Commentary | Education

Diane Ravitch responds

A May 23 cover story in The New York Times Magazine examined the Obama administration’s Race to the Top state education grant program, which EPI research has shown to be arbitrary and unfair. Education historian Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System and an outspoken critic of Race to the Top – which she equates to a mass privatization of public education – recently spoke with EPI about the Times article. Here is the full text of the interview.

Q. A recent New York Times story about the Obama administration’s plans for school reform concludes with a school superintendent saying, “education will never be the same.” Do you agree with this assessment?

Ravitch: It’s a scary thought. I think public education itself is at risk. On the current course we are on, we will see thousands of public schools turned over to private entrepreneurs. We will see an explosion of privatization.

Q. Education reform and Obama’s Race to the Top grant program (a program for spurring school reform often through increased focus on teacher accountability and charter schools) are receiving a lot of press.  Do you feel these stories accurately describe the state of the nation’s schools and the reforms being proposed?

Ravitch: There is a problem with calling what is happening in schools “reform.” Some articles extol unproven ideas and lack any fairness or balance. My book cites a lot of research showing that charter schools don’t do any better on the whole than regular public schools. If they do not produce consistently better results, why are we investing billions of scarce public dollars to create many, many more of these (charter) schools? And why ignore their likely impact on regular public schools? Proponents claim that competition improves public schools but that certainly has not happened in Milwaukee, where there are vouchers, charters, and regular public schools, and all three sectors have low performance.

Q. The Times article also states that “What the reformers have come to believe matters most (in education) is good teachers.” What do you think?

Ravitch: Of course good teachers are incredibly important, but we won’t get more of them by attacking teachers and reducing their job to the singular goal of raising test scores. The Times article has implicit disdain for the people who work in schools – a suggestion that it’s only the people who went to Ivy League schools who know how to fix things.

To say “we need good teachers” – of course we need good teachers. But their idea of [how to identify and fire] bad teachers is based mainly on test scores. They are making the assumption that schools are overrun with bad teachers and I don’t think that’s true. To have teacher evaluations decided by politicians and legislatures is insane.

Q. Should teachers be held individually accountable?

Ravitch: I have a problem judging teachers by test scores. Test scores should surely be considered by principals as part of teachers’ evaluation, but legislators should not quantify this. They are not competent to do so.  There are many things that cause test scores to go up or down, and it’s not just the teacher.

Part of what is going on is to try to blame low performance on teachers instead of recognizing that poverty is the single greatest determinant of low scores. Not being a native English speaker and being homeless are also major factors.

Testing can have some part in this, but it is a matter of professional judgment by competent and experienced principals, not something that should be legislated or politically determined.

Q. Should teachers have guaranteed lifetime tenure?

Ravitch: Lifetime tenure does not exist. Tenure means the right to due process. But firing people because they cost more is a way to destroy a profession. If you go in for surgery, do you want an experienced surgeon, or a resident? Senior teachers are a valuable part of every school staff. New teachers need their help. If teachers are incompetent, they should be brought up on charges and removed. A far more important problem than removing teachers is teacher attrition: Half of those who enter teaching are gone within five years. Yet the “reformers” ignore this problem, which is largely due to poor working conditions.

Q. The New York Times piece does make the point that many charter schools perform badly. But it also uses the example of one charter school in Harlem that actually shares the same building with a public school, yet has a vastly different school environment and much better student performance. How can two schools that are not only in the same neighborhood, but in the very same building have such vastly different outcomes?

Ravitch: The important point here is that these two schools don’t have the same population. The public school has a much larger population of English-language learners, special education students, and students with disabilities. The only thing they share is the same building.

Q. And why would two schools in such close proximity have such different student populations?

Ravitch: Charter schools, when they are popular, have a lottery. But a lot of parents never even hear about the lottery. In New York City, there is a very large number of homeless students in the population, and very few enroll in charter schools. It is a selective effect. There is a big difference between entering a lottery for a charter school, and going to a public school, where they are required to accept you.

Charter schools can also quietly remove kids. Some of the charter schools that are very successful have a very high attrition rate. They may start with 100 students and end up with 50. Then they say how successful they are but don’t tell you about the students who didn’t make it. 

Ideally, charter schools should collaborate with public schools, not compete with them. Both sectors should coalesce around common goals, funding and sharing ways to help all students succeed.  

Q. What are some of the other problems you see with charter schools?

Ravitch: Some skim away the most motivated students, and many are concentrated in cities in minority neighborhoods. If you look at the nations in the world with the highest performing schools — Finland, Japan and Korea — they have not privatized public education. They have made it better.

Q. In your view, what are the school reforms that are needed?

Ravitch: The most important reform is to have a strong and coherent curriculum in the arts and science, in history and geography. Every high-performing nation has a strong curriculum. And as a society we have to act on the other problems, such as poverty and homelessness, which contribute to poor educational outcomes. We should not punish schools and teachers because they have a high number of kids who are poor or homeless or aren’t native English speakers. We have to do something to help those students have a better life.