The Education of Diane Ravitch

Should public schools fear billionaires? Is Finland a poster nation? An interview with the nation’s leading education historian.

When I called education historian Diane Ravitch last week to ask her MoJo readers’ questions, she was on the other line with producers from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Stewart, whose mother worked for years as a teacher, was about to do a segment on Wisconsin and “the greed” of public school teachers; the show needed a guest who could add context to Fox News pundit clips in which financial sector workers earning $250,000 a year could barely pay their mortgages, but teachers earning $50,000 a year with benefits were overpaid. Ravitch—a surprising, prominent, conservative voice in the education debate—didn’t disappoint. Between Stewart and Ravitch, the resulting Daily Show segment delivers a stinging rebuke to those who’d strip public school teachers of their collective bargaining rights.

Ravitch, who served as Assistant Secretary of Education in George H.W. Bush’s administration, came by her fiercely pro-teachers union views the hard way. An early and ardent supporter of No Child Left Behind, she backed charter schools, merit pay, and school vouchers. Then, sometime around 2004 when the effects started to become apparent, she changed her mind. Ravitch now opposes aggressive Michelle-Rhee-style education reforms, and her work provides important “fact-checking” on proposals that overstate their capacity for solutions (like charters or using student test scores to evaluate teachers). This matters when reformers like Rhee sometimes receive untempered adoration in media and policy circles.

Ravitch’s most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education, critiques No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the punitive uses of testing to fire teachers and close schools. She spends a chapter on the growing power of a few foundations—like Gates, Broad, and Walton—that she argues are reforming schools at an unprecedented degree without adequate local input. Critics of Ravitch say that—calls for better curriculum, child health care, and increased funding for early childhood education notwithstanding—she doesn’t offer alternative solutions for education policy makers.

Mother Jones spoke with Ravitch about teacher tenure, No Child Left Behind, and for-profit charter schools.

Mother Jones: What is your greatest concern about the direction of public education in the next ten years?

Diane Ravitch: The advance of privatization and a renewed push for vouchers. That we will actually go backwards in this country and that the public education system will become a dumping ground for kids who didn’t make it into charters. That we’ll see in many cities a degradation of public education. That there will be charters skimming off gifted and high-performing kids and we’ll create a two-track system.

MJ: Would you support charters, if we got rid of for-profit charters and only had non-profit charters?

“We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit’s first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children.”

DR: We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit’s first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children.

But even on non-profits, there should be a cap on salaries, so that the operator can’t be paid a lot more than the average salary of the public system.

I support charters, but the right kind of charters. I support charters that support kids who have the highest needs. A charter should be targeting students who are in serious trouble. It should serve students who didn’t succeed in public schools when it can help them. Or, at least, charters should agree to accept similar proportions of the kids with the highest needs.

Charters should be subject to the same rules governing conflicts of interest and nepotism that apply to public schools, and they should go through the same financial auditing. In New York State the Charter School Association went to court to prevent the public auditing of their books, and said as charters, they should be free of that. But they get public money. How can you be free of auditing? They say they do their own auditing. That’s not enough.

MJ: In your book you have a chapter called, “The Billionaires Club” in which you critique what you see as overly top-down education reforms by the big foundations. Many grassroots organizations in the US are supported by billionaires like Ford, Rockefeller, and Soros. How is what Gates, Walton, and Broad doing in education different?

DV: What’s happening now is venture philanthropy. They look at their philanthropy as an investment. They start off with strategy and a reform idea which they believe is right and then they say here is the money, but you have to do what we tell you to do. When Eli Broad funds medical research, he doesn’t tell them how to do medical research. But he has very clear directions for public schools with a pro-charter school and teacher evaluation obsession. Gates gave a billion dollars to break large high schools into small high schools and then decided that wasn’t working. And now he’s moved on to teacher evaluations. Well, he never made a public accountability statement about why small high schools weren’t working. We don’t really know what his inner logic was. The big issue that concerns me is that they are using their money to control public policy and they have no accountability.

MJ: Speaking of teacher evaluations, what does your ideal teacher evaluation look like?

DR: A good teacher evaluation would primarily rely on an experienced supervisor, who has had many years as a teacher. Who was a successful teacher, who visits classroom on a regular basis. And if he sees a teacher who needs help, he is able to provide help, and to refer teachers for professional development. This should not be a gotcha game. It should be used as a way of figuring out how to support teachers and mentor them and give them whatever they need to be better at their craft. A supervisor should look at the scores, take them into account, consider them a part of a personnel file, and not turn them over to the Los Angeles Times. But it’s something to consider if no one ever learns to read in Ms. Jones’ class, if you see if it’s a particular class, and then use it to make decisions about whether she is in the wrong career.

I had a falling-out with a foundation executive who doesn’t agree with me on this. He went to visit different places and he said, “what do you do when you have a bad teacher?” and the response was “we help them.” “And what if you help them and they are still a bad teacher?” We help them more.” I think at a certan point when you get a peer review and you get supervisors and you get help, at some point it does become clear if this is not the right job for you.

Our schools are not overwhelmed with bad teachers. The biggest problem we face with teaching is high turnover rate. Fifty percent of the people who enter teaching are gone within five years.

Part of the mania that we’ve been living with in the past two years is this idea that our schools are overwhelmed with bad teachers, and it’s not true. I think that is a part of the effort to undermine public education. The biggest problem we face with teaching is high turnover rate. Fifty percent of the people who enter teaching are gone within five years. That creates a revolving door when most communities want and need a stable experience. Instead of how to fire the bad teachers, we should talk about how to help teachers and give them the confidence to be the best they can.

MJ: What is your opinion on teacher tenure?

DR: First of all, there is no such thing as automatic tenure. Tenure is a decision made by an administrator and it should be taken with deliberation and after sitting in a teacher’s class. It also doesn’t mean life employment. If an administrator watched you teach, evaluated you, and makes a decision that this person is entitled to a due process, then depending on state—some have three years of probationary teaching and some have four—tenure in K-12 education means that if someone wants to fire you, you have a right to a hearing.

And the reason this exists is to protect against political favoritism. Before there was tenure, there were many cases where people hired their friends and relatives and then the political party changed and other people brought in their friends, or contributors. Tenure makes sure that teachers are not fired for their race, sexual or political orientation, or just because the principal didn’t like you.

MJ: What about layoffs based on seniority?

DR: We don’t have a merit system, so seniority makes sense more than any other system we currently have. If you base layoffs solely on test scores, you incentivize making these tests the measure of all things. And we will have a dumbing down of education.

If you were going into a hospital, and had the services of an intern or a resident, that’s what you’d be getting in education if you remove seniority. What you’ll see are people who are enthusiastic, but who come and go frequently. And you’ll see principals who save money by laying off experienced teachers no matter how good they are.

MJ: Is there a country that has figured out a perfect merit system?

DR: I’d say that Finland has. It’s the poster nation. They don’t have any attrition in Finland. They have made teaching a highly respected and desirable position there. Government pays all of one’s college expenses, and it’s very competitive. Once they are in, they give them tremendous support.

MJ: How would you reform No Child Left Behind?

DR: What must be eliminated are all of the federal sanctions. They don’t work. Federal government should have no power to tell states how to reform schools. The Federal government doesn’t know.

Accountability should not the federal governments business, other than running the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and giving states adequate information about the trend lines in their states.

The law should be a supportive law, not a punitive law. It has a list of punishments. It should have adequate funding for early child education, and it should be focused on communities that need it most. And there should be adequate funding for special education. The thing that strains the budget for every school district is that Federal Government mandates special education and it’s supposed to provide 40% of the funding and it’s never done that. I think they only give about 12%.

If a school is struggling, you don’t kill it. You find out why it’s struggling and provide help. There is no “one size fits all” approach.

When the schools are struggling, it’s usually because they have a super load of kids who are very poor, and don’t speak English, and have very high special needs. And every school has a different reason for why it’s struggling. And if the school is struggling, you don’t kill it. You find out why it’s struggling and provide help. There is no “one size fits all” approach.

MJ: Do you think we still need some kind of external measures to check local claims?

I think we could do something like sampling. It’s okey to have tests, but we have to use them diagnostically: to help kids learn better and show teachers what they don’t know and see where they need help. But you can’t then take those tests and say we are going to hold you accountable based solely on the scores and we are going to give out rewards and punishments. When you use tests for money rewards or to fire people, then you begin to distort the measure and the test and everyone starts funny things: cheating, turning schools into testing factories, making the tests more important than instruction and gaming the system.

MJ: Are there ways in which teacher unions should improve to work better for parents and children?

Their job is to make sure that teachers have rights. Their job is to go to the state legislature and make sure that there is enough money for schools, so that schools have decent class size. That’s the best thing that unions do for parents and kids. They advocate for children in state legislature. And the states where unions have little or no power have cut the schools to the bone. Teachers were very badly treated before there were unions.

The reason there are attacks on unions is because they are reliably Democratic and so you have governors who are trying to cut their legs off. It will strengthen their position politically. It will also make it easier to cut education budgets. Taking away the collective bargaining rights is only going to hurt children.

MJ: Most Americans support collective bargaining rights for teachers. But some teachers and parents have told me that unions should reform. Are there any areas in which you think they could improve?

DR: I’d like to see unions work more closely in a relationship with parents. So that they understand that they have shared interests. Together they will be a more potent force in supporting public education.

Front page photo: Jack Milller

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