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

Diane Ravitch has become one of the fiercest — and most lucid — critics of many commonly accepted ideas about education in America. Once a supporter of charter schools and the standardized testing movement that inspired George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, she now lambastes the tests as ineffective and even harmful to schools and children. With her new book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” the educational historian writes that the reform movement – pro-charter schools, anti-teacher unions, dedicated to teacher evaluations built on test scores — threatens to undermine democracy.

Ravitch has been derided by critics as a tool of the unions, an apologist for failing educators, and as a reductive thinker who doesn’t capture the complexity of the charter-school movement. But she is a hero to many teachers, who have not fared well in the fiery debates about the future of education.

Here, she describes her change of heart on testing and charter schools and takes on reform queen Michelle Rhee, Teach for America and the upcoming Common Core standards. She also offers up a very different vision for closing the ever-broadening achievement gap that threatens to derail our public education system and, quite possibly, our society.

She spoke to Salon from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., while dealing with a bad back.

Let me throw out what we hear on the radio on our drive home from work: Billions and billions of dollars spent without evidence of improvement; many teachers are just plain bad and it’s almost impossible to get rid of them because they’re so protected. Test scores are declining, students aren’t learning what they need to learn to compete in the world. Considering all of this, isn’t it time to just scrap it all and start over again?

Well, the problem is all of those assumptions are wrong. Test scores are not declining — I think they’re at their highest point in history.  High school graduation rates are at their highest point in history, and dropout rates are at their lowest point in history.  If you started out with those as your premise, people would say, “Wow, our schools are doing a great job.”  And if you recognize that where the scores are low, where there is a crisis in education, is where there is concentrated poverty and concentrated racial segregation. Nothing we’re doing now addresses either poverty or segregation, so we’re on a course that’s based on false premises with solutions that don’t recognize what the problem is.

Some, like Michelle Rhee — you have a whole chapter about her – would say that that’s just making excuses, that everything has to happen at school and focusing what happens in the home is taking the responsibility away from the schools. What would you have to say to an argument like that?

I’d say that the research is very clear that family is far more important than anything that happens in the school, and when the family is economically secure and when the parents are educated and when they pay attention to what happens to their children, their children get higher test scores. When families live in poverty and their kids don’t get medical checkups, and they have eye problems, ear problems, asthma, they have lower scores.  That’s just a reality. That’s not an excuse.

So obviously healthcare would be incredibly important to you for closing the achievement gap, but what about home culture, too?  I’ve worked at two schools in urban areas. There is a sense that education has to be entertaining all the time. Many of the students’ attention spans are very, very short and motivating them can be hard. What can be done about problems like that? 

When you say those things, some people like Michelle Rhee would say you’re making excuses — you’re talking about home culture.  Actually, the state and the government and the schools can’t really intervene in home culture, but what the state can do is intervene to try and reduce poverty, to set a goal of reducing poverty, which we seem to have abandoned. And we can also set goals to reduce racial segregation, which would help considerably. In addition, just having health clinics or school nurses attached to the schools would make a big difference.

There’s a difference between home and school, and home is a place that is not subject to government control, except to the extent that we can lessen the amount of poverty with which people live, which is very debilitating.  But school is a place where kids can be encouraged to learn, where they’re excited about learning, where they find that learning is something that enriches their lives.

Unfortunately, our current approach to schooling – I can’t even call it education – is tests. Tests are not intrinsically motivating.  Tests are motivating in the sense that kids are frightened or worried. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them, and it’s very upsetting when their paper comes back or their score comes back. They never see the questions, these days, but they are just told that they’ve failed. So that’s terrible disincentive to even participate in school – [you] find out it’s a place you’re going to be labeled a failure.

Absolutely. I have a 7-year-old child. I hear about all the stress over constant testing from other parents of first-graders at other schools and what it’s doing to their attitude.  Sunday has become an “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow” day.

There are directives coming from the U.S. Department of Education that have been encouraging the testing of children in pre-kindergarten, so there seems to be no end to the government bureaucrats and politicians who believe that testing is somehow going to raise test scores. Firstly, it doesn’t. Even if it did, these would be scores that were produced by test prep and that would have no real relationship to education or to a love of learning. What matters most in school is not test scores, but, first of all, encouraging a mind-set and attitudes that say, “This is really great – I want to do more of it on my own. I’m going to go to the Internet, I’m going to look this up. I really am interested in this.” We’re killing that sense of enthusiasm by our current approach.

One of the things you talk about in the beginning of this new book is about how all of these revolutionary programs – No Child Left Behind and Common Core – are not based on any evidence that they actually improve learning. Why do you think that people overhaul an entire national system based on hunches and illusions?

Well, it isn’t even hunches – it’s worse than hunches. Most of the policies that are now being imposed across the country have evidence that says they’re wrong and evidence that says they don’t work at all, yet they continue to do it. It’s faith-based policy. If you do something and you know that it doesn’t work and people tell you it didn’t work ever, and yet you continue doing it, how can you explain that other than it’s a matter of ideology and faith?

We know, for example, that vouchers have absolutely no impact on student achievement, just looking at test scores. We now have three cities that have been using vouchers for many years; Milwaukee has had them since 1990, Cleveland since 1995, D.C. since 2003, and the evaluations come out saying there’s no difference in test scores. Lots of kids drop out and the ones that remain, more of them will go to high school, but you’re not looking at the whole cohort as you would in public school. So we know that vouchers don’t work and yet there are states that are adopting vouchers and expanding the vouchers.

Milwaukee has had very unimpressive, if not dismal, results, yet Gov. Scott Walker is actually expanding the voucher program to a larger geographical area and lowering the threshold for getting in so that more families can have it. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana – last year he passed a voucher program which was found unconstitutional, its funding was unconstitutional, by the Louisiana courts — and he’s now on a tear, publishing Op-Eds in the Washington Post and various other newspapers saying any effort to stop vouchers hurts children. Well, that’s ridiculous. Why do people continue to advocate things that have been proven over more than 20 years to have made no difference? Merit pay is an even better example. Merit pay has been tried for almost 100 years. It has never made a difference and yet politicians continue to say, “This is what we’ll do it: merit pay.”

Teachers want to make enough money to survive and be comfortable in the cities in which they live, but they don’t go into it to make money.

Anyone who expects to get rich by becoming a teacher, you have to wonder about their basic sense of judgment because it’s not a high-paying profession. People go into teaching in the first instance because, what they always say is, “I want to make a difference in the lives of children.” Some of them turn out to be really good at it, and some not, but that’s their motivation. It’s not “I’m going to become a teacher so I can make a lot of money – I want merit pay.” I’ve just seen very little support.

In fact, when I go out speaking to teacher audiences and I go through the failure of merit pay, I get huge applause because teachers don’t want merit pay. The reason they don’t want it is not because they don’t want more money – sure they’d love more money. They don’t want to be placed into competition with their colleagues. They understand that when you work in a school you’re working in a collaborative environment and you’re not there to just hide what you’re doing that works and not let anybody see it. Rather, you’re all working for the same goal – you’re trying to help these children do better in school by a whole lot of different measures. The only way that’s going to work is if people work together.

You were a big proponent of testing, at first, and you liked charter schools. Can you trace your evolution in that? Why at the beginning did you think they were going to work, and what changed your mind? What were some red flags that things were going horribly wrong?

I had been involved in three different very conservative think tanks in the 1990s and I worked in the first George Bush administration and I thought, “Geez, testing is good because it’ll get kids focused on what they’re supposed to learn and what you test is what gets taught.” That seemed like a good kind of incentive structure. And then accountability just seemed to follow from that – that if teachers weren’t getting results, they should be fired and then the charter school idea came along and I thought, “Well, this sounds like a good idea. There will be competition; we all believe in competition.”

In theory, it all made a lot of sense, but the reality started to kick in when I saw the results of No Child Left Behind after the first five years. In my last book, I described going to a conference where a dozen scholars at a conservative think tank reviewed the evidence and they said, “Well, it’s not working here, it’s not working in California, it’s not working in Florida, it’s not working in New Jersey, it’s not working in rural areas,” and they just went on with paper after paper. There was nobody that reported that No Child Left Behind was having a positive effect.

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.

One of the things that you argue for in this book is giving money to the schools so that they can build a foundation. You say that the kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are the ones that need all the hallmarks of a model school — and then more. You say they need this incredible foundation that has nurses – and now districts are beginning to lay off nurses — that they need music education, they need arts education, they need science, they need all this enrichment that public schools in wealthy areas get — and then even more. What evidence shows you that this works?

When children have low test scores, it’s obvious that there are reasons. So what the government policy right now is, if a school has low test scores, close the school and start over. But that doesn’t really address the source of the problem that causes low test scores. As I said, the biggest causes, if you’re looking at the macro level, is poverty and racial segregation, but if you have a policy of, let’s say, sending in evaluators and they would come out and they’d say the school has a very large population that doesn’t speak English, it needs more teachers of English as a second language or it needs more bilingual teachers – that would be one way to address the needs. Another might be to say, “A lot of the kids are missing school because they’re sick so often, and if we had a school nurse, or if we had regular access to dental care and eye checkups, that would improve the kids’ heath,” and if the kids’ health improves, their academic performance will improve as well. All of those things may be needed.

Getting to the solutions chapters – one of them is class size. The research on class size is overwhelming — kids who are struggling do better in a small class because they get more attention. A teacher can spend more time with the children who are behind and figure out what’s going wrong. One of the big beefs I have with testing right now, with the current model of testing, is that the test is given at the end of the year and the results come back the next summer, and no one gets to see the test questions or answers. That makes no sense because the purpose of testing should be to find out what you don’t know, and to find out where you need more help. If you never get to see the questions or the answers, you can’t even use the tests for diagnostic purposes.

Which creates more tests, right? Because then what the districts try to do is create similar tests where you can see the breakdowns and they spend meetings going through these breakdowns and analyzing the data and that’s what I’ve seen again and again. What happens is they try and re-create an equivalent that teachers can analyze so they can actually address some of the gaps, but it’s all about that test at the end.

I think what we’re seeing nationally is an effort to apply something called “Big Data” to education, and education has always been understood in this country — and every other country, as far as I know — as first and foremost the interaction between teachers, adults and children. It can work well and it can not work well, and if it doesn’t work well, you try and intervene to find out why. But it’s primarily human interactions. What’s happened now is we’re in a moment of Big Data where management consultants like McKinsey and the government and the big thinkers think that everything can be reduced to data and, if you just manipulate the data, you can come up with the answers.

Ultimately, you’re dealing with children and each one of them is different and Big Data doesn’t really supply an answer when you’re looking in the face of a child. That’s one person and that one child needs something different from the next one and he or she is not a data point. He or she is a person.

Common Core is the big, new standards revolution in education and it’s already being strongly criticized. What’s your take on it?

I’m not a supporter of Common Core and I’m not an outright opponent, but I’m not a supporter. I don’t like the way that it was developed with very little input from teachers. The early grades – I’ve read the English Language Arts; I wouldn’t presume to judge the math parts, others do that — but in the reading and English Language Arts, the early grades are developmentally inappropriate. They expect things of 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds that are just wrong. It’s very scripted in terms of what teachers are supposed to do and my biggest problem with Common Core is not the fact there are standards, but that these standards have never been tried anywhere.

At different times, I have urged people involved in the standards setting to do a field trial — try them out in a state or two or three states and give us three years of experience. Let’s find out from teachers how they work and what goes wrong. And they resolutely refuse – and this is people in government and out working on the Common Core. They absolutely refuse to have any field assessing. So now we’re beginning to have the tests associated with the Common Core, and their idea of rigor is to make the tests so hard that most kids fail them. That — to me — is sad because I spent seven years on the federal testing board and I know that standards are not science. Standards are a matter of human judgment and human beings decide what’s going to be the passing mark. When a test is put together, the people who put the test together know exactly how every question will perform. They know how hard it is or easy it is, and they typically put together a test that produces a bell curve, where half the kids are above and half the kids are below.

In the case of the Common Core test in New York and apparently in Kentucky, they created a curve where most of the kids failed. They didn’t have to do that. I saw one of the tests in New York – it was a fifth-grade test, which I would say was written for eighth graders. I don’t know what the point of that is, other than to add to this narrative of “our schools are failing, failing, failing — we need more charters,” that people throw up their hands and give up on public education.

Common Core is going to put even more emphasis on technology in the schools. In my district, they’re spending loads of money rebuilding our infrastructure just to support Common Core. So they are laying off teachers and literacy coaches and librarians, but they’re spending all this money building up this digital infrastructure. Los Angeles Unified School District has this big initiative and they are giving iPads to every student. 

What I don’t like about it is that the real goal here is to replace teachers with technology. There’s an assumption that you can somehow get rid of teachers, reduce their numbers and have a hundred kids in every classroom, and they’ll have one teacher and a lot of iPads or a lot of other kinds of technology. That’s a mistake because, ultimately, kids will learn or not learn based on human interactions, not based on technology.

Technology is a very important tool and I certainly couldn’t live without it — I don’t think many of us could. It’s what I spend my days and nights working on, but I don’t think it substitutes for human interaction. In the case of Los Angeles, what was shocking was that Los Angeles decided to take a billion dollars of money that had been appropriated for school construction bonds. Voters approved a referendum for school construction. The bonds will be paid off over 25 years and they’re buying iPads (and they forgot to buy the keyboards, so now they’ll need for money for the keyboards). It will cost a billion dollars, and this was money that was supposed to be spent fixing up the schools. It’ll be paid off over 25 years, but the iPads will be obsolete within the next three to four years. That, to me, is, I don’t know, I think it’s almost criminal. It’s crazy that people are going to be paying for these machines in 25 years when the machines are going to be absolutely obsolete in the next few years. We know that there’s going to be a new generation of iPads probably in the next year or two years and three or four years from now, these machines will be really not that useful compared to the new ones. But you can’t take construction funds – it seems to me that the voters’ wishes were ignored.

The writer of the book “The Smartest Kids in the World” [Amanda Ripley] goes to these classrooms with these incredibly high-performing kids – they do not have high technology. No iPads, no smart boards, no laptops. These kids do well without it. The idea following that is if they have a good foundation, they’ll learn to use technology eventually, the way we did. 

As I understand the argument in that book is that teachers matter a great deal, and I agree, teachers do matter a great deal, and Finland, which was one of the countries that was studied, only accepts one out of 10 applicants into teacher programs. The teachers programs last five years, so by the time someone becomes a teacher, they’ve had five years of preparation. They’ve had not only study and research and student teaching, they are ready to become teachers. We, on the other hand, are allowing people to become teachers, in the case of Teach for America, with only five weeks of training. That wouldn’t be permitted in Finland, I doubt it would be permitted in the high-achieving Asian nations, and we allow people to come in with degrees that were earned online, which is ridiculous.

So we do need to raise our standards for entry into teaching, but ultimately that’s only part of the solution. The larger part is to address the fact that so many of these kids are living in desperate poverty and they’re already behind — there’s already an achievement gap on the first day of kindergarten.

What’s your argument against Teach for America, aside from the lack of training? It seems like a good idea – you’re going to pair these bright, enthusiastic people with kids at underperforming schools and won’t they just give the schools a jolt? Isn’t it a great thing to get people from outside of the system in to let people inside see how they can do things differently?

Well, first of all, I don’t think five weeks of training is adequate for anyone to be a teacher. I think they could come in as an assistant teacher and they might learn something about teaching, but the idea that — for example, in what other profession would you bring in an untrained person, someone with only five weeks of training, to be a doctor and to show people in the operating room how to do it better? I mean, that doesn’t make any sense, and in the case of sending them into schools with the highest needs, I would argue that the schools with the highest needs really need the teachers with the most professionalism, the most experience and the most successful in teaching, not young kids who are just a few months away from their college graduation.

I think that Teach for America was a wonderful idea when it started; it’s like a Peace Corps for teaching, and I think that’s fine, but I think that it’s become something like an empire. I know that Wendy Kopp often says, “What we’re really about is creating leaders,” but when I look at the leaders that have been created — whether it’s Michelle Rhee or John White, who’s the state superintendent in Louisiana, or Kevin Huffman, who’s Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband, who’s now the state commissioner in Tennessee, or there’s a TFA alum who’s senior adviser to the governor of North Carolina – every one of those states are pushing the most right-wing agenda of privatizing public education. Every one of them is pushing vouchers and charters and also doing terrible things to teachers – taking away any kind of job protection. I’m not in favor of protecting bad teachers, but I’m in favor of protecting academic freedom. In the absence of any form of due process, academic freedom goes out the window.

North Carolina, actually – I don’t know if they ultimately succeeded – is saying there would be no extra pay for master’s degrees, which is a way of saying education doesn’t count. You’re teaching kids, but if you want to get a master’s degree in your subject, you won’t get extra compensation for it, and North Carolina has done everything possible to make its teachers feel unappreciated. The same thing is true in Tennessee and Louisiana. There’s an ongoing battle between the people who work in the classrooms and the Teach for America graduates who are running the school system who seem to have a hostility to public education and also to the teachers who work in public schools. They want everything to be charters and privatized — no unions, no job protections, no tenure, etc., etc., so everything they can think of to make teachers feel unappreciated, they go for.

Almost all the Teach for America teachers I’ve known have become educational leaders and they are the ones making decisions now, after just a few years in the classroom. It’s happening everywhere, and I do wonder what the fallout will be from that. 

I think that what is so frustrating for me is that Teach for America appeals to very idealistic young people who want to save the world and they come out of college and they think “I’ll join Teach for America and I can make a difference and I’ll be a teacher for a couple of years and then move on to my real career.” Well, that’s sort of discouraging to people who’ve decided that teaching is their real career. You have somebody with five weeks of training come into school to say, “I’m here to save you — I don’t know anything, I’ve never taught, but I’m here to save you.”

I think that ultimately what is so discouraging is that so many of the people who have been in Teach for America are now working hard for these incredibly right-wing people who just don’t like public education. I have a strong belief that a democratic society must have a strong public education system. If you have a market system, you’ll be like Chile, and Chile right now is immersed in terrible student protests and strikes against privatization, because what privatization has done in Chile has been to increase segregation, increase social stratification and has not improved the schools or education.

You come up with an analogy in your book that we’re headed toward this cliff and no one seems to be able to stop the forward momentum and turn this car around. You say that there are all of these assumptions about what we need to do to fix the system – like standardized testing, charters — and that they are wrong. Even though they haven’t been in place very long, they’ve become a part of our collective ideology. Do you think that it’s too late to stop at this point?

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.

So those would be a few, but the other thing that I think is crucial – and as I said, I can’t limit it to two – would be to have health services available to every school so the children who are in need get medical care when they need it.

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