Q & A with Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch listens to state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, during their debate Friday about Johnston's educator effectiveness bill.

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.

Scroll down for more video clips.

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.

Diane Ravitch spoke in Denver on Friday.

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.

Click in the video below to hear Ravitch talk about Race to the Top, Colorado’s Senate Bill 10-191 and other reform initiatives that she once supported and now critiques:

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.

Click in the video below to hear Johnston talk about Ravitch’s book and why he introduced S.B. 191:

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.

Diane Ravitch's book has sold more than 50,000 copies since its release March 2.

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 [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.