Diane Ravitch speaks at the Education on the Edge Lecture Series at California State University Northridge on Oct. 2, 2013. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

Diane Ravitch has been the titular leader of the grass-roots movement against corporate school reform since 2010, when her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” was published and quickly became a bestseller. (In fact, readers of the the pro-reform journal Education Next named it the most important book of the first decade of the 2000s.) In the book, she explained why she dropped her support for No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative of former president George W. Bush and standardized test-based school reform. Now she has updated the book and explained why she has again changed her view on at least one important issue. This post is a Q&A I had with Ravitch about her book and the state of the public education.

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The reason Ravitch’s change of position mattered was because of her position in the education world. A well-respected education historian and author, she worked from 1991 to 1993 as assistant secretary in charge of research and improvement in the Education Department of President George H.W. Bush and served as counsel to then-Education Secretary Lamar Alexander (who is now the chairman of the Senate education committee). She was a supporter of No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative of President George W. Bush, and was at the White House as part of a select group when Bush first outlined No Child Left Behind, a moment that at the time made her “excited and optimistic” about the future of public education.

But her opinion changed as NCLB was implemented, and she heard from teachers about the negative effects it was having on teaching and learning. She began to research the law’s effects and concluded that it had led to a serious narrowing of curriculum that reduced or eliminated science, the arts and other subjects; an obsession with test prep and testing; and plunging morale among teachers. In 2013, she formed an advocacy group called the Network for Public Education as a counter to Michelle Rhee’s then-influential StudentsFirst and like-minded organizations that were pushing the privatization of public education and test-based “accountability.”

She became a fierce critic of President Obama’s education policies and his chief education initiative, Race to the Top, which was a multi-billion-dollar competition in which states (and later districts) could win federal funds by promising to adopt controversial reforms, including the Common Core State Standards, charter schools and systems that evaluated teachers by student test scores.

Today she is a senior research scholar at New York University, and she blogs daily here.

Here’s the conversation I had with Ravitch about the new edition of the book, which will be available later this month, and about school reform in general.

Your book was a blockbuster when it came out. What effect do you think it had on the school reform debate then, and why did you decide to update it now?

When the book first appeared, it created a sensation because I had been an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration and was supportive of such Republican policies as testing, choice, competition, and accountability. I was also a member of conservative think tanks, and I had long been known as a supporter of No Child Left Behind and charter schools. The book was immediately hailed and reviled because I renounced my support for high-stakes testing and charter schools. People in public life these days are not known for saying “I was wrong.” I did.

As time passed, I realized that there was one key point in the book that I found embarrassing. In the final chapter, I reiterated my long-standing support for national standards and a national curriculum. Occasionally, I got letters from readers asking how I could justify that position. I couldn’t.

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that national standards and a national curriculum was another truly bad idea. But I couldn’t rewrite the book to change that portion, because it would mean resetting pages, which publishers don’t do.

When the publisher of Basic Books approached me last year and invited me to “revise at will,” without regard to the need to reset pages and chapters, I was thrilled because I could finally make the changes I wanted to make from the original edition.

I quite bluntly admit in the book that the pursuit of national standards, national curriculum and national tests is a dead-end. There seems to be an assumption that if every child is exposed to exactly the same material at the same time, achievement gaps between children from rich homes and poor homes will close. If the curriculum is over the heads of the students, and if the tests are made harder, achievement will rise. I now think all of this is nonsense.

Even in states that have the same standards and tests, there are achievement gaps, reflecting wealth and poverty. Politicians continue to claim that making tests harder will make students smarter. But tests are not an instructional method; they are a measure. The athlete who can’t jump over a 5′ bar won’t jump higher if you raise it to 6′.

What we now know, because of the failure of the Common Core, is that increasing the difficulty of the material to be learned and the rigor of the tests widen the achievement gaps. Children who are already struggling to keep up will fall farther behind.

I have come to understand that improving schools must proceed along with improving the lives of children. If we think that a standardized curriculum and tests will eliminate poverty and raise up all children, we are wasting time and money that should be spent on reducing class sizes, raising teachers’ salaries, increasing time for the arts, and making sure that all children have the decent homes, the medical care, and the food security that enables them to be ready to learn.

Abandoning the idea of national standards raises the question of whether you think standards-based education has any value. Does it?

There is great confusion about national standards and a national curriculum. The Common Core, for example, is both. It addresses both the content of instruction and the difficulty of instruction. It is far too specific and attempts to standardize every school in the nation. When you travel the country and see how much diversity there is — geographic, racial, economic, social — you see how pointless it is to try to force the delivery of the same exact content in every city, town, hamlet and agricultural area. The designers of the Common Core decided that American kids have it too easy in school, so they increased the pace of instruction and made the tests harder. The result is that most children fail the Common Core tests, and that is a terrible thing to do to little children. They should have both challenge and success, not be branded as failures in third grade.

When we speak of standards-based education, you raise the question of whether there is value in making sure that every student learns the same material at the same pace. I no longer see any value in that approach. What makes most sense to me is a child-centered education, where knowledgeable and experienced teachers set the pace based on their understanding of the children they teach. Children have different needs. They are not little cookie-cutter people. Some learn quickly and are ready to learn more, and they should be encouraged to do so. Others have trouble reading, and they should get the help they need when they need it. Most children will learn best when asked to become actively engaged in what they are learning: when they are making a model, building a design on the computer, writing a story, figuring things out, and solving problems. When they do these things as part of a team, so much the better.

If “standards”  implies teaching all kids the same thing at the same time, then wouldn’t that be the same problem for state standards? 

The most appropriate “standards” are actually guidelines, determined to avoid unnecessary duplication of courses. State standards can reasonably require, for example, that state history should be taught in fourth grade or that U.S. history will be taught in certain grades and world history in others. But state standards should not go into close detail about what to teach or how to teach it. There should be standards for new teachers, for example, they should have a degree in the subject they plan to teach, and they should have a master’s degree that demonstrates their knowledge of pedagogy, child psychology, and other aspects of education/or a master’s degree in their subject. They should have certification to teach. They should pass a state test of their literacy and numeracy. Once they are admitted into the profession, they should have the autonomy to design their courses, if they wish, or to introduce different methods. Autonomy, within professional limits, is part of the definition of a professional.

What impact do you think the anti-corporate reform movement has had on education policy?

The number of teachers and parents who understand that the future of public education is at risk is far greater today than it was in 2010. Along with Anthony Cody, a wonderful teacher and blogger, I started an organization called the Network for Public Education, which holds annual conferences and sponsors research; we also have a political action group that endorses candidates. We don’t have much money, but I think we have made an impact. Some of the candidates we endorsed have won, although they were vastly outspent. Our annual gatherings bring together activists from across the country, who discover that they are not alone. We have even introduced pro-public education groups that operate within the same state but didn’t know about the others. We have fought against high-stakes testing and privatization. We are no longer a lone voice. The  opt-out movement led the fight against high-stakes testing, and they were responsible for changing the education leadership of the state of New York. They are a real power in the state; they organize parents and regularly meet with legislators. Groups like United Opt Out have developed parent awareness of the pernicious uses of testing.

Some of the high-profile names in the so-called reform movement have left the stage. Tony Bennett of Indiana, once called “the reformiest of the reformers,” is gone, after the embarrassment of a grade-fixing scandal to benefit a charter owner who contributed to his campaign. Michelle Rhee, once the face of the movement, is in seclusion. Joel Klein, the scourge of teachers, is now in the online health-care business. The much-vaunted Tennessee Achievement School District (which promised to raise the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state to the top 25 percent) failed. The “Waiting for Superman” propaganda campaign has fizzled.

Fewer people today believe that charters have some special magic; more people understand now that those with the highest scores exclude low-performing students or push them out. The virtual charter industry, which in my view is a Ponzi scheme, has been thoroughly debunked by research reports and newspaper exposes (the latest one was by Jessica Calefati in the San Jose Mercury News).

The press in Ohio has been all over ECOT (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow), which is one of the lowest performing schools in the state, but whose owner has collected nearly a billion dollars in taxpayer money — and is the biggest donor to Republican elected officials in the state.  The press is beginning to understand that profiteers and entrepreneurs are siphoning money away from public schools through arcane charter real estate deals. The Detroit Free Press ran a week-long expose of the charter industry in 2014, showing that it collects a billion dollars a year in public funds yet has no accountability.

Film makers and investigative journalists have begun to ask why corporate chains and charters run by foreign nationals (like the Gulen chain)  are allowed to take the place of democratically controlled public schools.

Our biggest failure to date is that we have not been able to break through to government officials. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton showed that they understood the widespread parent opposition to high-stakes testing or the dangers of privatization.

There is a great deal of money flowing freely from billionaires like the Walton family (Walmart), Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, John Arnold and many more to promote privatization. For the past five years, the charter industry has been spending freely to buy elections. Case in point is California, where the California Charter School Association has poured millions of dollars this year into state legislative races, knocking off liberal Democrats and substituting privatization-friendly conservative Democrats.

The irony today is that many of the leading figures in the Democratic Party support some of the same education policies as the right-wing extremists in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which supports charters and vouchers, opening the classroom to uncertified teachers, and eliminating the job protections of teachers.

We continue to fight because we believe in democracy. We believe that as the public begins to understand that these “reformers” want to privatize their neighborhood school, they will resist. Once public consciousness is aroused, our numbers will beat their money and hired publicists.

Did you change/add anything else in the book aside from the issue of standards?

Yes, in the original book, I tried to rescue the reputation of the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.” I pointed out in the initial edition that the report, produced by a presidential commission, did not mention school choice and barely mentioned testing. But I could not rescue it any more. Its role in promoting the fiction that the economy rises or falls because of the schools is undeniable. It was written when Americans were keenly aware that the auto industry had been captured by the Japanese. No use blaming the schools for that. It was an economic decision. When the economy recovered, no one thanked the schools. Third graders, eighth graders, 12th graders can’t be blamed for shifting economic trends. So in the revision, I had to criticize “A Nation at Risk” for failing to note the social and economic context in which children live and for treating the schools mainly as a source of supplying workers for global competition.

If you could sit down and speak with President Obama, what would you want to tell him about education policy?

President Obama, I wish I could have talked to you back in 2008 or 2009. I will never understand why you decided to align your education policy with that of George W. Bush. I still remember the times you said the right things about teachers (respect them) and testing (there are too many and they take too much time away from learning), but your policies emphasized the very things that you denounced rhetorically. I wish you had started early on with a program that rewarded states that developed actionable plans for desegregating districts. If you had, we would be a very different nation today. I wish you had never put forth Race to the Top. I wish you understood the damage that standardized testing does to children, especially children of color. Standardized tests are normed on a bell curve. Bell curves never close. There is always a top half and a bottom half, and the most advantaged kids always cluster at the top. What if we awarded drivers’ licenses on a bell curve? Half the people in this country would never qualify to drive.

You know, we just celebrated the life of Muhammad Ali, and one of the articles said he wasn’t very successful in school but he loved physical education and art. Think of another Muhammad Ali today. He would be told he was a failure starting in third grade. He would be labeled a failure again and again until he stopped believing in himself. People have all kinds of talents and potential that is not measured in a standardized test, yet your administration has made them the measure of all children.

I would also give him an earful about charter schools, which his administration prioritized and poured billions into. I won’t point out that their test scores are on average no better than public schools, and that many are far worse. What I would point out is that his administration has subsidized the establishment (or re-establishment) of a dual school system: two publicly funded systems. One gets to choose its students, the other must take everyone. Public schools in many jurisdictions are in danger of falling into bankruptcy because the charters are draining children and resources from them. Why do we need two school systems funded by the public? Why is one democratically controlled, while the other has private management? Why have you tolerated the growth of for-profit public schools? I wish you had cut off all public funding of for-profit schools long ago and set caps on executive compensation for those that are nonprofits.

If only we could have had this conversation sooner!

Who should be the next U.S. education secretary?

It should be someone who is not associated with the Bush-Obama legacy of high-stakes testing and privatization. It should be someone who understands the importance of strengthening and improving public education. My first choice would be Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University. I know she was associated with the development of one of the Common Core tests (the Smarter Balanced Assessment) and also the EdTPA, which teacher candidates must pass to enter the field. But there are few people in the nation as knowledgeable as Linda about the need for equity for students and a high-quality teaching profession. She would be a forceful advocate for the needs of children and public schools.

 If Hillary Clinton is elected, do you think she will do anything different than President Obama has?

 My first guess is that she will follow the same policies as Obama, but within the confines of the new federal law, ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act]. The ESSA is only marginally better than No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top. Many of her advisers come from the [nonprofit] Center for American Progress, which has strongly supported testing, test-based teacher evaluation, Common Core, charter schools, and all of the other errors of the Obama administration.

But she is a very smart woman. I am hopeful that she will forge her own path. The tip-off will be when she picks a secretary of education. If it is John King, we can expect no changes.

And what do you think Donald Trump would do to public education if he becomes president?

He has said two things:

1) I love charter schools

2) I will get rid of Common Core.

I am willing to bet that he has no idea what Common Core or charters are. He doesn’t know that the president and the Education Department has no power to “get rid of Common Core.” The charter industry should welcome its new friend, one who shares their disregard for our public schools.

He is a guy who “loves the uneducated.” So my guess is that he will want to encourage more people to be uneducated. He is the kind of person that we teach our children NOT to be: a bully who ridicules and belittles others, a guy who engages in ethnic and religious stereotypes, a guy who is uncivil, crude, and boastful. He is no role model for our children.

 If you were to write another book, what would it be?

 If I stop blogging long enough to write another book, it would be a memoir. Doesn’t everyone want to write a memoir? I have lived for 78 years.  I was born in Houston, Texas, where I was third of eight children. My earliest memories are of growing up during World War 2. My parents owned a mom-and-pop liquor store. My mother was born in Bessarabia [in Eastern Europe] and graduated high school, an accomplishment of which she was very proud. My father was a high school dropout who grew up in Georgia and aspired to sing and dance in vaudeville. I went to public schools in Houston, then to Wellesley College, which changed my life. Subsequently I married, had children, earned a doctorate in history of education. I have lived through so many changes, and I would like to reflect on how America has changed.