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Diane Ravitch: Changing education from the grassroots up

Her latest book, "Reign of Error," argues against testing, the charter school movement, and federally driven mandates
Diane Ravitch, once a top supporter of testing and school choice, is now leading the fight against those policies.
Diane Ravitch, once a leading supporter of testing and school choice, is now leading the fight against those policies.

Diane Ravitch is outspoken in her criticisms of education in this country. Her latest book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Knopf, 2013), pulls no punches in its arguments against testing, the charter school movement, and federally driven mandates.

But Ravitch knows of what she speaks because she’s been on both sides of the fence. From 1991 to 1993, she was assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. She was in charge of the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement, and led the federal push for voluntary state and national academic standards.

From 1997 to 2004, she was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program. Ravitch’s work has been recognized by numerous organizations, including the National Education Association, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She continues to draw enthusiastic crowds wherever she speaks, not just of educators, but of parents and students as well, who recognize the need for change.

I want to start by having you tell the story about your own personal conversion, as it were. You were not always against test-based accountability and choice.

Yes, I went along with the zeitgeist that said, “We need testing. We need accountability. We need choice. We need competition.” These are ideas that appeal to very basic American values about choice and competition and holding people accountable for results.

But about five years into No Child Left Behind, I went to a conference at a conservative think tank. And there were a dozen papers from scholars across the country saying that No Child Left Behind wasn’t working here, it wasn’t working there.

The choice provisions weren’t working because the kids were not choosing to leave their neighborhood school. The tutoring provisions were not working because all these fly-by-night businesses were popping up. There wasn’t a single paper that said it’s working.

At the end of the day, I, who had been a believer, had become a nonbeliever. And from that point forward, I began listening and realized that this was not going to work ever. It simply was not going to get better five years later. The things I had been advocating for sounded good in theory, but I could no longer support what the evidence showed didn’t work.

You argue that public education is not broken, but it has been undercut by a “big lie.”

The big lie was that we are failing and there’s a rising tide of mediocrity. We’ve now heard it so many times over the last 30 years, beginning with “A Nation At Risk,” that people believe it because it never gets countered.

But when you look at the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, people say, “Oh, American education is in terrible shape.” And then you ask, “Well, how’s your local school?” They say, “Oh, my local school is great. Love my local school. Love my teachers. They’re all terrific. But American education is failing.”

So the big lie has worked, but it hasn’t reached what people know from their own personal reality. The other point is that there is an assault on American public education today coming from federal government, coming from the foundations, coming from so many right-wing public policy think tanks that it is immensely destabilizing.

The schools are being hit with a tsunami of demands for change that would make a sane person crazy. When you think about all the conflicting and, in some cases, absolutely wrongheaded pressure that’s being put on schools, they can’t handle it.

Teachers are leaving the profession. I hear from them all the time. They say, “I am a national board certified teacher. I won teacher of the year.” They list all their awards. And they say, “I can’t teach anymore. These are impossible conditions.”

So you’re suggesting that assault on public education is systematic and deliberate.

It is deliberate. This is a national effort to destabilize and to undermine public confidence in public education and to make people feel that things are so desperate that anything is worth trying.

So you get people opening charter schools who are totally unqualified to run a school—basketball players, tennis players, football players. They should be running sports camps. They are qualified for that. They are not qualified to run schools.

But no one even blinks when you say, “We’re opening an Andre Agassi charter school.” What does Andre Agassi know about education?

What does it take to change? You list a number of solutions in your book. Can you highlight some?

One thing that could be done that would really make a difference would be to have less standardized testing; to have teachers make their own tests instead of relying on testing companies, which is what other countries in the world do. And, certainly, it’s what the high performing nations in the world do.

We are the most over-tested country in the world. No other country in the world tests every student every year. That is ridiculous. It does not benefit the students. It just benefits the testing industry.

Fewer tests would open up more time for things like the arts. Kids have to have a reason to come to school in many places, particularly in the inner cities where the schools are struggling the most. They should have fabulous arts programs. And instead, they’re cut to the bone—if they exist at all.

I was in Pittsburgh for my first round of book tour talks. It was like a pep rally. There were 1,000 people at Mt. Sinai Synagogue.

After I spoke, a group of teenagers came high-stepping down the aisle. These were all black kids in spiffy uniforms and they came high-stepping down the aisle. One of the kids came up and said, “We are the Westinghouse High School Marching Band.” And everyone applauded. Then she said, “We have no instruments. The budget was cut. All the instruments are gone. We don’t even have enough money to have drumsticks. We’ve had a succession of band directors because they keep getting laid off. The uniforms that you see are 12 years old.”

The people who live in the suburbs would never tolerate for their children what’s being done to the kids in the inner city, and then the politicians who have not funded the schools turn around and call them failing schools.

But how do you counter this?

I believe there has to be a grassroots movement of parents and educators so powerful that the politicians can’t do this anymore. Politicians don’t lead; they follow. I’ve talked to many elected officials in Washington. Most of them have no idea what the consequences are in the schools. They care, but they have a lot of other things to worry about—foreign affairs, the economy, health care.

There are many more issues that are more salient to them because education is, theoretically at least, not a federal responsibility.

Instead, they just say, “Well, you know, we’re measuring the kids and we’re finding out that we have achievement gaps.” But we knew there was an achievement gap before NCLB. This is not new. The question is what are you going to do about it? And we’re doing nothing about it other than to continue to say that it exists.

So what we’re building now, between teachers, parents and students, is a grassroots movement. That’s the only thing that’s going to change this. It’s not going to come from Washington.

Recently, NBC had one of its Education Nation programs, a student town hall, featuring four student activists from Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Providence. It was four kids who were actively involved in trying to bring change.

One kid was from Chicago. He was a white kid. The host said, “I know Chicago. You go to Jones. Jones is a great school. They didn’t close it. Why are you in this movement?” And he said, “Because if it affects one of us, it affects all of us. They closed 49 elementary schools and that’s an insult to every student in Chicago. We need to be in solidarity.”

The kids make a lot more sense than the adults.

What is your hope for the future?

A growing movement that will cause the politicians to say, “We really have to have change.” I would urge people to get together and create study groups.

We all need to understand that what has been happening is not just an idea that some politician had in this state or that state. This is a national effort to undermine public education, to make people think that it stinks and anything is better than having community public schools.

The best way to spread the message is for lots of people to share it, talk about it, and see how they can mobilize to strengthen their public schools, not to defend the status quo. The status quo are the people who call themselves reformers. They reform nothing.

Tim Goral is senior editor.