An Interview with Diane Ravitch: Reign of Terror, Reign of Error or Just Blundering Along?
1) Diane, your most recent book, Reign of Error, discusses the “hoax“ of the privatization movement. Why do you see this movement as a hoax?
The “reform” movement consists of a series of hoaxes, which I describe in the book.
First is the hoax that it is a movement to reform schools; it is not. As I have written in the past, there have many reform movements in the past century, all intended to improve public education, all led by educators or others with deep experience in education. They sought such things as more resources, higher standards, better pay for teachers, desegregation, a stronger curriculum, or a different pedagogy.
This movement, if it can be called that, blames teachers and schools for low test scores, encourages the transfer of public funds and students to private managers, applauds the closing of public schools, supports the idea that teachers with five weeks of training are better than experienced teachers, opposes any job protections for teachers, believes that teachers will work harder if offered a bonus for higher test scores, and supports standardization of curriculum and testing.
At the same time, this “movement,” led not by educators but by non-educators, cares not at all about reducing class size, reducing segregation, increasing resources for the neediest schools, or doing anything to reduce poverty, which is highly correlated with low test scores.
2) What other movements ( charter schools, KIPP for example ) do you see as worthy and viable?
I admire the many grassroots groups formed by parents, students, teachers, and the public to support public education and to oppose the misuse of testing and data. I admire the Providence Student Union for its brilliant political theatre in opposition to the decision by Rhode Island officials to use a standardized test as a graduation requirement. I hope the students’ witty tactics (like giving the test to accomplished professionals, most of whom failed) will inspire high school students across the nation to organize and resist the testing mania.
I admire the parent group Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), also known as “moms against drunk testing.” Their organizing of parents across the state caused the Texas legislature to roll back a requirement that students pass 15 tests to graduate. It was reduced ton5.
I admire the Garfield High School teachers in Seattle and their many allies, who refused to give a pointless test.
I admire the principals of New York, led by Long Island principals Carol Burris and Sean Feeney, who gathered the signatures of nearly 40% of the principals in the state to oppose the state’s untested and punitive evaluation plan.
I admire the parents, teachers, and public citizens who gathered in front of the North Carolina Capitol every Monday to protest peacefully against destructive legislation aimed at teachers and public schools. These are described as Moral Mondays.
I salute those who joined the Network for Public Education, which Anthony Cody and I co-founded, to connect the nation’s many grassroots groups.
3) Some individuals have bemoaned the “ rising tide of mediocrity “ in the schools—others have bemoaned the “ rising flood of children with exceptionalities and special needs “in the schools. Who is right and who is wrong?
That “rising tide of mediocrity” was first bemoaned thirty years ago in a Reagan-era report called “A Nation at Risk.” In the past thirty years, our nation has grown the most powerful economy in the world, the strongest military, the most patents, and all this accomplished by a nation in which 90% were educated in public schools.
Yes, there is a rising number of children with high needs. Our schools must educate them all. Not create one set of schools for those with high test scores, and another where the low performers are dumped.
4) How did NCLB open the door to various companies, test makers, and educational suppliers, if you will?
The federally sponsored tutoring programs spurred the creation of at least 2,000 new tutoring services, some created as fly-by-night operations, many with no experience. Other new businesses opened to offer services about how to get high scores, how to train leaders or teachers, how to “turnaround” schools. Suddenly the school budget made way for entrepreneurs who saw opportunities.
5) How have charter schools made an impact and what lessons have we learned from them?
Charters are a mixed bag. Some get high scores by intensive test prep. Some get high scores by excluding students with disabilities and English learners. Some are very good schools. Some are created because parents want to escape the hyper-regulated, over tested, under-resourced public schools. Some are dreadful schools run by incompetent educators. Some are created by sports stars who know nothing about education and should be running sports camps.
The major negative effect is to popularize the idea that choosing a school is what consumers do. It erodes civic obligation of all to support public education. Instead of seeking out the neediest kids, in most instances charters are skimming the most motivated kids from poor communities. By encouraging consumerism, they set the stage for the public to accept vouchers.
6) Millions and millions of dollars spent on tests and test preparation materials….Has there been any statistically significant increase in test scores or ANY increase in test scores whatsoever ?
There have been increases but increased test scores do not necessarily translate into better education. If standardized testing were so wonderful, why do so few of our finest private schools use them? We are the only nation in the world that tests every child every year. This is driven by the economic needs of the testing industry and the gullibility of legislators.
7) Data , data everywhere- and not one iota to help teachers reminds me of the old poem—water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Am I off on the idea that this data is not being used at all ?
Wrong. The data are being used to fire teachers and principals and to close schools. They are used to reward bonuses. They are the basis of a policy of carrots and sticks. They reflect the spurious belief that the problems of education can be solved by Big Data. The data fanatics don’t understand the importance of human interaction as the basic ingredient in education, nor do they recognize that every child is unique.
8) Let’s talk about the REAL use of test data—to retain children- Good idea, bad idea or probably not possible?
Retention seldom works. Use data wisely to identify which children need extra help, small classes, individual tutoring, the support of a school psychologist or social worker. Help, don’t punish. Retention humiliates children.
9) In my mind, NCLB is akin to Prohibition—something that was a stupid idea that needs to be revoked. Your thoughts?
NCLB is a hoax. It should be rolled back in its entirety. Even when it was passed, the legislators knew that no school or district would be 100% proficient by 2014. I know. They told me so. Yet people have been fired and schools have been closed because they could not meet impossible demands. NCLB was a very stupid intrusion of federal control where it was inappropriate.
10) Are we “ Racing to the Top “ or are we simply engaging in politics and the corruption of contingencies ?
Race to the Top is even worse than NCLB. Where NCLB blamed schools for low scores, RTTT blames teachers. States across the nation have been pushed, prodded, incentivized to evaluate teachers by student test scores, a methodology that produces inaccurate ratings, teaching to the test, cheating, and demoralization. RTTT rests firmly on the flawed foundation of NCLB. Even more consultants have set up shop to divert federal dollars to vendors, not students. RTTT’s greatest error is captured in its name. Why are we “racing” to the “top?” Who decided that higher test scores are the singular goal of schooling? Whatever happened to equality of educational opportunity? What about equity? Why did a Democratic administration adopt the traditional GOP mantra of standards, testing, accountability, choice, competition? Who lost or stole the Democratic agenda?
11) Along comes Common Core ( with Bill Gates and company following along probably looking at some nice profits down the road). Your feedback on Common Core and what it may do to American education, and of course, higher order thinking and critical thinking?
I don’t think Bill Gates is interested in profit. He has more money than he could spend in several lifetimes. I credit him with good intentions but very bad ideas. He believes in the transformative power of the free market. It worked for him. He also seems not to have anyone near him who stops him before he commits hundreds of millions of dollars to stupefyingly dumb ideas, like evaluating teachers by test scores.
Being a tech guy, he probably thinks in code and doesn’t like the messy fact that children and teachers and schools can’t be standardized and reduced to a metric.
So he bought and paid for Common Core. The Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars underwriting the writing of the standards, the evaluation of the standards, the implementing of the standards, the promotion of the standards, and advocacy for them. A blogger in Louisiana has energetically catalogued how many organizations inside the Beltway (and across the nation) have received millions from Gates to push the standards. Check her posts at “Deutsch29”, and on Huffington Post, where she posts. Her name is Mercedes Schneider.
Here are my problems with the Common core:
First, the developers should have taken a decade to write the standards, with experienced teachers involved from the outset, create curriculum materials, field test the standards in real classrooms, and get teacher feedback. Tinker or revise after field testing. None of that happened. Because the standards were rushed into production, written and promulgated with minimal feedback and no field testing, they are running into a firestorm of opposition, some of it wildly untrue. Some of the opposition comes from. The Tea Party, but there is also opposition from teachers and scholars who disagree with the standards and/or the process.
Second, the early grades are developmentally inappropriate. Children in the early grades are supposed to be college-and career-ready, and any teacher who has other ideas is in danger of defying the Common Core. Experts on early childhood education, like Nancy Carlsson Paige of Lesley University, say that no one who taught very young children was involved in writing these standards.
Third, there is a good argument to be made that common national standards that are prescriptive will hinder the innovation that happens when states and districts are free to find better strategies and to experiment.
Along with NCLB and RTTT, public schools across the nation are increasingly forced into a strait jacket, and teachers are suffering from reform fatigue.
The backlash against the Common Core continues to grow. Several states have dropped the federally funded tests. If this continues, Common Core will disappear into the Museum of Grand But Failed Experiments imposed on the public schools.
12) Does educational reform now mean that someone gets rich on a non-viable solution to educational woes?
Reform no longer means “reform.” Reform means that budget cuts are necessary; reform means that segregation is inevitable; reform means that poverty is something we can do nothing about; reform means that teachers need no job protections, no unions, no due process; reform means that test scores can be used to fire staff and close schools; reform means that research and experience are irrelevant as compared to the power of the federal government combined with the discretionary funds of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Enron trader John Arnold, Michael Dell, Reed Hastings (Netflix), Jeff Bezos (amazon), Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, and the many other non-educators who have decided they know how to reform public education.
13) I supposed I should hang my head in shame mentioning the bell shaped or Gaussian curve- as I suspect it will become “ politically incorrect “ to discuss the fact that some students are below average in intelligence. Would you like to duck your head with me and address this issue?
I don’t know who is intelligent and who isn’t. People excel in many ways in our society, regardless of their test scores. I don’t want the testing industry–with its many errors and flaws–to decide who wins and who loses.
I would like to ask every member of our Congress, governors, state legislatures, and the federal cabinet to sit down, take an 8th grade NAEP test in reading, math, science, and history and PUBLISH THEIR SCORES.
Or do the same with their own state’s high school graduation tests.
I double-dare them.
14) What are the dangers to America’s public schools?
Privatization. Over emphasis on testing. attacks on the education profession. loss of the arts and other subjects. budget cuts that take away necessary resources and programs and create large classes. the introduction of technology as a way to replace teachers. Good education requires human interaction. We need a good public school in every neighborhood.
15) What have I neglected to ask ?