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“Poverty Is the Problem”: Efforts to Cut Education Funding, Expand Standardized Testing Assailed

StoryAugust 26, 2011
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As millions of students prepare to go back to school, budget cuts are resulting in teacher layoffs and larger classes across the country. This comes as the drive toward more standardized testing increases despite a string of cheating scandals in New York, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and other cities. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also recently unveiled a controversial plan to use waivers to rewrite parts of the nation’s signature federal education law, No Child Left Behind. We speak to New York City public school teacher Brian Jones and Diane Ravitch, the former assistant secretary of education and counselor to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander under President George H. W. Bush, who has since this post dramatically changed her position on education policy. She is the author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As children across the nation head back to school, we turn now to a number of recent developments in education news. Here in New York, nearly 780 employees of the city’s Education Department will lose their jobs by October in the largest layoff at a single agency since Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2002. I reported in today’s Daily News that those layoffs are going to be hitting particularly hard the poorest school districts in the city. The layoffs stem from budget cuts to schools, which have occurred in each of the last four years. The cuts have cost more than 2,000 full-time public school teachers their assignments and now threaten the job security of more than 400 school aides and 82 parent coordinators.

At last month’s “Save Our Schools” rally in Washington, D.C., education author Jonathan Kozol criticized the drive toward fewer teachers and larger classes.

JONATHAN KOZOL: Class size is soaring in the poorest schools. I walk into classes with 35, 40, 42 children packed into a single room. Originality? Forget it. Creativity? Forget it. Critical thinking, asking questions? There’s no time for children to ask questions. If they learn to ask demanding questions, they might start to question why the people we elect to office will not keep their promises.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, a Manhattan appeals court ruled unanimously yesterday the City of New York should release performance rankings of thousands of public school teachers to the public. Known as “Teacher Data Reports,” the rankings grade more than 12,000 of the city’s 75,000 public school teachers based on how much progress their students make on state standardized tests. The teachers’ union opposes the ruling, arguing the reports are deeply flawed, subjective measurements that were intended to be confidential.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The court decision comes just days after the New York Times reported that annual allegations of test tampering and grade changing by educators have more than tripled since Mayor Bloomberg took control of New York City’s school system. The revelation is the latest in a string of cheating scandals across the nation. In Atlanta, a recent government probe found that 44 schools and 178 teachers and principals had been faking standardized test scores for the past decade.

Matt Batesky, a global history teacher at Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, criticized the emphasis on school testing.

MATT BATESKY: One of the things that we do constantly now is just test prep all the time. Our curriculum is basically, “Here is our test. How can we get our students to pass it?” because it’s so high stakes that if the students don’t pass it, they don’t graduate. And if they don’t graduate, you know, that hurts the student and it also hurts our school.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In other education news, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to use waivers to rewrite parts of the nation’s signature federal education law, No Child Left Behind. The controversial law’s reauthorization has been stalled in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to discuss these developments, we’re joined now 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 20 books, a research professor of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book chronicles how and why she decided to break with 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.

We’re also joined by Brian Jones, a Harlem elementary school teacher for the last eight years, a member of the Grassroots Education Movement and narrator of a documentary called The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.

Diane Ravitch and Brian Jones, thanks so much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: And I just wanted to start by saying, as we were playing Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Diane, you said you were there.

DIANE RAVITCH: I was. I was at the Mall and marched, and it was one of the great moments of my life. So I’m very happy I had that chance to hear him.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s move from the 1963 March on Washington and the dream that Dr. King had to where you think education is today.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, we have been, for at least the last decade and more, trapped in this standardized testing obsession. And we have the No Child Left Behind law, which George W. Bush sponsored, and it was overwhelmingly endorsed by Congress in 2001. And it has imposed on the schools utopian goals that, by the year 2014, 100 percent of children will be proficient. And if they’re not proficient, your principal will be fired, the teachers will be fired, the school will be closed, or it will be turned over to private management or turned into a charter school.

So, I can’t imagine what they were thinking, except that there was this idea that there had been a Texas miracle. That’s what George W. Bush ran on, was the Texas miracle. And we now know there was no Texas miracle. And yet we’re stuck with a law that no one has the wits to change, and it just stays there, crushing schools across the country with standardized testing. So we had, for example, President Obama in his State of the Union address this year said the most important way to win the future is to encourage innovation, creativity and imagination. We will never do that with the route that we’re taking now, with all of this emphasis on high-stakes testing and attacking teachers. And, you know, what’s going on across the country—budget cutting in state after state, increasing class sizes—this is all terrible for the future.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you hear about all of these testing scandals now that are breaking out, where obviously educators, under pressure to produce results so that they can save their jobs, are erasing test results—but not just a few, we’re talking about, in the case of Atlanta, possibly Washington, D.C., and some other cities, massive fraud that’s gone on.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, there was a pretty dramatic scandal in Washington, D.C., which USA Today broke open. And that was, there was one particularly celebrated school, where the principal had gotten awards. He was used in advertisements for the district: “Do you want to be the next…” — and they had his picture and names in the ads. He’s resigned, because the rate of erasures in his school, from wrong to right, was so dramatic, they said you could win the Powerball more easily than come up with this rate of erasures. So, we’re seeing these scandals because we have a system that incentivizes cheating. We’re saying to people, if you don’t meet a goal that we know is impossible, you’ll be fired.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how the cheating exactly works. The teachers switch the answers after the kids hand in, so the kids don’t even know that their answers have been changed?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, there are many ways to cheat, and I’m sure that Brian has seen—I’m sure he hasn’t done it, but he knows the ways. But it’s been documented in Washington and Baltimore and Atlanta. There were people—there were teachers and principals literally changing the answers from wrong to right, and they were going through these Scantron sheets and making the erasures. And so, there was an electronic analysis. Interestingly enough, New York City, when mayoral control began, eliminated the erasure analysis, which is the easiest way to see that the answers had been changed from wrong to right or right to wrong. They’re usually almost always changed from wrong to right. That’s one way.

There are other ways in which you can not test certain children, discourage them from coming to school, because they’re low-scoring, keep those kids out of your school, which some schools do. Particularly charter schools will push out low-performing kids or simply not accept them. And then there’s statewide institutionalized cheating. New York State saw its test scores go up year after year. And then, last year, after the mayoral election, announced that the test scores that we had boasted about for so many years were actually not true, and all the scores dropped across the state. That was institutionalized cheating.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the state did that merely by changing what they would consider the number of questions had to be answered right to reach a certain level.


JUAN GONZALEZ: So, and basically dumbed down the—

DIANE RAVITCH: They dropped the passing mark.


AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to use waivers to rewrite parts of the nation’s signature federal education law, No Child Left Behind. I want to turn to a clip of the interview he recently did on CNN.

BROOKE BALDWIN: What will these schools have to prove, have to offer, to get a waiver?

SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: Well, we’re still working through that package. We will announce the final package next month after Labor Day. But I’ve tried to hit on a couple of the key points. Where there are high standards, we want to partner with folks. Where they’re dumbing down standards, reducing them, that’s not a state we want to partner with. Where districts and states are focusing on growth and gain rather than absolute test scores, how much are folks improving, we want to work with them. Where they’re being very thoughtful and creative around teacher and principal evaluation, we want to work with them.


SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN: Where they’re willing to challenge the status quo in very low-performing schools, dropout factories, where 50, 60, 70 percent of students are dropping out—where we’re seeing real courage, Brooke, that’s where we want to partner.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Ravitch, what about these waivers?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, he’s giving states—or offering them a waiver from the mandates of No Child Left Behind and substituting the mandates he likes, none of which have any evidence behind them. When he talks about improving teacher evaluation, what he really means is Race to the Top things like judging teachers by test scores. There is hardly a testing expert in the country who thinks that this is a good idea, and there is none that I’ve been able to find who thinks it’s a good idea to release these ratings to the media, because they are largely inaccurate.

They say you can identify those at the extremes, the best and the worst. And frankly, if you have a principal who doesn’t know who their best and worst teachers are, they’re not a very good principal. But in the middle, there is so much inaccuracy, instability, that they’re—not worthless, but they should be confidential. What Secretary Duncan is doing is saying, if you want to get the federal funding, you have to evaluate teachers by test scores, you have to be prepared to close schools. This is NCLB brought up to an even higher level. And you also have to be prepared to increase the number of charter schools, which are private management.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Brian Jones, you’re a teacher in the trenches. Can you talk about the pressures on teachers these days with this emphasis on standardized testing and what it means actually to the kind of work that you do?

BRIAN JONES: Well, to me, the students are cheated even before the test is taken. Look, the cheating, the real social cheating, happens in the way that the high-stakes standardized testing distorts school itself.

Let me tell one story. I was doing a science experiment with a group of fourth graders. We were in the middle of a week-long science experiment, and we had—everyone had trays out on their tables, and they were pouring and mixing and investigating. We were having all kinds of rich discussions. And an administrator came in and said, “You have to stop what you’re doing right now,” handed—put down a pile of workbooks and said, “You have to begin doing this right now.” I begged her, in front of the students, “Please, let us just finish this experiment right now, in the next few minutes, and then we’ll do that.” She said, “No, you have to put all this away right now and get working on the workbooks.” So, the kids are cheated ahead of time. It teaches teachers to jump through these hoops, to not encourage critical thinking. It teaches all of us that knowledge is somewhere produced by Pearson or by one of these test companies, and you can’t create it, you can’t investigate it, you can’t do any of that. All you have to do is, more or less, remember it.

Here’s another way students are cheated. In elementary school, which I teach, we tend to go through genre studies. We take a genre of literature at a time and go through it. Well, now what more and more schools are doing is teaching the test itself as a genre—that is, studying the features of a test, as you would a novel, or as you would historical fiction or mysteries. You’re laughing, but this is very serious. Any teacher watching this knows what I’m talking about, that you, in elementary school, in many schools, especially the schools where that gun to the head is already cocked—in the poorest schools, in the schools that teach the most disadvantaged students, students of color, in schools in Harlem—you have to teach students how to take a test. You have to tell eight-year-olds about multiple choice, right? And the thing that gets me is that the, you know, wealthy individuals who promote these policies send their own kids to schools that look nothing like that, where inquiry is promoted, where they don’t spend all day obsessing about how they’re going to do on someone else’s test.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In the private schools, where athletics starts in the third grade—

BRIAN JONES: Of course, right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —with teams of all kinds of intramural teams that the schools have.

BRIAN JONES: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: When does testing start?

BRIAN JONES: Well, it depends on the school, but I’ve seen schools that begin right away, that begin the first week of school, where they begin with pretests to try to, you know, tell the kids—if you ask a kid in Harlem—go to any school in Harlem and ask a young elementary school student, “What’s the point of school? Why are you here?” They’ll tell you, “It’s to pass tests, so that I can get a job.”

There’s nothing about—you know, I heard Jonathan Kozol speak at the Save Our Schools march, and he said something that really stayed with me. He said, at the wealthy schools, at your Phillips Exeter and Andover Academies, you know, those kids get to feast on the treasures of the earth. They get to enjoy literature and savor it. And they get to savor their savoring of it. And in our schools, too often kids are given these kind of cardboard passages that are meant to show them what a noun is. But there’s no joy in it. And there’s no—I would argue there’s no real learning.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, and we’ll come right back. Brian Jones, Harlem elementary school teacher, and Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Brian Jones, an elementary school teacher in Harlem for eight years, also an actor, and Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education. We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Diane Ravitch, I want to ask you about the business side of all of this education reform, not only in terms of the testing companies, but increasingly the new wave of reform now is the question of online learning. The school’s chancellor of New York City, Joel Klein, resigned to go work for Rupert Murdoch in a company that Rupert Murdoch bought that’s going to specialize in basically replacing the teacher in the classroom with online learning. Could you talk about that?

DIANE RAVITCH: Sure. There is a narrative. You can read about it in Chubb and Moe’s most recent book called Liberating Learning, where they imagine online learning replacing teachers, where there’s a teacher somewhere, let’s say, in a barn in Kansas monitoring 100 or 200 computer screens, 24/7. And I recall that Chancellor Klein said at the time, we could reduce our teaching staff by 30 percent if we could have more online learning. New York is now investing—I forget how many hundreds of millions of dollars—in IT contracts, technology contracts, because they see online learning as the future.

I can tell you, because I reviewed the research just last night, because I was having a Twitter debate with someone, there is no research behind this. They say, “We don’t have any evidence.” Personally, I believe that children need teachers. They need an adult, a grown-up. They need the interaction with other students to talk about things, to debate, to discuss. What I’ve heard from many people is children sitting at home on a computer interacting with a blinking screen, all they’re doing is answering questions. And frankly, you don’t know who answered the questions. If they submit an essay, you don’t know who wrote the essay.

But we have states like Florida now mandating online courses. The state of Utah, where the state superintendent ran for office with huge contributions from online companies, is mandating online learning. Rupert Murdoch gave a speech not long ago, when he bought this company Wireless Generation. He bought it for $360 million, and he said at that time, “This is a $500 billion industry, and we want to be the leader in that industry.” So there is a lot of money in play here and no evidence that it’s going to improve kids’ education. And, you know, my view is, it’s the poor will get computers, the rich will get computers and teachers.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about big business, big business and the tests.

DIANE RAVITCH: Right. And the testing industry itself is a multibillion-dollar industry that has grown and fattened over the past decade. Pearson, for example, McGraw-Hill, the two big ones. Pearson has a $500 million contract with the state of Texas, another, I forget how many, hundreds of millions with Florida. Now they’ve just taken the New York contract. This is a multibillion-dollar enterprise. So, it will be very difficult to back away from what we’re locked into now, the kind of intellectual wasteland of so many of our public schools, because there is big business in keeping it this way.

BRIAN JONES: And if you publish the test, then the school is—I mean, they would be suicidal not to purchase the test preparation materials made by the same company that makes the test. So think about all those disposable workbooks that you have to then buy every year, in huge quantities, for every student.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Brian, you were heavily involved with this film, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.

BRIAN JONES: Right, right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Clearly, Waiting for Superman had a major impact across the country, in terms of this debate and was very much promoted by some of the television networks, as well. Why did you get involved in that, and what were you trying to do with the counter-documentary?

BRIAN JONES: Well, this film was made, Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman was made, by a group called the Grassroots Education Movement. And we just felt that the film, having seen it, was so outrageous and so full of lies and slander and so slanted, before we even had done the homework of figuring out who was really behind it and who had funded it and all of that, just on its own, on its face value. But the other thing about the film is it was so effective. It was such a well-made film. I mean, it really takes you in. It’s artfully done, a beautifully made film. So, we thought, well, you know, we might have some idea how to use iMovie, and maybe we can make our own film. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Who funded Waiting for Superman?

BRIAN JONES: Oh, well, it’s funded by all of the same forces that you’ve—it’s the same names that have lined up again and again. It’s actually escaping my mind at the moment. Do you remember?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I can tell you that the two major producers—

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Gates was among them.

DIANE RAVITCH: No, the two major producers were Participant Media, whose CEO was previously the CEO of a for-profit chain of post-secondary institutions, vocational schools, for-profit. And the other company, Walden Media, is headed by a very conservative billionaire named Philip Anschutz, who contributes to the Discovery Institute, which is against evolution, and to all the right-wing think tanks that advocate for privatization and vouchers.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor spoke with author Lois Weiner about teacher unions. She’s the author of The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and Their Unions. I wanted to play a clip from that interview.

LOIS WEINER: Unlike school boards, unions are membership organizations. And we can’t just blame union leaders. We have to understand that the issue here is that teachers don’t see the unions as vehicles for struggle. And I think that if that—I think that if that doesn’t happen, we really are going to see the destruction of public education in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lois Weiner. Brian Jones, talk about the relationship between teachers and unions.

BRIAN JONES: Well, I think right now what we’ve seen is that teachers need to be more active in their unions. There needs to be a movement of ordinary teachers to challenge what we see, because we’re the ones who see it it happening in the classroom. I think we need to unite with parents and try to build a kind of social justice unionism that takes on not only questions of our working conditions, which are learning conditions, but also questions of curriculum and pedagogy. The group I’m a part of, the Grassroots Education Movement,, is trying to do just that right here in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds. Can you address the issue of unions and teachers?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, to me, the big issue today is there’s a narrative that says teachers are the problem in American education. I have been arguing poverty is the problem. We tie right into your segment on Dr. King. Poverty is the problem. Thirty-five percent of black kids live in poverty. Twenty percent of all American kids live in poverty. That’s the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Ravitch, Brian Jones, thanks so much for being with us.

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