by Chris Potter
This is the extended version of our print-edition interview with education advocate and historian Diane Ravitch.
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.
The CEO of K-12 [the country's largest cyber-charter program] is from Goldman Sachs and McKinsey [a prominent corporate consultant] -- he doesn't have a background in education. His compensation in 2011 was $5 million, and it was tied not to academic performance but enrollment.
Last year, I met a guy who was one of the original administrators of K12. At a certain point, he realized that the whole company had been overtaken by a corporate mentality that said to recruiters "you'll get a bonus for the number of kids you recruit." So they no longer talked about education, they talked about recruitment.
In the 2010 book I was saying "I can't go to my grave without clearing my conscience of saying "all the things I used to support don't work. … I can't die with people thinking, 'She believed in all these terrible ideas.' I've got to clear myself and do the Paul Revere thing."
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.So if you're a parent in ones of those schools -- I'm sure you get this question all the time -- what should you do?
Parents ought to get together and demand more teachers, smaller classes, more intensive help for the kids. You have to analyze the problem, and closing the school is not a way of doing that. If kids aren't learning, you have to ask why.
Sure, but as you know, if those parents go before the school administrators, they'll be told, "Yeah, we'd like to do all that, but federal and state aid is being cut. It's out of our hands."
Parents should be aware that [Gov.] Tom Corbett did cut $1 billion out of the schools, even as the cost of maintaining the schools go up. There are schools that don't have basic resources to provide an education. But that doesn't mean the schools are bad. It means the people in Harrisburg are bad. What state officials are saying is, "If your school isn't working, we'll give you a voucher to go somewhere else." That's an evasion of their responsibility.
Do you think reformers have any ideas that are worth following, or criticisms that are valid?
So many of the people in the reform movement have never taught, that it's hard to take their ideas seriously. It makes me feel like there's some PR firm that is messaging all this. They take what are in some cases are very bad ideas, and instead of saying "we want to privatize the schools, we want to monetize the children," they say "we're reformers." Well, everybody likes reform. But in this case the reformers turn out to be all these people who have never been in a classroom except as students. And so many of them went to elite prep schools.
There was a debate here in Pittsburgh a few months back, in which some local parents decided to opt out of standardized testing, because they think it's a bankrupt idea they don't want to enable. But I've also talked to parents who are concerned about that approach: They love the schools too, but they say that if these parents don't let their kids take the test, it ends up hurting the school itself, since kids of parents who are engaged could expect to help shore up the test scores. What do you think?
I've evolved about that. When my book came out I was asked if I would support opting out, and I said "no that's way too radical. It sounds almost like lawbreaking" But I've now come to the conclusion that, because of all the power and money amassed behind testing, that the only way to stop it is to opt out. The idea is not to have a few parents doing it, but a whole school doing it, or a whole district. If the whole district opts out, they can't do anything to you. And imagine if the whole city opted out: What are they going to do, cut your funding? I don't think so. One thing I've learned about federal policy over the years is that they make threats, but. They tell you "we'll cut off your title 1 funding," but they don't because that money goes to poor kids, and nobody wants to take the political heat from denying funding to poor kids.
But I think if you were thinking of a way to hurt poor kids, I can't think of a worse way to do that than telling them year after year that they are failures. And the nature of these tests is that most of them WILL fail. Because it's a bell curve, and most of the poor kids will be on the bottom part of that curve.
A while ago, I read a piece in Slate that said, "If you send your kid to private schools, you are a bad person, because your school needs parents like you to be involved in the district, and to have a stake in it." I assume the same argument would apply to people who move to suburbs with better schools. Do you think that's true?
I don't think it's necessarily true. I don't go along with the idea that you're a bad citizen. I think your responsibility is to support public education even if you send your kids to private schools. Or even if you have no children at all. What the "reformers" have tried to do is inculcate a market orientation. They want people to think school is just a consumer good, and you choose it the same way you choose what shoes you want. But that's not true. It shouldn't be true. If we're going to be a decent society, there have to be public institutions. You can't say it's a matter of consumer choice, because what happens then is people say "it's not my problem if those kids aren't getting a good education."
But as your book notes, criticizing the schools is an American tradition that goes back more than 200 years, and long predates the current reform movement. Why do you think that is?
I think it's part of a Puritan tradition – that we're all going to Hell and things are getting worse and worse. There's always this doom and gloom, but we're in an era right now where we've never had a more prosperous economy than we have today. There are people who think nothing of dropping $500 a dinner. Yet at the same time they're saying "our schools are so terrible." Well, who do they think created all this prosperity? It wasn't the hedge-fund managers; they don't even create jobs. The prosperity in America was created by the 90 percent of people who went to public schools
This reminds me of a story I was reading a piece in Harpers magazine a month or two ago, arguing that algebra should be dropped as a required course from the high school curriculum. It noted that in the mid-20th-century – this time that everyone is so nostalgic for -- most high school kids didn't take algebra. And some of those kids are the same people saying today's kids don't learn anything.
Something I proposed in the book is to have somebody take all the questions from the 8th grade NAEP test [a nationally-administered test], and see how many of these guys knocking the schools can pass it. Some of the questions on that were really hard. I couldn't pass some of the math questions. And I'm not stupid; I have a PhD.
Reviews are just starting to come in on your new book. One criticism I've seen -- I think you linked to it from your own blog -- came from The Atlantic: The writer said you're really demonizing people who are working in charters or programs like Teach for America, who are sincere about wanting to make a difference.
I'm very conflicted about TFA. I think the kids who join it are very idealistic, and the kids who join it thinking that they are going to close the achievement gap and save kids. But they are facilitating an organization that has become quite different from what it started out to be.
TFA started out as kind of a domestic Peace Corps. But no one says to kids who join the Peace Corps, "You can be a foreign service officer after five weeks of training." They say, "You can go to a village and dig latrines," and help people in ways that are realistic. But we're saying to these kids "You can close the achievement gap with five weeks of training," and it's not true.
Either TFA is going to have to change, or young kids are going to realize kids are being used … The worst part is that TFA spreads the idea that you don't need an education profession; you just need smart people with five weeks. Who would want an airplane pilot with 5 weeks training, or a doctor?
The flip side, though, is that everybody has that experience of the teacher who has been around too long, and just seems to just be mailing it in until they can cash in on the retirement plan. So you know the argument: Since we all have that memory of a teacher in our heads, even if many other teachers were great …
… Then no one should get tenure. But we have too much turnover in the schools now, and somebody made the decision to give that teacher tenure. Teachers who are incompetent or lazy should be fired, but that has to be done by judgment, not by some metric. Tenure doesn't mean lifetime job protection. It means you get a hearing, and someone has to compiled the evidence and give you a chance to defend yourself.
Out of curiosity, have you ever looked at for-profit post-secondary education? One of the biggest for-profit college programs, EDMC, is based here.
The focus in my book is on K-12, but in the section I did on college graduation rates, I noticed that the lowest graduation rates are at the for-profit colleges. And they engage in some of the same shady practices as the cyber-charters: recruitment, recruitment, recruitment.
[Iowa] Senator Tom Harkin issued a report on this, and thought it would lead to some changes. Because these for-profit institutions tend to target minority kids and veterans, and say "you can get an easy, quick degree here." And then they drop out [because] they're not getting a good education. The kids leave burdened by debt and with no degree. So [Harkin] wrote a scathing report about two years ago, and everybody thought there would be some changes. But the industry hired lobbyists on both sides of the aisle, and nothing happened.
What's your next project going to be?
If I ever write another book, it'll be a memoir. If I can remember my life, I'd like to write about it. I periodically think about things in my youth, about the things that were formative. Growing up in Texas, I was the third of eight children, and my siblings were not particularly successful in school. They didn't go to Ivy League schools as I did. None of them did. I was married for 25 years, raised children, lost a child, and then I got divorced, and I've had a whole life since then. My life divides into these thirds, and this last part of my life – the past three years – has been the most incredible part, because here I am at 75 years old, and I'm touring the country as if I was 25. I get tired, my back gives out, I have bad arthritis in my spine, but I stand in front of an audience and I feel like I'm 25 again. All the energy and adrenalin starts flowing.
I have a great passion for trying to make the world a better place. And the part I know is education. I've had a lot of experiences that come together. Having worked in right-wing think tanks, and knowing all the characters that are making these claims, and knowing where these claims come from -- I know the characters on the right, and in the last three years I've met teachers all over America, and I have a lot friends I've never met. It's the nature of the world we live in; I've become like the mistress of social media.
But I imagine you're off the Heritage Foundation holiday-card list now. How do those folks react to you nowadays?
I don't see too much of them. I'm still, oddly enough, on these right-wing e-mail lists, which is useful because I can see what they are up to: "They're doing THIS? They're claiming THAT?"
I got kicked out of Brookings. It was during the Romney campaign, and the guy running my part of Brookings had been in charge of research in the George W. Bush administration. I'd published an article online for the New York Review of Books, where I lacerated Romney's education plan. Two hours later, I got an email telling me I'd been discontinued as a senior fellow. And understand: As a senior fellow, I had no compensation. I'm just a name on a list.
So, what? You had to give back your secret decoder ring?
Well, everybody had an ornament on the Christmas tree. I think they took my ornament down.