Diane Ravitch Rebukes Education Activists' 'Reign Of Error'

Sep 27, 2013
Originally published on September 27, 2013 8:11 am

Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education, spent years advocating for an overhaul of the American education system. She supported the No Child Left Behind Act, the charter school movement and standardized testing.

But Ravitch recently — and very publicly — changed her mind. She looked at the data and decided that the kinds of changes she'd supported weren't working. Now she's a prominent critic of things like charter schools and school choice — and she's particularly opposed to privatizing schools.

Her new book, Reign of Error, lambastes the idea of replacing public schools with for-profit institutions. She tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, "When people pay taxes for schools, they don't think they're paying off investors. They think they're paying for smaller class sizes and better teachers."


Interview Highlights

On why she disagrees with the charter school movement

What's wrong with charter schools is that they originally were supposed to be created to collaborate with public schools and help them solve common problems. Because they have now been taken over by the idea of competition, they have become part of the movement to turn education into a consumer product rather than a social and a public responsibility. ...

What I mean is that you go shopping for a school. I don't believe in school choice. I believe that every neighborhood should have a good public school. And if the parents don't want the good local public school and they want to send their child to a private school, they should do so — but they should pay for it.

On whether some individual charter schools are actually working

Some charter schools are exceptional; some charter schools are doing a great job. Many charter schools do worse than the local public school. Many charter schools are run by people who have no qualifications to be educators, and some charter schools are run by for-profit entrepreneurs who are making a lot of money.

On why some public schools underperform, and how to respond

Some are bad, but the reason we call them bad is because they're serving disproportionate numbers of children with disabilities, because the charter schools don't want them. They have disproportionate numbers of children who don't read or speak English because they're foreign-born, and the charter schools don't want them either. So, we're getting the public schools overloaded with low-performing children and then calling them failing schools. And that's wrong.

Are there bad schools? If there are bad schools, then the people whose feet should be held at the fire are the superintendents, the administrators — the people who run that system. It's their job to identify schools that are really bad schools and to change them, and then give that school the small class sizes it needs, the guidance counselors it needs, the extra resources it needs, so that it can serve the children better.

On the role of new technology in the classroom

I have no problem with good tools for teachers. My problem is that I know that there are now entrepreneurs and there are people in think tanks who are arguing quite publicly that these tools should replace teachers, and that if you buy enough of these tools, it will not only enrich the corporation, but it will make it possible for the school district to save money by having a hundred kids on a tablet for one teacher, and that's a big saving for the district. I think that's not education. ... The best schools in the country, they are not replacing their teachers with computers.

On whether poverty is the underlying cause of problems with American education

Let me tell you what I think everyone needs to know: American public education is a huge success. Test scores have never been higher than they are today for white children, black children, Hispanic children and Asian children. High school graduation rates have never been higher than they are today for all of those groups. Our schools are not failing; they are very successful.

Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty. Now, we cannot, obviously, wipe poverty out overnight, but there are many things we can do to make school a stronger equalizer than it is today. One of those would be to have reduced class sizes in the schools that serve the children of poverty. Another would be to have universal pre-kindergarten. We should have a strong arts program in every one of these schools, because children have to have a reason to come to school other than just to be tested.

I was just in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Those schools are under-resourced. The schools in Philadelphia, they're closing all the libraries, they've laid off guidance counselors — I mean, all the things that kids need to help them succeed are being taken away. The kids that we're trying to help the most are getting the least.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep, I'm David Greene. In a few minutes, we'll hear about a public school district trying to improve technology in its classrooms by passing out iPads to students. Already, there has been one major glitch.

First, let's meet a critic who says there has been too much technology in schools. Diane Ravitch argues that the move to put iPads in classrooms is driven by corporate profit motives. She's also not fond of standardized testing, a hallmark first of the Bush administration, that's continued under President Obama.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, he has almost exactly the same agenda as President George W. Bush, only his agenda is worse.

GREENE: Ravitch has a new book, "Reign of Error," that's intended to demolish the modern school-reform movement. She once support that movement when she served in the administration of the first President Bush. She was also a leading advocate of charter schools, which pull students and money from traditional public schools. Now, as Ravitch told Steve, she has made a complete turnaround.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What made you conclude that charter schools were wrong?

RAVITCH: OK, what's wrong with charter schools is that they originally were supposed to be created to collaborate with public schools, and help them solve common problems. Because they have now been taken over by the idea of competition, they have become part of the movement to turn education into a consumer product rather than a social, and a public, responsibility. And that is the fundamental error of the charter movement.

INSKEEP: To be a consumer product - what do you mean?

RAVITCH: What I mean is that you go shopping for a school. I don't believe in school choice; I believe that every neighborhood should have good public school. And if parents don't want the good, local public school, and they want to send their child to a private school, they should do so. But they should pay for it.

INSKEEP: Well, there are several aspects of this. First, is whether charter schools themselves are actually working as schools. The second is whether the public schools are working. Let's take those one at a time. Aren't some charter schools really exceptional, and doing a great job for their students?

RAVITCH: Some charter schools are exceptional. Some charter schools are doing a great job. Many charter schools do worse than the local public school; many charter schools are run by people who have no qualifications to be educators. And some charter schools are run by for-profit entrepreneurs who are making a lot of money.

INSKEEP: Is that automatically wrong?

RAVITCH: Yes. Because when people pay taxes for schools, they don't think they're paying off investors. They think they're paying for smaller class sizes and better teachers.

INSKEEP: Aren't some public schools, some of them, pretty bad?

RAVITCH: Well, some are bad. But the reason we call them bad is because they're serving disproportionate numbers of children with disabilities because the charter schools don't want them. They have disproportionate numbers of children who don't read or speak English because they're foreign-born, and the charter schools don't want them, either. So we're getting the public schools overloaded with low-performing children and then calling them failing schools, and that's wrong.

Are there bad schools? If there are bad schools, then the peoples whose feet should be held to the fire are the superintendents, the administrators; the people who run that system. It's their job to identify the schools that are really bad schools and to change them, and then give that school the small class sizes it needs, the guidance counselors it needs, the extra resources it needs, so it can serve the children better.

INSKEEP: Over the summer, I had an opportunity to see a discussion with Joel Klein, the former schools chancellor of New York City. Now, Joel Klein is working - as you know - for Rupert Murdoch and developing tablet computers. The idea is, every kid holds a tablet. There are texts that are developed for that tablet, and you can gather a lot more data about what the kids are actually doing, and what the kids are reading. And Klein will even argue, this is a tool for the teacher and not a replacement of the teacher. What's wrong with that?

RAVITCH: I have no problem with good tools for teachers. My problem is that I know that there are now entrepreneurs, and people in think tanks, who are arguing - quite publicly - that these tools should replace teachers and that if you buy enough of these tools, it will not only enrich the corporation, but it will make it possible for the school district to save money by having a hundred kids on a tablet for one teacher. And that's a big saving for the district. I think that's not education. I think we can look to, in this case, the best schools in the country. They are not replacing their teachers with computers.

INSKEEP: You seem to think that the major problem with American education is not actually American education, but poverty. Some kids are poor.

RAVITCH: Well, let me tell you what I think everyone needs to know. American public education is a huge success. Test scores have never been higher than they are today for white children, black children, Hispanic children and Asian children. High school graduation rates have never been higher than they are today - for all of those groups. Our schools are not failing; they're very successful.

Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty. Now, we cannot - obviously - wipe poverty out overnight. But there are many things we can do to make school a stronger equalizer than it is today. One of those would be to have reduced class sizes in the schools that serve the children of poverty. Another would be to have universal pre-kindergarten. We should have a strong arts program in every one of these schools because children have to have a reason to come to school other than just to be tested.

I was just in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Those schools are under-resourced. The schools in Philadelphia, they're closing all the libraries, they've laid off guidance counselors - all the things that kids need to help them succeed, are being taken away. The kids that we're trying to help the most are getting the least.

INSKEEP: Diane Ravitch is the author of "Reign of Error." Thanks very much.

RAVITCH: Thank you, Steve. It was great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.