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Diane Ravitch: Organized, We Will Be Heard

When I first heard about Diane Ravitch a decade ago I did not like her much. After serving as Assistant Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, she became a vocal defender of No Child Left Behind during the presidency of George W. Bush. However, in recent months she has emerged as a powerful critic of the law and of the path being pursued by Arne Duncan and President Obama.

I am starting to like her much more.

Her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, was released a week ago. In his blog on the Daily Kos, teacherken wrote "(this is a book) anyone concerned about public schools should read."

I had a chance to interview Dr. Ravitch this week, and I am happy to share her thoughts with you.

You have spoken recently about the threat to public education posed by current reform strategies. What do you fear?
I believe that the current focus on testing of basic skills, with high stakes attached to the results for teachers and schools, will lead to the neglect of everything else that is not tested. If a generation of American children are tested with intensity in basic skills, but do not have studies in science, history, geography, the arts, literature, geography, and civics, as young people will not be well educated. Even if test scores should rise, the students will be poorly educated. Of courses, everyone will blame the public schools, not the politicians who foisted this approach on educators.

Coupled with this risk of curriculum narrowing is the threat posed by continuing--and unleashed--privatization. With the Race to the Top dangling billions before states to persuade them to remove all limits on charter schools, we are likely to see more entrepreneurs move into the education industry. To assure their success, they will seek to skim the best students from the poorest communities. This is a threat to the future of public education, which will be seen in some communities as schools of last resort for those who could not make it into a charter school and those who were counseled out.

As someone who was once "inside" the administration, how would you suggest those of us concerned about this direction take action? What will it take to get them to recognize what you have?
Educators who see the handwriting on the wall must work through their organizations and urge them to make their collective voices heard. Alone, we are all powerless. Organized, we will be heard. All of the major organizations have D.C. offices. They need to contact their Senators and Congressmen and let them know what educators think.

Why do you think it is so hard for our leaders to understand that schools operate under a different set of guiding motivations and operating principles than do businesses?
Business and education operate by different principles. We have done a poor job of withstanding efforts to impose corporate and business methods on the schools. Of course, the schools have business functions which operate in the economic mainstream, say, capital budgets, construction, purchasing, etc. But there is a line that separates the classroom from the business office. This is because children are not products; they cannot be educated on an assembly line; they cannot be standardized. Each one has a different personality and different needs. What matters most for the teacher is the exercise of judgment in dealing with the distinctive individuals before him or her. Judgment cannot be reduced to a script or an industrial process.

How do you account for your epiphany around NCLB, and the apparent obtuseness of others?
My epiphany around NCLB occurred in November, 2006, when I went to a meeting at the American Enterprise Institute to hear a series of studies of how NCLB was working. AEI is a conservative think tank and I assumed the papers would be celebratory. They were not, and at the end of the day, I concluded (and said publicly) that NCLB was not working. That had a big impact. My guess is that most people just go along with the conventional wisdom; it takes a lot of time and energy to arrive at a divergent opinion. Critics of NCLB must be wiser in making their case and must be clear in explaining its baneful effects, its lack of success, and the ways in which it undermines education.

With the drive for national standards gaining steam, many of us are concerned that tests aligned to these standards could take us further down the path of test-centered educational reform. What do you think of this concern?
I think it is a reasonable concern. I have never been a foe of testing, and I am not now. There are good tests and bad tests. More important, though, is the use and misuse of testing. If tests are used for diagnostic and informational purposes, they are helpful and useful. If they are used to punish students, teachers, and schools, they are harmful. If somehow it were possible to make all state and national tests low-stakes or no-stakes (like NAEP), then I don't think they would be a problem for teachers.

What do you think the role of charter schools should be in our systems?

Charter schools should be supportive of public schools, not competitive. They should fulfill the original vision for them as R&D schools, where public school teachers have the chance to try out new ideas to help the kids who are most challenging to educate. Whatever they learn about helping kids who are hard to motivate, kids with language issues, etc., would be shared with the public schools. That was the original vision. Unfortunately in some cities, the charter sector is in entrepreneurial hands and wants to replace public schools.

If you could make one change to NCLB in the reauthorization process, what would it be?

Eliminate federal prescriptions for federal sanctions and remedies. None has any basis in research or demonstration. Congress lacks the wisdom, knowledge, or experience to reform the nation's schools. The specifics of reform should reside at the state and local level, where there are people on the ground who know the problems and needs of local schools. The federal government is too far away to declare what needs to be done in schools across the nation.

What do you think of Diane Ravitch's views?

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