When it comes to education policy, the name Diane Ravitch gets a lot of attention. In the early 90s, she was assistant secretary of education. She then over oversaw the federal education testing program for seven years. More recently, she’s the author of the The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Dr. Ravitch spoke in two events at UNC Charlotte March 20, one public and one private. She spoke with Morning Edition host, Duncan McFadyen.
MCFADYEN: You used to champion many of the education reforms that you’re now against…like example, standardized testing and charter schools. Why did you change your mind?
RAVITCH: Well, I was very involved, first of all, I was assistant secretary [of education] in the first Bush administration, and then I spent many years in conservative think tanks, and was an advocate for testing and accountability and charters and even vouchers. But, as I saw the evidence begin to roll in, after No Child Left Behind, which I had supported, I realized that none of this was working. But, I think, my greatest concern is that all of these so-called reforms aren’t reforms at all. They’re destructive, and they’re damaging first of all to the future of public education---we’re destroying public education. This is not something I wanted to see happen.
MCFADYEN: So you’ve listed a lot of things there that you’re against. What do you advocate FOR?
RAVITCH: Well, I advocate for recognizing that schools are part of society, and that a healthy society takes care of its children and families. And that the single biggest predictor of low test scores is not the teacher in the classroom, but the family. Family income is hugely important. We have way too much poverty in this country. Almost one out of every four children in this country lives in poverty. So, as long as we turn our back on the social problems, the economic problems, we’re going to continue to see low performance in school. So I’m for reforms that make a difference. For example, early childhood education, hugely important. Having a full curriculum for children, particularly with arts and physical education, with history and civics. Because of testing, many, many schools have gotten rid of the arts, eliminated recess, and eliminated things that make children want to come to school and do well at school.
MCFADYEN: Advocates for standardized testing argue it’s a way to hold schools accountable. First of all, do you think that’s important?
RAVITCH: Well, I guess my answer is that accountability has been misunderstood. Testing is not a way to hold schools accountable; it’s a way to encourage cheating; it’s a way to encourage narrowing of the curriculum to only what’s tested. And knowing standardized testing as I do, I just think this is an incredibly error-prone and weak instrument. Tests are not designed for accountability. They’re designed to figure out where do kids stand and are they making progress or not. But, they may be making progress because of something in their home life and having nothing to do whatever with the school.
MCFADYEN: How, then, do we tell whether or not schools are doing a good job?
RAVITCH: I think it requires professional judgment. It requires people in the community who are involved, who see that school professionals are doing a good job, that kids are coming to school. You can look at attendance figures, you can look at kids’ progress through schools, whether they’re staying in school or dropping out. There are a variety of measures you can use.
MCFADYEN: North Carolina recently lifted its cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state. What effect do you think that will have on the CMS district and on other districts in North Carolina?
RAVITCH: I hope that North Carolina has a law not permitting for-profit charters and not permitting charters to have a deal with a management company that operates for profit. Because that’s a terrible idea. It means that your taxpayer dollars are going to pay for investors in charter schools…
MCFADYEN: Let me step in here and say that North Carolina doesn’t have a law that does that.
RAVITCH: Well, that would be terrible, because some of the worst charters in the country are run by for-profit organizations. And they try to lower their cost as much as possible by hiring inexperienced teachers and by putting kids online and having that replace experienced teachers. So, I’m afraid where North Carolina is heading; where the charter movement is heading is undermining public education and re-creating a dual school system
MCFADYEN: You think there’s not a place for charter schools in the education system in this country?
RAVITCH: I think there is a place for them. The place is …they should target the kids who have the highest needs. There should be charters that should specifically help kids that the public schools have not been able to help, for example kids who are failing, who are dropouts, kids who have special needs. If there is a need, the charter school might be able to fill it. It should do that, not in a competitive way, but in a cooperative and a collaborative way. There is no gain to kids or to communities by having schools that are in competition with one another---they start acting like businesses.