Q&A with Diane Ravitch, author, New York University professor

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A Catalyst Conversation with Diane Ravitch from Catalyst Chicago on Vimeo.

 

Earlier this spring, Catalyst hosted a conversation for its members with Diane Ravitch, a prominent education scholar who made big waves when she reversed ground and came out against such controversial measures as charters and high-stakes testing and accountability. The title of her new book is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” This is an edited transcript of remarks during the Catalyst Conversation.

A Catalyst Conversation with Diane Ravitch from Catalyst Chicago on Vimeo.

 

Earlier this spring, Catalyst hosted a conversation for its members with Diane Ravitch, a prominent education scholar who made big waves when she reversed ground and came out against such controversial measures as charters and high-stakes testing and accountability. The title of her new book is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” This is an edited transcript of remarks during the Catalyst Conversation.

My change of heart

I guess the first question that people ask is, “Why did you change your mind? You were such a strong advocate of accountability and charter schools and the like.”  The main reason is: I live in New York City. I began to see the consequences of the policies that I thought would be helpful. There are a lot of bad things happening that just went unreported and uncorrected.

Charter schools: dashed hopes

I was hopeful that charters might be something along the lines that Al Shanker [the late president of the American Federation of Teachers] described. Public teachers could create charters. They would take the hardest-to-educate kids. And then they would return to the public schools to say this is what we’ve learned, free of all regulations. We’ve now figured a better way to help kids who are unmotivated, unwilling, un-engaged.
    
It’s turned into a competitive force. Most of the people behind the charter movement are coming from the voucher movement, and they see it as a way to drive public education into the ground.  This is obviously not true of all charter operators. There are some who are trying to live the original vision, but they’re a minority at this point.  

What we see in New York City and, I think, other places in the country is charters taking a smaller proportion of limited-English-proficient students, almost never taking kids with severe disabilities — because they can’t handle them – and, in many cases, taking a smaller percentage even of kids with mild disabilities. [They are] taking very tiny percentages of kids who are homeless, tiny percentages of immigrant children.  

Ninety-five percent of charter schools in this country are non-union schools. They will try to keep the workforce very young. They’ll have competitive salaries but only at the lowest level.
 
Are we going to forget about the system?  Will we, 10 years from now or 20 years from now, have a better American educational system because we focused on expanding the 3 percent to 6 percent? 

Charter transparency needed

At the very least, we should demand, since they’re receiving public funds, transparency.  I don’t know of a state that has a requirement that they report on where the money goes.  I know of charters that have like 400 to 500 kids and a management company earning $1 million a year to drill the kids.  It’s a big money-making thing.

We need financial transparency and transparency about who is working in them, what their qualifications are, what their curriculum is. That would be a good beginning because, if they’re going to call themselves public schools, which they do, they should be transparent.

I think they should also be required to have at least the same proportion of LEP kids, homeless kids. They should not close their doors to the kids with the greatest needs.  

Closing schools

Closing schools destroys the community, and this is actually what the businessmen want. We already are getting that in New York City, where we no longer have students, we have consumers. We no longer have a public for public education, we have consumers.  You shop around and pick a school and if you’re lucky, you get in. If you’re not lucky, you go someplace else.  That destroys communities and when you destroy communities, you destroy the network of parents, churches, institutions that surround kids with the sense of somebody cares about you and your behavior matters to people.

Teacher voice

[My] book was out of print for three weeks, but now it’s going to be number 16 on the [New York] Times Bestseller List. I believe that sales are being driven by teachers primarily, because they feel that their voice is not being heard. There’s a calculated effort to keep them from being heard and to have all the decisions made by, first of all, the big foundations, the Gates and Broad foundations; the editorial boards; the think tanks (funded by Gates and Broad). It’s just this big circle of the most powerful forces — all these guys who think they know how to fix education.  . . . They just talk to each other.  

My book is the counter-narrative. It says the single biggest indicator of low achievement is poverty, and they don’t want to hear that. They say that’s just an excuse.

Bill Gates

Who would I like to have a 30-minute sit down with, or maybe a 60-minute sit down? Bill Gates. Bill Gates is now running the nation’s education system.  Maybe Eli Broad, but I’ve talked to Eli Broad, and he’s unapproachable.  I’d like to have an hour with Bill Gates. If he took his vast fortune and used it wisely, everything would change.

Vouchers

When I was speaking at Harvard earlier this week, I was told that I had misinterpreted all the voucher research – [that] it was really very positive.  It’s not positive. Milwaukee and Cleveland have vouchers — Milwaukee since 1990, Cleveland since 1995. They have nothing to show for it. So the voucher people say, Oh forget about them; let’s just look at [Washington] D.C., where we actually had a good evaluation in the third year.  I say, yeah, but only for girls, only in reading, only for those who came from higher-performing schools. Not for the lowest-performing kids.

Race to the Top

Race to the Top is a disaster.   It is bribing states to expand the number of privately managed schools. One thing I think I’ve learned over the years of looking at education research as well as education history is that you can make something successful on a very small scale and when it expands, the quality diminishes. You’ll see more profit-seeking corporations coming in and creating charter chains, and they will be interested mainly in the money, not in the kids. That’s my prediction.  

Number two, which is the most toxic thing in Race to the Top, is to say that teachers should be evaluated by their student test scores.  There is no evidence that this will make for better schools.  The evidence is that it will cause fanatical, obsessive teaching to the test. Arne Duncan goes around the country saying the tests are no good but we’re going to judge teachers on them.

We have this legislature in Florida passing a law saying 50 percent of teachers’ salaries will be based on test scores.  Even if they are value-added [measures], the evidence is not there. 

Then when people say, well how will we evaluate the teachers, the answer is two words: human judgment. That’s what we do in most other professions. We trust that they have supervisors who know their work better than we do.

Testing

The problem for me is not the testing. The problem is accountability. The problem is the high-stakes nature of testing.  

I guess you can keep the scores going up because New York State has done it, but then the fraud got revealed that the state was dropping the cut scores. Illinois did the same thing. Illinois re-engineered the scores.

I think just removing the penalties would be a big step forward and then we could begin to sort out everything else.  

Chicago

If I had my book to do over, I think I would have done a chapter on Chicago because Chicago is really the starting point for so many of the things that have gone wrong.  

Good schools

I’d say that for a school to be good, it must have a full and balanced curriculum.  It must have a full program in the arts. . . .  I half-jokingly say that the one federal mandate I’d like to see would be for every child to have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. The reason I say this is because I think that’s the perfect antidote to almost everything.  When you play a musical instrument, you have to learn the value of practice, practice, practice. Nobody else can do it for you. You can’t download it from the Internet. You learn self-discipline. You have to do it alone. You have to do it in groups.

What we need

What we need is the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for education, and I don’t mean by that spend $200 billion more, although we probably will.

We should have a long-term plan in which we improve the quality of the teaching force, have higher educational expectations for those who come into teaching.  We should begin to think about an improved profession, better assessments and insisting on this vision of education in which kinds get a broad, rich and coherent curriculum, rather than basic skills only.  

On Catalyst

With the Internet, people are inundated now, but they do need places like Catalyst to filter the news and say this is important, this is not important, this is what matters. . . . Being here makes me wish we had a Catalyst in New York City and we don’t have a Catalyst for a reason.  . . . Every foundation [in New York City] has a particular association, it seems, with our mayor, a man who is worth $20 billion, who wields enormous power and who gives away $125 million a year in philanthropic donations. . . . No one funds anything that might offend our mayor.