RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Bernstein writes: "The American Public School system is dying a slow death. And many leading educators feel it is being poisoned by a drumbeat toward privatization - marketed as choice - along with a regimen of useless, costly, and sometimes racist testing programs that cater to a privileged class. Among the most high profile educators and educational researchers raising her voice on the issue is Diane Ravitch, a research professor in education at New York University."

Elementary school. (photo: AP)
Elementary school. (photo: AP)

So Many Children Left Behind: An Interview With Educational Reformer Diane Ravitch

By Dennis J. Bernstein, Reader Supported News

23 March 16


he American Public School system is dying a slow death. And many leading educators feel it is being poisoned by a drumbeat toward privatization – marketed as choice – along with a regimen of useless, costly, and sometimes racist testing programs that cater to a privileged class. Indeed, the battle cry for the last two administrations is choice/charter schools and privatization.

Among the most high profile educators and educational researchers raising her voice on the issue is Diane Ravitch, a research professor in education at New York University. Ravitch served as the Assistant Secretary of Education and as counselor to the Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993. She is the author of ten books, including “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”

In a recent interview, Secretary Ravitch expressed deep concern regarding the current presidential campaign’s profound lack of attention to the failing K-12 public school system and the abject failure of the last two administration’s attempts to mitigate the failures through an expanded program of privatization and a regime of costly and useless testing.

“For the past 15 years, the nation’s public schools have been victims of the failed federal policies of the Bush and Obama administrations,” said Ravitch. “15 years ago, Congress passed George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which required that every child in every year from 3rd grade to 8th grade had to be tested. There’s no other country in the world that tests every child every year. It’s just on overload. No Child Left Behind was supposed to close the achievement gaps, raise the graduation rates, and do all kinds of wonderful things. But none of the things it was supposed to do came true. So it was ... it became a toxic brand.”

Ravitch and other critics of testing and choice assumed that, since the policy had failed so measurably under Bush Two, when Obama took the reins of power he would transform the policy. But according to Ravitch, the Obama administration put No Child Left Behind on steroids, and did so with the appointment of Arne Duncan, a charter school cheerleader, as Secretary of Education. Duncan pressed on with the policies of No Child Left Behind and expanded them under a new name, Race to the Top. According to Ravitch, it became a race to the bottom.

“When Obama ran for office many people, particularly educators thought he was going to change this policy, because it obviously failed,” said Ravitch. “Schools were being closed around the country based on No Child Left Behind. Almost all the schools that are closed are schools in poor communities. They are schools where black and brown children go, especially poor kids. Then Obama came in, brought in Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education, and doubled down on No Child Left Behind. They announced a program called Race to the Top. And that turned out to be even more reliant on standardized testing than No Child Left Behind. At some point you have to realize the testing has driven education out of a classroom. Kids are spending hours and hours, weeks and months, preparing to take the test, because the tests are so consequential. Your school might be closed, the teachers might be fired, and the principal might be fired if the test scores don’t go up every year. So this is where we are. It’s been disastrous, and ... none of the candidates talk about education much. So Republicans want more of the same, and the Democrats hardly mention it at all.”

Dennis Bernstein: Welcome. Thank you for joining, Secretary Ravitch.

Diane Ravitch: Good to be with you.

DB: Alright, let’s talk, let’s go a little bit deeper with the impact of this kind of testing regime that has dominated K-12 for the past 15 years. There are many reverberations, and several of them are quite disturbing.

Ravitch: Well, yeah. And the main thing that it does is to cement social class and racial differences, because the one thing that testing does very accurately is that it correlates with family income. The kids who come from advantaged families, where they travel, they have library cards, they read to the kids at night, they have all these advantages … these kids do best on standardized testing. This is not just in the United States, it’s all over the world. The haves get the high test scores, the have-nots get the low test scores. So we’re taking this measure, and saying you’re a good student or a bad student, you failed, when what’s being measured more than anything else is family income.

The impact that it’s had on teaching has been horrendous. I have a blog that’s had almost 26 million pages at this point, and most of my readers are teachers. And there’s not a day that goes by without some teacher saying, “I can’t stand it anymore. All I do is administer tests. I give pre-tests, I give post-tests, I give interim assessments.” This is what education has turned into. And this doesn’t help kids. They don’t get better because the stakes are made higher. They don’t get smarter, if you raise the bar. I mean, the Obama’s administration’s gift to America was the Common Core Standards and they’ve been a disaster everywhere, because the tests associated with the Common Core Standards were made so hard that kids in every state, the majority of the kids, have failed. And if you were teaching, as I know you once did, and most of your kids failed the test, they would say, “Well, what kind of test did you give?” You have to give a test that the kids have some chance of passing. Not that you dumb the test down, but you have to know if it’s a test for 4th grade, it has to be for 4th grade level. You don’t give a 6th grade test to 4th graders. And that’s in effect what we’ve been doing all over the country because of Common Core.

DB: What’s the financial cost of testing? And does it take away from, for instance, all the possibilities for art and music programs? Does the money go to testing programs?

Ravitch: Well, what’s happened is that the test scores matter more than anything else in American education today, and that’s been true for the past 15 years. And so more and more time is devoted to testing, and less time, fewer resources are available for art or for music, or almost anything. Most states in this country have been defunding education, dis-investing in education. I think that’s because most of the governors now are very, very conservative Republicans. And they don’t want to invest in education. They would rather privatize, and have vouchers, and have charters, and let people be paid to homeschool their children. Things of that kind. They don’t want to invest in public education.

So public education is being hit by a tsunami. The tsunami is, first of all, this pressure to get higher scores every year, and the budget cuts which give you fewer resources and larger class size. And the emphasis on testing also means you lose your art teacher, you lose your music teacher, you lose your social worker. There are cities like Philadelphia that are virtually bankrupt. And the answers from the government, state government, has been “Well, let’s have more charters.” And then the charters start pulling money away from the public school system, and all over this country we have, except in the affluent communities, we have public schools going into a tail spin because of underinvestment and because the charter schools are sucking away, luring away, the kids who are likeliest to succeed, and pushing out the kids who have special needs, the kids with disabilities, and the kids who don’t speak English. And that way the public schools are overburdened with the most expensive children to educate.

DB: Let’s just talk a little more about the other side of the destruction of the public school system, and that’s the so-called privatization, the charter schools. Now it was interesting, and you point this out in your recent writing, that Bernie Sanders, when he was asked about charter schools, said, “Well, I only like the public charter schools.” The point is that it shows his incredible ignorance, and not that I don’t have a great deal of respect for him, but in that context there really aren’t any public charter schools, right? By the very nature of it.

Ravitch: That’s correct, I mean, all charter schools ... the definition of a charter school is that it’s funded by the public. So there is no such thing as a private charter school. So when he says he’s in favor of public charter schools, he’s not really ... he hasn’t been briefed adequately, which I find surprising considering he sits on the Senate committee in charge of education.

But even the schools that operate for-profit, and by the way that’s something brand new in American education … Up until recently we never had for-profit public schools. This is part of the charter movement, though there are now for-profit charters that get public money. And a certain percentage of that money is siphoned off to enrich the owners of the school. That’s part of the charter movement. Now that is a public charter school. That’s what they call themselves. In fact, the national organization for charters is called the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. So the charter movement says, again and again, that they are public schools.

The problem is that they’re really not public schools, and I always think that they are private schools getting public money, because first of all they can choose their students, even if they have a lottery. They can push out the kids they don’t want, and they end up with a very small number of kids with disabilities, with virtually no kids with severe disabilities, and also with very small numbers of English language learners.

They have the ability to set their own discipline rules, so they can say, “well if your shift wasn’t tucked in, you’re suspended.” And they have very high suspension rates, many of them do. There’s this genre of charter schools called No Excuses, and the No Excuses schools will suspend kids for a million different reasons. They’re supposed to sit quietly, hands folded, walk in the hallway in a straight line, never speak unless spoken to, etc., etc. For some reason there’s something about our day and age, and our culture, where particularly white people admire that black children are being beaten into obedience. Not physically beaten, but emotionally pushed into this very, very conformist behavior.

But the charter movement contains for-profit, it contains corporate charter chains and it also, within the charter sector, there’s a very large chain, it’s either the largest or the second largest that is run by foreign nationals. These are called the Gulen Schools, and they are associated with a Turkish dissident political group and they have about 150 charter schools across the country. So I found it very surprising when Senator Sanders said he supports public charter schools, because all charter schools claim to be public but many of them operate for-profit. All of them have a private board of trustees. Their board meetings are typically not open to the public. Many of the charter owners, especially these big chains ... in Florida there’s a large chain where they’ve assembled a real estate empire of over one hundred million dollars built on taxpayers’ money. But the money belongs to the charter owners, not to the public. So it’s all very bizarre, and the people supporting it are, first of all, big philanthropies like The Gates Foundation, The Broad Foundation, especially The Walton Family Foundation.

DB: The Koch brothers are in on this, right?

Ravitch: The Koch brothers support charters, ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] supports charters, all the right-wing and red-state governors support charters, and the hedge fund managers all over the country support charters. So there’s a lot of money behind charters. When the mayor of New York City tried to push back and say he didn’t want quite as many charters as his predecessor, Mayor Bloomberg, had proposed, the hedge fund managers created a group called Families for Excellent Schools and poured five or six million dollars into overnight advertising, and beat the mayor back. In fact, they ended up being major contributors to Governor Cuomo’s campaign in New York. And Governor Cuomo became a huge charter supporter because that’s where the money is. If your buddies from Wall Street can put up a million dollars, there are very few politicians who will say “No.”

DB: Wow. It’s interesting to me because there were always these battles about who was writing and producing the textbooks, and we know so much of that stuff comes out of very conservative places like Texas ... So they control the information flow, but this is one step beyond, in which they actually control the structure of school. And I would imagine the Kochs, among others, are quite interested in what the exact curriculum would be, what the chapter on slavery might look like.

Ravitch: Well, a number of the charters are associated with conservative Christian groups. Now the other piece of this, which I should mention, is the voucher movement. Almost half the states are giving vouchers to religious schools, and most of the religious schools are fundamentalist schools. Because they are the ones who have low tuition, and then the vouchers were five or six thousand dollars. You’re not going to get into a really good school with that amount of money. But you can certainly go to a fundamentalist school where you will have books that are written specifically for fundamentalist Christians.

DB: So, the battle is on for the presidency. They’re not talking about this most extraordinarily important issue. If you’re talking about everyday people and families and what’s at the core of people’s concern, it is the educational system. So what would you suggest? What would be the important questions to ask these candidates to draw out what they know and perhaps direct them in a proper direction?

Ravitch: Well, I would hope that ... There have been so many debates and so many town halls, and the only time I’ve ever heard a question asked about K-12 education was the other night in the Dayton town hall. The question was asked of Bernie Sanders, but it wasn’t asked of Hillary Clinton. I wished that the same question had been directed to both of them. But I think what I would want to ask is: Do you support public education, and do you oppose privatization through charters and vouchers?

What typically the charter supporters say is: The charters are public schools. But they’re not public schools, because there are now charter schools that are for affluent children. There are charter schools that exclude kids with, as I said before, disabilities or who don’t speak English. And public schools shouldn’t do that. Public schools are supposed to accept everyone, and they don’t have a choice in this. But under the banner of school choice we are being pushed to accept schools that are far more segregated even than the public schools. Where the public schools are segregated the charter schools are completely segregated. So I think that if the journalists were to ask some questions, they would be forced to answer and they would have to know what a charter school is. And not let them get away with saying “I’m against private charter schools.” There are no private charter schools. They’re all getting public money.

DB: Now, in terms of Bernie Sanders ... it’s hard to accept that they don’t know that this is a crucial problem. One has the sinking feeling that it’s just not important enough or all the candidates have determined that this is not an issue that they care enough about to raise. I think that it speaks to this larger issue about how we feel and treat our children. Could you talk about that?

Ravitch: Uh huh. Well, you know, I think it’s something to be very much concerned about that the journalists don’t ever think about it. Why aren’t they thinking about it? This is one of the most important things that a society can do, to educate its children. And for every state in the country it’s the single biggest expense they have, the cost of education. So, why would they not ask? The federal government, in the last 15 years, has played a much larger role than it ever has in our history.

And there was a law passed just last fall called The Every Student Succeeds Act, which basically moves most of the responsibility back to the states, but still maintains annual testing and is a boon to the standardized testing industry, and has funding for more charters. So in a way not much has changed. And I think that when No Child Left Behind goes to its well-deserved death and the so-called Every Student Succeeds Act takes over, no one will notice a difference. I mean, I think that a point worth making is there’s something weird about naming a law No Child Left Behind, because many children were left behind. And there’s also something weird about naming a law Every Student Succeeds because there’s nothing in that act that is going to make every student succeed. Our policy makers have fallen for this idea that if you just keep raising standards everybody gets smarter. But it’s like saying to athletes, “Well, you know, if you can’t jump over a 5 foot bar, let’s see how well you can do if we raise it to 7 feet.” No, it’s not going to work. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make any sense.

DB: Finally, before we let you go, Diane Ravitch – and we do appreciate the time you’re spending with us – Bernie Sanders has come out strong against Rahm Emanuel, in part because of his treatment, his disgraceful treatment of the teachers in the Chicago area, and his incredible disrespect in closing schools in minority communities. Hillary Clinton still supports him. Your thoughts on this?

Ravitch: Well, I think that Rahm Emanuel is one of the worst mayors in the country. So I was very happy to see Bernie Sanders saying, “I don’t want your endorsement.” Because first of all, he closed 50 public schools in one day. And I think he, at some point, is going to be in the record books for having closed more public schools than anyone else in America. He’s opening new charter schools at the same time that he’s closing public schools. So I was very happy to see Bernie Sanders say, “I’ll have nothing to do with you.”

DB: That struggle there is one to watch in terms of the stand that the teachers took on behalf of their students and the system. There were a number of courageous teachers there and there are really extraordinary people, teachers, young teachers, administrators, and parents who are trying to, at all levels, stand up for public education and an education that really means something to their children. Again, it really speaks volumes the way this country ... how the education system and its sort of abuse, if you will, of children.

Ravitch: Right. Well, I have great respect for the Chicago Teachers Union. I think that they’ve really been a model for the country, in terms of saying – the teachers are trying to do what’s best for the kids. And the Chicago schools have had layoffs of thousands of teachers. Many, many schools including the 50 that Rahm Emanuel closed at one fell swoop were closed. And every time a school is closed, a community is shattered. I was today writing a post for my blog which will be up tomorrow morning, I think like 10 o’clock in the morning, that the model right now for education is Walmart.

Walmart comes into a community, wipes out all the local stores, and then if they decide that they don’t have enough business they close, they leave, and the community is devastated. There’s no more Main Street, all the people ... there’s no more shoe store, toy store, drug store. All of that got absorbed by Walmart. And the Walmart family collectively, the Walton family, is worth over $150 billion. And they have a hard time even paying minimum wage to their workers. But that seems to be the business model that’s infiltrating education, at this point, through the charter movement.

The real goal of the charter movement is to destroy the teachers’ union. Because something like 90% of the charters are non-union. This is why the Walton family, and the Walton family through its foundation, puts up $200 million a year to expand charter schools, because they are the most effective way of busting unions. They rely on a group like “Teach for America” to supply new college graduates who are not union members, and who will be gone after 2 or 3 years. But that’s very, very destabilizing for a community. Because in most parts of this country the schools are staffed by people who have made a career of teaching, not young kids come in to burnish their resumé.

DB: Thank you, Secretary Ravitch, for joining us.

Dennis J. Bernstein is the executive producer of Flashpoints, syndicated on Pacifica Radio, and is the recipient of a 2015 Pillar Award for his work as a journalist whistleblower. He is most recently the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
Email This Page


THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.