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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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Actually, I think that what’s happening now, which I describe, is failing everywhere and when a policy fails again and again and again, at a certain point people wake up and realize that we have to change course. I think that we’re rapidly approaching that point, because even though there’s a lot of political power and a lot of money behind this current effort to turn education into a marketplace, it doesn’t work and vouchers have failed. Charters have certainly not met their promise — they do not out-perform public schools, a few do and many don’t, but on average they’re no better. Everything that the reformers are pushing is not reform, it’s just to advance privatization and to get rid of unions and to make teachers at-will employees who can be easily hired and fired if they start costing too much. It all fails, and when it fails and fails and fails, at a certain point the public says we have to change direction.

So being a historian and having seen fads come and go over the past 100 years and more, I think that this will be looked upon as a very sad episode in American education, but it will not persist. We will ultimately have voices emerge. We’ll have political figures elected – in New York we’re on the verge of electing a mayor who’s going to repudiate the Bloomberg legacy — and Bloomberg has been doing this marketization now for over a decade, and not a single politician has asked for his endorsement, which is kind of indicative of what’s happening. So I think that as the public begins to understand what they’re doing to our schools, as they begin to understand that the goal is to put entrepreneurs and amateurs in charge of education, all of this is going to fail and it’s already failing, but it’s going to fail even faster as the public gets wise. So I think that it’s not a losing battle by any means. My view is that it’s only a matter of time – I feel like we’re looking at a house of cards and one or two of the cards have already been pulled out, so we’re going to see it collapse.

This is my last question: If you could choose two solutions that you think are completely feasible financially and will have sweeping positive results in the schools, what would they be?

Well, it would be hard to pick just two because I think we have to act on several fronts at the same time. Some of my solutions are long-term and you wouldn’t see the results right away, but they’re very important. The first solution in the book has to do with prenatal care; we are among the underdeveloped nations in the world, we’re back with like Somalia in terms of providing prenatal care for pregnant women. [Better prenatal care] would reduce special education referrals tremendously, but we wouldn’t see the results of it for years. That’s very important.

Early childhood education is very important and that could easily be done. It would cost money, but it would cost a lot less than going to war again. Making sure that there are arts in every school, that there is a curriculum where kids have time every day for physical education, which is crucial for their physical health and also their mental health as well – that would be terribly important. So all of those things matter.

I would also change the testing so that the testing becomes something that is more based on teacher testing rather than the high-stakes testing that we’ve come to accept. I think a lot of the testing right now is driven by the market power, by the huge amounts of money that are paid to the testing companies. They all have lobbyists – they have lobbyists in Washington, they have lobbyists in the state capitals — to make sure that we keep using their products. We don’t have to keep using their products. Their products just aren’t that good and I think we would be better off with more teacher-originated testing and less of the standardized testing.