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Former 'No Child' Supporter Says It's A Failure


Our next guest spent years allied with key conservatives on education reform. Diane Ravitch is the former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush. During her time in that administration and afterwards, she advocated standardized testing and expanding school choice through charter schools. Those would later become key elements of No Child Left Behind under President George W. Bush, but she eventually became a critic of these approaches.

She's now professor of education at New York University and the author of a number of books, including "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education," and she's with us now.

Diane Ravitch, thank you so much for joining us.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, thank you, Michel, for inviting me.

MARTIN: Now, you know, it is pretty rare that people change their minds about something publicly and I know that it's a complex topic, which is why, you know, you've written, you know, a book about it and many monographs, but I did want to ask. As briefly as you can tell us, did you have a eureka moment? Was there some specific piece of data or something that convinced you that these ideas were flawed?

RAVITCH: When I believed that they would work, they hadn't been tried. Once they were tried, I was convinced that they didn't work and, in fact, not only were they failing, but they're ruining American education and they're actually leading the way today towards privatization of public education, which I think would be a disaster.

MARTIN: Is - could you just expand on that a little bit? I mean, you know, you've heard the arguments that we've had on the program so far. I mean, the argument is that, in the absence of a testing regimen, a comprehensive testing regimen, there really isn't any incentive for the schools to demonstrate that kids are learning, especially in areas where the parents aren't strong advocates for themselves for whatever reason, or for their kids for whatever reason. How do you respond to that?

RAVITCH: Well, actually, Michel, that is wrong. I was going to say it's nonsensical. Testing does not close achievement gaps. Testing just shows that there are gaps, but then you have to do something about it. Testing should be used diagnostically. It should not be used the way we're using it today. It's being used to punish teachers, to close schools and to do all sorts of high stake things like merit pay and basing teachers' evaluation on testing, and that's wrong.

The cause of the achievement gap is poverty and segregation, and an absence of resources. Wherever you find that toxic combination of high poverty and racial segregation, you will find low test scores. And so what's happening today is that we - first, we have No Child Left Behind, which I believe is a failed policy. I mean, Secretary Duncan said it's broken. It's broken and it's failed. We have many, many children left behind. They're the same children who were left behind when the law was passed over 10 years ago.

But No Child Left Behind set an unreasonable goal. It said 100 percent of the children would be proficient, and then, when the 100 percent are not proficient, it's unreasonable because no nation in the world has 100 percent of the children proficient.

We label those schools failing schools. We fire the teachers. We close the schools and then they're set up for privatization. So I think this is a terrible process that has been set into motion that is doing tremendous damage to public education.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit, if you would, about the recent Chicago teachers strike, which - they recently ended a seven day strike. They signed a new contract with pay raises. You know, the whole issue, you know, of teacher contracts seems to become a polarizing issue, where on the one hand, people say, well, of course. You know, this is a difficult and important job and, of course, teachers should be compensated as well as possible.

Others look at these - a circumstance like that and say this is an example of where the education systems are set up for the benefit of the adults, not for the kids. How do you read what just happened in Chicago?

RAVITCH: Well, first of all, compensation was not the issue. That had been settled before the strike. A longer school day was not the issue. That had been settled before the strike. The strike was really about getting better resources, more resources, for the kids who needed them. There are 160 schools in Chicago that don't have a school library. There are - almost half the schools that don't have an arts teacher. There are overcrowded classrooms and the teaching conditions and the learning conditions are the same for the children, and they're very poor.

And what the teachers were striking about, was they have been reformed now for almost 20 years. Arne Duncan was a superintendent of schools there and he said there would be a renaissance by 2010.

What we know from Chicago is that opening charter schools doesn't improve education. Chicago has many charter schools, as New York does, as Washington, D.C. does, and we have not seen any difference between the charter schools and the regular public schools. So the idea is, if you can just break the union, turn it over to private management, you'll see an improvement. But what frequently happens in charters is they skim the best kids. They kick out the low performing kids. They don't take the special ed. kids. They don't take the English language learners and that artificially inflates their test scores.

But the charter schools, on the whole, on average, do not get better results than regular public schools, even though they don't have a union.

MARTIN: Finally, you know, you wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2010, and you said something you said here again today, which is poverty is the biggest predictor of low academic performance and that government should focus on that to help students. Do you feel that there are any key players in education who have that point of view, who are working in that direction? I guess what I'm asking is, do you feel that that's - is that a point of view that's actually widely shared, even if it's not widely articulated, or not? And, if not, why not?

RAVITCH: First of all, I'd say that it's a point of view that's widely shared amongst the teachers of the United States. Millions of teachers understand it. Many superintendents and principals understand it. They know that testing is not going to close gaps, it's simply going to reflect gaps.

The other thing you should know - and I think it's really important in this conversation to say this. The NAEP scores - that is, the federal testing scores today - are the highest they've ever been in history. You have heard today, from Secretary Duncan and from Michelle Rhee and from former Secretary Spellings what I consider to be the full reform narrative. It's not about reform, it's about bashing American education.

The scores for white students, black students, Hispanic students and Asian students are the highest they've ever been since federal testing began 40 years ago. We also have the highest high school graduation rate in history for the people in the age group 18 to 24. We also have the lowest dropout rate in history for that age group, 18 to 24. Only eight percent of them don't have a high school diploma.

MARTIN: Interesting.

RAVITCH: So what you've heard is a false narrative, and I would ask you to think twice before you allow people to say that the system is broken, the system is failing. This is not true. We certainly have districts like New York and Chicago and Baltimore, and wherever there is this combination of high poverty and high segregation, you will find low test scores. What you'll also find is dedicated teachers.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for your perspective on this. That's why we invited a range of you to participate in our conversation so we can get the benefit of all of them. Diane Ravitch is an education historian and the author of, most recently, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education." She was with us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Diane Ravitch, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RAVITCH: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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