Click here for part 2 of the Prospect's interview with the former assistant secretary of education.
Diane Ravitch is famous* for two things: championing the education-reform movement, then leading the opposition to it. The movement, which broadly supports an agenda that emphasizes student assessment (a.k.a. testing) and school choice (a.k.a. charter schools), has come to dominate American education policy. For the most part, both Democrats and Republicans now push to make school systems resemble economic markets. They want fewer teacher protections, more testing, and more charter schools for parents to choose from. President Barack Obama's Department of Education, headed by education reformer Arne Duncan, shares many policy goals with those of George W. Bush's administration. Ravitch herself was once part of the movement, promoting student assessments and helping to create voluntary academic standards. After serving as assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, she held positions at the pro-school-reform movement Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and was a member of the Koret Task Force at Stanford's Hoover Institution, which focuses on school choice and "accountability." But in 2009, Ravitch left both positions and wrote a book announcing her move to the other side of the debate.
After seeing "how these ideas were working out in reality," Ravitch writes in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she began to change her views. She now opposes charter schools and high-stakes testing. She writes and speaks frequently about the dangerous role that for-profit businesses have assumed in shaping education policy, and about the simultaneous risk that wealthy non-profit foundations like the Gates Foundation have too much clout in policymaking. Along with actor Matt Damon, she helped organize of 2011's Save Our Schools, a national rally opposing high-stakes testing and budget cuts to schools.
On a recent visit to Austin, Texas, Ravitch attracted big crowds at both a convention for school boards and administrators and at a public conversation held in a local high school. Then she sat down with me to talk about the Chicago teacher's strike, the politics of education reform, and the myth of a crisis in public education.
This is part one of our interview. Tomorrow, I'll offer more of Ravitch's views on charter schools, virtual schools, and the role of nonprofit foundations.
Do you think there is a crisis in American education?
No. I think the crisis in American education is that there is a concerted effort to destroy it. That is a crisis—that’s a genuine crisis. Is there a crisis of academic achievement? No.
First of all, the test scores are the highest they’ve ever been in history on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is a no-stakes test. The scores of white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, and Asian kids are the highest ever in history. What you hear from Bill Gates and [former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools] Michelle Rhee and all the others is we’re in a period of decline, all the schools are obsolete, the test scores are flat. Nonsense. They have been going up steadily for 40 years, and they are the highest they’ve been in history.
Number two, the graduation rates today are the highest in history. Number three, the dropout rates are the lowest in history.
Is there a crisis in American education? Yes: We have all these Wall Street-funded foundation people running around saying we have to get rid of public education and saying all these phony things about our schools.
But it's not just Wall Street, right? Both Democrats and Republicans have advocated more testing and more charter schools as key methods of improving public schools. In fact, education seems like one of the few areas where political party isn't a useful indicator of a politician's position. How do you see the political landscape for public schools?
The agenda of reform today is actually the traditional Republican agenda. The Republicans have been saying now since probably the 1960s that what’s needed is testing, accountability, choice, and competition. That is the conventional, traditional GOP agenda.
Democrats have said since the 1960s that what’s needed is resources, equality of opportunity, and equity. The Democratic agenda got lost. The Democrats are now embracing a Republican agenda. So when you say that there’s not a partisan divide, it’s because Obama and Duncan have embraced the GOP agenda. The GOP agenda is exactly the same as it was 40 years ago.
Is that reflected in the presidential race?
Romney’s totally on board with privatization. Everything that I write and speak against, he’s for. He was the governor of Massachusetts, and they had a very successful program—they invested millions in early childhood education. But he doesn’t claim credit for it. He wants to ditch all of that and put everything into privatization: He’s for vouchers, he’s for charters, he’s for online education. Everything that Jeb Bush wants, he wants. So I don’t have any hope there.
Obama’s only marginally better. Because unfortunately, as I said earlier, the Democrats, or at least Obama and Duncan, have signed on to the Republican agenda except for vouchers.
Barack Obama says all the right things and does all the wrong things. He says he’s against teaching to the test, but every part of Race to the Top [a major initiative from the U.S. Department of Education that allowed states to compete for funds by assigning points for which parts a reform agenda they already had in place or would implement] relies on teaching to the test. He says we want to reward the best teachers. How do you know who the best teachers are? They’re the ones whose students get the highest test scores. You’re encouraging people to teach to the test, and you're encouraging narrowing of the curriculum and you’re encouraging cheating.
Everything he’s doing is in opposition to what he’s saying. On my blog, I wrote a speech for him to give. He hasn’t given it yet. I’m not hopeful that he will change anything that he’s doing.
Texas, which has long been at the forefront of school reform, has seen a huge pushback against its new testing regime—from parents and school boards as well as teachers. A majority of school districts in the Lone Star State have passed resolutions criticizing or condemning the testing system. You spoke to the state conference for school administrators and school board members this morning. What did you tell them?
We have so overdosed on testing that it’s warping education. What I said to the superintendents and the school board members this morning was I quoted Robert Scott, your last school commissioner, that testing has become a vampire. [Scott referred to the state's testing system as "the heart of the vampire."] Texas has to be the place where a stake is driven through the heart of the vampire. And I was very, very encouraged, in fact I was very proud to be a Texan, because of all the anti-testing resolutions.
Here’s what I said to them this morning, for better or worse. I had a revolutionary moment and spontaneously, off my script, said that if I could recommend one thing to them, it would be that entire districts say, “We’re not giving the tests. We’re not giving the tests.”
The tests are flawed, they have all kinds of errors: They have statistical errors, random errors, measurement errors. Some of the questions are really stupid. And they are being used in ways they are not designed to be used. The first rule in the testing world is tests should be used only for the purpose for which they were designed. They are being misused. They were not designed to measure teachers or to measure schools or to fire teachers or to close schools. So we need to stop all these punitive uses and to stop the labeling of children, which I think is the worst message of testing.
The fundamental thing to understand about testing is that all these tests are normed on a bell curve. And the bell curve by its very nature has a bottom half and a top half. You can never close the gap between the bottom half and the top half. It is impossible. The top half is populated overwhelmingly by children from affluent homes. The bottom half is populated overwhelmingly by children of poverty. So you have chosen to use the one instrument that reinforces inequity and made that the state policy. So the way to drive the stake through the heart of the vampire is for a district to say, as an entire district, "We’re not giving the test this year." And if 100 districts say this, if 200 districts say it, that sends a pretty powerful message to the legislature. That we’re trying to find a better way to be held accountable, be accountable to our parents, be accountable to our students, and to figure out a better way to educate kids so they actually have an education instead of a test score.
What about the Common Core, a national set of standards that all but a handful of states are in the process of implementing? The effort to have a national set of goals has largely been spearheaded by the reform groups you push against. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding for the project, and the Obama administration made Race to the Top funding partially contingent on adopting the standards.) While we haven't seen the policy in action, it seems like an initiative that focuses more on the substance of what’s being taught in classrooms. Is there any potential there?
I have said I’m agnostic about Common Core, because it's never been tried anywhere [before]. I'd like to see it field-tested. My concern about Common Core is that it could actually expand the achievement gap. But I don’t know if that’s true, because no one’s ever tried it. I was invited to meet with people in the White House in the spring of 2010. I met with Melody Barnes, head of the domestic policy council; Roberto Rodriguez, who was the president’s education adviser; and Rahm Emanuel, who’s since gone to another job. And I said, try it out somewhere before you impose it on the whole nation. And they said, we don’t have time.
There’s this kind of pretense that the Obama administration had nothing to do with it; the governors did it. Not true. If you wanted to get Race to the Top funding, you had to have adopted the Common Core. The administration was pushing it very hard, and they didn’t want to test it.
If you said to me, “The Federal Drug Administration has a cure for some disease, but they don’t have time to test it," I would say, "I’m not going to try it."
We don’t know how it will work. I hate the fact that most schools interpret it to mean they have to cut back on literature and that kids need more nonfiction and less fiction—I think that’s absurd. There will be much more testing than there is today. Everything will be tested. They’ll be tested in every subject, pre-tested and post-tested. The testing will probably double.
What are the alternatives? If you were running for office, what would your education platform look like? What would be the two or three things to build a campaign around?
It would be to recognize, first of all, that public education is an essential institution in our democracy and that if you privatize public education, you’re stabbing democracy in the heart. That’s number one: Protect public education. And then if you’re concerned about closing the achievement gap, you do something serious about reducing poverty. Because poverty is the single biggest cause of the achievement gaps. If you’re looking to raise test scores, you would be focused on making health clinics available to children in poor neighborhoods. And you would have prenatal care for every woman who becomes pregnant. Those are the things that would increase test scores.
If you want to fix public education, then you have to do something about the lives that children lead. There are a lot of children coming from very desperate circumstances, and if you don’t attend to what their needs are, you’re not going to fix their problems. I think the health of children is crucial. You can't say, "I don’t want to talk about poverty, I don’t want to talk about families, I don’t want to talk about any of those community issues, I just want to talk about what can we do about the schools."
We also shouldn't have crazy unrealistic expectations. No Child Left Behind [the Bush-era law that expanded testing and made schools show how students of different races achieved] has been a disaster because of setting a goal of 100 percent proficiency. No state in the nation is anywhere close to 100 percent proficiency. I think Massachusetts is over the line at 50-plus percent, and no other state comes close to Massachusetts. So NCLB created a disaster. NCLB is a disaster. Once you establish these unrealistic expectations, you end up labeling schools everywhere as failed schools.
This is a way to destroy public education and set the schools up for privatization. And that’s a disaster for democracy. So if I were just looking at schools, I’d say don’t establish unrealistic expectations. Support the people that are working in schools and give them the respect and encouragement that they deserve because of the hard work they’re doing. And make sure that every school has a wonderful arts program. How hard is that? Make sure that every school is teaching history and geography and foreign languages and civics and mathematics and science—has a full program for all the kids.
The Chicago teacher’s strike, which just ended last week, focused heavily on some of those issues, like the need for more arts and music teachers. Did the strike help to change the national conversation around education?
The strike was a very important moment in current history. At least to the people who were paying attention, they realized this was not really a strike about money. Because the money issues had been resolved before the strike. It was not really an issue about a longer school day, because that had been resolved before the strike too. It was the teachers saying enough is enough. They’ve had almost 20 years of nonstop reform, and Chicago schools are still in trouble. They have schools that have no librarian, they have schools that have no arts teachers.
One of the things they resolved in the strike was to have textbooks on the first day of school. Now how hard is that?
I’m not a member of a labor union, but the value of the labor unions is that they provide a seat at the table when the legislature and the governor want to cut the budget. And when you take them away from the table, there’s nobody there to say, "Stop, you cannot take $5.4 billion out of the public schools" [as Texas lawmakers did in 2011]. Texas has effectively gotten rid of that voice. Wisconsin has gotten rid of that voice. Ohio is doing it’s best to get rid of that voice. In state after state, you have Republican governors killing the unions so that they don’t have to negotiate with anybody—they can just cut the budget.
In your view, is there any cause for hope right now in public schools? As someone fighting for a different agenda, do you see any chances for victory?
At a certain point, there has to be some kind of an awakening where people say this doesn’t work. Because it doesn’t work. Nothing they’re recommending works anywhere. What are their models of success? They’ll point to New York City, but no one in New York City would agree with that except the mayor. They’ll point to New Orleans, but New Orleans is actually a low-performing district in a low-performing state. Out of 70 districts in Louisiana, New Orleans ranks 69th. So that’s hardly a national model. Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee’s district, has the largest achievement gap in the entire country.
Where’s their model for success? I don’t see it. We’ve had [Teach for America] for 20 years—where’s the district that’s been turned around by TFA?
So here you have all these solutions that have solved nothing, and at some point there’s going to be an awakening.
I’m 74 years old. I will not be here to see the change. But I want to keep people aware of what good education is and keep them aware that they have to have a larger vision—what’s education about? It’s about knowledge, it’s about learning, it’s about character. It’s about non-cognitive skills. It’s about developing citizens. Why do we pay for public education in America? It’s not because we want to give job skills or prepare people for college. It’s because we want to have citizens who are going to sustain our democracy into the future.
Some questions were rephrased to provide context and clarity.
*Ravitch took issue with my characterization of her being famous for "championing the education reform movement, then leading the opposition to it." On her blog, she wrote: "The so-called reform movement of today didn’t exist until about five years ago, and by then I was on my way out the door. I don’t know if I was famous, but I’d like to think I got to be known among educators for the histories that I wrote, like The Great School Wars (a history of the NYC schools) in 1974; The Troubled Crusade (1983); Left Back (2000); and The Language Police (2003). Those books survive, and none is about testing/accountability/choice/competition."