18 Mar

An Interview with Diane Ravitch: “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”


Diane Ravitch

By Claus von Zastrow on March 16, 2010

Education historian Diane Ravitch has just published a new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The book has been a runaway success. It currently ranks among the top 60 best-selling books on, where it sold out within a week of its release.

Public School Insights: I’ve heard your book characterized as a “u-turn,” an “about-face,” a sudden shift from “conservative” to “liberal” views on education reform. Are those characterizations accurate? What are some of the fundamental beliefs that unite your efforts over the past four decades?

Ravitch: I did not do a “U-turn” or an abrupt “about-face,” nor (as one story said) did I “recant” almost everything I ever believed or wrote. I certainly did change my mind about things I had advocated in the past, but the change was more gradual than it appeared to those who have not read what I have been writing for the past three years. As I write in the book, I concluded that NCLB was failing when I attended a conference at a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, on November 30, 2006. I was given the assignment of summing up the day’s proceedings; paper after paper demonstrated that NCLB’s remedies were not working. Very small proportions of students were choosing to leave their school or to get tutoring. In my remarks at the end of the day, I said that NCLB was failing. The next fall, in 2007, when NAEP scores were released and showed meager improvements, I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times titled, Get Congress Out of the Classroom.” Since then, I have written several articles in opposition to NCLB. So my turn-about on NCLB was very public and not sudden. Similarly, anyone who has read the blog to which I contribute weekly online at Education Week could learn of my growing disenchantment with choice as a remedy and specifically with the disappointing results of charters.

But of equal significance is that I did not recant any of my fundamental convictions about the importance of providing a content-rich, high quality education for every child. I have consistently argued that this should be the goal of American education, to make sure that all children should have an education that engages them in the study of history, geography, literature, the arts, science, civics, and foreign languages. I concluded that the current obsession with basic skills testing and privatization was bringing us no closer to that goal. So you might say that I changed course about means, but certainly not about ends.

Public School Insights: As an education historian, you have written about the failure of “silver bullet” or “magic feather” school reforms proposed (and hyped) by reformers for more than a century. Do you believe today’s champions of reforms like merit pay or charter schools are repeating the sins of their fathers? Is there anything that makes these reforms more promising, or more troubling, than anything that has come before them?

Ravitch: The current “reforms” will eventually fizzle, I believe, because at some point the American public will realize that education is getting no better, despite the lavish promises attached to the strategy of privatization and accountability. As the number of charter schools grows, their quality is likely to diminish. I note in the book that high-quality charters comprise less than 10% of the current 5,000 charter schools. The highest performing charter chain, KIPP, operates fewer than 100 charters; it is unrealistic to expect that it can quickly expand by multiples. With the Obama administration planning for thousands more charters, we are not likely to see quality go up, but go down. There will be more scandals, more anecdotes about profiteering, more charter failures.

The promise of the current reforms is based on the naive expectation that they are a silver bullet, that turning public schools over to private organizations will magically transform them and produce better results. In some cases, it will; in others, it won’t. The results to date show that charters on average do not perform better than regular public schools.

Merit pay is like a bad penny that comes back again and again, but never works. The idea has been tried again and again since the 1920s and disappears because it doesn’t work and disrupts the shared goals of the school. Outsiders believe that teachers will work harder if they can get paid more for higher test scores; they confuse higher test scores, which can be mechanically produced, with education. Anyone who has read the philosophy of Edward Deming knows that merit pay demoralizes the workforce and undercuts the goals of the organization by pitting employee against employee. Yet “reformers” cling to the idea of merit pay because they believe that incentives and sanctions are a cure for everything. They have no evidence for their belief.

Public School Insights: You are very critical of the prevailing tendency to draw school reform models from the business sector. What, in your view, are some of the major problems with this tendency?

Ravitch: Schools and businesses work by different rules. Schools are a communal responsibility, like firehouses and police, not discretionary activities. By supporting public education, the public acknowledges a responsibility to provide equal educational opportunity to every child. Schools are themselves communities. The adults who work in them expect to collaborate with one another, help one another, share information about the students who need extra help, share what they have learned about successful methods in the classroom. Schools in the same community are expected to collaborate and work together toward common goals, in the service of the children. Schools are valued institutions that are the anchors of the community in which they are located. In some communities, they offer after school activities for children and even literacy programs for adults.

Businesses, on the other hand, function in a marketplace of supply and demand. They open and close, depending on demand and profitability. Markets have winners and losers, and they thrive on competition. Businesses do not sit together and share the secrets of their success with their competitors. They try to beat their competitors. Sometimes this produces better products, sometimes it produces shlock products that sell better. Businesses use data to drive their decisionmaking process and their goal is to maximize profits and the return to stockholders.

Business techniques are necessary in education in relation to buying supplies, managing resources, building and maintaining facilities, and so on. But applying the principles of business to instruction leads to distorted priorities. It leads, for example, to an overemphasis on test scores as the sole measure of schooling, simply because it is a measurable. Business methods do not acknowledge that the non-measurables may be even more important than what is measured. Business thinking may also lead to tinkering with the data to persuade the public that the outcomes of schooling are better than they really are. For example, the business executive running a school system may boast of the high school graduation rate, which makes for good headlines, yet ignore the remediation rate of the same graduates when they enter a two-year community college. Business people who get into education may not realize that the data they collect may not be the best way to evaluate schools, teachers, students, or the quality of education.

Public School Insights: You argue that many high-profile reform efforts over the past decade have alienated the very communities they were meant to serve. What is the effect of this problem on public education?

Ravitch: Mayoral control in New York City is an example of a reform effort that alienated “the very communities [it was] meant to serve.” The mayor saw his task not as serving the community, but as fixing the school system and producing higher test scores. In New York City, unlike some other examples of mayoral control, the mayor has total control of the school system. He appoints a majority of the local school board, and they serve at his pleasure. On the rare instance when some of his appointees intended to vote against one of his proposals, he removed them. Parent leaders across the city are alienated and feel voiceless, which they are. They believe that they should have something to say about what happens to their children. Yet the local department of education ignores parents, closes schools against parent wishes, opens charters schools and gives them space inside public school buildings. There is a profound sense of powerlessness on the part of communities, which are losing their neighborhood schools and watching with apprehension as charter operators take space away from their local schools. The charter schools currently enroll about 3% of the total public enrollment, yet consume about 50% of the media’s attention. Meanwhile the mayor and his chancellor act as cheerleaders for the charter sector. In time, they predict, charter enrollment will grow to 10% of the total. In the meanwhile, the 97% of students enrolled in regular public schools have no cheerleaders.

Public School Insights: People who question high-profile reform ideas are often branded as obstructionists or champions of the status quo. It is clear from your book that you are not satisfied with the status quo. What are some of the things you think we need to do to improve our public schools?

Ravitch: I have long been a critic of the status quo, yet with this book this charge has been hurled at me. I am still a critic of the status quo. I think the quality of education i far from what it should be. I would like to see our schools radically improved. I would like to see far better preparation of teachers, so that every teacher is a master of his or her subject (at least one, preferably two) and has learned the skills needed to teach the subject well. I would like to see a coherent curriculum in every school that goes far beyond the basics to include history, geography, civics, literature, science, foreign languages, and physical education, beginning in the elementary grades. I would like to see a general recognition that children and families today are under many stresses, and that poverty has a large and deleterious impact on children’s ability and readiness to learn. I would like to see more professionalism in education, not less. I would like to see an informed press that could see past the glib promises of the so-called reformers and that had an understanding of education far broader than our current obsession with data based on standardized tests of basic skills.

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