An interview with Diane Ravitch

Dr. Diane Ravitch

Dr. Diane Ravitch is a polarizing figure in the education world. From 1991-1993, Ravitch served as Assistant Secretary of Education in President George H.W. Bush’s administration. Originally a strong proponent of school choice, vouchers and high-stakes testing, her views have changed considerably. She argues for her change of heart and in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

It was recently announced that Dr. Ravitch will receive NEA’s 2010 Friend of Education Award. CEA recently interviewed Dr. Ravitch about the role of teaching and learning in the age of accountability.

Let’s say you were to walk into an elementary classroom in any school district ten years from now. If we stay on the present course set by NCLB, how will teaching and learning be different?

I think that there will be a great deal of drilling and teaching to the test. Most of the day will be spent on reading and mathematics. Kids will be encouraged to take lots and lots of test prep. This is happening now and I don’t see any change in the foreseeable future. The secretary has said that 100 percent of all kids should be proficient. There doesn’t seem to be an end date where this regime will conclude in victory. Now that so many states are tying teacher evaluation to test scores, it is predictable that we will have a system in which testing of basic skills is the basic purpose of education.

You mentioned in a recent interview that the only national educational mandate you would implement would be to provide every child with the opportunity to play a musical instrument. I also remember reading that you’re familiar with both sides of the arguments to the educational issues. Having said that, how would you defend this mandate to those in today’s educational community that would say no, no, that’s not something we need to have?

It was said somewhat tongue in check. The schools are going to be burdened with many federal mandates, none of them relate to the arts. There seems to be a mindset these days in Washington and in state capitals that the only way anything ever gets done in the schools is through incentives and sanctions, what I refer to in my book as “measure and punish.” So if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t need to be taught. If you can measure it and it doesn’t meet whatever Washington and the state capital decides is a goal, then you punish teachers.

I don’t see the arts as being very important in today’s climate– they’re on no one’s agenda. So the reason I mentioned this is not really as a serious mandate, but as a contrast to all the mean-spirited mandates that we see coming down these days in which the main emphasis is accountability.  Accountability has come to mean how can we punish teachers, how can we fire more teachers, and if we just fire enough teachers we’ll have a great education system. I was trying to offer an alternative and suggest that maybe what we should be doing is encouraging every child to learn to play a musical instrument.

That’s at least a humane goal in which the end result is that children learn self-discipline, they learn to practice, they learn to do it alone, no one can fake it for them, they can’t take it off the internet, and eventually when they’re good enough, they can play in a group. So these are all wonderful behaviors and habits that I think should be encouraged, but there’s no regime of measure and punish that’s going to encourage the arts.

You had said in a recent interview that we’re in the process of “de-professionalizing education”. Is it your opinion that it is the measure and punish movement that is doing this?

I think it’s a combination of different streams coming together, and one of them begins with No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind I define as a measure and punish regime. And because NCLB sets a totally unrealistic goals of 100 percent proficiency for all students, a goal that no nation in the world has ever met, no state in this country has ever met, no district to my knowledge has ever met, that the only way to even approach it is by dumbing-down standards, which many states have been doing.

This is one very important stream. By setting an impossible goal, it contributes to delegitimizing public education. Since the public schools can’t meet that utopian goal, it encourages people to say “Oh the public schools are no good, they have not been able to close the achievement gap, they’ve not been able to make the 100 percent goal. Therefore we must replace them with privately managed schools, we must turn them over the schools to hedge-fund managers, to bankers, to lawyers, to anybody who has an idea and wants to own their own school. Let them or anyone do it, because after all, the public schools don’t work.”

So it’s a combination of those things. Fitting into the same rubric is deprofessionalization. That comes from the same people who don’t like public education and don’t trust educators. Their mantra for many years now is that anyone can be a school superintendent, you don’t need any particular education background to be a superintendent. So there have been districts that have selected superintendents who are lawyers, businessmen, generals, admirals, social workers. They run the gamut of people who don’t have any background in education.

You add to that a movement over the past several years that says “You don’t need any particular school experience to be a principal, you just need to be a good manager.” So we have seen the rise over the past several years of programs to turn people [instantly] into principals with a one year training course or sometimes less. They may have taught for a year, or two, or three, but they’re not master teachers, or they may not have taught at all, and suddenly they’re principals.

And now we see the media and big foundations embracing Teach For America (TFA). I have nothing against TFA, I think it’s a fine program and I commend young people who join it, but to sell TFA as the solution to the problems of American education is ludicrous. These are young people who come in with a very good education, but with very little teacher training. Most are gone two or three or four years. So to pose this as any kind of a substitute for a professional workforce is ridiculous. I do think there is a strong deprofessionalization movement that merges with all of these different pieces of the puzzle.

Do you think that if charter schools were unionized that there would be a measurable increase in charter school effectiveness overall?

It’s hard to say. The charter school movement is founded literally on a non-union principle. There are very, very few charters that are union charters. I would say that out of 5,000 in the country I would be very surprised if more than 100 or 200 of them were unionized. So, do the math, it’s a tiny, tiny percentage.

They don’t want to be unionized; they are founded by people who don’t want a union. Their business model, if that’s what you would call it, is to hire young, enthusiastic people who work 60 or 70 hours a week, who are available 24/7 to their students and who will be gone after three or four years or so. So they can afford to pay these young people the same as the regular public school teachers who are starting out, maybe sometimes they pay them even more, because they know they will not stay around to get senior teachers’ salaries, they will not stay around to get a pension, and so that’s a pretty good business model for them.

What the charter organizers want is a non-union workforce. It works for them. I could be wrong, but it seems unlikely that this privatized sector is going to see a large increase in teacher unionism.

Do you think that teacher unions are playing a big enough role in the education reform profess today?

My feeling is that what is called education reform today is a very negative movement, so to the extent that unions feel that they must collaborate, I think it’s unfortunate, because I wish everybody would have the nerve to say we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re not going to improve education in America by privatizing more and more public schools, we’re not going to improve education by tying teachers’ salaries and evaluations to test scores, which I think is a very negative direction. It’s happening in many places because unions don’t want to be blamed for losing the federal government’s Race to the Top money.

You’ve stated that you’re in favor of a balanced national curriculum, with more emphasis on the arts, history, science and foreign language. In a perfect world, what would be different in terms of the curriculum now?

In a perfect world, there would be no sanctions or rewards attached to test scores. If we just started off by saying there will be testing but there will be no high-stakes testing. Testing should be for information and diagnostic purposes. High-stakes testing distorts the value of testing and promotes teaching to the test and curriculum narrowing.

So we would continue testing kids in reading and math, possibly in science. We would have history projects and essay papers, certainly in history and literature. Kids would learn to write, and their teachers would feel encouraged to grade their papers and tell them how to get better. In a perfect world, there would be time in the school day for arts, foreign language and physical education.

But when we incentivize only reading and math, and when we attach rewards and punishments to the tests for reading and math, then we distort the curriculum and we’re putting teachers on notice that the only thing that really counts is reading and math, and that’s wrong. It’s bad education.

The people that are behind this, and I’m speaking of President Obama, Secretary Duncan, Mayor Bloomberg and the various leaders of business and industry would never send their children to schools that taught only reading and math.