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.

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