Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Is Overemphasis On Testing Hurting Schools?

Is Overemphasis On Testing Hurting Schools?
What's the best way to improve the nation's struggling public school system? We speak to education historian Diane Ravitch about her book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." Find out why the former advocate for No Child Left Behind is now opposed to using a "top-down" approach to reform struggling schools.

What's the best way to improve the nation's struggling public school system? We speak to education historian Diane Ravitch about her book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." Find out why the former advocate for No Child Left Behind is now opposed to using a "top-down" approach to reform struggling schools.


Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University and a historian of education. Her newest book is "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."


Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In recent years there's been a great deal of thought, effort and a large dose of politics put into fixing America's schools, president George W. Bush introduced his no child left behind policy. President Obama has introduced the race to the top program, but many veteran educators have been arguing for years that policies which emphasize testing and school choice are not addressing the fundamental problems in our schools. Now, a former conservative champion of those policies agrees. Diane Ravage a former U.S. secretary of education has written a new book called the death and life of the new American school system. How testing and choice are under mining education. Doctor ravage spoke at a San Diego unified school district meeting last night. And she's with us right now. Good morning, Diane.

DIANE RAVAGE: It's wonderful to be here. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're inviting our listeners to join the conversation. Have national reforms helped your kids do better in school? What do you think schools should do to improve? You can give is a call. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Diane can have ravage, why did you decide to title your book the death and life of the great American school system? What does the title mean?

DIANE RAVAGE: What it means is that schools are widely perceived these days to be in big terrible. We have had crisis over crisis. I'm a historian in education, and I know that we have had an ongoing crisis for about a hundred years in American education. This is nothing new. What I'm hoping for is the kind of renaissance that brings new life to public education, new respect for the work the teachers do in the school, and really a deeper understanding that it's hard to educate kids when there are so many people that must be involved. Not just teachers which are cereal. But the community, the parents, and lots of governmental resources that many communities are not willing to commit to make sure the kids get a good education. And also that they come to school in good health and are ready to learn.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You say there's been a crisis in American education for a hundred years. I would imagine that that crisis has morphed and changed during that time. So what are the mine problems today that you see existing in our public school system.

DIANE RAVAGE: I speak as someone who has been for many years, I've been writing about education for about 40 years. I've always been a critic. I've wanted to see and better teachers, better standards better curriculum. All these things improved. But we have a crisis of confidence in which very powerful people in our society are attacking public education. I think it's a crisis in itself, because there's a movement for privatization that has the support of media, that has support of powerful foundations like the Gates foundation, the R. Grove Foundation, the Michael Dell foundation, and on and on, but also the support of the Republicans, of the George W. Bush administration, and now unfortunately the support of the Obama administration. The amount of attention given to this movie, waiting for super man, just crystallized this movement about privatization because it's a truly propaganda hit job against public education. And it is so flawed and so filled with misstatement and outright propaganda and lies that it shouldn't be taken seriously. It should be seen as an into commercial for privatization.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we had a couple of people talking on this show about waiting for super man, the movie that's making the rounds about education in our country. I'm wondering, what kind of privatization do you think is now becoming popular among reform advocates? In the past it used to be vouchers. But now what form is it taking?

DIANE RAVAGE: You have to understand, Maureen, I was involved in many years for conservative think tanks. So I know what the thinking is. The thinking is, hey, we can't get vouchers through. We only have vouchers now in three cities, Milwaukee, Washington DC and Cleveland. Let's go for charters. Charters has become -- it's become the reform du jour, because it's a transfer of public funding and control over to private sector actors. There are some charters that do a great job. Some charters that are western the neighborhood public school. On average, charters don't perform better than traditional public schools because the challenges are the same, whether you call the school a charter or a regular public school.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So what is the -- since you have been in the heart of these think tanks, Diane Ravage, let me ask you, what is the very essence of the notion of why the public school system should change to a largely privatized school system.

DIANE RAVAGE: The fundamental impulse is a hostility towards government, and a belief that anything that's public is some how low class and we should privatize everything. We see in this country public libraries being taken over and privatized, we see hospitals that were public hospitals privatized, we see privatization moving across the public sector. As the solution and the answer, it's certainly happened a lot in Medicare. And I don't even begin to happened the whole health issues, but I know in every sector where this is a public sector, it's very easy to sit back on the side lines and say it's filling it's failing, let the private sector do it. Well, thank goodness, we didn't privatize Social Security sore there would be many millions of people in this country who were indigent when the market came crashing down in 2008. So there's a knee jerk reaction on the right side of the spectrum that says whatever government does is bad, and the private sector always does better. But let us not forget September of 2008 when the private sector almost collapsed our entire economy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Diane ravage, she is a former government official. U.S. assistant secretary of education under the first president bush, and her new book is called the death and life of the great American school system. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And we do have a caller, John is calling us from San Diego. Good morning John, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. It's great to hear Diane ravage. Her books are terrific, I'd just like to put a plug in for a book she wrote called the language police, and I think is one of the best books I've ever read on how rhetoric and words can be used to explain or not explain. Anyway, that's a plug that she didn't ask me for 'cause I don't know her. But it's a great book. But my question is, Allen burr son and Anthony Alvarado, most praised and criticized for what they accomplished or tried to accomplish with the assistant district attorney city school, and Michelle reed in Washington similar, and I'd like to hear her views on the good points and good points of these reformers.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that call.

DIANE RAVAGE: Thank you, and thank you for the plug. The approach -- actually in my new book, the death and- of the great American school system, there's a chapter about San Diego. Specifically about the Burson era, and I approve of many, many of the things that Al Burson and Anthony Alvarado were trying to do. The problem was they did it in such a highhanded way that they terrorized teachers. And I came to the conclusion after looking and talking to many people, I came out here and met with Allen Burson, met with his successor, Carl Cohen, talked to many teachers and principals some who had been hired by that regime, some who had been fired, and came to the conclusion that the demoralization of the teachers was so profound that no reform can succeed when the leadership is so heavy handed. That would apply both to Michelle reed and also to Joel Klein in New York City, which is to take this approach that I, the leader know best, and you better follow me or you're gonna be fired of that's not leadership. Leadership would be more along the lines of let's say Vince Lombardy, who says I'm here to inspire my team. I want the team to feel excited, to see the vision, to follow me, and that's leadership. But to beat up one's teachers when they're the ones who have to do the work is just a bad recipe. And no reform is worth it when you demoralize the people who have to do the work.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Diane it seems that in many of these reforms that have been popular in recent years, just from someone who's been reading the news, myself, it seems that teachers have become victims of these policies that they have been demonized almost as under performing. And people basically who don't know how to do when or what they're doing, and they're just being kept on because of unions and so forth. You hear that time and time and time again. Is that, 50 of all, what is the truth in that, if there is any, and is that part of the demoralization that you're talking about.

DIANE RAVAGE: Well, absolutely, we now have, and waiting for super man is almost like the epitome of this teacher barbing movement. You can't have improved schools if you're gonna continue to say nasty things about teachers. We have many, many, the overwhelming of teachers are hard working people who do a job that none of the rest of us could do. We should be out there thanking them every day, expressing gratitude for the hard work they're willing to do for really not very terrific salaries. Many of the people who are barbing teachers make ten times what teachers make, and they should be ashamed of themselves. The biggest issue in this country is not bad teachers, I think this whole rhetoric about bad teachers has been created to divert attention from the tremendous maldistribution of resources in our schools and the fact that there are many people who are billionaires who should be paying higher taxes and they're not, and they should be supporting public education rather than attacking teachers of the real crisis we have in our society, is that -- oh, gosh, first of all, we have every single year, there are almost 4 million teachers in America. Every year 300,000 of them leave the profession. Some leave because they have been fired contra the Guggenheim film, some leave because they're discouraged about the they're discouraged about the working conditions and how hard the job is, some just retire. But the waiting for super man movie suggests they have an expert from a conservative think tank saying we need to fire 5 to 10 percent of our teachers every year. Well, that would mean instead of replacing 300,000 a year, we would have to replace between 500,000 and 750,000 teachers every year. Every year there is only one million and a half college graduates. We're putting ourselves in an impossible situation with these constant attacks on teachers, demonizing the teachers, and also demonizing the unions because the unions are not an obstacle to school reform, they're not an obstacle to having good education. And the proof of this is that the highest performing state in the state is Massachusetts. It's 100 percent union. The highest performing nation in the world is Finland. And it's 95 percent union. So unionization has not prevented the high performance. If getting rid of the unions of the answer as waiting for super man seems to suggest, we ought to be looking to right to work states and the deep south for our education models. But that's really where performance is the lowest. These are assertions made by people who want to cut the cost of schooling, who want to be able to fire a lot of teachers and who are going to destroy our public education system, and have nothing to put in its place.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Dianne Ravage, and her new book is the death and life of the new American school system. We're taking your school calls at 1-888-895-5727. If you'd like to go on-line and comment, it's Days. Good morning Hanz and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, and thank you for having me. I have two quick comments. I have firsthand experience both in K-12 and in college in both public and private setting. I was in two private schools K-12, and a private school in graduate school, and I was also in public schools K-12 in a public school in under graduate. And the quality of education that I received in the private sector was just much, much higher. The instructors were much more knowable, the -- when I came back to, as an example when I came back to public schools, I would be about a year ahead of everyone. I would essentially be bore forward a year while I waited for the public schools to catch back up with what I had had exceeded in the private schools. And the attitude of registration, are it's not just a job on the private side, took me quite a bit of time to get through under graduate. And graduate was a beautiful experience where it was a true service industry.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, let's comment on that, Hanz, thank you so much for the call. And this is what -- this is it the argument many people make in saying that if all of our schools were privatized, the quality of education would go up.

DIANE RAVAGE: Well, what they're really saying is if they could go to school and get rid of the kids who are low income, get rid of the kids who don't speech English, get rid of the kids who are terrible makers, get rid of the kids who require extra money and attention, that they would have a before the education. And it's probably true, if you could get rid of all the low performing kids and only have the top half of the distribution, everybody in the top half would learn faster. But we have a problem in this country. We have to educate all the kids. And the responsibility of public education is equal education opportunity. So even the low performing kids. And the schools are struggling to do that. And I think that the proof for what I'm saying about the charter schools is that they don't get better results. Anybody can pick out a particular charter school and say here's the shining model. But usually that shining model will be one that excludes kids with disabilities and sends them off to the public school even if they win the lottery, has very disproportionately school numbers of low English speaking children, and find a way to cancel out the low performers. I've looked at some of the schools in waiting for super man, one in particular, the seed charter school, which is a boarding school, and that's held up as one of the five models, that costs $35,000 per year per student. Is our American society prepared to spend that? No. But more than that, it has a dramatically huge attrition rate. They take in about 140 children in 7th grade, and this past year only 34 of them persisted and graduated. So if you're willing to accept a 75 percent drop out rate, you can get dramatic success. But we have big problems in this country, and we're just off on the wrong track pursuing simple answers like privatization. Bull you gotta look at the research. The research on this is over whelming that charter schools don't do -- they have the power to hire and fire teachers, 95 percent of them don't have unions. They have performance pay, they have all of those things that the business types are telling us we should have, and they don't get better performance. Charter students have been compared to regular public school students on federal tests, that's given every other year. So since 03, 05, 07, 09, there's no difference in the performance of charter students as compared to regular public school students, when you look at black students, Hispanic students, low income students or students in urban areas of the research is very clear that this is not going to lead us to improved performance for kids, certainly not judged by test scores.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So what can help us improve performance by kids? What about that level that Hanz was telling us about professionalism and enthusiasm that he noted a difference between the public and private schools? How do we bring that into the public sector.

DIANE RAVAGE: Well, we should not make policy by anecdote, that's for starters. Buff we have to begin with the recognition that we're teaching all kids and not just a selected group, and winnowing out all the ones who are hard to educate we should do is to look at the highest performing nations in the world. So we would be looking at nations that don't have our diversity, that don't have to educate kids who don't speak their language. So you'd be looking at Finland, Japan, Korea, countries like this, what they also have that we don't have is a very, very low rate of child poverty. In Finland. From, the child poverty rates are under five percent, in the United States, it's 20 percent, and it's growing. So we have many children who come to school from homes and neighborhoods where there's one parent who's working two jobs, where in the home there's very little English language spoken, neighborhoods where there's violence and drugs and all kinds of diseases that are easily curable but the health services are not available. All these things are -- hurt academic performance. But what do we need to co? If we look at other countries, what we'll find is that they have invested in creating a strong education progression, they're not relying on short term, high turn over. What they want is what they've achieved is a stable and experienced teaching staff where they select well, they support the people that they bring in, and when they're in terrible, when they're struggling, they give them more help and more help until they get to be really good at their craft so they have excellent teachers, excellent principals, excellent superintendents. And that's where they put their emphasis, is on having great schools, on having great people, not by firing people, not by demonizing them and bashing them and saying we should get rid of them, but by respecting them and making sure they have a long-term plan for better schools.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Beatrice is calling us from Poway.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I was interested in an earlier question that was asked about the positives and the negatives Burson and Richard Earnest, I heard your speaker only the discuss of the failure of leadership and demoralizing the teachers. My understanding is, that Richard earnest, finally when there was a vote on the reform, 80 percent of the teachers voted for it. And the second issue is, I don't see the waiting for super man at all demonize the teachers, the specific statement was something to the effect of our teachers are our treasures but the contracts in our union contracts are tenure being one of the elements they were concerned about causes a real carrion of teachers who are ineffective, and that's the five percent. But I'd like to know what the speaker says are the positives of Richard earnest and -- 'cause I don't think that this is a teachers versus the public or teachers versus the reformers. I think it is -- you know, winnowing out the people who are ineffective.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Got you. Thank you, Beatrice. And the Richard earnest we're talking about is Michelle Richard earnest, who reads the Washington DC school system; is that right.

DIANE RAVAGE: What she embarked on was a program to say our schools give crappy instruction, we have a lot of terrible teachers, she created a tremendous divide between her and the teachers and there was a protracted battle where finally the union did accept performance pay, but many of the teachers now that the performance pay is available are rejecting it, because in order to get the performance pay they have to give up all of their rights to due process. And they don't want to give up their rights to due process. The reason the teachers get tenure, tenure doesn't mean a lifetime protection. It's in the like higher education where you actually do have a lifetime guarantee of employment. All tenure means in K12 is that you have a right to a hearing if someone wants to fire you. They have to give evidence that you're incompetent. What you have to understand about due process is you don't get the due process rights unless an administrator evaluates you and decides that you're worthy. So if too many bad teachers are getting these rights and this tenure, we ought to be worried about who our administrators are. Of because they're the ones who make the decision. Teachers don't give themselves tenure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. I know that you spoke, Diane ravage, last night at a meeting at the San Diego unified school district, and that district is now facing a hundred and $42 million deficit for next year. A proposition that was going to enact a parcel tax to make up some of that was defeated in yesterday's and Tuesday's election. And I'm wondering, what did you say? What did you say when you speak at that meeting and what kind of questions were you asked.

DIANE RAVAGE: Since I spoke a great length, I can't tell you everything I said. But what I will say is that San Diego schools are suffering from this waiting for super man dialogue or monologue that we've heard recently. We've heard recently about the failure, the failure, the failure, new the business communities wants to have some seats on the board that they didn't win through an open election. It would have been better for the school district, and if you really care about the children, we would be talking about the dramatic progress that San Diego has made on the national assessment of education progress. These are the federal tests, I was looking at the test scores just earlier before I came here and I saw, wow, in eighth grade mathematics, the percentage of kids below basic have dropped -- that number of the low performing kids has gone from 42 percent at the district to 32 percent. That's -- you hardly ever see changes like that. A ten point change from 2003 to 2009. That's dramatic progress. And the percentage of kids who perform above proficient, which is like an A level performance, that went from 18 percent to 33 percent. So the district in six years has almost doubled the percentage of kids who are performing at an A level. Why isn't the business community out there waiving banners and spreading them in front of San Diego schools saying thank you for doing such great things for our kids? Instead we get this instant complaint about our kids are failing and no one wants to support schools that are failing and we're going to harm a generation of children. Because what'll happen, imposing a hundred and $40 million cuts on this district, the class sizes will rise, arts and music will go, physical education will be curtailed and kids will not get a decent education because the money is not there to education. So I think that the community should really own up to its responsibility and recognize that you cannot provide a good education without resources.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Finally in the remaining time we have, Dianne, did you give the San Diego unified school district any advice about maybe where the are cuts should be focused or what they can do since they're not gonna be getting any extra money any time soon.

DIANE RAVAGE: Well, I certainly am not in a position to tell them where to make cuts. Clearly what's gonna happen is the teachers will be laid off. And I think that's very sad because when teachers are laid off, crass sizes go up, and when class sizes rise from 20 to 25 or 30, there's less time to focus on children who need extra attention. When you have a district with large numbers of children who don't speak English, they need extra attention, they need extra attention. So I think we should thank a teacher if you do nothing else. I can't tell you the hundreds of, mails I have gotten these past six months from teachers saying thank you, thank you. And I feel often when I talk about how important our teachers are, and what a great job the overwhelming majority do, it's like pureeing water on a sponge that's total totally dry. They feel so hurt that the American public is not appreciative of the fact that they're there with your children five days a week. And it's hard work. Try walking in their shoes for a day.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us, Diane ravage. Thank you.

DIANE RAVAGE: Thank you so much.