“It’s Not a School Problem”

Diane Ravitch used to be a staunch supporter of education reform. Not anymore.
Photograph by Ryan Dorsett

JAKE SILVERSTEIN: You are famous for having made a dramatic public reversal on the subject of education. As a historian and as somebody who was involved in the policy making process as a member of George H. W. Bush’s Department of Education, you were a supporter of some of the elements of what is now known as reform—high-stakes testing, accountability, competition, school choice. And then three years ago you broke with that movement and became one of its fiercest critics. Was it difficult to admit you’d been wrong?

DIANE RAVITCH: Writing a book is a very public way of saying I was wrong, and it was very important to say I was wrong. I won’t say it was easy because I alienated a lot of people with whom I’d been very friendly, and I had to break a lot of longtime associations with organizations and friends, and that was hard. The easy part was saying, “This is wrong. I’m sorry that I had anything to do with it, and I want to do whatever I can to reverse it.”

JS: In your new book, Reign of Error, you say that the well-meaning people who support these reforms—and presumably these are the people who used to be your allies—have “allied themselves with those who seek to destroy public education.” You really think the result of the reform movement will be the destruction of public education?

DR: I think that’s the direction we’re heading in. First of all, I have a lot of trouble with the word “reform” being attached to what’s happening right now. That’s why I call it the privatization movement. So if the privatization movement continues unchecked, then yes, it will destroy public education. There’ll be public education here and there in relatively affluent communities that are untouched, but it’ll be dead in the cities, and it’ll be dead in the inner suburbs. It won’t be completely privatized, but there’ll be a dual system. That’s what I say in the book. We thought that with the Brown v. Board of Education decision we’d gotten away from dual schools, but the rise of this privatization movement says, “Here’s a chance for your children to get out of the public schools and just be with kids like themselves, and if there are any kids who are trouble, we kick them out.” And lots of parents say, “Wow, that sounds like a great deal, I’ll go for that.”

JS: Your point is that accountability can lead to school closures, which can lead to privately run charters.

DR: Well, that is the point. And that’s the point of, for an example, the A to F grading system. No school ever got better because it was given a D or F grade—that’s a way of setting them up for closure. And we’ve never, I mean, I look back as a historian, and we’ve never in the history of American education had a movement that was designed to close huge numbers of schools.

JS: The reform movement, or the privatization movement, as you call it, has become extremely powerful. Not only has George W. Bush as both governor and president been a big proponent, with No Child Left Behind, but so has President Obama, with Race to the Top. And in the private sector, the biggest names in the country are behind it—Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, and many others. Do you feel as if you’re sort of a lonely voice of dissent?

DR: Actually, no. The movement against the privatizers is very powerful—not in terms of money and not in terms of political power, but the numbers are overwhelmingly on the side of those who want to preserve public education and make it better. My hunch is that if you were to have a national convention of the privatizers and you were to exclude the paid staff, it would maybe fill a hotel ballroom. You’d have Bill Gates and Michael Dell and Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg—you might end up with a thousand people.

JS: The food would probably be pretty good, though.

DR: Yeah, the food would be fantastic. But you’re not talking about a lot of people, you’re talking about political power and money. The politicians see where the money is and they like the money. They need the money. That’s what makes politics work.

JS: Parents look at this situation and think, “I want to do what’s right for my kid and for every other kid in the system, but there are experts on either side arguing that their ideas are right, and they’ve studied the issue more than I ever will.” At some point they just have to take a leap of faith. Why should they put their faith in you, as opposed to the other guys?

DR: I’m not asking anybody to put their faith in me. I’m asking them to put their faith in the idea of a democratic society. What’s going on right now is an effort to turn what is a public responsibility into a free market exercise. We’ve already seen the privatization movement take hold in the prison system, we’ve seen it take hold in the hospital system, and there are lots of other areas of public life where people are looking for an opportunity to make big bucks. And now their focus is on education as being a moneymaker and a place to invest and turn a profit. There’s a story in the current issue of Forbes about this. The headline is “Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express to Fat City.” And it’s about people making a killing on charter schools. This is really a question of citizenship. When you’re driving late at night and you see a red light and there’s nobody looking, do you run it? Or do you stop?

JS: I usually stop.

DR: If you’re eager to get home, it may be in your self-interest to run the red light, but you think, “I’m a good citizen.” As a citizen you have to worry about the future of our society. Do you really want a society where you have one system, the publicly funded private system, that can kick kids out at will and another system called the public schools that’s the dumping ground for the kids who can’t get into the private system? That’s where we’re heading.

JS: I think it’s going to come as a surprise to some people to hear you draw a direct line between the accountability movement and the privatization movement. Let’s back up and talk about the history of accountability. What are the roots of this movement?

DR: It started with an overblown report put out by the Department of Education in 1983 called “A Nation at Risk,” which said woe is me, our schools are failing, our system is beset by a rising tide of mediocrity, we’re losing markets, our economy is in trouble, we’re falling behind Japan and Germany, and the whole world is passing us by because of our terrible schools. We heard the same thing when Sputnik went up in 1957: that the Russians put that rocket into orbit because of our failing schools. This has been a constant refrain. If anything is wrong in society it must be the fault of the schools, and so when you say that the Russians are ahead of us in the space race because of the schools, you’re talking about a tiny scientific elite that put up those rockets—not about American schools. But the business community jumped all over that report. They were outsourcing good jobs to low-wage countries, but now they could blame the schools for that and say, “Oh my god. We don’t have enough STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] graduates.” Well, it turns out we did have enough STEM graduates, they’re just not willing to work for $5 an hour.

JS: So your argument, and it’s a sort of holistic one, is that the schools have been unfairly blamed for these larger societal ills.

DR: Right. They’re being blamed for economic changes that other people should take responsibility for. And they’re saying, “Oh, it’s the schools’ fault that we had to outsource the auto industry. It’s the schools’ fault that Apple decided to ship all its manufacturing to China.” Why? Because they’re paying people $17 a day there. Not because they can’t find enough people here to do the work. They can’t find wage slaves here who will sleep in a dormitory and be available 24/7. That’s true. American workers expect to get a decent living wage.

JS: So “A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983, and that led, one way or another, to the so-called test-based accountability movement?

DR: “A Nation at Risk” didn’t say much about accountability. It was really just saying woe is us, woe is us, our schools are failing, we need to have higher standards, we need to have a better curriculum. It didn’t say much about testing. I think there were one or two lines about it. But a lot of people jumped on this and said, “Oh, yeah. We need to test more. We need to have higher graduation standards.” Which is fine. But what they really had in mind by accountability was, “Who is going to be held accountable?” Meaning: “Who should be punished?” Uh, they don’t operate their businesses that way. The really great companies in America don’t operate by punishing their employees. They try to get the best people they can and then they take good care of them. I’m thinking of companies like Google. They talk about all the perks for the employees. Well, schools don’t have any perks for employees. All we’re doing now is talking about who should get fired next. So accountability has become this idea of, “Somebody’s head has to be chopped off. Some school has to be humiliated.” And that’s not educational. That’s penitentiary talk.

JS: Do you agree that the original goal of accountability was to address the needs of the low-income minority kids in the system who were often being ignored?

DR: No, I don’t think that was the goal. I think it was based on a false theory that carrots and sticks produce better education. And that test scores are an adequate stand-in for good education. They’re not. You can coach kids to be like trained seals to get higher test scores. That doesn’t mean they’re getting a better education.

JS: But isn’t the value of accountability that it makes it impossible to ignore the students in underperforming schools. An ISD can’t just say, “Oh that school over there. We’re not even going to worry about them.” They have to worry about them, because those test scores are dragging down the average now.

DR: But don’t those schools still have low test scores? Aren’t they still the ones at the bottom? Bush’s program was called No Child Left Behind. Can we say, years later, that no children have been left behind?

JS: Well, let’s talk about Texas. We’ve been doing test-based accountability for a longer time than most states, since it started here under Governor Bush. Over the past twenty years, Texas has done pretty well on the NAEP, which I know is one of the national tests you put some credence in.

DR: Well, only because it has no stakes attached to it. And I also know that the NAEP has higher standards than these state standards. But the reason I give it credence is that you aren’t punished if you don’t do well on it.

JS: But we’ve done pretty well on that test. Our Hispanic eighth graders have gained 38 percent on the math NAEP. Our African American eighth graders have gained 43 percent.

DR: But everybody’s been gaining points on the NAEP. The whole nation has been. And in the end, you have to ask yourself, “Do we have better education? Are we happy today with the schools we have? Do we think that we now have a great school system because of twenty years of accountability?”

JS: No, but Texas is an interesting case. We have a very difficult population to educate—60 percent of our students are on free or reduced lunch, and we spend very little per pupil. But our low-income students have the highest math NAEP scores in the country. So is Texas a good model for how to educate low-income students?

DR: No, I don’t see it that way. First of all, have they stopped being low-income students?

JS: You mean, are their incomes rising too?

DR: Yes. Have you solved the problem of poverty in Texas because you raised NAEP scores?

JS: No, we obviously have not solved the problem of poverty in Texas.

DR: And while all this was going on, Texas made historic budget cuts to public schools. These same kids need arts, they need music, they need band, they need drama, they need some reason to go to school other than test prep. I think it’s finally gotten across to the legislators because the parents are so ticked off. The legislators for a long time were dazzled with this idea that you could skimp on the spending on schools and just spend it all on testing and make Pearson [the company that administers the tests] even richer than they already are. I mean, Sandy Kress [the former Dallas school board member who developed the test-based accountability system in Texas under Governor Bush and is now a lobbyist for Pearson] is a fabulous lobbyist, and Pearson has done very well. And he can quote all the numbers he wants to, but you can’t keep cutting schools, cutting the budget, getting rid of the guidance counselors, getting rid of the social workers, eliminating the programs and the advanced courses, and just boil it down to reading and math and say, “But look at our scores!”

JS: You mentioned parents getting ticked off. And you’re right. This past legislative session, suburban parents were angry because the new end-of-course exams were messing up their kids’ college applications, and they got a bill passed to scale back testing. But does it give you pause that it was those parents whose voices were heard here, rather than the parents of the disadvantaged kids in the inner city?

DR: No. For a long time, suburban parents watched this movement growing and thought it would not touch them. They thought it was only about the inner cities, where these poor minority kids were going to be tested and tested and their schools closed down and handed over to private entrepreneurs. Now it’s beginning to hit the middle class, and the suburban parents don’t like it. They don’t like their kids being over-tested, they want their kids to have a full education. They don’t understand why this is being inflicted on them, so then suddenly you begin to see rallies where you get the affluent parents standing side-by-side with the kids from Houston and Dallas and Austin and other big cities.

JS: You mentioned private entrepreneurs. You don’t think charter schools have something to bring to the table, as a means of fostering experimentation and new ideas?

DR: In the book, I have a chapter where I say there is a role for charters. They should be of the community and in the community. I don’t believe in charters as for-profit organizations, and I also have trouble with the idea of charter chains. I know some of them, like KIPP, from Houston, have a lot of money behind them, but I don’t like the idea of the local community school being turned into a charter chain that’s managed from afar. That’s why I refer, at one point in the book, to the Walmart-ization of American education. The Walmart model is to bring in a big store which has all these great prices and everybody says, ‘Oh, we have to go there because prices are cheaper,’ and then the next thing that happens is Main Street dies. And not only does Main Street die in that town, it dies in every town within thirty miles, sometimes within fifty miles. And then if Walmart decides, ‘You know, we’re not making as much money there as we thought we would,’ they close the store, and all these towns are now left without a Main Street or a Walmart. All the mom-and-pop stores are gone, the places that have been there for generations and handed down from one generation to the next. The hardware store is gone and the drugstore is gone and the shoe store—they’re all gone. There’s just dead Main Streets town after town. So there is, I think, some analogy to the charter chains that come in and make big promises, and the ones that are most successful are the ones that won’t take the kids with disabilities, that won’t take the kids who don’t speak English, and that can kick out kids who misbehave. And for the ones who fit in, it’s kind of nice. Now they have what they probably secretly wanted, which is to not be troubled with all those kids who are bothersome. The ones that are blind or deaf or in wheelchairs or that don’t speak English: they’re all gone. The kids who make trouble in the back of the classroom: gone. They got expelled.

JS: You were born and raised in Houston, which has one of the country’s most diverse school districts. But when you went to the Houston public schools in the forties, they were segregated.

DR: That’s right.

JS: Do you think that the debates we’re having today reflect the fact that we are essentially still struggling to complete the work of integrating our school system?

DR: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s part of what’s made the charters attractive—for one thing, they’re an escape from public education; for another, in some cities where the charters are all black it’s kind of accepting that segregation is okay. I remember when I was in Florida, I talked to a superintendent, and he said, “You know what this charter movement is all about? It’s about not wanting to go to a school with other folks’ kids. I want to be with kids just like my kids.” What I’ve seen and I’ve written about in the book is that even in districts that are themselves segregated, the charter is even more segregated than the district. And there are districts like the one I wrote about in Minneapolis where there are schools that are virtually all white, schools that are completely black, schools that are all Hmong, schools that are all something else. And, you know, nobody stops and says, “Wait a minute. Aren’t we supposed to be trying to have an integrated society?” So in some ways what schools are dealing with today, public schools and also charter schools, is a social failure. It’s really a question of, What kind of a society do we want to be?

JS: You make the point repeatedly in the book that poverty is a huge barrier to student success. Why is that?

DR: Poverty is a tremendous barrier to success. It means you don’t have enough to eat. It means that you might be homeless. It means that you probably have a parent who is incarcerated. It means that you haven’t had a medical checkup in a very long time, if ever. It means you don’t have eyeglasses, but you need them. It means that you’ve never had your ears checked, and you can’t hear what the teacher is saying. It means that whereas the other kids have a computer at home, you don’t. It means that there is nobody in your home who speaks English, or if they do, they speak in very monosyllabic terms without ever using words of more than two syllables. There are some kids who come from poverty and end up making it. But they’re remarkable. The odds are against them. Look at what’s happening to income inequality in this country. In yesterday’s New York Times there was a story that said that the top 10 percent of earners took more than half the country’s total income in 2012. That’s the highest level recorded since the government began collecting relevant data a century ago.

JS: Now, the reformists would say the way to deal with that is to go into the schools and have the adults in the classroom be the sort-of first line of attack for those kids who don’t have advantages at home. If we can fix what’s happening in the classroom—

DR: That sure is a lot cheaper than doing something about income inequality! You have this dramatic maldistribution of income, and the reformers are saying that the answer is to send in different teachers?? Excuse me, but I’m not that stupid. It's not a school problem. It’s a society problem. I’m not a socialist. I’m not a communist. I’m a Texan. I’m an American, and I think it’s un-American to have this kind of obscene wealth concentrated at the top while other people are struggling to have a roof over the head. That’s not my America. That’s not the Texas I grew up in. 

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week