Ravitch is right, Gates is wrong. And those who think American education is broken are wrong, and so are those who think that Ravitch et al (I think I'm the et in et al) do not believe in helping children develop basic skills.
- Poverty is the issue. Students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools score near the top on international tests. Our mediocre average scores are because we have such a high percentage of children living in poverty compared to other industrialized countries. This shows that poverty is indeed the factor. (Yes, I am aware of our "low" math scores in a recent analysis. We were beaten by two clear outliers, Korea and Taiwan) and countries with small populations, including Lichtenstein, Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands. We were also beaten by Hong Kong, not a country. And those high scorers did not do nearly as well on tests of science and reading.
- Basic skills: the approaches we endorse consistently produce excellent results in the basic skills, better than skill-based approaches. I will be happy to post sources, references, citations from the professional literature.
- The answer is, as Ravitch says, dealing with poverty, i.e. protecting all children from the effects of poverty. This means nutrition (I was happy to see Arne Duncan giving strong support to this recently), better health care (e.g. more school nurses) and far more access to books – classroom libraries, school libraries, and public libraries in areas of high poverty. Wide reading is the major source of the vocabulary and knowledge that children of poverty often lack, and current studies strongly suggest that providing a source of books can make up for the negative effect of poverty on reading proficiency.
Geoffrey Canada, in his autobiography Fist, Stick, Gun, Knife, informs us that outside of school voluntary reading contributed substantially to his school success: "I loved reading, and my mother, who read voraciously too, allowed me to have her novels after she finished them. My strong reading background allowed me to have an easier time of it in most of my classes."