Diane Ravitch is an author and public education historian turned education activist. Recently, she was in Charleston speaking at the Red For Ed Celebration on the second anniversary of the West Virginia teacher’s strike. She spoke with Eric Douglas about the teacher’s movement and her book, “Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools.” The book details the massive private funding in the educational reform movement that began in the George W. Bush era and the teacher’s movements that have spread across the country in its wake.
***Editor's Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Explain what makes you an expert in education and education reform.
Ravitch: I have a doctorate in the history of education, American education specifically. I began my career by writing the history of the New York City public schools, because that's where I was living. And since then, I've written about a dozen books. In 1991, I went to work as Assistant Secretary of Education for the first President Bush for two years and stayed on a year at a think tank. And then I became very involved in conservative think tanks. I was an advocate for testing and for choice and for all of those things.
Then about 2008 or 2009, I became disillusioned with the things that I had been in support of. And I wrote a book renouncing high stakes testing, renouncing choice, and saying that we needed to support our public schools. It was called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.” I have written other books and spoken all over the country about the importance of public education and the importance of making it far better than it is today.
Douglas: In your book, you talk about the difference between reformers and disruptors. Can you explain that?
Ravitch: The people who now call themselves reformers are actually funded by billionaires. They're funded by the [Jim, Rob and Alice, children of Sam, founder of the Walmart chain] Walton family, by the [Betsy, US Secretary of Education] DeVos family. I have a whole chapter listing all the billionaires who are funding this so-called reform movement. They're really not interested in reform. What they're interested in is privatizing public education so that your local public school will be run by an entrepreneur or corporation or by religious organization and not by the community. And I think this is a disaster. I try to show in the book that none of the things that they have tried have worked. And it's time for them to start doing some things to actually help children and families and communities rather than putting all of their money into destroying public education.
Douglas: You started out in conservative think tanks and working for a Republican president. You make the point, though, that both parties are to blame. This isn't a Republican versus Democrat sort of thing.
Ravitch: President George H.W. Bush supported choice. He didn't get anywhere with it. He supported testing. He didn't get anywhere. And then President George W. Bush promoted something called No Child Left Behind, which required every school in America to test every child every year. The reason for it was he said there had been a Texas miracle. And 20 years later, we know there was no Texas miracle but we're continuing to do what he recommended.
Then President Obama came along and adopted the George W. Bush plan of No Child Left Behind. And he added something to it called Race to the Top, which was even worse than No Child Left Behind because it was very punitive.
I spent seven years on the national testing board and I became a very strong critic of standardized testing. I don't think it's helping our children. I think that the more we test, the less kids learn, because there's less time given to instruction. So we have a problem that we have both parties aligned with a very destructive agenda and both Obama and Bush and now Trump have supported charter schools and Trump in particular supports vouchers which has actually been a disaster because wherever vouchers had been enacted, kids are going to schools with uncertified teachers. In Florida they're taught by high school dropouts. And it's taking billions of dollars away from public schools. So we're destroying our public schools in pursuit of something that's worse than our public schools.
Douglas: I want to talk just a little bit more about testing about why testing is a problem. What's the biggest issue with standardized testing?
Ravitch: The biggest issue with standardized testing is that first of all, it doesn't make kids smarter. The more you test them, they don't get smarter. And we've been testing kids now for 20 years, every child, every year; grades three through eight. That's what George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind decreed. And that's still federal law.
With No Child Left Behind we had a federal takeover of public education which had never happened before. The states are responsible for education, local school districts are responsible for education. But now the federal government makes the rules.
The problem with standardized tests is that they are all normed on what's called a bell curve. The bell curve never closes. And it's completely predictable that the kids who have the most, who have the highest family income, highest family education dominate the top of the bell curve. The kids who have the least dominate the bottom of the bell curve. That never changes. That's true of every standardized test, whether it's the SAT, the ACT, international test, state test, whatever. Any standardized test you mention will have a bell curve that never closes. And that benefits the haves and disadvantages the have nots.
Douglas: There's a movement to discredit teachers in general. Where did that come from? Why are we suddenly trying to villainize teachers?
Ravitch: Well, it didn't happen all of the sudden. I traced it back to a report from the Reagan era called “A Nation at Risk.” This report came out in 1983 at a time when the nation was in the midst of a deep recession. So, the report said our schools are failing and that's why our auto industry is in trouble. All these industries are in trouble because of our schools, which on its face was a ridiculous idea because schoolteachers and children had nothing to do with macro governmental decisions about the auto industry. The fact was we were still producing gas guzzlers. So they blamed it on the schools.
When the economy got better, nobody turned around and said, ‘Oh, guess what, our schools are not failing anymore.’ So the governors and the presidents kept up this drumbeat of ‘We have to do something’ about the schools. By the time of No Child Left Behind, there was a consensus that the problem with the schools was not the children, it was the teachers.
There was this national narrative of ‘How are we going to get better teachers? Well, let's have merit pay.’ Being an historian of education, I traced the history of America and found out that it's been tried for about 100 years now. I think the first experiment was in 1925, and it failed. Then they tried it again, and it failed, and it kept on failing. And the biggest experiment with merit pay was just in 2010, at Vanderbilt University, and they used Nashville for their experiment. They said, we'll pay $15,000 reward to math teachers who can raise test scores, and they had a control group and an experimental group. Both groups got the same results. Merit pay didn't make any difference. And the reason for that was that both groups of teachers were doing their best. They knew how they weren't hiding their secret lessons, waiting for somebody to offer them money. So they were teaching their hearts out and they couldn't get better than that than what they were getting. Teachers can knock themselves out, but in the end, the test scores say more about who's in the classroom rather than whether the teacher is a good teacher or a bad teacher. So the teachers got demonized, got blamed. We've had 20 years of this. And that leads me to why I wrote this book.
Douglas: Go ahead and continue. Why did you write this book?
Ravitch: Well, I'm in West Virginia to celebrate the second anniversary of the West Virginia teacher’s strike. I wanted to be here to thank the teachers, because what they did was incredibly courageous. They started a wave of strike saying, ‘We demand dignity, we demand respect. We demand to be treated as professionals.” Their example started a wave of teacher’s strikes across the country. It's spread from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Colorado to California, to lots of other states.
I don't think that wave of strikes is over, but it really gave hope and inspiration to teachers all over the country who realized that they weren't being paid enough to live a decent life, that their pensions were in jeopardy, that their healthcare was in jeopardy. Class sizes were too large for them to teach effectively. And the children were living in many cases in desperate poverty and that they needed to have social workers, they needed to have a nurse in the school, they needed to have a library and a librarian.
I went to public schools in Houston, Texas. I didn't go to an affluent school, I went to a regular public school. And we had all those things. We had a nurse every day, we had a library with a librarian. Why is this something we can't afford anymore? This is the thing that puzzles me.
Douglas: Did the teachers in West Virginia accomplish what they set out to, and elsewhere, not just in West Virginia, were they successful?
Ravitch: I think they were incredibly successful because what they did was unleashed a movement and they stood together, probably for the first time in their lives. They realized that they had power. And anytime in the future if people are ignoring education, refusing to fund the schools, this could happen again. And it should happen again. If the legislature continues to underfund the schools and to give tax breaks to big corporations that are already making millions and hundreds of millions and billions of dollars while not paying to educate the children.
Did they achieve every demand? No, they didn't. One of their demands was no charter schools. And the Legislature went right behind their back and passed charter legislation. And this will not help the children of West Virginia. It hasn't helped. All it does is take money away from public schools. When you take money away from already underfunded public schools, you're certainly not helping them.
Douglas: That was actually my next question. The Legislature approved legislation to allow three charter schools over the next three or four years. Why not give it a try?
Ravitch: Why not give it a try is we've had 30 years of charter schools. So, it's not like you're trying something that's never happened before. It's happened all over the country. If charter schools were the answer, if vouchers were the answer, we would be looking to Milwaukee and Detroit as models. About half the kids in Detroit are in charter schools. It's the lowest performing city in the United States.
In Milwaukee, there are three equal sectors in terms of numbers. They have vouchers, they have charters and they have a shrinking public-school system. The public-school system in Milwaukee is overloaded with kids with disabilities. Because the charters and vouchers don't want those kids. They're overloaded with kids who don't speak English because they're rejected by the vouchers and the charters. And all three sectors are doing the same.
So when you hear promises of ‘Oh, this is going to be a bold experiment’ - nonsense. We've been doing it for 30 years. And what actually happens with charters is you're inviting entrepreneurs to come into your community and instead of having schools run by the local community, you're having schools that are run by a corporation, whose headquarters may be in Houston or Los Angeles or some other city and if you have a problem with it, they'll just say leave.
Douglas: So where do we go next? What's the next step in fixing education in the United States?
Ravitch: Well, I'd say the next step is that we need to have a commitment as a nation to first of all having a federal government that recognizes its limits. I would love to see the elimination of the federal mandate of standardized testing in grades three through eight. I look at the top performing nations in the world,none of them have a requirement of standardized tests every single year. We're not a top performing country; we're right in the middle. But the ones who are far higher than us on the standards on the international standardized tests are not requiring annual testing.
I went to visit the country of Finland. They have no standardized testing at all. What they emphasize is raising healthy children who are excited about learning. And so they have a recess after every single class, no matter what the weather kids run outside. They're not told what to do. They just run and play. It could be raining, it could be snowing, they could run out and play.
They emphasize music and art and they try to make learning as fun as possible. They only hire the best teachers. It's really hard to get to be a teacher in Finland, but there's no standardized testing. And when we look at the international test scores, we see that Finland is one of the top performing nations in the world because they emphasize creativity and thinking and love of learning. Things that we've completely forgotten about.
I'd also love to see all these billionaires who are leading the privatization movement come to grips with the fact that they've totally failed. I mean, they've spent and our federal government has spent billions of dollars opening charter schools. The federal government alone has spent $4 billion starting charter schools, almost 40 percent of the ones they've opened have either never opened or closed right after they open.
In Florida, where there are about 650 charter schools, they have as many charter schools closing every year as they do opening. So this is running schools like a business. And you put your kids there if the charter school will take them. And you may show up one day in January and find a note on the door saying sorry, we’re closed.