Author Diane Ravitch

Former Education Department official talks about the role of testing in the U.S. education system.

Education expert Diane Ravitch is a research professor at New York University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Assistant secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush and a proponent of No Child Left Behind, Ravitch recently swapped sides on the education debate. Her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, criticizes standardized testing as a means for schools to gain resources. She blogs for Education Week and contributes to Huffington Post and Politico.



Tavis: Diane Ravitch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of education at NYU who previously served as an education adviser to the first President Bush and President Clinton.
Her new text is called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.” Diane Ravitch, good to have you on the program.
Diane Ravitch: It’s wonderful to be with you tonight.
Tavis: Glad to have you. When you walked on the stage I said to you, “Congratulations on ‘The New York Times’ list.” I saw the paper a couple of days ago and noted that you had made “The New York Times'” best-seller list, and you said to me that –
Ravitch: It’s driven by teachers. It’s driven by teachers because we’re in an atmosphere now where thousands of teachers are being laid off. The teachers who still have jobs are scared to death. I’ve been getting hundreds of emails from teachers across America saying, “I’m afraid they’re going to close my school, I’m afraid they’re going to fire the staff, I’m terrified. All I have – I just have to focus on testing, testing, testing and I’m not doing what’s right for the children.”
Tavis: If teachers are told, given No Child Left Behind, that they have to teach to the test, as it were, what’s a teacher do, what’s a teacher get out of this book?
Ravitch: What the teacher will learn is what’s the background of No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind basically, in my view, is a failed policy. It’s turned our schools into testing factories, where the scores keep going up and up and up, except they’re fraudulent in many cases.
The kids are being told that they’re proficient and then when they get out of high school they go to a community college or a college and they fail the entrance exam. There are many places where the remediation rates are either unchanged or they’re continuing to go up because the kids don’t even know reading and math.
They also don’t know history or literature or geography, foreign languages. They’re not getting physical education in some places. Everything is about the testing, and so the testing has narrowed the curriculum, it has brought about this teaching to the test culture, and now teachers are told, “If the kids don’t learn, you’re responsible. You’re going to be fired.” This created an atmosphere of fear among teachers.
Tavis: When you use the word “fraudulent,” you mean by that that while the test scores in some ways are going up, your definition of fraudulent includes or focuses in on the fact that so much other stuff is being left out of the teaching process?
Ravitch: Well, that’s not the only fraud. The other part of the fraud is that there are states where if you look at the state scores they’re going up, but if you look at the national assessment of educational progress – that’s the federal test, it’s given every other year in every state – scores are flat.
Now, maybe the federal test is harder, although I don’t think it is. It ought to be the same trend lines. If they’re going up in the state they should be going up on the federal test, and they’re not. In most states the scores for the past seven or eight years in reading for eighth graders have been completely flat.
Tavis: I think I hear, Diane, why it is and how it is, based upon what you changed your mind to become a critic of No Child Left Behind. I think I get that part. Tell me, though, why you were initially a proponent of No Child Left Behind.
Ravitch: Well, I was a proponent because it seemed to make sense that if you had more information you could make better judgments. I think that’s why almost 90 percent of the members of Congress supported it, and Teddy Kennedy was its big proponent in the Senate.
A lot of people thought information would be powerful. What they didn’t realize was they were making a promise that couldn’t be kept. They were saying 100 percent of all the children will be proficient in 12 years, and they didn’t even believe it. Then if you don’t meet that goal, which nobody has met, then they began laying off teachers and closing schools.
It would be like the Congress passing a law saying in 12 years America will be crime free, and if you’re not crime-free in the first 10 years we’re going to close the police department and fire all the cops.
It’s ridiculous. We’re not going to be 100 percent proficient, and so what’s happened is the states have been lowering their standards to make the tests easier so that they can claim that they’re reaching that goal, but no one has reached it.
Tavis: I’m not sure that we all think or believe that No Child Left Behind would lead to 100 percent proficiency, but you do have to juxtapose that that goal, with rewarding schools, rewarding teachers who do show proficiency, who do show an increase in output by their students.
So how do you balance those two things? Again, nobody’s saying it’s got to be 100 percent, but don’t we want to reward school districts and teachers who do better with their classes?
Ravitch: Well, see, first of all, the federal law says you have to get to 100 percent or you will be punished, and we’ve now got a whole vocabulary of punishment and failure and firing, and education should be about encouraging, inspiring, lifting up, improving, so we’ve moved.
Now the problem with saying we’re going to reward you for test scores is you just reinforce the same behavior because you’re saying, “I’ll pay you if the reading and math scores go up.” So again, teachers are saying, “Oh, then I’ll have to forget about teaching history, no literature, nothing. We don’t even have time for recess because my pay is now linked to the scores going up.”
This is not good education. So we do need the tests, because I think we need the indicators, but we need to get rid of the punishments, and I think the rewards don’t make anything better, either. We have absolutely no history of rewards for scores producing better education.
Tavis: Perhaps we should know more about No Child Left Behind, given how much it’s been debated and how much it’s been in the news, given that many of us, again, because we thought Teddy Kennedy was a proponent and for those who happened to be on the left who thought if Kennedy’s behind it, even though Bush is proposing it – second Bush – if Kennedy’s behind it, it must not be all bad, to your earlier point.
But how is it that any law can be written that demands 100 percent proficiency? I don’t get that.
Ravitch: Well, I was told at the time – I asked some of the senators who voted for it, and almost all of them did – they said it’s good to have goals. Well, it’s good to have goals –
Tavis: A hundred percent?
Ravitch: – but 100 percent – if you’re going to punish people for not reaching a goal that’s out of reach, then it’s a bad law. Now, if you don’t mind me introducing this, President Obama is going to do the same now to some of the lowest-performing schools.
He’s going to say, “If you’re in the bottom 5 percent -” everybody will still have to take the tests and he’s got his Race to the Top. Race to the Top, this is not the right analogy for American education, or the right metaphor.
We have a society where we should be dedicated to equal educational opportunity. If you have a race to the top you’re going to have a small number reaching the top, maybe, although we’re still going to be doing the same kind of basic skills testing, but who’s going to be at the bottom? Race to the Top implies a lot of people will be at the bottom. And again –
Tavis: Yeah, please.
Ravitch: I was going to say, the emphasis on Race to the Top is judge teachers by the test scores, reading and math, open more and more privately managed charter schools. We have now 5,000 charter schools. Some of them are excellent, some of them are terrible. On the whole, though, they haven’t produced any better achievement than the regular public schools.
Tavis: Let me separate these two things. Race to the Top, I promise to get back to that in a second, because I’ve got questions about that. But first, what the Obama administration is doing, given that No Child Left Behind is going to have to be reauthorized, the Obama administration wants to legitimately put its own stamp on, they would argue, making this law a better law.
What are they doing that concerns you and what ought they be doing that they’re not?
Ravitch: Well, the first thing that concerns me is Race to the Top because that to me is just – let me put it this way. The Democratic agenda in Congress was always equity. The concern among Democrats, and Teddy Kennedy was a leader in this, was let’s get more funding to the districts that have the kids who are poor and have the greatest needs.
The Republican agenda, in alliance with the business community, was accountability and choice. We now have the Race to the Top and the Race to the Top is fundamentally about accountability and choice. And so Newt Gingrich supports it; Margaret Spelling supports it; Republican leadership supported it, writing op-eds saying this is a good agenda. It’s a Republican agenda, and I don’t know how it became Obama’s agenda.
Tavis: I should say Race to the Top – we should just basically – we keep using this term as if people watching, all of them know what this is about. The Obama administration puts a bunch of money out there, basically.
Ravitch: Basically over $4 billion in stimulus money and they said to the states if you want a share of this $4.3 billion, you have to remove all the limits on creating privately managed charter schools, you have to be prepared to judge your teachers based on test scores, accountability, and you have to promise to, as they put it, turn around failing schools.
Turn around failing schools sounds like a good idea, but it turns out that most people understand turn around failing schools to mean close them, fire the staff, start over. Turn them over to private management. These are all the punishments that came out of No Child Left Behind.
Tavis: The thing that’s fascinating about that is they put all this money out there – to your point, $4 billion – they start this campaign called Race to the Top. The rules of engagement are as you’ve just laid them out. When all is said and done, a whopping two states end up receiving Race to the Top money. Why only two?
Ravitch: Well, they’ve saved the money to have another competition, because once again they’ll go back to the same – all the other states and say, “Now you have a crack at the money. Will you open more privately managed charter schools? Will you make your testing rules tougher on the teachers? Will you promise to close more schools and fire more teachers?”
These are all No Child Left Behind approaches, and I feel that sometimes when you’re trying to emerge from a bad scenario it’s hard to get away from the philosophy of that bad scenario, and I think that’s where they are.
Tavis: Are more states going to be forced to do that to get the money that they so desperately need to balance these budgets?
Ravitch: Well, this is the irony, is they think that if they take the money they can use it to plug their budget holes and save teachers’ jobs. That’s not what the money’s for. The money is to do what the federal government wants you to do, not to plug up your budget holes.
Tavis: Why do we think – and I’m not arguing they’re not, I’m just asking your perspective on this – why do we think that charter schools are the answer?
Ravitch: Well, a lot of people have the impression that if you have a charter school it’s like a private school, it’s got to be better, and there are a lot of really excellent charter schools.
The problem is there are a lot of really terrible charter schools, and that overall, charter schools aren’t better. If there are 5,000 charter schools in this country, 3 percent of the kids are in charters. If you’re lucky enough to be in one of the great charters that’s good, but some of the really good charters have gotten to be good by avoiding the tough cases.
If they have kids who are low-performing, they encourage them to leave. They don’t take the same proportion of kids with limited English proficiency, they don’t take homeless kids.
The kids that are the toughest challenges tend not to be in charter schools, so they start off with the advantage of having kids, they’re poor, many of them are minority, but they’ve gotten rid of the ones who drag the scores down.
So if we look to charter schools to improve performance overall, it’s not going to happen because the charter schools have been compared on this federal test that I was referring to before, every year from ’03, ’05, ’07, ’09, on the whole, they have not performed better. Not for kids in cities, not for Black kids, not for Hispanic kids, not for low-income kids. On the whole, they do about the same as the regular public schools.
Tavis: So finally, solutions. You have a whole book here about solutions, but what, given that we’re in this debate now about reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, what ought the Obama administration be doing to make this law better?
Ravitch: What I’d like to see them do, first of all, is to remove the punishments from the law and say sure, test kids, let’s see how we’re doing, let’s use the sunshine. Let’s use it to help kids, let’s use it to help schools. Stop closing schools.
Tell the states, if you’re going to tell them anything, tell them to send in an inspector team and let’s find out. Every school has a different reason for having low scores. It may be because the kids don’t speak English or because they arrived in the school three grade levels behind and it’s not the fault of the school.
They may have a heroic staff doing great work and you don’t close it just because the scores are low. You’ve got to have an individual evaluation, diagnosis. Come up with some solutions and then come up with the resources to help them improve the school.
But my main message would be take a positive, encouraging approach to low-performing schools rather than just close them down and fire the staff.
Tavis: I want to end our conversation, Diane, where we began, and that was – it began by my congratulating you on being on “The New York Times” best-seller list – not easy to do for a book about education in this country, given the competition for the top of the best-seller list.
I congratulated you on that and you said that teachers were driving the book. I think you know where I’m going with this. There are many in the Obama administration, including Mr. Duncan himself, if you catch him at the right speech, who say that part of the problem here are those very same teachers who are driving this book to the top of the best-seller list. It’s the teacher’s union that gets in the way of progress in America’s schools.
Ravitch: Yes. Unfortunately, there’s a current mood of scapegoating teachers and saying that if kids are not learning, it must be the teachers’ fault. What they are really saying is ignore poverty – poverty is an excuse. It’s ridiculous because kids who are in poverty have a lot of handicaps. They don’t have books in their home. Sometimes they don’t even have a home.
I’m not speaking about Arne Duncan in particular, but I’ve seen op-eds all over the place by people in the same camp who will say, “Stop using excuses.” These are not excuses. This is about reality. This is about teachers dealing with kids who are autistic, kids who have multiple handicaps, kids who come to school and can’t read and have nobody to take care of them.
When you close a school you plunge a dagger in the heart of a community, and what I think most people understand outside of this administration and the Bush administration is that kids need to be surrounded by adults who care about them, and whatever you can do to create that community and the sense of I care about you and I have expectations for you is going to help kids perform better in schools.
Tavis: The new “New York Times” best-selling text from Diane Ravitch is called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.” Diane, good to have you on this program.
Ravitch: Thank you so much, Tavis.

Tavis: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Last modified: August 5, 2014 at 5:04 pm