Say Goodbye to Public Education
nce a George H.W. Bush education official and an advocate for greater testing-based accountability, Diane Ravitch has in recent years become the nation’s highest-profile opponent of Michelle Rhee’s style of charter-based education reform (one also espoused by Barack Obama). In a recent wide-ranging conversation, Ravitch spoke with Salon about new data touted by Charter School supporters, progressive divisions over Common Core, and Chris Christie’s education agenda. “There are cities where there’s not going to be public education 10 years from now,” Ravitch warned. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
The conference of your Network for Public Education closed with a call for congressional hearings on high-stakes standardized testing. What would those hearings look like and what do you think they’d uncover?
I think they would ask, for example, about costs. There are many states that are cutting the budget for public schools at the same time that they’re paying a lot for testing. Texas, for example, a couple of years ago, cut $5.3 billion out of the public schools and, at the same time, gave Pearson a contract for almost $500 million. They said that there would be 15 end-of-course exams in order to graduate high school and caused a parent rebellion. There were so many angry moms, they organized a group called TAMSA—Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment—better known as Moms Against Drunk Testing…
There are school districts where a very significant part of the school year is spent preparing to take the tests. Testing companies are selling what they call “interim assessments.” So kids are getting test prep for test prep. And the more time that is devoted to testing and preparing for tests, the less time is devoted to actual instruction. I was in Pittsburgh last fall, where the budget cuts were so severe that [a] high school marching band had no instruments, but they had testing.
What are the opportunity costs of spending all this money for testing?
I don’t think we’ve even begun to understand the bill that’s going to come in. Because, as part of the move to Common Core, all testing is supposed to go online, across the nation. This is a bonanza for all the vendors—and nobody has even investigated the question of how many billions are going to be spent to put every school and every child in front of a computer? Kindergarten kids don’t know how to keyboard a computer.
We’re also interested…[in] abuses of standardized testing. This story that was all over the national media recently about this child who was dying in hospice—and the state of Florida insisted that he had to take his test. Then there was the child born without a brain stem—they wanted him tested, too.
Were the iPads for the purpose of taking tests?
They were solely for the purpose of preparing for Common Core testing. In New York State, when they gave the Common Core testing last spring, 3 percent of the English [language] learners passed it; 97 percent failed it. It’s gotten out of control. Arne Duncan and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top requires states to use the test scores to judge the teachers. It’s not valid, it’s not accurate.
In a piece earlier this year critiquing high-stakes testing, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten maintained her support for the Common Core standards on the grounds that they are “a set of standards designed to help make the transition from just knowing and memorizing information to having the skills and habits to apply knowledge, which is critically important in today’s world.” Why do you disagree?
The fact is, we have no evidence that the Common Core standards are what we say they are until we’ve tried them. They haven’t been tried anywhere, they’ve been tested—and we know that where they’re tested, they cause massive failure. So I would say we need to have more time before we can reach any judgment that they have some miracle cure embedded in them.
I know, and a lot of teachers know, they’re totally inappropriate for children in kindergarten, first grade, second grade and third grade, because when they were written there was no one on various writing committees who was an expert in early childhood education. They’re also totally inappropriate for children who have disabilities—they can’t keep up. There’s an assumption in the Common Core that if you teach everybody the same thing, everybody will progress at the same speed. And that’s not human nature. It doesn’t work that way.
I think Randi also said—and she’s been evolving in her position—that the Common Core standards should be decoupled from the testing. And we’re on the same page. She also agrees—we’ve talked about this—that the standards need to be reviewed by expert teachers and wherever a fix is needed, fix them. That’s my position. I’m not opposed to them, I’m opposed to them in their current form, and I’m opposed to the standardized testing that’s linked to them.
More broadly, how do you assess the roles of the national AFT, and the National Education Association, in the fight over education reform? Are there transformations that you want to see within those unions?
The teachers across America are being crushed. Experienced teachers, veteran teachers, excellent teachers, are feeling that it’s not a profession anymore—it’s just become a testing technician. It’s not the job they signed on for.
I was in North Carolina a couple of weeks ago— they’re having a massive brain drain of teachers. Florida just released the results of their teacher evaluations and almost half of their Teachers of the Year were called “ineffective teachers.” There comes a point where, who would want to be a teacher in this country?
So I’d like to see the NEA in particular become more outspoken. I think Randi’s quite outspoken. But what’s happening at the state level is a nightmare for teachers, and for the teaching profession. What’s happening with federal policy is part of what’s encouraging an assault on the teaching profession.
The idea that you can judge teachers by the test scores of their students is not supported by evidence or experience. It is encouraging “teaching to the test.” It’s encouraging a narrowing of the curriculum. It’s encouraging massive outlays for standardized testing. And it just has no evidence behind it.
In 2012, when the Newark Teachers Union announced a deal to institute peer evaluation of teachers, but also [Mark] Zuckerberg-funded, testing-influenced performance bonuses, you told me that there was “a very good possibility that the Newark Teachers Union, and Randi Weingarten, is taking Chris Christie to the cleaners” in terms of the amount of money in the deal.
Right. But that paying teachers based on test scores is “treating them like donkeys rather than professionals,” and that teachers elsewhere were saying “How are we going to be able to fight this off if they agreed to it in Newark?” How do you assess what’s happened there since then?
What’s happening now is the superintendent of schools, appointed by Chris Christie, has said she has plans to lay off as many as 1,000 teachers and that she wants to convert about a third of the schools over from public schools to Charter Schools. And the privatization of Public Education is going rapidly apace in Newark, and she’s not backing down. In fact, she announced that she wouldn’t go to any more meetings of the board of education— [which legally is] an elected advisory board.
Newark has not had local control of its schools for almost 20 years. They’ve been under state control and the teacher’s contract is null and void when it comes to all these school closings. As they close schools they’re going to shed union teachers, crush the teachers, lay off people, and replace them with Teach for America.
Do you believe that public education would be better off if Teach for America were to shut down?
I think that public education would be better off if Teach for America trained young people to become assistant teachers and they would then come into the classroom to help experienced teachers, learn their craft, and then spend two years as teachers. Obviously, they’re not going to shut down. They’re one of the wealthiest organizations in America…. Look at their board of director—wow. They got $50 million from Arne Duncan, $100 million from Eli Broad and friends, and $100 million from the Walton Foundation. They’re not going away, but what they need to do is, first of all, make sure that when they send these young kids in the schools that they have some training. Five weeks of training does not a professional make. So they’re coming in unprepared for the challenges they face. Then, after two years, most of them are gone. They should make a commitment to three years and the first year ought to be a year of preparing to learn how to teach.
What has been the impact on the national fight of the Chicago teachers’ strike?
I think it was incredibly encouraging to teachers across the country to see the Chicago Teachers Union unified. What was particularly impressive was they were not striking for wages or benefits for themselves—they were on strike for better teaching and learning conditions. They were striking for the kids and they also had the support of Chicago parents. The only support they didn’t have was the national media.
So that strike was massively mis-portrayed in the media, as “there go those greedy teachers again, look at how much money they’re making, making more money than the impoverished parents of their kids.” Which was ridiculous. But I think it was inspiring to teachers across the country and it showed that teachers, at least in one city, were not going to lie down and allow their kids to be in an overcrowded classroom with no arts, no library, and a lot of things they didn’t have that Rahm Emmanuel’s kids expect as part of their schooling.
And the move in Chicago, as well as elsewhere, to boycott standardized tests—where do you see that going?
The test that they’re boycotting—right now there’s just a couple different schools that are doing it—is a test that’s being phased out. So it doesn’t really have huge impact—yet the Chicago public schools are reacting in a very punitive fashion.
In reading stories from the Chicago press, about how they keep sending out directives saying isolate the kids, tell the kids they have to sit and make an affirmative statement—it’s a hysterical response, about “oh my God, some child, somewhere, might not take a standardized test.” And you have to step back and say, “When did Pearson and McGraw-Hill become the arbiters of privilege in American education?”
It just goes on and on with the corporations determining who are the winners and who are the losers in American society. In effect, we have the standardized testing companies now as the arbiters of our meritocracy.
We’re doing to standardized testing what was done in Brave New World when the meritocracy was determined at conception. We use standardized tests as our means of sorting out kids and saying “you’re at the top and you’re at the bottom.” The problem with that is that suggests an end to social mobility. Because the one thing we know about standardized testing is that no matter what standardized test it is, those who have are at the top and those who have not are at the bottom.
There are a few kids who rise to the top despite all obstacles. And kids from really wealthy circumstances who fall to the bottom. But on the whole, and consistently, the standardized test is a reflection of socioeconomic status. So, in effect, the standardized test becomes a giving to those who have and certifying the have-nots as have-nots.
Governor Andrew Cuomo told a pro-Charter rally that was protesting Mayor Bill de Blasio, “We will save Charter Schools.” Charter advocates have claimed vindication in the latest 26-state CREDO study from Stanford. After finding in 2009 that charter school students lost the equivalent of 7 days a year of learning in reading compared to traditional public schools, CREDO found last year that they had instead gained 8 days. What do you make of that research?
Who cares? Charter Schools [are] allowed to throw out the kids they don’t want. They’re allowed to throw out the kids with low scores. They’re allowed to exclude the kids who have severe disabilities. They’re allowed to not accept the kids that don’t speak English. And then you’re going to compare them to the schools that take all those kids? I mean, really, this is ridiculous.
Every study of the demographics shows that New York Charters, like Charters everywhere, have different demographics. They are not taking the same kids. They are not taking the kids with English language issues, and when they have kids with disabilities, they are the mildest kind of disabilities. So all of the kids with severe disabilities are in the Public Schools and then the Charters say, “We beat you.”
This is trending toward a dual school system: One school system for the privileged kids, or the kids who don’t have big problems, the charters are allowed to choose their students and exclude those they don’t want, and the other one that’s required to take everyone.
Have you seen any shift by the Obama administration since the beginning of the presidency?
Public schools today are under siege. A Detroit newswriter said Governor Snyder wants to destroy public education in Michigan. Have you heard of Arne Duncan going to Michigan to complain about that? Did Arne Duncan go to defend the public workers when Scott Walker was taking away all their collective bargaining rights and attacking the unions?
No. He was in Miami with the president and Jeb Bush, celebrating a so-called turnaround school that one month later got a notice that it was about to be closed because it hadn’t turned around.
In your view, has the Obama administration’s approach gotten better or gotten worse over the past few years?
It’s been consistent. Race to the Top was designed by people from the New Schools Venture Fund. A major nexus of Charters and privatization and for-profit operations. The Obama administration [has] now proposed, and [is] getting confirmed, the CEO of the New Schools Venture Fund to be the Number Two in the U.S. Department of Education.
The previous CEO of the New Schools Venture Fund was Joanne Weiss and she’s the one who helped design and oversees Race to the Top, and then became chief of staff to Arne Duncan. She wrote a blog for Harvard Business Review where she said that creating national standards and tests creates a national market for vendors. Well, I never heard of the U.S. Department of Education having a policy based on creating a national marketplace for vendors.
What’s happened is that the Obama administration basically has the Republican agenda. The Democratic agenda was equity. Race to the Top is not about equity. Federal policy should be about money goes where the kids have the highest needs. Federal policy today is competition and a race.
What is the policy agenda, then, that the Democratic Party should be putting forward on education?
The policy agenda should be one of equity, which is to direct resources from the federal government to the neediest schools where the kids have the highest needs and to insist that every school offer children a full education that includes not only the basics of reading and writing and mathematics, but science, the arts, language, history, and civics. Make sure that every school in this country is appropriately funded. That is, that it has the resources it needs for the children it enrolls. That’s just basic.
There are schools that are being starved of funding, and more and more of the funding is being directed to vendors. There are cities where there’s not going to be public education ten years from now. That’s not good. Public education is one of the foundational institutions for a democracy. And yet there will be cities without it. Their schools will be run by private management and the private managers will be free to choose their students and exclude ones they don’t want.
I have no gauge of the Democratic Party, per se. I can tell you that among parents and teachers, there’s a growing sense of outrage that their children are being cheated.
Teachers are leaving the profession in large numbers. In the 1980s, the modal year of teaching was 15. It’s down to 1 to 2 years. The research is very clear that first-year teachers are not the strongest teachers.
This has been the first year that the tide among parents has really turned against all the standardized testing. And the public is beginning to see the picture, which is that their schools are being starved of resources, the schools are on an austerity budget, but there’s plenty of money for vendors and testing.
Is your side still on the defensive in this fight nationally?
No. Absolutely not. We are definitely outspent, there’s no question about that. I don’t think we’re on the defensive—we have the public with us. And, if we’re still a democracy, we’re gonna win. We see the pushback happening in community after community. High schools are organizing. They’re organized in Providence where they’ve got the superintendent of schools on their side, arguing with the state Board of Education. They’re saying don’t use a standardized test as a high school graduation requirement. The kids know more than the state [commissioner] does, because a standardized test by its design will fail a very significant number of kids. And we know who those kids will be.
In North Carolina, they’ve been demonizing the teachers and one of the laws they passed took away career status from every teacher in the state. Two of the biggest school boards in the state have said, “We won’t comply with the law. We respect our teachers, we want to keep our teachers…we’re gonna sue the state.”
In Texas, we had the moms of Texas persuade the legislature to roll back all the testing. In Tennessee, the moms are organized and they call themselves the Mama Bears. We have all kinds of groups all over the country forming as almost a guerilla force, saying, “We want to protect our kids from all this over-testing, and the education is being hijacked by a philosophy of big data, and it’s bad for kids. And kids are not data points…. We don’t feel the least bit defensive…. We are many and they are few.” But the other part of it is everything that they’re doing now—“they” being this corporate reform movement—is failing. Evaluating teachers by test scores doesn’t work. Charter schools are not better than public schools. Sure you can get more gains if you take out the low-performing kids, but who’s gonna educate the low-performing kids?
Aren’t they human beings? Aren’t they American citizens? Don’t they deserve an education? Why destroy public education so that a handful of people can boast they have a Charter School in addition to their yacht?
Josh Eidelson is a union organizer as well as a frequent contributor to the Nation and Salon.