Diane Ravitch on the "Effort to Destroy Public Ed"

Diane Ravitch receiving a National Education Association award in 2010.

Click here to read part 1 of the Prospect's interview with the former assistant secretary of education.

When Diane Ravitch changed her mind about education reform, she became one of the leading critics of a movement that dominates American 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.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System excoriates the reform movement, arguing there's virtually no evidence that any of the agenda—school choice, testing, and the like—have improved public education. 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 nonprofit foundations like the Gates Foundation have too much clout in policymaking. Along with actor Matt Damon, she helped organize 2011's Save Our Schools, a national rally opposing high-stakes testing and budget cuts to schools. 

I sat down with Ravitch while she was visiting Austin, Texas. (She attracted big crowds at both a convention for school boards and administrators and at a public conversation held in a local high school.) On Monday I posted our conversation about the Chicago teachers' strike, the politics of education reform, and the myth of a crisis in public education. Here is part two of the interview, in which Ravitch addresses the proper role of charter schools, the potentials and pitfalls of technology, and what people can do to really help American schools.

You've been a vocal critic of charters and school choice, arguing that they weed out the students who are difficult to educate and weaken traditional schools. Instead, you've advocated for neighborhood schools, saying they promote a better community of parents and teachers working together. But are there any areas in which public schools could learn from charters? For instance, when it comes to a longer school day, as the high-performing KIPP Academies have?

I think the charter-school movement has as much to learn from public schools as public schools from charter schools. I don’t see any examples of where the charter school movement has been so successful that public schools ought to be learning from them. I hear this question all the time: Why aren’t they learning from charters? Well, there are a lot of terrible charters. Why should we be learning from them? Why aren’t they learning from the best public schools?

Is the success of charters—those few that are successful—is it because they have longer school days or because they are selecting their students?

I started out being supportive of charters. Then I became agnostic on charters. Then I became skeptical of charters. And I now think that charter schools are leading us to having a dual school system again. We’re going back to the period before Brown v. Board of Education, but the differentiation in the future will be based on class instead of race.

Do you think there are any lesson to be learned from charter schools?

Yes: Take out the low-performing kids and get high scores. That’s the lesson.

So a longer school day—does that make sense?

Not necessarily. I mean, the issue in the Chicago strike—one of the issues—was that Rahm Emanuel wanted a longer school day and the teachers said we want a better school day. Longer doesn’t necessarily translate into better. If your school doesn’t have a library, if you don’t have any arts and music programs, why is more time better? Is it more time for test prep? No, it’s not better.

Are there any charter models that you could see yourself supporting? Is there a way a charter school could, in your view, experiment with new approaches and strengthen education?

I actually have a template for what a charter should be. The original idea was that charters would be designed for the kids who were failing—not for the kids who were the very best kids in the poor community, but for the kids who were totally turned off. Charters would be designed for the kids who had already dropped out. They would literally take the kids off the street and bring them back into school and figure out: What can we do to reignite an interest in learning? What can we do to save these kids?

There are very few such charters because of No Child Left Behind. Because No Child Left Behind has incentivized everyone to think, "How do I get the best test scores?" You don’t get the best test scores by bringing in the dropouts and bringing in the kids who have tuned out. You get the best test scores by kicking those kids out of your charter.

Charters would be fine if they focused on the kids who were the lowest-performing kids. And then [they could] come to the public schools and say, "Hey, we’ve learned something new, we want to share this with you because we’re part of the same system we want to help." Instead, charters have become a competitor to see who can get the highest test scores.

I would also want to see in my ideal world a cap on charter-school compensation and an absolute ban on any for-profit charters. So If you took out the for-profit charters, if you limited executive compensation to no more than that of the superintendent in the local school district, if you focused on the lowest-performing kids, then I think charters could play a very valuable role. But their current role is destructive and will lead to a resegregation of American society along class lines. We’re already segregated, and they’ll do nothing but make it deeper.

You’ve also been highly critical of the role that nonprofit foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have played in shaping policy. All three organizations have put millions into different parts of the education-reform movement. Gates has pushed states to embrace charter schools and use student test scores to evaluate teachers. Is there any future path in which it can play what you would consider a positive role?

Gates could conceivably play a more positive role if they could understand the negative effects of what they’re doing. I think that over time they will understand it, just as they started with the idea that everything had to be the small school and after eight or ten years of that, they decided that didn’t work and they dropped that.

Maybe they’ll figure out that the big problem in American education is that kids don’t have adequate health care. When you come to school and you can’t hear what the teacher's saying, or you can’t see what she’s doing, and when you have asthma and all of these health issues—maybe if they moved on to that, that would be a very positive role. Because then they would talk about having a nurse in every school, a health clinic kids can go to, regular checkups. That would be very positive. I have some hope for Gates.

There's also been a lot of discussion about the role technology should play in education—how much schools should spend on computers and iPads and whether a school experience that occurs entirely online might be a more efficient replacement for traditional schools. How do you see technology best fitting into the classroom? 

In order to do the Common Core testing, [a national set of standards that all but a handful of states are in the process of implementing], everyone’s going to have to buy more computers because everything’s going to have to be online. I just published an article on the blog by a Republican representative from from South Carolina who said this whole thing is going to come crashing down because we can’t afford the technology. So there’s different questions about technology. Should kids learn how to use computers? Of course they should. Do kids already know how to use computers? Of course they do. Should schools invest more in having more technology? Probably.

But should children be learning online? No. And the big push is coming from Jeb Bush and his buddies to develop more virtual schools because it makes a load of money. It’s a huge cash cow.

I talked this morning about the research on the online schools. It’s terrible. Did you read the NEPC report on [online education company] K12 Inc.? There was a CREDO study of charter schools in Pennsylvania. And what it said was compared with all the public schools, the charter schools are not as good as regular schools. And the worst of all the charter schools were the online schools—absolute worst.  

Out of 12 online charter schools in Pennsylvania, only one of them has ever made [Adequate Yearly Progress, the improvement targets mandated by No Child Left Behind]. Why haven’t they been closed down? They opened four more, now they’ll have 16 online charter schools. These are huge cash cows. And the biggest of them all is called the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. They just make so much money they don’t know what to do with it. The FBI is now investigating them. They’ve got 11,000 students who bring $10,000 each, and the special-ed kids $23,000 each. Because of the funding. Because the Republican governor wants to have anything other than public schools.

They provide no building, no custodians, no nurses, no playground, no library. They just have a computer and textbooks and they bring in about $110 million a year. They’re rolling in dough. They’ve got so many subsidiary companies, and they’re all run by friends and ex-employees.

The bottom line with the cyber charters is this: They provide a really lousy education. The kids drop out like crazy; many of them have an attrition rate of 50 percent a year, so they have to constantly recruit to bring in fresh bodies. They have very low graduation rate, very bad test scores, very high attrition rates, and they’ll have  one teacher monitoring 100 screens. So what is there to like? Why do the politicians keep doing this? It’s because the companies hire lobbyists, make campaign contributions, and they’re politically very wired. This is the great scandal.

What do you say to parents whose children go to a traditional public school and are dissatisfied with that school? What should they do?

They should get involved in their school. They should make sure their school has adequate funding. They should talk to the principal, they should talk to the teachers. They should get involved with the parent association.

Corporations aren’t going to put more money into the school, they’re only going to make money. This should make people in America angry. There ought to be a public uprising about this effort to destroy public education.

If traditional public schools are doing a pretty good job as you say, why do so many people seem to think they need to be fixed?

They have heard it from the media now for 30 years. If you look at the Gallup poll, people give negative marks to public education. It’s fairly low right now; maybe 20 percent give public schools an A or a B. If you ask them about the school they know, 77 percent say, "Oh, my public school’s great." The reason they say that is because they know their school, they know the teachers in their school, and their school’s doing a good job for their kids. If you ask them about American education, though, they’ll tell you what Bill Gates says, they’ll tell you what George W. Bush says, they’ll tell you what Arne Duncan says. They’ll tell you what they heard on Fox News. Because that’s what they know about American education—it’s all bad news. But ask them about the school they know; they think it’s great.

Some questions were rephrased to provide context and clarity.


Do your research before making statements like this.

"The bottom line with the cyber charters is this: They provide a really lousy education. The kids drop out like crazy; many of them have an attrition rate of 50 percent a year, so they have to constantly recruit to bring in fresh bodies. They have very low graduation rate, very bad test scores, very high attrition rates, and they’ll have one teacher monitoring 100 screeens."

Spoken like someone who has NO CLUE about what cybers do. They fill a need for students who are not successful in a traditional school. Individualized learning works better than a classroom for many students. Teachers provide one-on-one instruction through much of the day. Brick and mortar schools need to innovate

Everyone agrees that the funding needs to be addressed, but cyber charter schools fill a need. Some do it better than others, but traditional schools are losing students NOT because cybers are recruiting, but because traditional classrooms don't work for everyone.

And for the charter-bashing, I'd refer you to the AYP results for 2011-2012. Statewide, 49.85 percent of traditional school districts made AYP, compared to 58.97 percent of Pennsylvania’s charter schools. And most of these charter schools are inner-city, which is a challenging student body to begin with.

The simplest way to debunk online charters is, under the clause of "Do No Harm", to accept the fact they are breaking a simple rule involving screen time usage. It is not healthy to sit and look at a screen for 6 hours. I can understand using online classes to fill in voids at schools were certain offerings are not available, such as Latin, etc.... But this full-fledged online schooling movement for kids is not healthy in terms of physiology.

In terms of making AYP, it can be just as hard, if not harder, for schools in middle class and upper class areas to make AYP, especially in terms of growth. Being "inner-city" can sometimes have its advantages in terms of the ability to make AYP.

Secondly, if you are so inclined to publish data about the success of charters in PA, it might be a good idea to publish their attrition rates, among other details.

Many times, instances of "miracles" are not so miraculous at when ALL the data is analyzed.

One more point too - how did these charters get their students? Do they hold a lottery? Did the drug dealers show up for the lottery in this "inner-city" environment?

It's easy to pull students out of a school, especially ones that are motivated enough to make a lottery, educate them in a different environment, and holler "victory".

Have you researched how much of this time is spent in front of a screen? I have seen students in online classes outside making cloud observations, in their kitchen measuring the rate of water flow from the sink, and sitting in their favorite chair with a novel. Online education does not mean they're plopped in a cubicle for a whole day. It means that their work is submitted to a teacher via the internet. Yes- they will have more screen time than the average student, but most schools are asynchronous and students can work whenever they want, wherever they want. This allows nearly limitless travel, sports, and hobbies. Think outside the box, people. Most attrition likely comes from lack of socialization or motivation. Online education takes a certain level of student- but who are we to hold them back with the rest of their class? Or to tell them that they must report to school and be bullied? Online education is not the solution to everything, but we're putting on blinders if we're saying that it's not a HUGE part of the future.

I can agree with this to some extent. I remember in the 1980's when PACE was used - lessons were mailed to students, they read, learned, and were assessed by sending a test back through the mail. I get it.

But placing a student in a warehouse behind a computer, and having one teacher monitor 100 screens, makes no sense.

But virtual schooling at home makes some sense for the older crowd, I will admit. If it helps students, I'm for it.

But studies have shown dismal results for online learners. So something is not computing. Maybe we already need to reform virtual schooling?

If Charters are all about kids, why do they need to profit. ?

If hospitals are all about health, why do they need to profit? If colleges are all about education, why do they need to profit? If military contractors are all about defense, why do companies like Lockheed need to profit?
If you don't like for-profit schools, then choose one of the many non-profit charter schools. Actually- the highest performing cyber charter school in PA (21st Century) IS a public, nonprofit charter school.
Raising the bar for our schools is the only way we can demand more from our education system. I wholeheartedly support public education in every way and I am happy to pay local taxes to support teachers and students in my home district. Education drives communities.
We need to realize that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Are hospitals publicly funded? Colleges and military need a profit to drive innovation.

Education is simpler, and it is exclusively driven by taxpayers. We don't need competition in schools, we need schools to be good. Competition relies on weaker competitors to fail, and the stronger to endure. That's not the way to run schools - putting some kids in harm's way so that a certain crowd can endure.

School choice can logically make sense if all students can attend the best schools, and we know that is impossible. The idea that some kids should get better education than others is appalling. Of course, those of us that really know about U.S. public schools know that it's not primarily about the quality of the school or it's teachers, its about the quality of our schools which largely rests on the income level of his/her parents. U.S. public schools that show dismal results show them because of the quality of clientele. It's hard to educate drug dealers. Have you ever tried? I have and do.

Anyways, why break up the successful public schools? They have done nothing but good over the last 60 years. How do you describe such a successful nation as the U.S. over the past 60 years without attributing that success to its public schools? 90% of citizens were educated by public schools, and they have done some tremendous things.

..."its about the quality of our students..." sorry - not "schools".

2 reasons teapublicans want to abolish public education.

#1 Curriculum: Teapublicans want to open the window to primitive and superstitious curricula such as creationism.

#2 $$$$$$$$$: Teapublicans want for the need for tax revenue to decrease so they can fill their pockets with more unearned income. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Register and Vote NOW!

Ravitch's answer to the last question is dead on. Everything we hear about public schools from the left and the right makes people thing that schools are terrible. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of schools are just fine. Now, the bottom quarter of schools are where the problems lie. It's the bottom 20-25% that account for the overwhelming majority of school violence and the disparities in achievement. However, to "fix" those schools you have to "fix" the neighborhoods those schools serve.

I suspect charter schools will outperform public schools because the later require parental action to change. If you have parents concerned about edcation rather than day-care custody, then you are well on your way to a successful education.

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