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"Poverty Is the Problem" With our Public Schools, Not Teachers' Unions

Education expert Diane Ravitch and New York schoolteacher Brian Jones discuss the real problems with--and real solutions for--our public school system.

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We’re also joined by Brian Jones, a Harlem elementary school teacher for the last eight years, a member of the Grassroots Education Movement and narrator of a documentary called  The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.

Diane Ravitch and Brian Jones, thanks so much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: And I just wanted to start by saying, as we were playing Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, Diane, you said you were there.

DIANE RAVITCH: I was. I was at the Mall and marched, and it was one of the great moments of my life. So I’m very happy I had that chance to hear him.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s move from the 1963 March on Washington and the dream that Dr. King had to where you think education is today.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, we have been, for at least the last decade and more, trapped in this standardized testing obsession. And we have the No Child Left Behind law, which George W. Bush sponsored, and it was overwhelmingly endorsed by Congress in 2001. And it has imposed on the schools utopian goals that, by the year 2014, 100 percent of children will be proficient. And if they’re not proficient, your principal will be fired, the teachers will be fired, the school will be closed, or it will be turned over to private management or turned into a charter school.

So, I can’t imagine what they were thinking, except that there was this idea that there had been a Texas miracle. That’s what George W. Bush ran on, was the Texas miracle. And we now know there was no Texas miracle. And yet we’re stuck with a law that no one has the wits to change, and it just stays there, crushing schools across the country with standardized testing. So we had, for example, President Obama in his State of the Union address this year said the most important way to win the future is to encourage innovation, creativity and imagination. We will never do that with the route that we’re taking now, with all of this emphasis on high-stakes testing and attacking teachers. And, you know, what’s going on across the country—budget cutting in state after state, increasing class sizes—this is all terrible for the future.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you hear about all of these testing scandals now that are breaking out, where obviously educators, under pressure to produce results so that they can save their jobs, are erasing test results—but not just a few, we’re talking about, in the case of Atlanta, possibly Washington, D.C., and some other cities, massive fraud that’s gone on.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, there was a pretty dramatic scandal in Washington, D.C., which  USA Today broke open. And that was, there was one particularly celebrated school, where the principal had gotten awards. He was used in advertisements for the district: "Do you want to be the next..." — and they had his picture and names in the ads. He’s resigned, because the rate of erasures in his school, from wrong to right, was so dramatic, they said you could win the Powerball more easily than come up with this rate of erasures. So, we’re seeing these scandals because we have a system that incentivizes cheating. We’re saying to people, if you don’t meet a goal that we know is impossible, you’ll be fired.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how the cheating exactly works. The teachers switch the answers after the kids hand in, so the kids don’t even know that their answers have been changed?

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