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The Life and Death of Schools

Diane Ravitch on the real threats to public education

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 28, 2012

The Life and Death of Schools

On the subject of public education, Diane Ravitch may be America's most important whistle-blower. The former U.S. assistant secretary of education doesn't employ hidden cameras or purloined documents, and she doesn't entrap teachers or find evidence of financial malfeasance by district administrators. Instead, she uses cold, hard numbers to expose the Big Lie: that the education reforms of the last two decades – from No Child Left Behind to high-stakes testing and the ongoing, bipartisan, national love affair with charter schools – have done much, or anything, to fix American public education.

What makes Ravitch's findings even bolder and more telling is that she began her career as one of the big cheerleaders for that culture of "reform." Now a research professor of education at New York Uni­ver­sity, she travels this month to the belly of the education beast – Texas, the home of No Child Left Behind. On Sept. 30, she'll be holding a public meeting at Eastside Memorial High School; she's been following the plans to eventually turn the campus over to IDEA Public Schools and sees that proposal as just another part of the demolition of public education.

The preparatory wrecking ball for public schools has been high-stakes, standardized testing. In a bit of dramatic irony, Ravitch's visit comes just after new Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, in the political home of standardized testing, announced he'll be asking the feds for an NCLB waiver from meeting the ever-rising testing accountability standards. A waiver's not good enough for Ravitch, who argues, "NCLB should be repealed, and it should be rewritten." For her, the waiver program is just as bad, if not worse, than the main program, because it allows the U.S. secretary of education to unilaterally rewrite the law. "I wish someone would challenge that in court," says Ravitch, "because waivers take the pressure off Congress."

When we spoke, Ravitch had just read a column in the Texas Tribune by Texas Assoc­i­ation of Business CEO Bill Hammond, who argued "we must stay the course" on the modern accountability culture. Ravitch was not persuaded. For her, our state is instead the laboratory that has demonstrated the failure of the high-stakes testing experiment. "Texas has been doing this stuff since Ross Perot," she said. "Twenty years is not enough? Thirty years is not enough? How many generations does it take?"

From Texas to Chicago

The last 12 years have been particularly bleak for educators. When President George W. Bush went to D.C., he took the testing-based policies he had inflicted on Texas and, with the help of Republican and Democratic "reformers," turned them into No Child Left Behind. More recently, the administration of President Barack Obama has tied itself strongly to the educational reform movement, throwing its political weight and cash behind charters. "Between Texas and Chicago, you've pretty much got the country locked up," Ravitch said. She finds herself fighting against "this idea that, if you have enough carrots and sticks, everyone's going to be smart and you don't have to do a damn thing about poverty; you just have to raise the test scores. Meanwhile, income inequality gets worse by the year."

Her position represents a considered, major reversal for Ravitch. Appointed to the U.S. Department of Education under George H.W. Bush, she was held over by Bill Clinton, before sitting on the National Assessment Governing Board until 2004. Early in her career, she was a big advocate for teacher and school performance rankings. Not anymore. Austin education advocate Jason Sabo of Frontera Strategy and Save Texas Schools called her "Judas with a conscience." (That's a compliment.) He added: "Despite years promoting testing and No Child Left Behind, when the evidence clearly demonstrated the negative impact of the law, she had the political courage and intellectual honesty to voice her concerns."

Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch
Photo courtesy of Jack Miller

Yet despite the shift in perspective, Ravitch sees no change in her core stance: She's just going where the numbers take her. Her most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, in part chronicles how the data moved her further and further away from the reformers. The book highlights what might be called the capital-R "Reform" movement. Everyone wants high-performing schools that truly serve students and neighborhoods, but these reformers have taken a bulldozer to the established system. Ravitch argues that their policies ignore the actual outcomes, and her book has become even tougher on them since its original publication in 2010. A new epilogue in the paperback edition addresses the testing scandal in Atlanta – a city long the darling of the reformers – and demolishes the fuzzy math supporting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's claims that charters and high-stakes testing have closed the achievement gap for minority students. Ravitch is at work on a new book, in which she'll put forward her own proposals. Of Death and Life of the American School System, she said, "The biggest criticism was: 'Where are your solutions? Where are your silver bullets?'"

Many of her critics from the reform movement are now throwing their considerable influence behind voucher schemes. They claim it's a grand experiment. Ravitch argues that the experiment has been tried time and again, and it's failed every time. She said: "There's no question that vouchers don't work. We have a voucher program 21 years old in Milwaukee; it's been in Cleveland since 1995, and in D.C., it's been evaluated year after year, and study after study shows no gains."

Charters, Vouchers, Triggers

Ravitch's core argument and toughest criticisms take on the use and abuse of numbers. Her research shows that many of the tools the reformers depend upon – like Texas' accountability rankings – are derived from arbitrary standards or defended by simply bad math. For example, New York has used student scores to determine teacher efficiency. But one study by New York University researchers found a 28% margin of error in those numbers. If a campaign pollster used data with that kind of leeway, he'd be laughed out of the business. Yet educators are routinely hired and fired on such numbers, and politicians and parents act as if these accountability system numbers reflect some immutable truth. Ravitch said, "They think it's like a yardstick, and it's not. This is a fallible, cultural instrument."

These are old complaints, but Ravitch's voice carries extra weight. Ed Fuller, formerly UT-Austin's leading education analyst and now director of the Penn State Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis, called her "one of the most influential spokespersons in education today." He noted that her works are commonly used as graduate textbooks, and that "public education advocates hold her in great esteem, as she is the primary voice defending public education and educators." As a federal policy insider, she's worked directly with the national power brokers who have shaped public schools, so, for Fuller, her new book "accurately identifies the economic self-interests that are driving many of today's major education reformers."

Ravitch sees a terrible confluence of forces at play among the reformers: policymakers who know nothing about public education, allied with organizations that expressly want to see it dismantled. She said, "There's a tremendous push for privatization, and privatization does not bring about equity." It's not just charters and vouchers: The "Reform" movement is now promoting "parent trigger" bills, which – using test scores as the unexamined standards – would allow parents to take over neighborhood schools and turn them straight over to charter school companies. Unsurprisingly, right-wing bill machine the American Legislative Exchange Council has been pushing such trigger legislation in multiple states. Then there are establishment Republicans, like former Florida governor and educational businessman Jeb Bush, who are shilling hard to expand for-profit, "virtual" schools – even though many have been abject failures.

The faux-reform movement has also been effective with its propaganda machine. For example, conservative sugar daddy Philip Anschutz put up the cash for pro-charter film documentary/diatribe Waiting for 'Sup­er­­man.' Ravitch considers 'Superman' director Davis Guggenheim well-intentioned but utterly wrong. She said, "The movie begins with him saying: 'Well, I would never put my child in a public school. Why should these poor people have to put their child in a public school?' It was so condescending." Guggenheim's movie was widely dismissed as anti-teacher hype, but now Anschutz is back with a new movie, Won't Back Down. Ravitch said, "The same people who promoted Waiting for 'Superman' are promoting Won't Back Down. And who do you think has model legislation for the 'parent trigger'? It's ALEC."

Ultimately, what she sees in progress is the steady construction of a system that punishes the poor and struggling but gives a pass to the wealthy and privileged. Ravitch said, "If you go to the very best elite private schools, nobody uses these tests. And yet, many of the people who are graduates of those very same elite schools – whether it's Arne Duncan attending the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, or Bill Gates from the Lakeside Academy – they want to impose on the nation what was never imposed on them."


Diane Ravitch will be in Austin on Sunday, Sept. 30, speaking in the morning at the Texas Association of School Boards/Texas Association of School Admin­istrators annual conference. From 2 to 4pm she will be in conversation at Eastside Memorial High School, 1012 Arthur Stiles. The afternoon meeting is open to the public.

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