Diane Ravitch is an historian who made headlines with her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In it, she challenged many proposed education reforms — including school choice and standardized testing — that she herself once supported. Her newly published book, Reign of Error, calls out many self-professed reformers as profiteers who seek to depict public schools as being far worse than they really are. She spoke with City Paper before appearing Sept. 16 at Squirrel Hill's Temple Sinai, where she spoke at an event sponsored by the union-backed Great Public Schools Pittsburgh.
A longer version of this interview can be found here.
As your book notes, a few decades ago, many proposed education changes — like charter schools and vouchers — barely resonated outside a few right-wing think tanks. Today, they are conventional wisdom in both parties. How did that happen?
I think it's about campaign contributions. The driving force behind a lot of this movement is money. Wall Street got very intrigued with charter schools: It got to be the thing to do, to say, "I'm on the board of the Harlem Children's Zone." It was a status thing: You could say "I'm saving poor kids," and then go off to your weekend home in the Hamptons.
[And] we're at a time when income inequality is the worst it has been in 100 years. We're basically back in the robber-baron age. So instead of talking about why we have a tax structure where some people can accumulate billions while others barely survive, we're talking about charter schools. This is the great distraction.
How would you compare Pennsylvania's situation to that of other states?
Pennsylvania has more cyber charters than any other state. And if you were to ask me, what's the biggest scam in education today, I would say it's cyber charter schools. There's probably some small number of kids who need them ... but these schools have become raiders. They raid the public-school budget and provide a bad education, and have high drop-out rates.
One big surprise in your book is that over the years, when kids have been tested on the same standardized questions, scores are actually improving, not getting worse.
I have to say it was a surprise to me too. In my book three years ago, I didn't say, "Guess what, the scores are up." I was just going along with the conventional wisdom. There's a very finely honed narrative: The schools are failing, failing, failing. But if you rank test scores by poverty and income, our low-poverty kids get incredible scores — higher than Finland and Japan and Korea. ... I began looking at long-trend test scores and the picture is up, up, up. There has been dramatic improvement, especially for black and Hispanic kids. Graduation rates are the highest they've ever been. [But saying that] would fly in the face of this narrative.
But there are schools that are failing, right?
You don't need standardized tests to tell you which schools they are. They're the ones with high concentrations of poverty and segregation. That's what the tests tell us every year, and then we say the way to fix the schools is to close them. That doesn't fix them; it just scatters the kids, and whatever problems they had. ... It's not that schools are failing. It's that America is failing to address poverty.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story did not include the full name of Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, which hosted Monday's appearance.