Friday, January 27, 2012


EdBrief Interview |

 [as of this posting the EdBrief website is down – this version was sent to 4LAKids by a reader – Thank you Jack!]


January 26, 2012  ::  Diane Ravitch, noted education historian and prominent critic of federal education policy, made time for a wide-ranging, 30-minute one-on-one interview with EdBrief editor Jeff Hudson on January 20, prior to her well-attended speech at the Sacramento Convention Center. Here are Ravitch’s thoughts and observations, in a question-and-answer format.

Q: Give me an overview of the difficult situation that public education now finds itself in because of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, and high stakes testing of students.

A: My view as an education historian is that NCLB has been a disaster. We’ve had ten years of it, we’ve seen our schools transformed into test-prep factories. There’s a kind of a robotic view of children, that they can be primed to take the test, and that the test is the way to determine if they’re good or their bad, and if their teacher’s good or bad, and if their school should be closed. This wave of mandated testing and of punishment that goes with testing, or bonuses that go with testing, we’ve never seen anything like it in the history of American education. It is a wave of destruction, for the most part.

Q. There have been different versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), going back more than 40 years… what makes No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration’s version of the ESEA, more problematic than versions of the law under previous administrations?

A: The ESEA was first passed in 1965, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Lyndon Johnson cared passionately about education, he signed that law with great pride. The purpose of the law was to provide equity for disadvantaged children. There were tremendous inequities in the country, even greater I suppose than there are today. The purpose of the law was to funnel federal money to schools that were educating the poorest children. Every time the law was reauthorized, that was the law’s purpose. The law grew and grew and grew… it grew to add children who were English Language Learners, and other kinds of purposes, but its fundamental purpose was always to level the playing field, dollar-wise. Of course it didn’t entirely do that. But that was to use federal funds to provide equity. That was its purpose.

No Child Left Behind abandoned that purpose and put up a fraudulent front – “we will leave no child behind by testing everybody.” Federal funding then became attached to all kinds of mandates and conditions, which said you were required to test every child from grades 3-8 in reading and in math. And if your test scores are not on track to reach an impossible goal – 100 percent student proficiency by the year 2014 – your school will suffer a series of punishments. One sanction follows another. The ultimate punishment being that your school will be closed, your school will be handed over to charter management. Your school will be taken over by the state. Your principal will be fired and half the staff will be fired. It went on and on, with all the ways you could punish schools for not reaching the impossible goal. By the last count, about half the schools in the U.S. are now labeled to be “failing schools.” The number will rise with every year as we get closer to 2014, because it is an impossible goal. No state has 100 percent proficiency, no country in the world has 100 percent proficiency. So Congress set an impossible goal and said “You will be closed if you don’t reach the impossible.”

Q: Most people had expected when there was a change in presidential administration three years ago, by now there would be a new version of ESEA in place. How did we get in the situation we are in now, where schools are still operating under No Child Left Behind?

A: First of all, Congress and the Obama Administration have been unwilling to get together to change it. What’s sad is that what they agree on is essentially to maintain the basic principles of No Child Left Behind. If anything, the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top is even more punitive than No Child Left Behind, because it moves the accountability from the school level down to the individual teacher, and says to states “If you want to compete for $5 billion in federal funds (and this number continues to grow), you have to evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students.” So if the test scores go up, the teacher is effective. If the test scores don’t go up, or go down, the teacher is ineffective. We now have states across the country rewriting their laws to base teachers’ evaluation and their tenure and their job on the test scores of their students. So this becomes even more punitive, it’s the federal government mandating how schools should operate.

Q: What’s the problem with using students’ test scores to evaluate teachers?

A: The problem first of all is that standardized tests are not scientific instruments. They have many flaws, they have statistical errors, measurement errors, and the scores that a teacher gets in any given year will go up or down depending on who is assigned to the teacher’s class. So one year, she’ll have a great year, the scores go up. The next year, she’ll have some trouble makers, or she’ll be teaching kids who have disabilities, and the scores don’t go up, and suddenly she’s an ineffective teacher. What most of the studies have shown is that this is a highly inaccurate way of measuring teacher quality, and it’s unstable, because of the variation from year to year. The other thing is that test makers have always said that tests should be used only for the purpose for which they were designed. What that means is that if you test fifth-graders in reading, you have a test of fifth-graders and whether they read, but you’re not testing teacher quality. You have to have other ways of calculating or assessing teacher quality, not just student test scores. It’s the wrong measure, and frankly what Race to the Top has done has gotten us into a national conversation that we can solve our educational problems by firing teachers. This has had a demoralizing effect on teachers across America. Over the past two years, I’ve spoken to well over 100,000 teachers, and the story I hear in every part of this country is the same. “We’re tired of being beat up on, we’re tired of the lack of any respect for the work we do. We have a hard job. I wish a few of our critics would come in and try it for a few days.”

And this whole conversation about bad teachers has taken the focus away from a faltering economy, dramatic child poverty, where more than 20 percent of our kids are living in poverty. From growing income inequality, where one percent are living lives of splendor, and everyone else is struggling. Why are we talking about teacher evaluations instead of talking about the real economic problems and social problems facing this country.

Q: The Obama Administration sent a representative to California’s State Board of Education earlier this month to talk about a waiver process for some portions of No Child Left Behind. What’s your take on this waiver offer.

A: They should be saying “we know that No Child Left Behind has failed,” which they have said. They should go on to say, “You will have a waiver from all of these requirements until we get a new law” – that’s what they should say. What they’re saying instead is “We will free you from the requirements of NCLB and we will impose our mandates.” This is what they are saying. Their mandates are create more privately managed charter schools, privatize more of your public schools, and evaluate your teachers by test scores. So if you’re not (using test scores to evaluate teachers) now, you must do it, or you won’t get the waiver.

So their mandates will actually make high stakes testing even more important. Because if teachers are evaluated by the scores of their students, you will see more emphasis on teaching reading and math exclusively (because those are the measures for NCLB). Which means there is absolutely no reason to teach the arts, to take time for the arts – they are a waste of time, they don’t help test scores. Schools will have less time to teach history, geography and civics, less time to teach the sciences. There will be less time for physical education. You will see schools across the state – especially in light of the draconian budget cuts over the past several years – you will see schools dropping everything but reading and math. This is not good education. So these waivers, they’re a poison pill. NCLB is a disaster, and the waivers are a poison pill, so you’ve got some choice!

Q: California’s Gov. Jerry Brown just came out with some interesting statements about education in his State of the State speech. Do you have any observations on what he had to say?

A: I have to say first of all that I was very heartened. Jerry Brown right now is the one governor in the United States who seems to actually know something about education. I have met and heard governors making declarations, calling themselves reformers, when actually they are destroying their public schools. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, says he’s a reformer. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana just proposed vouchers for 86 percent of the children, he says he’s a reformer. All these Tea Party governors call themselves reformers now. Jerry Brown really understands education, and I think he deeply cares about what happens to the children of this state. He understands that high stakes testing has gotten out of hand. We should be using testing wisely, we should use testing to diagnose problems and help children and help the adults that are serving those children. We should not be using tests to punish the adults, or punish the children. I think we’ve gone way out of control. We have turned the test into the goal of education. Jerry Brown, I think, may be the only governor in the United States who understands how serious this is. He actually appears to have talked to teachers. I don’t think the other governors in other states have ever talked to a teacher. I’m not sure that anyone in the Congress has talked to teachers. I think Congress only talks to Washington, DC think tanks. And DC think tanks, except for one or two, are funded almost entirely by the Gates Foundation, and they all believe that teacher evaluation and bad teachers are the root cause of all our problems.

I would say that the root cause of our problems is the under-resourcing and under-funding of our public schools, the aggressive tactics of the privatization movement, and also the continuing attacks on teachers and the teaching profession, and the ongoing effort to reduce the entry standards into teaching – which will give us less professional teachers. When what we need in this country is more professional teachers, more respect for teachers, better paid teachers, better resourced schools. All these things we should be doing we are totally ignoring, and instead we’re focused on de-professionalizing the profession and underfunding our schools. And that’s wrong.

Q: California is a very large state with a very large number of students – there are more students in California than there are people in some states. And California has many Latino kids and students who are English Learners.

A: What it means is that with many children who are English Learners, there will be low test scores, because they don’t know English. And the tests are given in English, and their scores will be low. These children are quite capable of learning reading and math and science and participating in the arts. But they are being measured and being ranked on measures that by definition will say to them, “You’re bad. You’re no good. You have low test scores.” In this society we have become obsessed with test scores, to the exclusion of caring about education, or even caring about children. So I think that if we have a forward thinking plan about education – and I’m hopeful that your governor Jerry Brown will – it will be to value each and every child as a unique individual, and not to say “You are a number.” You are not a number. You are a child, you are a person. What we should be concerned about is to develop the fullest potential, the fullest humanity of each of our children.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about the way we are testing? Many states are looking to go to some online way of testing.

A: I don’t think the administration of the tests matters that much. One of the reasons the testing has ballooned out of control is that it’s a huge business. We’re talking about companies like Pearson and McGraw-Hill that are multi-billion-dollar enterprises. And the more the testing is required by the federal government and the states, the more lobbyists there are to demand that it be kept the way it is. Now you get software people who come in and say “It’s got to be online.” So there’s a big business there. What we’re forgetting in all these business enterprises – whether it’s online virtual charter schools or online testing – you know, technology has its place. But what we have to remember is that children have their place, too. Teachers should have their place. What we can’t get sucked into is the belief that children can be educated by computers, except as an add-on. Children need teachers, children need economic security. We’re losing sight of everything that matters most. That’s what’s frightening to me.

Q: The renewal of ESEA has been stuck in gridlock for quite a long time. If I were to place you in the Oval Office, what would be your advice to President Obama?

A: I’d say the first place to begin is to say that No Child Left Behind has been a failure. It didn’t achieve anything that it set out to do. It certainly did not leave no child behind. We have the same children left behind who were left behind ten years ago, and there probably are more of them. So it didn’t achieve its goal. And it has launched this national obsession with testing that has been actually degrading education and harming children.

So what I would advise him is to remove all the accountability sections of No Child Left Behind. I would remove all the federal sanctions and punishments. I would remove anything that says “If a school doesn’t do (thus and so), here are the punishments.” The members of Congress who wrote this law don’t know how to reform a school. Reform strategy – and I think Jerry Brown is right about this – should be closest to the children and closest to the teachers, because they are the ones that know what children need. If a school has low scores, the state should take responsibility for sending in a team to find out what is going on there, what do they need, how can we help. I think we should set aside the idea that Washington has the answers, because we know after ten years of No Child Left Behind, that Washington doesn’t have the answers. It has the wrong answers, in fact. I think we basically have to get a mindset that says “How can we help schools get better?” and not “How can we punish them? Who can we fire?” We have to stop with the punitive talk. We’re not talking about penal institutions. Because we don’t have a long line of people wanting to come into a profession that is being demonized daily, and that is under resourced and disrespected. We have to stop the trash talk about public education.

If I had my five minutes with Obama, I would say to him that the federal law should return to its original purpose, which was equity. Helping the children that are poorest, helping their schools get the resources they need to do a better job for children – that’s the federal role. Protecting the civil rights of students is the federal role. Gathering information and maintaining a no-stakes national testing program – that’s the federal role. Gathering research and helping us know what we’re doing and how to do it better – that’s the federal role. Punishing schools and closing schools and telling schools what to do is not the federal role.

Q: There is a presidential election in November and there are Republican candidates – how to you view them generally?

A: Well, I think they all have terrible ideas for education. But they’re not very different from President Obama’s ideas, except that some of them are more extreme than Obama’s. Newt Gingrich campaigned with Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the Race to the Top program, so I guess he’s very happy with the Obama program. I’m not quite sure what Gov. Romney’s ideas are, but I’m sure that they will include more privatization – that comes from his business orientation. So I don’t see any help coming from that side. So I think we need a longer term vision. Hopefully the voices of parents who obviously care about their children, the voices of teachers, all those who are about our future as a society, will bring pressure to bear on President Obama to recognize that intensifying the punitive quality of No Child Left Behind will be a disaster for our country.

Q: If you were giving advice to a local school district and a local school board, what would be your advice to those people as they cope with the present situation.

A: I would say that if they are able to take an independent stand – which they probably are not able to do – but if they could theoretically take an independent stand, I would say use the testing for diagnostic purposes only. Stop labeling the kids. Stop saying “You are in the bottom half.” Use the test scores only for support and help for both the students and the teachers. And stop firing teachers, and stop closing schools. And tell the State Board of Education that you want to be a support district, and an education-focused district, and a child-focused district, and that you will no longer use testing as a weapon to punish people.

Q: Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is a very prominent advocate of charter schools, and his wife Michelle Rhee is a noted for her former job as leader of the Washington DC school system, where she fired a number of teachers, closed some schools, and put an emphasis on more standardized testing – she was famously pictured on the cover of a national news magazine holding a broom. Not to be flippant, but do you feel a little like you might resemble the Princess Leia (from “Star Wars”) stealing into the Death Star as you come to give your speech in the Sacramento Convention Center?

A: (Broad smile). I suspect that that’s why I was invited here. (Laughs). I’m sure that (Michelle Rhee) is sincere in her convictions, but she was not a success in the District of Columbia. I look at what happened there … since she imposed her merit pay plan, the scores went flat, both in their own scores and the federal scores. The 2011 federal scores came out and showed that DC has the single biggest black/white achievement gap in the country. So there is nothing much to boast about when you are the former chancellor of the DC schools. A lot of firing went on, a lot of schools closed, and there was very little improvement.

Q: California has a majority of students from a Latino background – any recommendations on how California should pursue education in that light?

A: Whether children are Mexican American or of any other background, what they need is an education that allows them to come to school joyfully. And part of that joy comes from being involved in the arts. I think the arts are crucial. It is a way in which children and adults can connect, feel empathy for others, work as a team, make films, sing, dance, perform… all those things are so crucial. I don’t think it’s just Latino students, everyone reacts that way. It’s universal. All children need to read, children who are English Learners need to learn English because it is crucial for their ability to advance in this society. But I think education should give one a sense of liberation, a sense of personal power to make decisions about your life. Education should allow people to become creative and independent thinkers. This is the great tragedy of what we’re locked into right now. We are grading children based on whether they can pick one out of four bubbles. We are saying you are a good person or a bad person, you have a future or you have no future, depending on your ability to comply and obey. By doing so, we are crushing the creativity, the originality, the ingenuity, of the future generation, whether they are Latino or of any other ethnicity. This is bad for the children. I think parents have to realize that test scores are not a measure of the quality of their children. Every child is unique, every child has incredible potential. We have to value them for who and what they are, and what they might become. And allow them to grow. And not squeeze everybody into a “you are a (test) score” mentality.

Q: Any other points that you would like to raise?

A: I think we are on the wrong course. I worry that our elected representatives have no idea of the fallout of what they are doing. They seem to be completely disconnected from the impact of what they are doing on the morale of teachers and on the lives of children. I worry most of all about the children. I’ve seen this, I have grandchildren who are in school. The oldest one, who just graduated from high school, hates school. All he did was take tests and have homework, every night. That was not a life. He’s now taking a gap year before going to college, because he just wants to experience nature. So he’s in Chile, somewhere on an ice floe. And it’s the first time in his young life that he’s felt like he’s been able to feel like he’s making decisions for himself. That’s so wrong, that’s a terrible sin against childhood. And yet I see what’s coming down the pike, not from Washington but from state capitals, is to mandate more online learning, so that children have less contact with human beings, and not even go to a school. And the state will cut costs. This is happening now in several states. I find this frightening because I think that children need grownups who care about them, they need human interaction. That’s where the learning happens, when they have a teacher that inspires them to love science, or be excited about history, or whatever they are studying. I want to do whatever I can to change this national conversation, and say that we have to treasure our children, and we have to value and respect our teachers. That would be a huge climate change in American education.

Edtor's Note: Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. In addition, she is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

She shares a blog called Bridging Differences with Deborah Meier, hosted by Education Week. She also blogs for and the Huffington Post. Her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines.

From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. She was responsible for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education. As Assistant Secretary, she led the federal effort to promote the creation of voluntary state and national academic standards.

From 1997 to 2004, Ravitch was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program. She was appointed by the Clinton administration’s Secretary of Education Richard Riley in 1997 and reappointed by him in 2001. From 1995 until 2005, she held the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution and edited Brookings Papers on Education Policy. Before entering government service, she was Adjunct Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Ravitch is the author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education” (2010) and several other books.

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