When it comes to judging American school policies, education historian and analyst Diane Ravitch doesn’t mince words:
On No Child Left Behind, Ravitch says “it’s a hoax, it’s a fraud” and a “stupid, Draconian law.”
The latest education policy gets an equally blistering review: “Common Core is going down in flames… It’s going to bankrupt education.”
Ravitch visited Kentucky recently to accept the University of Louisville’s 2014 Grawemeyer Award in Education. Bill Goodman spoke with her during her visit for an episode of One to One, which aired last weekend.
From Establishment to Dissenter
Ravitch was raised in Houston and attended the city’s public schools. Following college in Massachusetts, she decided she wanted to write a book about the 1968 teachers’ strike against the New York City schools. That book led to a doctoral dissertation, jobs in the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and stints at three think tanks, including the Hoover Institution.
Ravitch says her views on education policies in those days were conservative. She supported charter schools, vouchers, and the No Child Left Behind Act; she favored testing standards and accountability.
But by 2004, her opinions began to change as she saw some of the effects of those policies. Ravitch says she learned the so-called Texas miracle in education on which No Child Left Behind was built was a hoax. She disliked how schools focused more time on testing than on the arts, creativity, and physical activity. Worse, she heard stories that No Child Left behind simply wasn’t working. Goals that proponents said would be met by 2014 would never be reached and, according to Ravitch, few of the politicians who voted for the policy believed it would ever succeed.
Ravitch broke ranks with her conservative colleagues and wrote two books detailing her criticisms of these education trends: “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education” (published in 2010) and “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” (published in 2013).
“We Americans like to think reform is a good thing,” Ravitch explains. “We’re always reforming things and making them better. In this case reform means making it worse: privatizing it, monetizing it, finding a way that Wall Street can make money on education.”
The Move to Common Core
Education policy has shifted from No Child Left Behind, to Race to the Top, and now to the Common Core, which sets grade-level standards for what students should know and be able to do in English/literacy and math. Kentucky was the first state in the nation to adopt Common Core, and to date 43 other states have followed suit. Despite its popularity, Ravitch believes Common Core is doomed because the standards were largely devised by the testing industry. She argues schools and school systems will spend billions of dollars for Common Core testing, which will leave even less funding available for arts programs, libraries, and activities that foster critical thinking in children. That, in turn, will ultimately affect the nation as a whole.
“Our economy has been buoyed by creativity, imagination, ingenuity, risk-taking,” says Ravitch. “And what we’re asking kids to be judged by now is can you pick the right box. That’s not a test of the things that matter most.”
The Problem of Poverty
Where poverty exists, according to Ravitch, test scores are low. “The problem with Common Core at its basis is the same problem with No Child Left Behind,” Ravitch continues. “It’s the assumption that the answer to our problems lies in more tests, harder tests, higher standards, and that’s not our problem. Our problem is that almost 25 percent of the kids in this country are living in poverty.”
The families that have money to buy food, medical care, proper housing, and a sense of security create an environment where their children are more likely to achieve educational success.
Ravitch says the public education system is unfairly made the scapegoat as this income divide widens. While the goal of school tests is to help ensure students are prepared for college and careers, Ravitch says no amount of testing will help American employees compete in a global economy where workers from other countries are paid significantly less.
“There’s something like a structural change in this society where the good middle-class jobs are being outsourced by these incredibly wealthy people, who then turn around and blame the public schools,” Ravitch says.