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Back to School


The former assistant secretary of education grapples with the school-reform movement and the systemic issues that plague American education.

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Image by Jack Miller

Most Americans know some version of the story: international tests show that our children are falling behind those educated in other countries, and we feel there’s a vague, looming threat to our nation’s security, economy, and future. It’s a well-worn narrative, told since the first international tests were taken in the 1960s. Yet this old anxiety fuels today’s zeal for a new kind of education reform, one that includes high-stakes standardized testing, charter schools, the Common Core, and Teach for America. School reformers’ rhetoric has become so pervasive that there are few disputing it on the national stage. Diane Ravitch is the rare exception: though she was once a vocal member of the chorus, today she stands out as a prominent contrarian voice.

Born and raised in Texas, Ravitch attended economically diverse but segregated public schools in Houston. As a young adult, she was troubled by her hometown’s hyper-conservative politics and people’s reluctance to challenge them. “I was a crusader for political consciousness at the tail end of a complacent decade,” she says of attending Wellesley in the late 1950s. In 1975, she received her PhD in history from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and since then, she has rallied for change in the sphere of public education.

Ravitch was an early supporter of civil rights, but she grew frustrated with the New Left education movements of the 1960s and ’70s. By the ’80s, many considered her a neoconservative. She was assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration, and from 1997 to 2004, she served as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal standardized tests. She was a major proponent of George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind, the first federal legislation to attach consequences for schools and teachers to standardized test scores.

But in the years following NCLB, Ravitch saw little evidence of positive change. She went on to argue that the program’s introduction of standardized testing and support for privately-run charter schools have been catastrophic for our nation’s public schools. Her public about-face culminated in her 2010 New York Times bestseller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, in which she outlined how the policies for which she’d previously advocated were failing students and threatening the future of America’s schools. Ravitch’s critics, many of them former colleagues, claimed that her book was “long on criticism” and “offered no solutions.” Her rejoinder to those complaints is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.

In Reign of Error, released in paperback in August 2014, Ravitch contends that school reformers aren’t tackling the fundamental causes of low academic performance. “The reformers say they care about poverty, but they do not address it other than to insist upon private management of the schools in urban districts; the reforms ignore racial segregation altogether, apparently accepting it as inevitable,” she argues. And later, “I have no silver bullets—because none exist—but I have proposals based on evidence and experience.”

Ravitch’s own vision for reform includes smaller class sizes, varied curricula that cover arts and physical education, better prenatal care for infants born into poor families, and democratic school boards. What unites her ideas—and what separates her vision from today’s popular version of reform—is an emphasis on systemic change; in particular, on improving the impoverished and segregated conditions that define many American students’ lives. Ravitch and I spoke by phone about the widespread perception that the US is confronting an education crisis, corruption in charter schools, and how the contemporary variant of education reform has gained such a hold on the American imagination.

—Nika Knight for Guernica

Guernica: One of the first claims that you make in Reign of Error is that there is no crisis in American education.

Diane Ravitch: Well, there is a crisis, but it’s not the crisis that is the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that the schools are failing, we’re declining, we’re falling behind other countries, our economy will suffer, and our national security is in danger. All of that is nonsense. The crisis we’re in right now is the underinvestment in public education. And this obsession with testing and using test scores to punish students and teachers, close schools, fire principals—that’s the crisis. We are at risk of losing public education in many big city districts.

The public acts as though teachers are somehow unqualified to do their jobs, no matter how many degrees they earned, no matter how much certification they acquired.

Guernica: If that’s the case, why do so many groups claim that there is a crisis?

Diane Ravitch: It’s to set up the schools for privatization. There was a book written about fifteen years ago called The Manufactured Crisis. In fact, that’s what this is. It exists so that people think, “Oh my god, the schools are so terrible!”

I see this all the time on my blog. People say, “I’ve decided to homeschool my child. I decided to take my child out of public school because of all the terrible things that I read.” And so much of the blame falls on teachers. It’s unbelievable, really.

I’ve never seen American society turn against people who teach children. The public acts as though teachers are somehow unqualified to do their jobs, no matter how many degrees they earned, no matter how much certification they acquired. Instead, people are willing to entrust their kids to Teach for America, where there is no teaching experience at all. It makes no sense.

My training is in the history of education. I’ve been writing about the history of American education since the late 1960s. That’s a really long time. I’m fully aware that there’s a long history of people saying, “We have to make our schools better, we need higher standards, we need this, we need that.” But we’ve never had a time in history where we’ve said, “We need to get rid of public education. Public education itself is bad, and teachers are bad, and we need to replace them with people who have no training.” This is brand new, the idea that public education itself is the culprit.

Guernica: Why do you think this reform movement has emerged at this moment, and why has it gained such a foothold?

Diane Ravitch: It’s building on a demand for accountability and an obsession with testing that began in 1983. Somehow our leadership, our elites, have become obsessed with the idea that everything that matters can be measured and that test scores are the ultimate measure for children, schools, teachers, and now, higher education.

I have had a lot of experience with testing: I spent seven years on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing. And the tests just aren’t that good. This is a very limited way to make any kind of a judgment. It tells you something, but it’s a one-shot judgment that is somehow privileged over human judgment. This obsession with testing benefits the testing companies. I don’t think it benefits children.

Here’s one thing that is brand new: unlike the previous education criticism, the people who are now leading this false reform movement are not educators. Now you have criticism from people from the business world who have no educational experience whatsoever. The people who have no educational experience whatsoever think that the schools need to be turned upside down, inside out, shaken up, everyone should be fired—start all over.

The emphasis on testing has converged with this idea that has become very popular in the business world that the way to solve problems—to grow and gain market share—is through disruptive innovation. Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, suggested that businesses grow through disruptive innovation. There was an article in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore in the June 23rd issue; she said that Clayton Christensen was wrong, that all of the examples he gave of disruptive innovation turned out not to be right. And even if they were right in business, they’re certainly not right in education. They should not be shaking up schools and firing teachers and firing principals. Education is not business.

Guernica: I’m surprised by the variety of the players who are involved in the school-reform movement. There are some extremely conservative foundations involved in school reform, such as the Walton Family Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). But then there are also many liberals behind it, and of course, the Obama administration. Why do you think it has such bipartisan support?

Diane Ravitch: In a way, that’s the most disappointing aspect of what’s going on right now. The Democratic administration is parroting the Republican agenda.

This was never the Democratic agenda. You could take it back to, say, 1965, when the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed. That was passed under Lyndon Johnson’s leadership, and there was a very strongly Democratic Congress then. The whole theory behind federal aid to education was that the federal role is to level the playing field and help poor kids, and to make sure that the civil rights of students are protected.

Those are the two big federal obligations with regard to education. I mean, you could say that there were three. One, which the federal government has always been responsible for, is collecting data and reporting on what’s happening. That goes back to the nineteenth century. But the big new idea in 1965, when the federal aid act was passed, was that it was for poor kids and for states that couldn’t support their schools adequately—they would get more federal aid to help those kids. Another big idea was to tie the federal aid to the civil rights of the students, so that for states and districts that discriminated based on race or any other factor, federal aid wouldn’t flow until they stopped discriminating.

If you set up a competition, the winner is the strongest, not the weakest. The weakest can’t win a competition.

But while the Democrats were interested in equity, the Republicans were interested in choice. Ronald Reagan was a huge proponent of choice with regard to school prayer. I worked in the first Bush administration, and the agenda was testing, accountability, and choice. The idea was, if everyone was choosing whether to go to a private school or a religious school, that would lead to better results. We now have enough experience to know that it doesn’t lead to better results.

What’s particularly sad is that the Republican agenda is now a bipartisan agenda, and the Democratic part of it has been left out. Even Race to the Top, which is the Obama program, is based on competition and not equity. The Democratic approach is that you help those who are the neediest. But if you set up a competition, the winner is the strongest, not the weakest. The weakest can’t win a competition.

We now have federal policy, No Child Left Behind, which emphasizes testing, accountability, and some choice. Race to the Top follows up on that with testing, accountability, and choice as its key elements. But now we’re also judging teachers by the test scores of their students, which has almost no evidence at all behind it. In fact, it has negative consequences.

I think it’s because this is what [Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan’s agenda was in Chicago. He just brought his Chicago agenda to DC. If you look at Chicago today, you have to say, “Was he successful?” And the answer is no. Chicago is in terrible shape. Rahm Emanuel is mayor, having been chief of staff under Obama. He’s closing public schools all over the place and replacing them with charter schools, which are privately managed. Charter-school people keep saying, “We’re public schools, we’re public schools!” Well, no, they’re not public schools. They can pick and choose their students, and they can kick out students that public schools can’t kick out. Charter schools are privately managed, many of them are not accountable or transparent, and they’re allowed to do things that public schools could never do. For instance, they can say, “We may be using public funds, but you have no right to audit our books.”

These people who call themselves reformers don’t ever talk about poverty; they say it doesn’t matter.

It just shows that charters aren’t public schools. So many of the charters are run by private corporations and they say, “Well, the school gets public money, but we’re not public. We’re private corporations, so we have no obligation to open our books to you.” There have been court cases about this, and the charter companies always say, “You can’t audit us because we’re private.” Well, how can they be a public school that’s run by a corporation whose books are private? They’ll even say it in court, as they have on many occasions: “We’re not public.” The funds are public, but they’re not public when it comes to being transparent or accountable.

We’re in a terrible crisis, but it’s not a crisis of achievement. We know that low scores are tied to poverty. But these people who call themselves reformers don’t ever talk about poverty; they say it doesn’t matter.

Guernica: What drives that refusal to talk about poverty?

Diane Ravitch: They don’t care about it. There was a blog I posted about [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings, where he told the California Charter Schools Association that his dream was that, in the future, almost every child would be in a charter school and there would be no more public schools. There is this fantasy that going to a privately managed school would lead to higher test scores, and higher test scores would lead to the end of poverty. All of that would be just great—except none of it is true.

I mean, it’s a fact that every test that’s given anywhere in the world shows that family income is a decisive factor: the kids who come from affluent families are at the top, and the kids who come from poverty are at the bottom. That’s simply a fact; it’s not an opinion. It’s true on international tests, it’s true on state tests. You name the test—the ACT, the SAT—poverty is decisive.

And so charter-school advocates will point to a school and say, “Oh, look at this school. One hundred percent of its graduates are going on to college.” But then you discover that there’s a high attrition rate and half of the kids who started didn’t finish. And if you spend all of your class time doing test prep, maybe you can get all of your kids to go to college—but that’s not necessarily a good education.

Guernica: How did attending public schools in Houston as a child shape your early views on education? Where did your interest in social justice originate?

Diane Ravitch: My schools were economically diverse but segregated. When I learned about the Brown v. Board of Education decision in my sophomore year in high school, I became very interested in the civil-rights movement. The politics of Houston were super conservative, and I was very frustrated that everyone was so timid.

But also, my rabbi in Houston was my mentor until I was about fifteen. He gave me books to read, told me about classical music that I should listen to, and his wife encouraged me to go to an Ivy League women’s college.

My parents were Democrats. In college, I was a crusader for political consciousness at the tail end of a complacent decade. My earliest brushes with politics came when I worked on the JFK campaign in 1960.

Guernica: You suggest that both ends of the political spectrum should oppose the current model of education reform. How do you make that case?

Diane Ravitch: I’ve spoken on occasion to conservative think tanks, and I try to make the argument that they should be defending institutions, not blowing up institutions. Conservatives are supposed to conserve. Instead, we have conservatives saying they want to get rid of public education. Public education has been a part of this country since the 1820s. What they’re promoting is radical. It’s very radical to say you’re going to blow up public education and try something that has not proven itself. In fact, whatever evidence we have, whether it’s charters or vouchers, it seems to be either worse than public schools or no better than public schools. So why would you blow up public schools?

I also think the attack on teachers is unprecedented. If you talk to teachers, so many teachers are leaving. We’re losing a lot of good veteran teachers, good experienced teachers. And the reformers’ rhetoric says that we’re going to have a great teacher in every classroom. Well, you’re not going to have a great teacher in every classroom if you continue to take away every shred of rights and due process that teachers have. If you make working conditions worse and class sizes larger, what kind of people will be attracted to teach?

More and more people are starting to understand what the end game is with this reform, which is to destroy the commons.

Guernica: In your book, you mention that many charters don’t hire certified teachers.

Diane Ravitch: Yeah, there are some states where the charter teachers don’t need to be certified, or only a portion of them need to be certified. And then there’s Teach for America, which reformers love. As I said in the book, you’re not really ready to teach when you have five weeks of training. It’s a truism that people who are in their first year of teaching need help. They’re the weakest teachers, because they’ve never taught before. It’s not their fault; they need training, they need preparation, and they need support. Our government is treating Teach for America like it’s the answer to some problem. And it’s not the answer to any problem that I can think of except, “What can I put on my résumé?”

Guernica: This reform movement is backed by so many powerful and wealthy entities, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Is it possible for the country to change direction when it comes to education?

Diane Ravitch: I think over time we will change course. I wouldn’t continue to be in the midst of this struggle if I thought it was impossible.

More and more people are starting to understand what the end game is with this reform, which is to destroy the commons, to destroy what belongs to all of us, and to replace it with these choices. They are not even very good choices. I mean, the stories about corrupt charters… The Detroit Free Press had a weeklong series about how the state of Michigan spends a billion dollars a year on charters, and they don’t do any better than the regular public schools. And among them are the charters where there’s nepotism, conflict of interest, self-dealing, fraud, and corruption. Neighborhood public schools are being destroyed in order to, in some cases, line the pockets of people who are of dubious morality. This isn’t what people pay taxes for.

My favorite story at the moment happens to be a trial that occurred recently in Ohio, where a pastor and his wife started a charter school, and he was arrested and brought to trial because over a million dollars was diverted to his church and to businesses that he owned. And his lawyer’s defense was that he wasn’t an educator, he didn’t really know what he was doing, and he saw easy money and greed got the better of him. That was his defense! Greed got the better of him. All of those millions are just lying there for the taking.

The usual fraud is when the charter company buys the school property and then rents it back to itself and charges the state a million dollars or so in rent so that the actual money that’s being made is not on the tuition but on the leases. There’s a lot of money that’s being made that way. People are very ingenious. There have been stories about the charters in South Florida, where one chain in particular has acquired over $100 million in properties. And all of it, the public money, belongs to them.

Guernica: These are funds that are being diverted from the local public schools?

Diane Ravitch: Of course. It’s all public money. The League of Women Voters did a report on charters in Florida, and they pointed out the number of people in the legislature who are in the charter industry, or who are married to someone who runs a charter chain, or who have a sister who is in the charter business—and yet they are in charge of making decisions about how much money is going to go to charters. So the charter people—and this goes for those running virtual charters, too—they have been very clever about lobbying and placing friends in key positions in the legislature.

The biggest charter chain is associated with a Turkish imam, the Gülen charters. If you look up Fethullah Gülen, he’s very involved in Turkish politics and he lives in the Poconos. Fethullah Gülen leads a movement in Turkey which is very much at odds with the prime minister. He has a major political movement, and he also has about 120 charter schools in the US. They bring in Turkish teachers, and some of them can barely speak English, but they come in as math and science teachers. In Ohio, they have a lot of Gülen schools, and they take the legislators on free trips to Turkey. There are more Gülen schools in Texas than anywhere else. The FBI is investigating the Gülen schools. I mean, someone could make a movie about this and it would be unbelievable.

It’s all unbelievable stuff. We used to have a public-school system where the money was devoted to the kids. Now we have public money being diverted to private businesses—to, in this case, a business that has roots in Turkey.

Guernica: When did the emphasis on charters begin?

Diane Ravitch: The charter movement started in about 1990, 1988. When it started, the idea was that the charters would be created by teachers, and they would enroll the kids that public schools couldn’t handle. So they would exist to fill in the gaps, and they’d help the public schools. And there was never any idea when they were founded that they would skim off the top-performing kids and kick out the ones they didn’t want. But that’s what many of the top-performing charters do.

Guernica: So the original idea was that they would enroll the most at-risk students.

Diane Ravitch: That’s correct. When Albert Shanker, who invented the concept, began campaigning for them, he talked about the kids who were turned off. He said that if you went into a classroom, the unmotivated kids who had their heads on their desks—teachers would find these kids and come up with new ideas and bring them back to the public schools and say, “We can reach these kids.” But that’s not what they’re doing.

If you look at something like Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy, they have a lottery. But it’s a marketing tool. They spend a huge amount of money getting people to apply. The New York Times had an article about how much money they spend on marketing and advertising. They advertise on buses, billboards, through mailings. In the Times they said that one school spent about $325,000 on marketing. The local public school, with which they were being co-located, would have spent $500. So when you say there’s going to be a competition, and the public school can spend $500 to have fliers, and the charter school can create this big hoopla and go spend $325,000 on marketing—how can you compete?

Guernica: What are the fundamental changes you propose for changing our schools?

Diane Ravitch: I would have most tests written by teachers, I would use standardized tests sparingly, and I would use them as an audit function. I would make sure that every school has a wonderful arts curriculum and that kids had time to read whole novels or whole pieces of work.

I think one of the things that annoys me in the Common Core is that somehow nonfiction gets privileged over fiction, and I don’t understand that. I think that should be a teacher’s choice. If she wants to have a class that’s all fiction, that should be her choice; if she wants to have one that’s all nonfiction, that’s fine, too. But I don’t think it should be something that [CEO of the College Board] David Coleman and his committee decided, you know, five years ago.

I think there should be more professionalism for teachers, they should be better prepared, and they should be treated with respect. Right now, there’s very little respect for people in education.

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