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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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AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, and we’ll come right back. Brian Jones, Harlem elementary school teacher, and Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Brian Jones, an elementary school teacher in Harlem for eight years, also an actor, and Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education. We welcome you both back to  Democracy Now! Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Diane Ravitch, I want to ask you about the business side of all of this education reform, not only in terms of the testing companies, but increasingly the new wave of reform now is the question of online learning. The school’s chancellor of New York City, Joel Klein, resigned to go work for Rupert Murdoch in a company that Rupert Murdoch bought that’s going to specialize in basically replacing the teacher in the classroom with online learning. Could you talk about that?

DIANE RAVITCH: Sure. There is a narrative. You can read about it in Chubb and Moe’s most recent book called  Liberating Learning, where they imagine online learning replacing teachers, where there’s a teacher somewhere, let’s say, in a barn in Kansas monitoring 100 or 200 computer screens, 24/7. And I recall that Chancellor Klein said at the time, we could reduce our teaching staff by 30 percent if we could have more online learning. New York is now investing—I forget how many hundreds of millions of dollars—in IT contracts, technology contracts, because they see online learning as the future.

I can tell you, because I reviewed the research just last night, because I was having a Twitter debate with someone, there is no research behind this. They say, "We don’t have any evidence." Personally, I believe that children need teachers. They need an adult, a grown-up. They need the interaction with other students to talk about things, to debate, to discuss. What I’ve heard from many people is children sitting at home on a computer interacting with a blinking screen, all they’re doing is answering questions. And frankly, you don’t know who answered the questions. If they submit an essay, you don’t know who wrote the essay.

But we have states like Florida now mandating online courses. The state of Utah, where the state superintendent ran for office with huge contributions from online companies, is mandating online learning. Rupert Murdoch gave a speech not long ago, when he bought this company Wireless Generation. He bought it for $360 million, and he said at that time, "This is a $500 billion industry, and we want to be the leader in that industry." So there is a lot of money in play here and no evidence that it’s going to improve kids’ education. And, you know, my view is, it’s the poor will get computers, the rich will get computers and teachers.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about big business, big business and the tests.

DIANE RAVITCH: Right. And the testing industry itself is a multibillion-dollar industry that has grown and fattened over the past decade. Pearson, for example, McGraw-Hill, the two big ones. Pearson has a $500 million contract with the state of Texas, another, I forget how many, hundreds of millions with Florida. Now they’ve just taken the New York contract. This is a multibillion-dollar enterprise. So, it will be very difficult to back away from what we’re locked into now, the kind of intellectual wasteland of so many of our public schools, because there is big business in keeping it this way.

BRIAN JONES: And if you publish the test, then the school is—I mean, they would be suicidal not to purchase the test preparation materials made by the same company that makes the test. So think about all those disposable workbooks that you have to then buy every year, in huge quantities, for every student.

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