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Part II: Leading Education Scholar Diane Ravitch on “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”

Web ExclusiveMarch 08, 2010
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Diane Ravitch is a former Assistant Secretary of Education and counselor to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush and was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board under President Clinton. She is the author of over twenty books, is research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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.”

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re back with Diane Ravitch. You’re extremely critical of the Obama administration, saying it’s not changing course. President Obama just spoke at the US Chamber of Commerce?

DIANE RAVITCH: Yes, he did. And sitting in the audience was Secretary — former Secretary Margaret Spellings, who was in the George W. Bush administration. And he acknowledged her, and he said he wanted to thank her, because the Obama administration was building on the accomplishments of the Bush administration in education. Let me say that I am equally critical of the Bush administration and the Obama administration. I’m totally nonpartisan in this, because I think that No Child Left Behind was a failure and close to a disaster, in terms of the quality of education in this country.

And the Obama administration, unfortunately, has the same mindset, which is we want education to function as a business, we want to have competition, we want to have competition between students, competition among teachers, we want merit pay, we want charter schools, we want privatized schools, and the winner take all. I mean, this is not the way American education should function.

And this idea that we have a business model is in itself wrong, because I think that there’s two ways of thinking about business operations. One is competition and dog eat dog. And the other is that successful businesses operate because people collaborate, they work together, you don’t have one person sitting next to the other, each trying to out — you know, get more money than the next guy, but rather working as a team.

In a school, in particular, it should be something like a family setting, where people work together, where teachers collaborate, where schools are not trying to compete with each other, but rather help each other and share their trade secrets, rather than trying to put the other guy out of business.

We’ve now created, with the charter school movement, a situation where the charter schools are saying, “We’re better than the public schools. We’re going to put you out of business and eat your lunch.” That’s ridiculous. That’s not the way education should function.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In line with that, I was stunned when President Obama actually applauded the situation in Rhode Island, where the school board there in one town fired all of the teachers, and he applauded that as an action that was necessary. It reminded me, to some degree, of when Ronald Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers, as a statement to the teachers of the nation: this is what awaits you, unless you fall in line with our reform policies.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, the thing you need to understand about Central Falls High School — and I’ve spent some time learning about it — is that this is one high school in a small town of 19,000 people, and it’s probably the poorest small city in all of Rhode Island. And the poverty there is extreme. There are many non-English-speaking children in that school district, and families. And the poverty is, in many cases, rather desperate. And within the school, there’s a lot of turnover of students. They come and go. I assume there are many migrant workers living in the community.

I had an email yesterday from a teacher in Rhode Island who said she’s done work in that school. She’s not employed in the school, but she’s gone in as a consultant. She said, “I’ve taught in different states and different cities, and the teaching staff at Central Falls High School is probably the finest, most dedicated teaching staff that I have encountered. They work under the most difficult circumstances. The school is under-resourced. And they have many, many children with very serious problems —- social problems, health problems, economic issues. And they are very dedicated.”

And along comes a state superintendent trained by the Broad Foundation and a school committee -—

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the Broad Foundation?

DIANE RAVITCH: The Broad Foundation is the Eli Broad Foundation. And the Eli Broad Foundation, like the Gates Foundation, is a —

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Los Angeles.

DIANE RAVITCH: Yes, it’s a billionaire foundation where they — the Broad Foundation has trained superintendents and placed them in school districts across the country, with this idea that, you know, the way schools should function is like a business, and it’s competition, merit pay, charter schools, and dog eat dog, which I think is all wrong for education.

But I think that the Secretary of Education’s response was to applaud the firing of the entire staff of the school. It was seventy-four teachers, nineteen support staff and administrators. They were going to close down the school, because, after all, No Child Left Behind requires they only have a graduation rate of 50 percent, close down the school. The achievement levels are low.

But, you know, the reason the achievement levels are low was not because the teachers are bad, but because the kids live in desperate poverty. And I was asked the other day on some show, “Well, what would you do?” And I said, “Well, I would go in there as president and do something about the poverty in the community.” I mean, if you raise the economic level of the community, you would see school improvements pretty quickly. I mean, that’s really a bottom line. It isn’t just teachers that affect how students perform; it’s a whole lot of things.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Another example I was struck with in your book is your analysis of the so-called miracle in District 2 in New York, Anthony Alvarado, nationally known educator, who supposedly worked miracles in New York, but then went to — and had a cooperative situation between teachers and staff and parents, but then goes to San Diego, becomes the head of the school system there, and takes an entirely different tact in terms of the way that he deals with teachers.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I think what was important about the District 2 story was that it created this idea that somehow someone had come up with a magic formula, and if you just did — if you just did this, use this program and this program, you would see a closing of the achievement gap and dramatic change.

And so, then the school board in San Diego hired a lawyer and a prosecutor to run the school system, and he said, “That guy Alvarado in New York, he knows how to do it. We’ll bring him in. We’ll make all the teachers do it.” And so, in District 2, whereas it had been collaborative and built on a trust, in San Diego it became: tell the teachers what to do, coerce them, hold everyone accountable, fire their principals, fire the teachers.

They actually at one point, to make — the Bersin administration in San Diego, to make a point, they fired fifteen administrators and sent armed police with them to their schools to clean their desk out and get out of the school. That sent such a message through the school system of, if you fight the authorities, you’re going to be fired, too. And it was an effort to say, you know, we’re going to reform our schools the way I want it done, and teachers have nothing to say about it; there’ll be no democracy, no buy-in, no consensus; you do it our way or the highway. They didn’t get any results.

But, you know, this was part of this buildup of this notion, the business model: the foundations know what to do, the businessmen know what to do; don’t listen to the teachers, don’t listen to parents — they’re the last ones to have anything to say about the schools.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, then the Alvarado curriculum becomes the one that Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein adopt for the public school system for their reform of the New York City public schools.

DIANE RAVITCH: Right, and which they also sent out people to say, “Do it our way, or you’re out of here.”

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Ravitch, compare the US education system to other countries.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I’d say that one of the differences between our education system and others is we are incredibly decentralized. I think that the — I think that right now we are awash in reforms. People who work in the schools often feel that they have reform fatigue, because anybody with enough money or political power comes in and says, “I’m going to reform the schools,” and then everyone says, “Oh, great! We’re going to have school reform.” There’s too much school reform. I mean, I sound like a troglodyte saying this, but there’s just too much.

I mean, what we need in this country is stability. We need to have communities working around their schools. We need parents and teachers working together. We need teachers who have the respect of the community. We have to stop demonizing teachers’ unions, scapegoating teachers, and show some respect to the profession.

And also, I would say, there has to be this vision of what is good education. Good education is one in which kids not only have the basic skills, but have history and literature and geography and civics and foreign languages and the technical skills that they need to be employed. But schooling is not just about getting a job. Schooling is about getting a life, and that’s why kids need that wonderful curriculum, so that as they grow up, they can be critical thinkers and have some independent thoughts in their head.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about countries like Japan, like Finland.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, in Finland and Japan, first of all, they have a national curriculum, and they have a system in which the teaching profession is highly respected. It’s very competitive to get into teaching. And once teachers earn the profession, they have lots of support and professional education, so that they can continue to learn and to grow as teachers. But in the community and in society, they’re held in very high regard.

Finland is considered the highest — it is, not just considered — on all the international tests, it’s the highest-performing country in literacy and in some other subjects. Japan has had the highest technical skills in science and mathematics. The countries like Korea and Singapore are also very high-performing.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do they train their teachers?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, they have a very rigorous preparation, where they learn their subject matter and how to teach it, and they have this tremendous sense of professionalism. That’s one of the contrasts with the US, which is, right now we’re in a period where we’re putting down professionalism and saying anybody can be a school superintendent. You can come in as a lawyer or a general or an admiral or having been a businessman, and you can run the school system, too.

And the next step down is they say anyone can be a principal. Come in and take a three-month training program or one-year training program, and you can be a principal. You don’t ever have to have been a teacher. There are many districts doing that now, and they’re creating leadership academies to bring in non-educators.

The next step down is they say, well, you don’t really need to have any professional training to be a teacher. Anyone can be a teacher. All you need is a college degree and maybe a five-week summer course, and you, too, can be a teacher. While other countries that are far more successful than we are treating their teachers as professionals and making the profession stronger, we’re demolishing the profession.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, it’s always seemed to me that in our country we have two public school systems. There’s a public school system in the suburbs, and there’s a public school system in the cities. In the suburbs, the administrators live in fear of the parents. In the city, the parents are totally ignored and are in fear of the administrators. But it’s still a public school system. And your thoughts on why that has developed that way?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I think part of it has to do with the size of the community, that I know that I’ve seen many — on the parent blogs, many comments saying, “Wow, if, you know, Chancellor Klein treated parents in Scarsdale the way he does in New York City, they’d run him out of town on a rail.” I mean, the parents would be up in arms. They wouldn’t stand for it. And here the parents are up in arms, and everyone ignores them. Well, of course, one big difference is, for the past eight years we’ve had mayoral control, where the mayor is the only person who has any power, and so it’s easy to ignore parents. I think that in big cities, just because of size, there tend to be bureaucracies where parent views are easily ignored.

But then there’s also the very important issue of class, which is that because so many parents in the cities are poor, it’s very easy for middle-class and upper-middle-class professionals to say they don’t know what they’re talking about and just ignore them, whereas in the suburbs the parents are often just as well educated, if not more so — they’re professionals, the school people are professionals — and so they exercise a lot of clout, because they can affect the hiring and firing of the superintendent, and so the superintendent — when they come in and say, “I want something changed,” they have — the superintendent listens to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Ravitch, on this issue of charter schools, was it because the vouchers didn’t work, the idea of just putting money into private education, so that there was this new way of looking at it? You talk about there’s no proof that the charter schools work. But can you talk about the flipside, as how the resources go — how the charter schools affect the public schools and why you think the Obama administration is embracing this?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, the charter schools, I think, became popular — first of all, they were promoted by Albert Shanker, and — a guy who — a little-known professor in Massachusetts. And the idea, the original idea for charter schools, was that they would be like R-and-D laboratories for public education and that any group of teachers could come together, get the support of the union, and create a school, where they could say, “I want to help — I want to figure out how to help the lowest-performing kids. I want to take the kids who really are unmotivated, turned off by school. I want those kids, and I’m going to come back and take my lessons to the public schools and help them.”

But as the charter movement took off, within five years, Albert Shanker turned around and denounced it, and he said it’s no different than vouchers. This was —- it started in 1988. He denounced it in 1993. And from that time on, he treated charters and vouchers as being the same thing.

And in fact, by 1993, the people who wanted vouchers realized they weren’t going to get very far, because wherever there was a state referendum, vouchers lost overwhelmingly. And the proponents of vouchers would always say, “Oh, yeah, the teachers’ union is just so well organized and well funded, we couldn’t beat them.” But nonetheless, referendum after referendum, the public said, “We don’t want vouchers. We don’t want to destroy our public education system.” So the voucher people went into the charter movement. And so the charter movement is now almost completely non-union.

I’ve asked around, and there’s not any clear data on this, but I would say it’s a safe guess to say that 95 percent of the 5,000 charters in this country are non-union. The charters are mainly run by people who do not want unions, who created the charters not to have unions. It is a non-union movement. And so, they’re able to hire, and they want to hire, very young people who can work a fifty— or sixty- or seventy-hour week, and if they burn out after two years, that’s OK, because they can get somebody else who will come in and work those kinds of hours. And this is how they operate.

Is this a sustainable model? I doubt it. I don’t think that this —- this, to me, can’t possibly be the future of education, because you cannot take the 80,000-or-so public schools in America and turn them into schools that run on the energy of recent college graduates who then burn out and leave. I mean -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet, the administrators of many of these charter schools are getting paid enormously high salaries compared to what a normal principal would get.

DIANE RAVITCH: Right. But when you say “administrators,” you’re not even talking about the principal; you’re talking about what we call the rainmaker, the man or woman at the top who connects to the politicians and who makes sure that there are more charters and who does the contracts and stuff. Very often they’re making $300,000, $400,000, even $500,000. And as these cases become more public, and the public understands — look at where public money is going, to pay somebody $400,000, when they’re running schools for a thousand children? I mean, this is what privatization does. Where there is potential for greed, it will attract people who like money.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I think of Arne Duncan, the Education Secretary’s recent comments about New Orleans, saying that Hurricane Katrina may have been the —

DIANE RAVITCH: Best thing that could have happened.

AMY GOODMAN: — best thing to happen to education in New Orleans. After the hurricane, they fired all of the teachers —


AMY GOODMAN: — thousands of them, broke the union.

DIANE RAVITCH: And broke the union, exactly. And I was just reading a paper last night about New Orleans and have been in communication with — there’s a man at Tulane named Lance Hill, who runs an information clearing house, and he’s very concerned about the rapid advance of privatization. The charter schools have 60 percent of the kids. That’s what the entrepreneurs want. They don’t want the other 40 percent. The other 40 percent are the ones who will pull their scores down.

And so what we see in charter schools across the country is that some of them are excellent, some of them are terrible, most of them are mediocre or somewhere in the middle. On the whole, they’re no better than public schools. Most of those that are excellent are excellent because they’re dropping out the low-performing kids. And so, they’ll start with — say, for every hundred kids that they begin with, forty, fifty or sixty of those hundred kids will be gone by the time graduation comes around, and they don’t replace them. So they’re able to say, “Look at the graduation rate we have.” But they don’t tell you about the kids who didn’t even make it to graduation.

AMY GOODMAN: It sounds like a health insurance company’s “You have a pre-existing condition, so you don’t get in.” But what about Arne Duncan’s record, his history, in Chicago, running the Chicago Public Schools?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, you know, Arne Duncan — I met with him last fall — he’s really a very nice man, and I always have a hard time saying anything bad about anyone who’s really nice. So we had a good conversation.

But in Chicago, Mayor Daley and Arne Duncan created a program called Renaissance 2010. They closed many schools. They did all these kind of Gates-funded — Gates Foundation-funded activities that were competition and choice in closed neighborhood schools. The community was very upset about the loss of any of their public schools. And overall, they’ve seen no real gain and achievement. It has not made any difference.

Closing the schools — when they closed the schools, half the kids who were in the closed schools went to other equally low-performing schools. And when they looked at the — this was the Chicago Consortium on School Research — looked across at all these kids who had been in the closed schools, there was no improvement in their performance. So it gets to be like a shell game. You’re moving low-performing kids from one bad school to another bad school.

And my beef is, why don’t you just fix the neighborhood school instead of privatizing them, instead of closing it down? Usually a neighborhood school is a place that has a history, it has traditions, it has values, the parents went there, the aunt and uncle went there, and people have a sense of community. And these new — the guys who call themselves reformers, they close the schools as if they’re chain stores. The chain store didn’t work; let’s close it down and open a chain store in a different place, or give it a new name and throw the customers out and get a better grade of customer.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally — or maybe not finally, because I’m sure that Juan has a final question — but in your book, you really chronicle the idea of how the standards movement turned into the testing movement and what this has done to education.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, to me, this is a great tragedy, because I personally have been committed to the idea of curriculum standards. And by standards, I didn’t mean how high can you jump, but have you really learned history of, you know, the United States, have you really learned about the debates around the Constitution. To me, the standards means have you learned the content, have you got the knowledge. And if all you’re doing is jumping through a series of hoops and you don’t get the knowledge, then you really haven’t gotten an education.

So, part of the book is to explain how, when there was this big blowup about the history standards, everybody backed off and said, “Let’s not touch content.” And that meant that curriculum got downsized, and we were able to retreat, as a nation, into this notion that good education was just a test score, a test score on a standardized test where all the kids needed to do was to look at four boxes and say, “Oh, if I eliminate A and B, then I only have to have a guess between C and D.” And then you have a whole system across the United States where kids are doing these four boxes, making a good guess, and then if enough of them know how to make the good guess, we say we’ve improved achievement. We haven’t improved achievement. We haven’t improved performance. We’ve achieved — we’ve improved test scores. And the test scores may be, in fact, representative of very little other than the ability to take a test. And I ask you, if you finish high school, and you’ve got a test-taking skill, what can you do with it? Where can you —- I mean, we have kids now going -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Maybe they can get a job on Wall Street.

DIANE RAVITCH: You know — right, you learn how — no, it’s the test makers who learn how to do that. But, you know, we now have — as we see the graduation rate go up in some cities, we’re not seeing any change in the remediation rate when they go to college. And many of these kids go onto community college, and they find that — like in New York City, 75 percent of them are placed in remedial classes, and then they don’t last. They stay in college for a year or six months, and they’re gone, because they can’t read, write or do math. So we’re really — it’s a fraud that’s being perpetrated on the children.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, given the situation and that, as you say, both political parties now are invested in this, quote, “reform” model, what is your advice to a dedicated teacher out there or a parent who’s frustrated about what’s happening to their local public school about what they can do?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, you know, I’ve been going out — because I’ve got this new book, I’ve been going out and talking to different organizations. So I talked to, in California, the California Teachers Association. I talked to the American Association of School Administrators. And I’ll be talking at the American Federation of Teachers. And wherever I go, people always say, “Well, what can we do? We’re powerless.” And I say, “Well, you know, if you all get together, there are millions of you.” You know, if it’s the NEA and the AFT and all this alphabet-soup group — and everybody belongs to something — and everybody, it seems to me just from the hundreds of emails I’ve gotten in response to, you know, reviews and articles about, you know, here’s somebody finally standing up and saying this is a big fraud being perpetrated on the children and on the nation — and people are saying, “What can we do?” The organizations have to get together.

I think that one of the problems here is a political issue. Everybody knew how to criticize George W. Bush, but everyone’s afraid to criticize Obama. And we really have to get the word out that Obama has adopted the Republican agenda. And I think the Republican agenda was wrong, and his agenda is wrong, because it’s the same agenda. We really have to get to an agenda where the federal government sees its responsibility as being equity, as it has from 1965 up until just recently, when the role of the federal government was to make sure that the playing field was level. That’s what it did. It put in more money so that poor kids in poor districts got more money. And now it says, well, we’re going to incentivize. And this is what Obama has said. We’re going to take Title 1, which is your basic federal education money, and we’re going to attach it to test scores.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Ravitch, we want to thank you very much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: And congratulations on your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Thank you.

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StoryMar 05, 2010Leading Education Scholar Diane Ravitch: No Child Left Behind Has Left US Schools with Legacy of “Institutionalized Fraud”
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