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Q & A with Diane Ravitch

At 71, Diane Ravitch is criss-crossing the country to speak to standing-room-only crowds eager to hear her message that the education reforms favored by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are, quite plainly, wrong.

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Except that Ravitch, the author and Research Professor of Education at New York University, tends to use more colorful descriptors. In Denver on Friday, she told an audience that the hotly debated educator evaluation bill wending its way through the state Legislature will lead to “ruination.”

For visuals, she referenced the Lord of the Rings movie, depicting educators guarding the castle against invading reformers or Orcs, warning “The Orcs are coming in Colorado, be careful.”

“I’m sorry for being rude,” Ravitch told state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, after flatly declaring she hoped his bill, Senate Bill 10-191, would not become law. “But I’m so old, I have to say these things now. Who knows if I’ll be here a week from now?”

As the former Assistant Secretary of Education to President George H. W. Bush, Ravitch once cheered the same reforms she now speaks against. But in late 2006, she said, she began to realize those very initiatives were not producing results.

“The short answer is my views changed as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality,” Ravitch wrote in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, released in March. “The long answer is what will follow in the rest of this book.”

Agree with her or not, it’s clear that Ravitch has tapped a wellspring of emotion – anger, fear, doubt – over the adoption by national leaders of reform ideas such as tying student test scores to teacher pay, shutting down struggling campuses and expanding charter schools.

So what does Ravitch believe the nation’s education leaders should focus on instead? She talked with Education News Colorado about that before heading into a public debate with Johnston.

EdNews: I’d like to start where the last chapter in your book leaves off. If you are standing on the railroad tracks trying to stop the train of reform, as you described yourself in one interview, how do we then turn the train around?

Ravitch: The biggest thing is, when you’re doing the wrong thing, you have to stop doing it. And I believe we’re going in the wrong direction, we’re not going to make education better, we’re making it worse if we follow the very negative punitive approach that is now being advocated, which is an extension of No Child Left Behind.

My basic message is No Child Left Behind has failed and has become the foundation for the next set of reforms, going in the same wrong direction. So the first thing to do is to change direction.

If we were to change direction, the first thing we need – and I’m looking for that person, man or woman, somewhere – is a national leader. Wherever I go, I say we need some elected official, governor or senator, I don’t know who that person is, who will become the national figure, who will capture what is a movement …

There is a huge movement out there that has no leadership and I’ve been now traveling the country for six weeks and everybody asks the same question, they say, who is our leader? And I say, I’m not your leader, I’m just the messenger.

EdNews: Let’s talk specifics in turning the train around. Is the first thing to get rid of Race to the Top, the national $4.3 billion school reform grant competition?

Ravitch: Race to the Top – I wish that no one would apply for it, that would be the first thing. No one should apply for it. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve said, tell your state legislators and your governor, you don’t want to participate in it. It’s wrong, they’re bribing states to do the wrong things. It encourages privatization, it encourages punishment of teachers based on test scores and it encourages closing schools. Those are three things that I think will not help education, certainly not help public education, they’ll help a lot of private entrepeneurs.

EdNews: Are there some pieces of what’s happening nationally that you see as hopeful and might keep? For example, what about the Common Core standards movement? You write in your book that you support a substantive national curriculum.

Ravitch: I’m hopeful that it will work out … I’ve always been a strong supporter of curriculum standards. I hope these are good. I’ve read them, they look good. But standards are words on a paper until they’re implemented – it’s the implementation that tells you whether they’re good. And if they’re implemented and kids do a lot better, and they come up with evidence that these really will improve performance and help kids be better, then states will flock to adopt them.

And I think they shouldn’t be mandated until we have some demonstrations that they are good. I hope they are.

What I would love to see is what we tried to do in 1991-92 which was to try to promote standards in a very broad array of subjects, in science and the arts and history, geography, civics. Certainly the educators were eager to make it happen but the country wasn’t ready and there was political opposition. I think today people would be ready.

EdNews: I want to talk about assessments because you are critical of some testing in your book but you say you’re not entirely against it. So what should it look like? How should it be used?

Ravitch: I’m not against testing. I’m against the misuse of testing … You get cheating, you get gaming the system, you get teaching to the test. The adults get incentivized to do test prep so they do test prep again and again and again. And kids can answer the questions from the test for which they’ve been prepped but they haven’t really learned the material. If you substitute a different test for which they haven’t been prepped, very often they don’t pass that est. So that means they didn’t learn the material.

Testing should be used for information and for diagnostics. It should be used to help improve, not to punish. It should not be used for bonuses. It should not be used for incentives and sanctions, rewards and punishments. Those are stakes, those are high-stakes and it’s the high-stakes that are corrupting. That’s why I put more credibility in the NAEP test, the national test, than in any of the state tests.

I think we should continue doing the state exams and using the information to help improve teaching and learning but we should not have stakes attached to it. And I’ve actually tried to get that message through to Secretary Duncan – I said, you can stop the sales of my book if you just remove all the penalties.

EdNews: Some might interpret your book as advocating for a renunciation of current education initiatives and returning to an older way of doing things. But you say in your book that you don’t want to go back.

Ravitch: No, I want things to get better. I’ve always been a critic. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been one of the leading critics of American education. I’m not saying we should go back to the way things were, I didn’t like the way things were. I think the way we’re heading is worse than the way things were.

I want things to be better. I want to head in a positive direction. I think we’re heading in a direction now where teachers say, I don’t think I want to be a teacher much longer. Young people come up to me when I’m lecturing in colleges saying, I’ve been preparing to be a teacher, did I make a mistake?

There’s this kind of broad contempt for teachers. It’s been astonishing to me. And the teachers feel it.

EdNews: You’ve described some of these reform initiatives – an emphasis on testing, an expansion of charters – as faddish trends. Do you see this emphasis on effective teaching as the solution du jour?

Ravitch: It’s worse. It’s like this sickness permeating the whole education profession and it’s making people feel that teaching is not an honorable profession and it’s not even a profession.

I want to go back to your first question. The first thing you do to turn the train around is you stop doing the wrong things and the second thing is, I wish President Obama would start doing long-term planning. Talk about what American education should look like ten years from now, what is the vision? How do we get better teachers? How do we begin to set the kinds of standards for the profession, working with the profession, not against it?

Where people who become teachers are very well educated, have a master’s degree or major in the subjects they will teach, possibly two subjects, not just one. Where principals are master teachers because they’re the ones who have to evaluate the teachers. Where superintendents are educators who make good decisions about curriculum, instruction, evaluation, personnel. And where assessment is far better than it is today.

We have very bad tests, everybody says they’re bad tests, Duncan says they’re bad tests – and yet we’re going to determine teachers’ livelihoods based on bad tests?

EdNews: It must be very interesting for you at this point in your career. At one time, you were being cursed by the very people who are now cheering you on. What is that like?

Ravitch: None of the things I’ve written in my books is in any way contradicted by anything I’m saying today, it’s actually a continuation. But from the time I left the Bush administration until about four years ago, five years ago, I was strongly advocating for charters and merit pay and testing and accountability. About five years ago, I began to see these things weren’t working.

I was associated with conservative think tanks, which irritated a lot of people but because of that association, I know all the arguments better than anybody else … I know their arguments, I’ve fully shared them and argued with them and over time began to realize I didn’t agree with them. That’s what makes me for many people very dangerous because it’ s not like I’ve been saying these things all my life.

So for some people, I’m a traitor because I stopped being part of their camp. But other people are saying we don’t want you in our camp, you’re too late, why didn’t you say this all your life? But I’m just saying what I think and I may be wrong and people can disagree.

I’ve never had this passionate and emotional response to a book …I think it’s not because I changed camps, it’s because there’s a desert out there. Teachers feel that they are unappreciated and I’m bringing a message of hope … It’s quite amazing, I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Click in the video below to hear Ravitch and then Johnston debate his bill:

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@ednewscolorado.org or 303-478-4573.