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Schools and Kids
With guest Diane Ravitch
Research Professor at New York University and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution

Wednesday, August 23, 2000, 1 p.m. EDT.

Diane Ravitch, professor, researcher and author of Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, answered your questions about the history of education reform in the United States.

In her new book, Dr. Ravitch writes that American schools have been damaged by generations of misguided reforms that have unnecessarily restricted the equality of educational opportunity. These reforms, she argues, have dumbed down our schools by encouraging lower academic expectations and have produced a diluted and bloated curriculum. As a result, the typical American high school is too big, too anonymous and lacks intellectual coherence.

Dr. Ravitch served as Assistant Secretary Education from 1991 to 1993. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a former Guggenheim Fellow and a director of the New York State Council for the Humanities.

Dr. Ravitch received a B.A. degree from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University.

Dr. Ravitch has written several opinion pieces for the Washington Post. Here is a sampling of some of them.

Education: See All the Spin

Lesson Plan for Teachers

Put Teachers to the Test

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Annapolis, MD: To what extent would you say that private schools have "dumbed down" American schools. It seems to me that when the wealthy,(often more educated, more involved) parents who can afford public schools take their kids out of the public schools, the remaining students suffer. Thoughts?

Diane Ravitch: I don't think that private schools have dumbed down American education in any sense. When parents want to spend out of their own pockets to get a better education, they are not harming public schools, no more than private colleges are "harming" public higher education. Our country is richer and better and educationally stronger because of the diversity of our education system of public and nonpublic schools.

DC: What do you think about student testing to evaluate schools and punishing/rewarding them according to student performance? This approach seems misguided to me. I know the best predictors of an individual student's outcome are features of the student's family and neighborhood (e.g. parents' education and income), and not the school itself. Wouldn't it make more sense to evaluate schools based on proven characteristics like teacher/student ratios and teacher qualifications? (This assumes, of course, the school has the financial resources to provide these things.)

Diane Ravitch: I don't think that schools should be punished based on student performance, but I do believe that it is important information to see how schools with similar students and resources perform. By looking at schools that way, we can often identify unusually effective schools, methods, and programs, as well as leaders. I have been in many schools that performed what appeared to be miracles, and those schools deserve recognition for what they accomplish.

alexandria, virginia: How important is class size in improving student learning?

Diane Ravitch: I think class size is important, but it is not always determinative of success or failure. For example, many Catholic schools have large classes, as do schools in Japan, Korea and other Asian nations. But as a parent, I would certainly prefer a smaller class rather than a larger one for my children (or, now, my grandchildren!).

Arlington, VA: As you have pointed out in one of your columns, the federal government's contribution to public education is small relative to total spending. It seems that the education system's reliance on local property taxes to fund local schools guarantees that schools in poor areas will continue to be underfunded. Do you think it will ever be politically feasible for the proportion of costs paid by federal funds to increase substantially?

Diane Ravitch: The federal share of spending for education is now about 7%, and much of that goes to special programs (like special education, bilingual education, and other targeted uses) that has little bearing on the average child. It is likely that we will see increases in federal spending--both candidates are now promising increases--but don't forget that new federal dollars always comes with strings and regulations.

Baltimore, Maryland: From time to time I read about exams in math, science and other subjects being administered to students from various countries, with comparison of the results by country. Invariably the U.S. students' performance is dismal and, at best, mediocre. What follows is hand-wringing and finger-pointing about the poor state of U.S. schools and what is needed to remedy the perceived problems. My question to you concerns the validity and relevance of these exams. Are they truly accurate measures of comparative student achievement and capability? Or are they in fact chances for countries to stack the deck, i.e., limit administration of the exams to the best students in the best schools, so that final results are enhanced? I know, for example, that while education in European countries is much more centralized, there are good schools and not-so-good schools there, just like in the U.S. I have argued that because of totally different educational philosophies among educational systems across the globe, these types of exams are not just a comparision of apples to oranges, but apples to mufflers to manhole covers, i.e., meaningless comparisons. What do you think?

Diane Ravitch: My own sense, based on the work done by the U.S. Department of Education and its description of these exams, is that we can learn from them. I don't think that other countries are inclined to "cheat," anymore than we are. There are no stakes to compete in these intl. assessments, so kids don't have an awful lot of motivation to do well. One thing that we have learned is that the spread of achievement among our students is larger than in most other countries--that is, the range from our best to our weakest students. I think that signals us to work harder to raise up our weakest students,though certainly not at the risk of our best! We can't be so self-centered as to say that we only pay attention to intl. tests when we come out on top, but cry foul when we do poorly. We should study the results and see what we can learn from them.

Arlington, VA: I am the product of a "dumbed down" high school, and as a result struggled in college because I never had to study in high school.

However, while in high school, I recognized that most of my classmates would not be going on to a 4-year college and that the teaching was geared to that majority. We had no honors or AP courses, and my parents could not afford for me to take college courses while still in high school, so there was no other way really to find other academic challenges. However, I kept myself occupied by being very active in sports and music.

Diane Ravitch: I think you were cheated. I went to a pretty average-to-mediocre public high school in Texas many years ago; my own education was good, but most of my classmates got a dumbed down version. My own view, and it's the one I expressed in my new book, is that we should educate all children as if they were our own, or as if they were the mayor's children. Unfortunately an awful lot of schools divide the kids into college-bound (they get the best education) and everyone else. That is particularly dumb because today most kids are college-bound, and all should be educated as if they were.

Arlington, VA: Everyone talks about the poor condition of our public school system. If our schools are indeed this awful, how is it that this country still produces some of the world's best engineers, philosophers, computer scientists, physicians, writers, accountants, journalists, etc., etc.? I'd be willing to bet that most of the top achievers in our country did not go to private school.

Diane Ravitch: I don't think our public schools are awful. I know that there is a wide range, from some absolutely wonderful schools to some that are dismal (Secretary Riley described them as "schools that don't deserve to be called schools"). We have such a large population that we are able to run an inefficient school system and still produce an extraordinarily large number of talented people. I bet, with you, that most of our top acihevers did not go to private school. I didn't!

Frederick, MD: What is the role of charter schools in school reform?

Diane Ravitch: I support the concept of charter schools and look forward to seeing continuing evaluation of their results. They should serve various roles in school reform: they compete with regular public schools; they offer an alternative to unhappy parents; they can provide something different in terms of education philosophy; if they are successful, they might be a model. They are also held accountabile for performance, so if they do a poor job, they can be closed down. It is a worthy experiment, and I think we should give them a chance.

Lanham, MD: How about school vouchers? What are your thoughts there?

Diane Ravitch: On school vouchers, my own view is that we should have a carefuly controlled and evaluated demonstration project. Bill Galston, who was former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton, and I once wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post where we recommended such a demonstration. Only for poor kids, in certain cities, where the results could be evaluated. I'm for that.

Arlington, VA: What did YOU do from 1991-1993 to help this situation?

Diane Ravitch: I don't know if I helped the situation, but I worked as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Research in the US Dept of Education, and strongly supported the effort to develop national standards. I think that the work we did brought a great deal of attention to standards and their value, tho the national projects probably moved far too quickly and did not accomplish what might have happened if we were able to move more slowly and deliberately.

Washington DC: While it would seem logical to have future teachers actually MAJOR in the subject they plan to teach, couldn't this plan backfire? After all, it is completely possible to have the world's best chemist who is great at chemistry, but simply cannot teach! There is a certain art and skill to being a "good" teacher. Majoring in a subject wouldn't necessarily give future teachers that ability (though they would be well versed in their subjects). If you are like me, some of the best teachers you can think of didn't major in their subject. I do agree that subject knowledge is key. However, this doesn't mean we will have better teachers. Please comment.

Diane Ravitch: My own view is that teachers should be very well educated, and that they should learn their craft from master teachers. Whether this happens in ed school or on the job matters less than that it should happen. Knowing how to teach but not knowing your subject is a disservice to kids. Both are important. It bothers me that most history teachers, for example, have neither a major NOR a minor in history. I think that is wrong.

Washington DC: Do you favor local control of schools or federal control?
Is there conclusive evidence that such federal programs as LIFT have helped America's students? What other federal programs are there currently?

Diane Ravitch: I favor a mix of local, state and federal involvement. It is very important to maintain local initiative and involvement. It is also important to remember that most funding for education comes from the states. And some federal programs are valuable--like Headstart and Title I for poor kids--but badly need to be reformed to become more effective. The problem with federal programs is that the politics in Washington are so intense that it becomes nearly impossible to reform a program once it is put into place. Believe it or not, there is more flexibility at the local and state levels. The mix is best.

Washington DC: Has the Goal's 2000 program helped or hurt America's school children? How has it helped or hurt them?

Diane Ravitch: Goals 2000 has probably focused attention on standards and on academics, which I think is a good thing. I don't think it hurt anybody. But because it is not targeted to a specific group of recipients (like bilingual education or Title I for the poor), it has no lobby and will probably disappear.

Washington DC: Federal Accountability and National Testing have been recent items of debate. Wouldn't national testing lead to the dumbing down of America's students? Wouldn't teachers be prone to teach to the test? Is it possible to achieve accountability/measure student's learning without federal involvement?

Diane Ravitch: Since I serve on the National Assessment Governing Board, which is responsible now for national testing (only for samplings of students, not individuals), I believe that national testing would not dumb down the schools. Most people think that the federal tests (known as NAEP, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress) are quite good.
I don't see anything wrong in teaching to the test, if the test is a good one. What is really bad is testing kids on things that no one taught them. The tests should teach what was taught! Yes, states can achieve accountability without federal involvement. Some are already doing that.

Washington DC: Much talk by both Presidential candidates has pointed to some form of "Federal Voucher System"(Gore with Public School Choice; Bush with All School Choice). Coupled with recent court rulings, this would seem to indicate that some form of school choice is inevitable in the future. Federal funds always come with strings attached. Historically, private colleges have accepted Federal funds of some sort. My question is: What kind of strings(requirements) come with the Federal funds that private colleges and universities have had to deal with, and can private K-12 institutions expect the same kind of "strings" if they accept Federal funds(in the form of vouchers)if and when such a program is instituted?

Diane Ravitch: Public school choice would probably not bring more strings because it applies only to public schools. The voucher system, as I understand it, would send a "voucher" to parents, not to schools. If the money did go to private schools (rather than families), there would probably be strings attached, and opponents of the idea would make sure that they were onerous.

Motley, Minnesota: What is the driving force behind these reforms? I realize the answer might be multifaceted, but if one could precisely summarize what drives these changes.

Diane Ravitch: The driving force behind most school reforms today is a desire to do two things: 1) improve student achievement; 2) reduce the achievement gap between white and black students.

Fairfax, Virginia: What of all the mistakes that have been made under the category of school "reform" would you consider to be the gravest error--or errors, if you choose. And what do we now know to have been the primary reason(s) such was made by policy makers or school officials (e.g. superintendents)? Thanks.

Diane Ravitch: In my latest book, I argue that the biggest mistake we have made in the name of school reform is to divide kids up into groups who were deserving of a quality education and those who didn't have the right stuff and therefore did not get a quality education. This is a long story and it takes me a few chapters to lay it out, so I hope you will read my book! The bottom line, however, is that we need to give the best education we know how to deliver to as many kids as there are.

Bowie, MD: When writing your book, did you actually talk to teachers? Do you feel that you are in touch with reality in terms of the issues that teachers face??

Diane Ravitch: I did talk to teachers and principals. My mate is a public school principal and most of our friends teach in the public schools. I don't know if that counts, but I hope so. As a historian, most of my time was spent in research and writing.

Alexandria, VA: Hello. I was interested to read that in your latest book one of the central lessons you want readers to remember is that "anything in education that is labeled a 'movement' should be avoided like the plague." I presume this applies to both the standards and accountability movement, and the back-to-basics movement currently sweeping the country as well?

Diane Ravitch: I am opposed to movements in general, in education and in politics. I don't think that the effort to establish academics as the core of education is a movement; I think it is good education.

Scarsdale, New York: Today's college graduates have many job opportunities. How would you encourage the 'best and the brightest' to enter the teaching profession?

Diane Ravitch: The best appeal is idealism. Young people are more idealistic than those who are older, and there is no question that, even with higher teacher salaries, they can make more money in the private sector. But idealism is powerful!

Washington DC: Not necessarily endorsing one candidate over the other, which Presidential candidate's education proposal will be more beneficial to reforming education in America?

Diane Ravitch: Not necessarily endorsing either candidate, I have to make a confession: neither will reform American education. That is likelier to happen at the state and local level and in individual schools. The federal contribution is small, and current federal programs themselves need to be reformed. I would be impressed with the President who set himself the task of making current federal programs effective. There are powerful lobbies in DC who prevent changes.
I should add that an abundance of discrete programs is often a distraction for schools rather than a help.

Philly, PA: One interesting idea: We usually see desginations such as social studies, English, etc... but the topic matter is so broadly covered, that it is more likely to be glossed over than actually studied..

would it be better to have a specific curriculum for writing, a separate one for world history, and one for american history, etc. etc.?

Diane Ravitch: I am a strong advocate of teaching history, rather than social studies; literature, rather than "language arts." In my book, I explain how this amorphous fields evolved. You are right that the more diffuse the field, the less interesting!

Chester, VA: Why wait for a demonstration project for vouchers? Can't we trust parents to make good decisions if provided with continuous feedback?

Diane Ravitch: Vouchers is a hot-button issue, and there is not yet the political will either in states or at the federal level to provide vouchers. Only three states now have voucher programs--Wisconsin for Milwaukee only; Ohio, for Cleveland only; and Florida. Milwaukee is the only one not under court challenge (an effort to kill it was stopped by the Supreme Court, which did not overturn a favorable lower court decision).
Vouchers may yet happen, but not soon.

Frederick, MD: Considering your new book, I suppose I'm tossing you a softball with this question, but I think it genuinely needs to be asked:
all sorts of reforms have been discussed, many have been tried but very little in the schools and school systems actually changes. Other than bureaucratic resistance to change, what prevents reforms from taking root?

Diane Ravitch: This is not a softball question. It is actually very complicated and I spent a whole book trying to answer it! One way to describe our schools is that they are constantly reforming without changing. Some of the reforms deserved to die; others came and went without making a dent. My own stance is to say concentrate on teaching and learning and beware of trendy ideas with capital letters attached to them. We want all kids to have a full opportunity to learn math, science, history, literature, the arts, perhaps a foreign language. That is not a reform. That's education, and we need educated teachers to make that happen.

Washinton DC: On the issue of National Testing, it is my understanding that many teachers would rather not be forced to administer another test. Once they take the various achievement tests, state tests, etc, there is not much time left to actually TEACH. Wouldn't adding another test to the plate serve to lessen actual teaching time? What are your thoughts on the current proposals in congress to reorganize the NAGB and NAEP?

Diane Ravitch: The NAEP is not "another test." It is a test, offered in the major academic subjects, that is given to a sampling of students across the countries. NAEP makes it possible to compare student achievement in grades 4, 8, 12 over time (since about 1970), and also compare achievement across states. It is not a burden on teachers because so few students (the national sample) actually take the NAEP. I strongly support it because it is the only valid indicator we presently have about student performance.

Wash, DC: What do you think of homeschooling? Can it be a force for improvement, like Charter schools?

Diane Ravitch: I don't advocate homeschooling but I respect the right of those parents who choose to do it. I don't think I would have been very good at it myself, for my own children, and I expect that most parents prefer to see their children in a school. I don't think that homeschooling has much impact on public schools in general, but it seems to be very good for many of those children involved.

Annapolis MD: Just a note to the person who commented on the irony of how the U.S. leads the world in technology yet our schools are so poor. As a person in the "high tech" field I can tell you with absolute certainty that skilled imigrants provide a substantial portion of the employees needed to make the industry work. The sad fact is that our high schools are producing armies of people with no skills or interest in science and technology.

Diane Ravitch: This is a good point. Right now, the President and Congress are discussing the expansion of visas for hundreds of thousands of highly educated immigrants to staff our high-tech industries because our own people are not able to do so. These are high-paying jobs and we have to import people to do them! I visited Intel a couple of years ago and was told there that Intel would not hire American high school graduates because of their poor education in math and science; the only countries where they did employ high school grads was Israel and Ireland.

Circe in DC: Two very different questions:

Any thoughts about the education initiatives introduced by Ernest Boyer in the 1970s--open classrooms, etc.? Are his theories remain relevant today?


Also, do you think the increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots in the the United States have contributed to deterioration of the public school system?

Quite frankly, I have never read anything that challenges the axiom: lower-income community=less-educated community. I grew-up in a rural, impoverished area. There were a few honours classes, but the overwhelming message was "you're never getting out of here--get into a vocational program."

More over, the poor academic program also reinforced the negative social order that had been created in reaction to the limited economic opportunities of the area. Teen pregnancy (over a third of each graduating class either had kids, were pregnant, or had had an abortion) and racism went unchecked, at best, or were encouraged, at worst.

Your thoughts would be most appreciated.

Diane Ravitch: Please, PLEASE, please read my new book: It will explain to you how this axiom was put into place. A century ago, rural communities tried to give everyone a "college-prep" curriculum, even if they were the children of farmers. Then in the early part of this century, the idea became fashionable that the children of farmers needed agricultural education, girls needed home economics, black children needed to learn how to plant and cobble shoes, industrial workers' children needed to learn crafts, etc.
Re the open classroom: in general, it was a disaster. But I don't associate that idea with Ernest Boyer, who generally was a sound thinker.

Washington DC: Why is it that Homeschoolers and Private Schools have had such great educational successes without such things as "federal programs", "national tests", "the latest educational reform",etc? Is there a tangible answer to this question, or are they simply our performing many public schools?

Diane Ravitch: There is a range of achievement among homeschoolers and among children in private schools, just as there is a range of achievement among youngsters who attend public schools. The truth is that without some sort of valid assessments, we really can't say who is doing best--or why. That is one reason I support NAEP (the national assessment)==it is not for individual students, but for national samples.

Washington, DC: Doesn't the NEA and AFT's consistant resistance of any reform or outside evaluation of teachers play a role in the failure of reform efforts up to now? My public highschool had many abysmal teachers who either couldn't teach, couldn't control the classroom, or didn't seem to care if we learned anything. I realize that the force of
parents insisting that their little Johnny couldn't possibly deserve less than an A has much to do with grade inflation and dumbing down, but I would think the unions played a huge role in this too.

Diane Ravitch: The unions have a mixed role. On some issues, they are just defending teachers against unfair interventions from higher ups. But one of our greatest recent education leaders was Albert Shanker of the AFT. He is probably more responsible for the current wave of support for standards than anyone else. His death a few years ago robbed our nation of an important voice for real reform. So, I would be somewhat more discriminating in discussing the role of the unions; on some issues, I agree with them, others not.

Alexandria Virginia: What is your opinion or having tests for teachers. We always focus on testing the student but often the student is taking a standard state test that many of the teachers could not pass. Quality teachers are needed to produce quality results.

Diane Ravitch: I support teacher testing. All professionals take tests to qualify. It is not professional to NOT test teachers.

Arlington, VA: I'm a senior at Yorktown HS in Arlington. We were recently ranked the 92nd best high school in the nation in a Newsweek article by Post education writer Jay Mathews. His ranking system involved dividing the number of advanced placement exams taken by the number of graduating seniors. In your opinion, is this a good way to measure the quality of a school? How would you rank the nation's best high schools?
--Nick Summers

Diane Ravitch: This is one form of ranking high schools, but others may be valid as well. The percentage of students who go to college, as compared to the socioeconomic status of the student body, for example. I'd like to see multiple measures, all describing the accomplishments of the students in various ways.

Silver Spring, MD: One of the challenges facing schools is the workload/environment teachers -- even those who are knowledgeable and skilled -- deal with daily. This does not seem to be addressed in any of the reform activities -- or have I missed it.

Diane Ravitch: This is a hard one, because it is not a "policy" that can be dispensed from Washington or the state capitol. This is really an issue for the local level, and most especially for principals and teachers themselves. The environment and the workload are both critical in keeping high levels of motivation and engagement for teachers and students.

WDC: What do you think about the recent referendum in DC to give it a hybrid school board -- mix of appointed and elected? What impact do school boards have, and what impact does their make-up have?

Diane Ravitch: There is no ideal way to choose a school board. The issue, I think, is not how they are chosen (no magic formula) but what they do once they are there. My ideal school board would figure out how to delegate maximum authority to individual schools and then hold them accountable for student achievement. But get out of their way!!

Washington, D.C.: As more and more parents are selecting home schooling as their preferred education model, what do you see as the level of involvement/regulation of such programs by local school districts? Do you think that at any point, federal program funds, e.g., Title I, II or VI, should be made available to these families?

Diane Ravitch: I think that school disticts and/or states should administer tests regularly to homeschooled students, but otherwise leave them alone. If they aren't learning, then public authorities will have to step in. I could imagine certain federal funds flowing to families--e.g., special education, Title I--but there are large issues about implementation that need to be thought through.

Washington, DC: What role do you think overcrowded classrooms, crumbling school buildings and lack of technological infrastructure play in American students' lack of achievement in public schools? Is it feasible to believe that the federal government will do more to resolve these concerns?

Diane Ravitch: I don't think that any children should go to schools that are crumbling or try to learn in overcrowded classrooms with inadequately prepared teachers. Where schools are deteriorated they should be repaired or replaced. I don't know what the ideal class size is, but I do know that the US has about the smallest class sizes of any country in the world. For those schools where classes are too large (over 30, say), then the school districts need to make class size reduction a priority and reorganize teaching and administrative schedules. Some school districts waste resources on administrative overhead that should go into teachers' salaries or reducing class size.
The federal govt is likely to make some contribution to these issues, but it is not likely to be decisive, as most federal funds are targeted to specific groups of students, not to general school aid. The buck really stops at the state level, where most school aid comes from.

Diane Ravitch: Thanks to WashingtonPost Online for inviting me as a guest. American education is going through a lot of changes now. The federal role is certainly going to expand, and that has many implications for the future. Having been in the US Department of Education, I worry about placing false hopes in the level of government that is farthest from the classroom. And I also think that the feds need to "fix" their own existing programs before enacting new ones.
The basic responsibility for educating our children remains with parents, teachers, and the youngsters themselves. There are no magic answers out there. Education is hard work, and we should reward those who do it well.
Diane Ravitch

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