As the Obama administration touts No Child Left Behind and the "Race to the Top" competition for school grants, we speak to leading education scholar and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch. She’s long been known as an advocate of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, standardized testing, and using the free market to improve schools. But she’s had a radical change of heart, as chronicled in her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Ravitch says, "The evidence says No Child Left Behind was a failure, and charter schools aren’t going to be any better." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
The Department of Education announced sixteen finalists Thursday in the first round of its "Race to the Top" competition, which will deliver $4.35 billion in school reform grants. The finalists were selected from a pool of forty-one applicants and include Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, quote, “These states are an example for the country of what is possible when adults come together to do the right thing." The winners will be chosen in April, and a second round of applications accepted in June.
The Washington Post reports that all the first round finalists, except for Delaware and South Carolina, received financial help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in preparing their "Race to the Top" application. The foundation gave many states grants of up to $250,000 each to pay for a consultant to help them craft their application.
While protests around cuts to public education took place across the state, California learned it was among the twenty-five states rejected in the first round. Governor Schwarzenegger said the decision from the Education Council showed that, quote, "we need to be more aggressive and bolder in reforming our education system."
Well, for a critical appraisal of “Race to the Top” and the Obama administration’s approach to education reform, we’re joined by a woman who’s long been known as an advocate of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, standardized testing, and using the free market to improve schools. But she’s had a radical change of heart in recent years.
I’m talking about the influential education scholar Diane Ravitch. She was Assistant Secretary of Education and counselor to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush and appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board under President Clinton. She’s the author of over twenty books. She’s research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book chronicles how and why she decided to break with the conservative education policies she once championed. It’s called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
Diane Ravitch, welcome to Democracy Now! With this latest news, what is your assessment of where we are going under the Obama administration?
Well, unfortunately, the Obama administration has adopted and is building on the foundation of No Child Left Behind. And as I explain in this book, I believe that No Child Left Behind has been a failed policy, that it’s dumbed down the curriculum, narrowed the curriculum. Our kids are being denied a full education, because so much time is being spent on test prep and on tests that are really not very good tests and, in some cases, even fraudulent scoring of the test. The kids are getting a worse education as a result of No Child Left Behind.
The Obama administration, however, has bought into this rhetoric of accountability and choice, and they’re actually taking the Bush policies to a greater extreme. There is more support from the administration, this administration, for choice, because they have no opposition in the Congress, because it’s a Democratic president and because they had all this money, this $5 billion, to use as play money with no authorization, no oversight from Congress.
They’ve said to the states in the “Race to the Top,” this competition that was just held, that the requirements to be considered are, first of all, that the states have to be committed to privatizing many, many, many public schools. These are called charter schools. They’re privatized schools. The Bush administration would have never gotten away with that, because Congress would have stopped them.
They’ve also required states to commit to evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students, which means that that will put even more emphasis on standardized testing, more drill down of test prep, more emphasis on basic skills. And also, it’s a very unfair measure, because it means that the students who live in poor communities, that they’re likely to get small gains, whereas the kids in the affluent communities will get big gains. And so, we’ll see the third emphasis of the Obama plan, which is close low-performing schools.
And Obama has said that he wants to see 5,000 low-performing schools transformed or closed, as we saw just recently in Rhode Island, where the only high school in a desperately poor community is supposed to fire all the teachers, close the school. And I think this is a terrible thing for public education. And I think we’re going to see a devastation of public education over the next — however long this president is in office, unless he changes course, which I hope he will, and doubt that he will.
One of the things that fascinated me as I was going through your book last night was how you’ve traced historically how the leaders of both political parties over the last few decades —- it was the same way under Bill Clinton, that Democrats and Republicans have reached sort of a consensus on what they call school reform. And when you were in the Department of Education under George H.W. Bush, you had an idea of school reform that was based on the curriculum -—
— strengthening the content of the education, not the bells and whistles and the structures for measurements, but that that was actually defeated and that Lynne Cheney had something to do with that. Could you talk about that, bring us some of that history?
Right. Well, when I went to work for the Department of Education, I came in as a Democrat, and I thought, somewhat naively, that education was somehow a nonpartisan issue. And so, I came in to work on the idea of promoting arts education, science education. And in the department — part of the department I was in, we gave grants to different professional associations of educators to develop voluntary national standards of the arts, science, history, geography, economics, civics, lots of different areas. We wanted people, educators across the country, to say this is what an education is, this is what all American children should have. It was not a race to the top. It was based on the idea of equal educational opportunity means that all children get these wonderful things.
But I think, within the Bush administration, the more important dialogue that was going on, that I was just very peripheral to, was the idea of school choice, vouchers, charter schools, and then also accountability. And where the Democrats and the Republicans began to make common cause was around this theme of accountability. And what accountability ultimately meant, not just in the Bush administration, but in the Clinton, and now in the Obama — in the, you know, next Bush and then this administration, accountability means who should be punished. If the scores don’t go up, who should be punished? Teachers. Teachers should be punished. The unions should be demonized.
But you asked me about Lynne Cheney. The reason that Lynne Cheney gets into this conversation is that she was the one who saw that the history standards were — you know, she attacked them. And there got to be a huge national brouhaha back in 1994, 1995, about whether the history standards were politically correct. And it caused such an uproar in the press with — you know, the right-wing talk-show hosts jumped all over it, and then you had people on the left defending it. Congress and the administration just said — and this was in the Clinton administration years. They said, “Let’s not touch this whole idea of standards. Let’s just stick with basic skills.” And that’s how we today have inherited this legacy of the only thing you’re allowed to really talk about is reading and math, don’t touch science, the arts. They’re all too controversial. You might get into an argument over evolution if you try to talk about science.
But you also say that in many state curriculums that have been developed now, even in reading, it’s more about the functions of reading —
— than the actual content of the literature that people are reading.
Right, sure. I mean, this is — to most people, it would come as a shock, if you pick up your state standards and you say, “Well, where’s the literature?” Because what they talk about is strategies and processes and previewing and reviewing and predicting. And you think, you know, why aren’t kids getting good literature? Aren’t they reading the great stuff, you know, world literature, American literature, English literature, Spanish literature? No, it’s not there, because if you make a choice about literature, then choosing this means you’re not choosing something else, therefore choose nothing at all.
Diane Ravitch, what caused your change of heart?
Many things. Firstly, I grew up going to public school. I grew up in Texas. I went to the Houston public schools. My brothers and — I was part of a large family. I was one of eight children. We all went to public schools, except for the ones who were really bad. The really bad ones had to go to military school or be sent off. They weren’t allowed to go to public school. They didn’t behave. So public school, to me, was a really good thing, and I always had a very great affection and respect for public education.
As I became a scholar and, you know, got into the academic world, I found myself — I don’t know. I fell into a sort of a conservative mindset about a lot of things, but when I got into the Bush administration, I found myself trying to justify why — I believed always in a strong curriculum. That was considered very conservative. If you believed that children should study history and geography and real things, you’re conservative in the academic world, because you’re not supposed to believe in a real curriculum. I believe that it’s not conservative; it’s actually very liberal and empowering to have real knowledge. So this has always been my shtick, is kids of all backgrounds should have lots of knowledge. If you want to empower people, you give them access to the knowledge of the world. But having been castigated as a conservative for believing in having a traditional curriculum, when I went into the Bush administration, I found myself kind of getting caught up in the choice rhetoric. And so, for about ten years or so, I was advocating for charter schools. They didn’t exist, so I didn’t know how things would turn out.
Over the years, from the period in which charters started and in which the whole accountability movement started, I began looking at the results. When I looked at No Child Left Behind and saw, you know, we’re not really making any improvements under No Child Left Behind — the test scores have been either stagnant or made tiny improvement. Actually, the gains before No Child Left Behind on national tests were larger than since No Child Left Behind was adopted. I mean, I looked at the evidence, and I thought, all these things that I hoped would work didn’t work.
And now I find myself castigated. First of all, I’m castigated by people on the right who say, “You were never a real conservative.” Of course, they’re right. I never was a real conservative. But people on the left are saying, “You had your hand in this stuff. How dare you change sides?” Well, I guess the answer is, look at the evidence. I’m not on anybody’s side.
I’m just trying to say the evidence says No Child Left Behind was a failure, and the evidence says that charter schools are going to lead us into a swamp of — well, first of all, they’re not going to be any better, because if you look at national test scores — charter schools were first part of the national tests in 2003 — they didn’t do any better than regular public schools. They were tested again in 2005, 2007, 2009. They have never outperformed regular public schools. So if we’re looking for a quantum leap in educational performance, as the President — as President Obama says, charter schools have no evidence behind them. You can find one charter school here or there that did spectacularly well, but on the other side will be others that were terrible.
One of the things that you’ve pointed out many times is that the entire testing system of the country right now is rife with corruption and with fraud —
— because you basically have every state deciding its own test standards, and they keep reporting that their kids are doing better. But then every time the national government does a national assessment test, these same states are not improving.
Well, this is the great legacy of No Child Left Behind, is that it has left us with a system of institutionalized fraud. And the institutionalized fraud is that No Child Left Behind has mandated that every child is going to be proficient by the year 2014. Except they’re not, because no state and no nation has ever had 100 percent of the children proficient. Kids have all kinds of problems. And whether it’s poverty or a million things, there’s no such thing as 100 percent proficiency.
But every year we get closer to 2014, the bar goes up, and the states are told, “If you don’t reach that bar, you’re going to be punished. Schools will be closed. They’ll be turned into charter schools.” That’s part of the federal mandate, is that schools will be privatized if they can’t meet that impossible goal. So in order to preserve some semblance of public education, the states have been encouraged to lie, and many of them are lying, and so we see states that are saying, “90 percent of our kids are proficient in reading,” and then when the national test comes out, it’s 25 percent.
Diane Ravitch, we said at the top of this segment that the Department of Education announced sixteen finalists for its first round of the “Race to the Top” competition. They’re going to deliver something like $4.35 billion in school reform grants. And the Washington Post is reporting almost all of these finalists got money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In your book, chapter ten is called "The Billionaire Boys Club." Explain.
“The Billionaires Boys Club” is a discussion of how we’re in a new era of the foundations and their relation to education. We have never in the history of the United States had foundations with the wealth of the Gates Foundation and some of the other billionaire foundations — the Walton Family Foundation, The Broad Foundation. And these three foundations — Gates, Broad and Walton — are committed now to charter schools and to evaluating teachers by test scores. And that’s now the policy of the US Department of Education. We have never seen anything like this, where foundations had the ambition to direct national educational policy, and in fact are succeeding.
The Obama administration appointed somebody from the NewSchools Venture Fund to run this so-called "Race to the Top." The NewSchools Venture Fund exists to promote charter schools. So, what we’re seeing with the proliferation — with this demand from the federal government, if you want to be part of this $4 billion fund, you better be prepared to create lots more charter schools. Well, it’s all predetermined by who the personnel is. And, you know, so we see this immense influence of the foundations.
And I think that with the proliferation of charter schools, the bottom-line issue is the survival of public education, because we’re going to see many, many more privatized schools and no transparency as to who’s running them, where the money is going, and everything being determined by test scores.
So the whole picture, I think — I just wish that people wouldn’t refer to this as reform, because when we talk about “Race to the Top,” we’re talking about a principle that is antithetical to the fundamental idea of American education. The fundamental idea, which has been enshrined at least since the Brown decision of 1954, was equal educational opportunity. “Race to the Top” is not equal educational opportunity. It is a race in which one or two or three states race to the top to have more privatized schools, more test-based accountability, more basic skills, no emphasis on a broad curriculum for all kids, and no equal educational opportunity. I think that’s wrong. I think it’s also not the role of the federal government to do what’s being done and to call it reform.
Well, I want to thank you very much, Diane Ravitch. This is part one of our conversation. Diane Ravitch is professor of education at NYU, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her book is called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. And she didn’t always feel that way.