Q&A With Diane Ravitch, Author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Diane Ravitch, research faculty member at NYU Steinhardt, is the author of the recently published book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. In it, she argues that many of the conservative policy ideas she once championed—such as testing, charter schools, and accountability systems—are eroding the quality of public education in the United States.

Below, Ravitch answers some questions about how she came to change her thinking about what is needed to improve public schools.

Q: In your book you explain how you now possess “profound skepticism” for ideas you once supported. Why and how did your thinking change?

A: Like many people today, I hoped that testing, accountability, and privately-managed schools would transform education. I changed my mind as evidence accumulated that these approaches were not working. As I explain in the book, these very strategies often undercut good education. I wrote the book to explain what I learned about school reform, and why I believe that we must direct our most strenuous efforts to reviving public education. Not by piling up more data, but by recognizing the meaning and importance of good education in the life of every community and the future of our nation, and attending to the commonsense improvements that are needed.

Q: The Obama administration seems to be applying business practices and philosophies to the public school system. Can you talk about what these proposals are and why they are damaging?

A: The basic idea behind the business approach to schooling is that everything that matters can be measured; that schools can be closed and opened like chain stores; that test scores can tell you everything you need to know about students, teachers, principals, and schools. And that if you want better performance, you “incentivize” students, teachers, and principals with monetary rewards. Unfortunately education doesn’t work in this simplistic way. What works for selling toothpaste or cars can’t be transferred to education. By focusing only on what is tested—reading and math—we are actually dumbing down our schools by neglecting other essential studies such as history, literature, the arts, science, civics, even physical education. We are also ignoring the importance of children’s health and well-being, which are crucial for their ability to learn. By putting so much emphasis on testing basic skills, by making it key to the success of teachers and students, we encourage too much testing, too much test prep, gaming the system, and even cheating. All this may produce higher test scores but it does not produce better education. It does not even produce good education.

Q: You criticize the Bush administration for its education reform program. What do you feel were their worst efforts in “improving” public education?

A: The Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation overemphasized testing of basic skills and set completely unrealistic goals. The main result was to cause thousands of schools to be unfairly stigmatized as failing schools. NCLB did not contain high standards and it encouraged the states to lower the standards on their tests to try to meet the federal requirements. NCLB is a highly punitive law that permitted the federal government to intrude into the schoolhouse in ways that undermined education. We should have learned from this experience that Congress and the U.S. Department of Education do not have the knowledge and experience to reform our nation’s schools.

Q: You devote a chapter to a critical examination of New York City’s public school system. What lessons does New York hold for other cities and districts?

A: New York City is the leading edge of a movement to eliminate democratic participation in the public schools by vesting complete power over them to the mayor. Most districts have either an elected or an appointed board. A few districts have mayoral control, but no other mayor has such unchecked control of the public schools as New York City’s. New York City has also led the way in closing schools, over intense public opposition, and opening privately-managed schools to replace public schools. It is also a bellwether district in its heavy reliance on test scores as the basis for decision-making. Readers will learn what mayoral control means, why school boards have a necessary function, and why there should be checks and balances in the management of public education.

Q: What do you think are the three worst trends in public education today, and why?

A: The worst trends in public education today are these: first, the federal government is spending billions of dollars to persuade states to privatize public schools and to use test scores in ways that are not valid; second, business leaders and politicians (with support from major foundations) are trying to run the schools like businesses even though they have little or no understanding about teaching and learning or the conditions of children’s lives; and third, the current overemphasis on data as the cure to everything in education is misguided and will discourage good teachers. We need a strong and vibrant public education system, and much of what we are doing—and have done for the past decade—will make it harder to fix our education system. Certainly current trends will not produce “world class” education.

Q: What do you think are the three most important things the federal government could do to improve our schools in meaningful ways?

A: The federal government should continue to conduct research to identify effective strategies to improve schools, especially to improve the schooling of children in poverty and children with disabilities. The federal government should continue to focus its funding on the districts with the greatest concentration of children with high needs. The federal government should pay for what it mandates, especially with regard to children with disabilities. And the federal government should continue to administer its National Assessment of Educational Progress examinations to every state and to every district that wishes to know how it is doing compared to other districts and to national averages. At the same time, the federal government’s vast resources for providing research and information to the public must remain independent of any party’s political agenda, so that the public has a clear view of the condition and progress of education in the nation, in their state and in their community.

Q: What advice would you offer concerned parents about improving schools for their children?

A: Parents are their children’s most important teachers. They should read to them when they are little and converse with them regularly about the community and issues as they grow older, recognizing that they are continually expanding their children’s vocabulary and understanding. They should set aside a quiet place for study and make sure that their children have limits on the amount of time spent watching television or engaging with blinking screens. They should go with them to the library, to museums, and to historical sites. They should encourage them to read; they should listen to them and review their school work; they should attend parent meetings and get involved in parent activities at school. They should model for their children the kind of behavior they hope their children will learn. They should teach their children to respect their teachers and to be diligent about their school work. If every parent did these things, our schools would improve dramatically.

This post appears in the following categories: Inside Books.