I am sorry that Richard Rothstein has chosen not to respond to my main points: that the public school system continues its “tracking” functions; that public high schools are typically authoritarian and alienating; that the vision of progressive education has not penetrated deeply into the system—though there are many teachers, parents, and students who would want to live out that vision; that there are small school programs that embody such a vision; that choice for parents and students within the public system would support more progressive reform; and that tests for basic skills are not sufficient for judging the educational experience. Rothstein still maintains that the public school system is so successful in its current form and content that no choice should be allowed, that teachers should not be supported in planning and running their own programs, that the radical critique of traditional schooling (from John Dewey to Paul Goodman to contemporary educators like Deborah Meier) has no basis. And I continue to disagree with each of these points.
But instead of arguing about these big issues, Rothstein uses his space to misrepresent what reformers did twenty-five years ago—on the basis of a single remark in my article. He claims that reformers “deliberately and consciously maligned the academic achievement of public schools” and cynically promised to help “disadvantaged” minority students in order to get foundation grants. In fact, we described the achievements of public schools circa 1970 exactly as Rothstein does today when he claims that vast improvements have occurred since then. And the programs we recommended have helped minority students wherever they have been implemented—in important and measurable ways, like improved attendance, better attitudes toward learning, greater self-confidence, greater ability to work cooperatively, higher graduation and college entrance rates, and so on. I can provide data showing how the programs succeeded in these ways. I am more cautious, however, about claiming that Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have risen or will rise significantly in the short time disadvantaged students are likely to spend in such programs—which was part of the point of repeating Christopher Jencks’s argument about the importance of the experience itself.
Even profound criticism of the way a school system actually works and the harm it causes to many of its students is consistent with a commitment to work inside that system for change, even for radical change. Dewey never softened his critique of the traditional forms of education, nor did Paul Goodman; but they both supported teachers and others who committed themselves to public education as a democratic ideal.
To end on a personal note, even at the height of the free-school movement, I urged radical educators to work in the public schools, as difficult as that task might be. And for the past several years, I have been teaching in ...
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