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Q&A: Diane Ravitch Skewers Every Education Reform Sacred Cow

In part two of a two-part conversation, Diane Ravitch upends many commonly held assumptions about education reform.

Education expert, author, and New York University professor Diane Ravitch believes that students are more than just their test scores. Her bestselling book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, positions Ravitch as one of the most outspoken critics of the recent wave of education reformers. Her current viewpoints are a sharp departure from the beliefs she held in the 1990s when she served as Assistant Secretary of Education under both President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton. Ravitch shared with us her recipe for improving academic achievement in our nation's schools.

Please note: This is part two in a two-part series. Read the first installment here.

GOOD: What do you say to reformers who say that poverty doesn't matter and teachers should be able to get the same results regardless of a child's income?


DIANE RAVITCH: People who say that poverty doesn't matter are just blowing smoke. When you look at the Harlem Children's Zone, it is a model that takes care of medical issues and social problems and family problems. Whether it has effects on test scores or not, that's great because human needs should be addressed. HCZ gets good results but not amazing results. On the last state tests, only 40 percent of the kids were proficient. In Geoffrey Canada's seventh grade where the kids had been there for three years, only 15 percent of them met the state standards.

By the way, HCZ proves that resources do matter because his organization has over $200 million in assets. I suspect that if any neighborhood public school in Harlem had the resources of Geoffrey Canada—if they too could have a classroom with 15 children with two teachers, they could get the same results, or even better.

GOOD: Why then the reluctance to talk about poverty's connection to educational achievement?

DR: ?It's a lot easier to talk about firing teachers than doing something about poverty. At least 20 percent of our kids live in poverty—which puts us up there with third world countries like Mexico and Turkey. Davis Guggenheim compares us to Finland. Finland has fewer than four percent of children in poverty.

To say that the schools are responsible for poverty—no, it's the economy, it's industrialization, it's the shipping of jobs overseas. We have some serious economic problems and somehow the entire onus is on teachers. For the past several months I've been on the road talking to teachers and they are deeply demoralized. We can't improve our schools by beating up on teachers.

GOOD: Are there adjustments needed in the way unions roll out tenure or react to teacher evaluations?

DR: Unions don't write the rules. Wherever you have a contract, it's signed by both parties. Management and unions sit together and negotiate the contract. If management doesn't like the contract, it should insist on changing the rules. Tenure doesn't mean you have lifetime employment. Tenure means after you've taught for a certain number of years—in most places it's three years and in some it's four—someone in management decides that you're good enough that you get due process rights.

Teachers don't give themselves tenure. Management gives them tenure. Management has three to four years to say, you're not a good teacher; you're fired. That's not what they do in other countries. What they do in other countries is they get teachers help—they get support, they get mentored.

We have a problem in this country. We have 3.5 million teachers and about 300,000 leave the teaching profession every year. Some of them retire, some of them are fired, some of them leave voluntarily because they think it's not for them. They don't feel successful. The working conditions are miserable and they haven't had any support.

One of the academic experts in Waiting for "Superman" says we should be firing six to ten percent more teachers every year. That would mean we'd have to find 500,000 new teachers every year. That's really hard because there are only 1.5 million college graduates every year. We're doing very little to create a strong and resilient teaching profession.

Instead we're creating a revolving door where we say if you're no good, you're out and let's bring in Teach For America. They'll send in 8,000 kids to stay for two years and then they're gone. This is no way to build a profession. What we'd do if we're serious about education—which I think we're not—would be to develop a strong teaching profession. That's what they've done in other countries that we look at enviously, like Finland and Korea and Japan.

GOOD: What should the average citizen be doing to advocate for public education?

DR: I was in San Diego last week and I'm very impressed with what's happening there. There's a partnership between the school board, the district leadership, and the teachers union. They're trying to develop what they call "community based school reform." In every school there'll be this same partnership between the principal, the teachers, the parents, the kids—and people will work in a collaborative atmosphere, not a confrontational one.

It sounds great, but the California legislature has proposed another $140 million in budget cuts and there'll probably be another 1,000 teachers losing their jobs and class sizes going up. Because of the atmosphere in the country, what we're hearing from Washington and from Davis Guggenheim and Waiting for "Superman," people are saying, well, we're spending enough on education, why should we tax ourselves for our schools? So instead of improving schools we're going to see budget cutting and a loss of experienced teachers all across the country.

GOOD: There's no silver bullet that can improve public education, but given everything you know, if you could change one thing, what would it be?

DR: I have asked in Washington and been rejected, why not require every school that receives federal funding have a full program of the arts and music and visual arts and performance arts. They said they can't do that. But those are things that bring kids together. Those are things that motivate kids to come to school—especially in the inner city. No Child Left Behind has so dumbed things down that large numbers of kids just spend their days preparing to take the next test.

Photo courtesy of Jack Miller

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