NYU professor Dr. Diane Ravitch

The former U.S. assistant secretary of education weighs in on how to reform the American public school system.

Education historian and NYU professor Diane Ravitch is a prominent voice in education policy debates. She was appointed to office in the administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, serving as assistant education secretary and as a member of the governing board that oversees the federal testing program. Once a proponent of No Child Left Behind, Ravitch swapped sides and criticized standardized testing as a means for schools to gain resources. She's also author of a number of books, including the best seller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Before entering government service, she was an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Teachers College.


Tavis: As schools all over America reopen for the fall, teachers, policymakers and administrators are caught in what seems like a never-ending battle over how we educate our children. Every decision from Common Core standards to the expansion of charter schools to teacher tenure generates an equally passionate counter-argument.

Joining us tonight, Dr. Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York University, the author of more than 25 books on education, and has advised both President George H. Bush and Bill Clinton on education policy. She joins us now from New York. Diane Ravitch, good to have you back on this program.

Diane Ravitch: Wonderful to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start by asking — I’m going to talk to Dr. Deasy, the head of the L.A. School District in just a second here. More than a second, but later in this program [laugh].

But I want to start by asking you a question about teacher tenure. Dr. Deasy, as you know, was a witness in that Vergara case. He spoke for the plaintiff in that case. And what this decision basically said is that we’re going to rethink the rules about how teachers get tenure.

The teachers union has seen this across the country as an attack not just on their union, but an attack on unions across the board. Give me your sense of what this Vergara decision meant, what it means going forward, and how you view it.

Ravitch: Well, I read the decision. I thought it was an absolutely dreadfully written decision. Of the nine children who were plaintiffs, not a single one of them had a bad teacher. They couldn’t identify a bad teacher. They didn’t have a bad teacher.

They were just complaining because some multimillionaire in Silicon Valley put up lots of money to bring this suit and now they’re bringing the same suit in New York, which has a total different rule for that tenure.

But the problem behind the Vergara lawsuit is that tenure is perceived as being a lifetime job and it is not a lifetime job. When teachers get tenure, all it means is that they have the right to due process. If somebody wants to fire them — if their principal wants to fire them, they have to show cause.

They have to have a hearing and they have to present the evidence. I don’t think that’s unjust. I think it’s fair. I think when the teacher has tenure, it means that the principal has observed them. In California, it’s two years. In New York, it’s three years. In some states, it’s four years.

And there’s tenure — I think it’s a very important basic right that, if you’re going to be fired after having been found satisfactory and doing your job well, someone should present evidence. I think that’s fair to teachers.

Tavis: The way this conversation, Diane, as you know, has been framed and with this lawsuit and the conversation about it has been framed is that teachers should not be given a lifetime appointment after two years on the job. And you’re saying that you don’t see the issue being framed properly?

Ravitch: It’s absolutely wrong. Tenure is due process and nothing more. It’s not a lifetime job. If you’re in a university, tenure means a lifetime job. If you’re in a K through 12 school, it means the right to a hearing, and I see nothing wrong with tenure.

If the California legislature wants to make it a three-year waiting period to be tenured, that’s fine. But I don’t think that tenure itself, due process itself, is unjust nor is there any relationship between student performance and due process.

In the most exclusive suburbs that have the highest test scores, the teachers have tenure. So no one can say that being a tenured teacher causes poor performance. That’s ridiculous. And the judge didn’t find that either, by the way.

Tavis: Whether one agrees or disagrees with your assessment of this Vergara decision and what it means about teacher tenure, let me advance the conversation by asking how you read what’s happening in our society vis-à-vis teachers being blamed for what’s wrong in our schools.

So whether it’s the Vergara decision, whether it’s a documentary “Waiting for Superman”, whether it’s any number of books that are being written, the campaigns that are underway, I get the sense — I could be wrong. I get the sense, though, that there is a move in this country now to really go after and to blame teachers. Are you seeing the same thing?

Ravitch: I am saying that and I’m saying something more. I think that there is a move underway to actually privatize public education. It turns out that there are a number of people who’ve opened charters who are making a lot of money.

Not all of them, certainly, but there are federal tax programs where you can double your money in seven years by investing in the construction of charter schools.

There are foundations like the Walton Foundation which is a very right wing foundation that spends almost $200 million dollars every single year promoting vouchers and charters and privatization.

Just in the past few years, we’ve seen over 4,000 public schools closed down because of federal policy. I think there’s a big move on, first, to blame teachers and, secondly, to say our public schools are so terrible that we should close them down and hand them over to private entities.

Privatization is wrong. If you look at the best performing nations in the world, whether it’s Finland or South Korea or Japan, they haven’t privatized their schools. They don’t have charter schools. They don’t have vouchers. They have strong public school systems where their teachers are experienced and respected.

And just attacking teachers and saying that you’re going to fire somebody because you can get two cheap newcomers for the price of one senior teacher, that’s ridiculous.

Tavis: So is that then how you regard this — how might I put this? This faux conversation about public education reform? Do you see this really as just a front for an effort to privatize schools?

Ravitch: I think it’s a front for two things. I think it’s, A, this so-called reform movement. And I call it so-called because it really is not about reform. When you attack the teachers of our children, that’s not reform. When you attack experienced teachers, that’s not reform. When you attack public education as the cause of the problem, that’s not a reform.

All this is about is, one, privatization and, two, ignoring the root problem that we have in this society which is that almost 25% of our children live in poverty.

And the single most reliable predictor of low achievement is poverty because children are hungry, because they’re homeless, because they come to school with all kinds of emotional and social and economic problems which we’re not solving.

So instead of dealing with the real problem which is how do we get that number which hovers around 23 or 24% of kids living in poverty, how do we drive it down to where it is in Finland?

We look at Finland and say why can’t we be like Finland? Well, their poverty rate’s under 5%. If our poverty rate were under 5%, we would think we had the greatest public schools in the world.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not — and perhaps I’ll get a chance to ask Dr. Deasy the same question, Diane. But I wonder whether or not you think that fundamentally the American people still place public education at the top of their list of priorities.

Ravitch: Well, there have been a number of polls that show the American people, if asked about public education, they have had now 20 years of solid pounding. Our public schools are no good.

Really, you could take it back to 1983 to a report during the Reagan administration called “A Nation at Risk.” Our public schools are mediocre, they’re failing, we’re falling behind. This is such nonsense.

In fact, our test scores today are higher than they’ve ever been in history. Our dropout rates are lower than they have ever been in history. Our graduation rates are higher than they’ve ever been in history. Our public schools actually are doing a great job.

But when the public is asked the question — and they’ve been asked this by the Gallup Poll — what do you think about American public education, the public has a very low opinion. They think that our schools are terrible because we’ve had this 20 to 30-year pounding about our schools.

But when the question changes to, well, how is the school that your own child goes to? How’s your neighborhood public school? Oh, they say it’s great. You know, we have terrific teachers. I respect our teachers. We have a great local public school, but American education is in terrible trouble.

So this is the result of movies like “Waiting for Superman”, federal government reports, the George W. Bush program “No Child Left Behind” and now Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top.” These terrible programs are closing schools, demonizing teachers.

You know, it’s very hard to be a public school teacher these days and my hat is off to them. They have a rough job. Many of them are dealing with underfunded schools, with overcrowded classrooms, and we should be grateful for the work that they do. I certainly am.

Tavis: You mentioned earlier in this conversation, Diane, the extreme amounts of money that are being poured into this so-called, as you put it, public education reform debate.

On this program recently, I had Eli Broad who is obviously one of the nation’s leading billionaires and has poured a lot of money into this conversation. He supports pretty aggressively Common Core. Your thoughts on Common Core?

Ravitch: Well, I think that Common Core actually is just a huge transfer program to pay billions of dollars for new technology because every test that every child in this country will take or at least where Common Core is adopted has to be online. No more pencil and paper tests.

That means literally billions of dollars, anywhere from $15 to $20 billion dollars are going to have to be spent on new technology at a time when budgets are being cut.

We have a huge need in this country to reduce class size particularly for kids who are not reading well, particularly for kids who need the teacher’s extra attention. We should be reducing class size. We should have universal pre-K.

We have so many needs. Common Core doesn’t address any of them. I think the biggest problem, being in New York, is that the testing for Common Core has been made so hard that most kids fail, and I don’t see the value of that.

They’ve raised the passing mark so high that, in New York State, we’ve now had two renditions of the Common Core testing and 70% of our kids fail the test. 70%! Now what does that do to a child’s self-esteem to say you’re a failure? 95% of our kids with disabilities fail the test. More than 80% of our Black and Hispanic children fail the test.

There’s no point in having a standard so high that we will end up having double the number of dropouts we have now. I think that Common Core — there may be good parts to it, but certainly the testing part is horrendous.

Tavis: I got 30 seconds left and I wonder if I can ask you right quick to grade for me the Obama administration’s effort at school reform that they call “Race to the Top.”

Ravitch: “Race to the Top” is a disaster. It has encouraged the privatization of schools. It has made testing more important than ever. It’s tied teacher evaluation to their student test scores which study after study has shown to be totally invalid. So I would grade it an “F.”

Tavis: There you have it. She doesn’t hold her tongue [laugh]. Diane Ravitch has advised two presidents, both Republican and Democrat, on the issues of school reform in this country. Diane, good to have you on this program. All the best to you.

Ravitch: Thank you, Tavis.

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Last modified: September 10, 2014 at 6:48 pm