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Diane Ravitch: Testing and Vouchers Hurt Our Schools. Here’s What Works

Education reformers have it all wrong, says Diane Ravitch, and keep pushing policies that make schools worse.

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What they concluded was the choice part of it wasn’t working, the testing part of it wasn’t working, the accountability part of it wasn’t working. Ultimately, I care about evidence and I became very skeptical. Even within the conservative think tanks where I worked, I became the dissenter and the critic and I realized by 2006, 2007, the charter schools are not making a difference. Typically, they get no better results than public schools and we were beginning to see — even as early as then — the cascading number of scandals to do with charter schools, people who were in it just for the money. Also, the charter schools were run by people who were in fact not qualified and were incompetent, so I began to think all these things that I had supported and advocated were wrong and that’s why I wrote that last book. I wrote this book because – I describe in the beginning of the book that I was being interviewed by a journalist who said, “Well, what are your solutions? You didn’t give the solutions.” I said, “Oh, I have lots of solutions.” He said, “Write a book about it,” and that’s what I did and that why I have a dozen or so chapters on solutions.

Can you explain why, during this time where we have seen a real failure of the market system — a very obvious failure that has affected almost everybody in this country – why is it that people have so much trust in the corporate model?

I actually don’t think that the general public trusts the market model. It’s just the people who are successful at the market model trust the market model. What we see across the country is that people who’ve been very successful in the free market saying, “This is the right model for education — we should have winners and losers.” The very nature of Race to the Top – the Obama program – is a market model. It’s an idea of a race to the top. Well, how many people win a race to the top? Very few. It’s usually one person or one group or one state that wins the race to the top and everyone else is the loser, but the basic principle of American education is not a race to the top  — it’s equality of educational opportunity. I think that America has long accepted the idea that the role of the public school is to create a level playing field so that everyone has got a fair chance in what is a market-based economy. But the idea of turning the schools into a market is something that’s been foisted on us by people like Bill Gates and the Walton family of Wal-Mart and Michael Bloomberg. These are all people who have made billions of dollars because they’re very good at the market. Then we have a group called Democrats for Education Reform — these are Wall Street hedge fund managers. They believe in the market, that’s what they do every day. They’re in the market, so it works for them and they think it’s going to work for everybody, but what the market never does is to create equality of educational opportunity. It creates winners and losers and that happens in schools – there are winners and losers, but that’s not the purpose of schooling.

So with Race to the Top, it was the kids who needed the money and the resources the most who became the losers?

I think that Race to the Top encourages the market mentality. Secretary Duncan has been very vigorous in promoting charter schools and charter schools act on the market assumption, which is: We keep the winners and get rid of the losers. Every time somebody will say, “I found a school that is a miracle school” — I’ve seen this again and again – “Here’s a school where 100 percent of the kids graduate!” If you look closer, you find out that they got rid of about 50 percent of the kids on the way to that 100 percent figure. They’re very good at shuffling off the losers. Another of the popular ideas right now is called the “portfolio model” and I’ve seen this in many cities, where they say, “Well, we’ll close the schools that have low scores and we’ll open new schools and we’ll have a new portfolio.” What they’re really talking about is a stock portfolio. That’s very much a business model and so they’re rewarding the winners and punishing the losers. Meanwhile, the kids are being shuffled around and no one really wants those kids who are considered losers. The losers are the kids with low scores. But we have an obligation to educate all children, not just the kids who get high test scores.