opponents, such as John Dewey, thought that schools should
educate students to be good thinkers and citizens who, as adults, would work to
bring about a better, more equitable society. Thus, our schools shifted and
became more democratic.

The most recent movement to bring about change in our
schools grew out of an influential 1983 report by the National Commission on
Excellence in Education entitled, A Nation At Risk. In clear and
forceful language, the Reagan instigated Commission described what it called a
“rising tide of mediocrity” in the schools. The report demanded that this tide
be stemmed through a greater focus on the academic achievement of students. Ms.
Ravitch was one of the leading scholars to enlist in President Reagan’s effort
to turn back that rising tide of mediocrity.

In the 27 years since A Nation At Risk was released, limited progress has been made
toward reforming schools, particular with regard to the reform’s primary
target: gains in academic achievement. Since the publishing of A Nation At Risk, we have seen a
blizzard of national and state reports, most hitting many of the same themes,
and all calling for massive change in the way we educate our children.

Last February, our then new President
declared that education was one of his top three priorities. Right now the
other two, the economy and health care, are generating their fair share of
critical response. However, the reaction to his educational plans for the
nation’s schools has ranged between bored glances from most of the American
public and to broad smiles from the teachers’ unions.

It is a hoary presidential cliché to
announce that the education of our children is of fundamental importance to our
nation. Every US president nestled in my aging memory bank has declared himself
“the Education President” and surrounded himself at photo ops with dozens of
smiling, carefully orchestrated multiracial faces. President Obama is no

There is a growing question in the US over
why we need an “Education President” or, for that matter, why a “Health Care
President” or an “Automotive President.” There is a growing resistance to
government overreach, particularly when they still botch up the mail and the
postal service is threatening to cut back service to five days a week. What
does a president who has spent his educational life in fancy private schools
and who is sending his own children to an exclusive private school know about
public education? The same critique can be made of the members of congress who
have overwhelmingly avoided public education in favor of private schools for their
children. On the other hand, politicians have never been noted for humility in
the face of a social problem.

More than humility, however, serious
educational change needs courage, courage to take on the school’s eight hundred
pound gorilla, the teacher unions. There are sound reasons for teachers to band
together and form unions. Teaching, particularly in today’s schools, is a very
hard job. Kids come to school with little impulse control and self discipline
and various embedded habits of pleasure addiction. Trying to get students to do
the work required for serious learning in an environment where one has little
authority or power would reduce a drill sergeant to tears. However, in their
current form, teacher unions are little interested in the plight of the
classroom teacher and give little only lip-service to educational reform.

While they posture about school reform and will allow
minor changes, such as salary bonuses for highly skilled or high need area
teachers, the union bureaucrats are committed to keep their power over the
public schooling. They do this through sheer political power. They own the
Democratic Party from Main Street to the White House and their highly paid
leaders know in their bones that introducing the free market means the end of
their educational monopoly and their power.

The charter school movement is a case in
point. While charter schools represent an opportunity for innovative teaching
and greater parental choice and involvement, the unions and their well-rewarded
politicians have been fighting a rear-guard battle against them for fifteen
years. Realizing the high level of support for them, the unions grudgingly gave
ground. However, through their extensive political influence, they have made
sure the numbers of charter schools have been carefully limited and the
financial constraints on them have been severe.

Educational Establishment, of which the teachers unions are just one factor,
does not cherish interference from outsiders (read: parents). However, parents obviously
are the ones who care most about the education of their children. For most
parents, though, interest in schooling is a short-term concern. Unlike their
church, or town governance or the local hospital, where commitments tend to be
long and deep, schooling is a transitory concern. Parents do get involved , if
they get involved at all, during the period their children are in schools. Just
about the time they understand what is going on, their children graduate and
they de-couple.

Educational reform is not for sissies, as
Ms Ravitch has discovered. Change in schooling, like most change, is long, hard
and demanding work. It has been said that the only one who likes change is a baby
with a wet diaper.

Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston
University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books.
He has appeared on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning
America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting
System speaking on character education. He can be reached at


Kevin Ryan is a retired professor, living at the edge of Boston and of sanity. He was once a high school English teacher, but found the work too hard and became a professor of education....