A frequent critic of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, education historian Diane Ravitch has created a stir in policy circles with her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, March 2010).
A one-time supporter of testing and No Child Left Behind, Ravitch argues that “accountability” has been used to punish teachers and schools, and that testing has become an ends in itself, rather than a way to measure and improve student knowledge. Tossed out along the way have been the so-called peripheral elements of a classroom: history, literature, arts, science and foreign language. It’s a losing formula, says the New York University professor and Brookings Institute senior fellow, that has implications for our country’s future economic viability.
We caught up with Ravitch, who grew up in Houston, Texas, in her Brooklyn Heights brownstone, where she spoke with us about her new book.
Q: One of the most interesting things about your book was that you have a change of opinion, in fact a reversal of your support of charters, school choice and No Child Left Behind. You even talk about the importance of admitting error in your introduction. Was that hard to do?
A: Well, it was a process that took place over several years. It wasn’t like one day I woke up and said, “Ah! I’m wrong.” But some of the stories [in the media about the book] say that I made a U-turn or a 180, and that’s not right. Where I haven’t changed at all is the fundamental belief that all children should have a rich education with a curriculum of the arts and sciences, and literature and foreign languages. I’d say it was that fundamental belief that made me realize that the lessons and strategy we’re using these days are taking us even farther away from that core philosophical commitment, the belief that all children should have that kind of wonderful education.
Q: You wrote that having a well-conceived curriculum is an achievable goal, despite the culture war that erupted when we first tried to implement a national curriculum in the 1990s. Do you still think that’s possible?
A: If you want to improve education, you have to start off with a very good idea of what education is. And NCLB [No Child Left Behind] does not proceed from that assumption. It doesn’t begin with the premise of, “What is good education?” It begins with the premise of, “How to get test scores up?” And in any human endeavor, whether education or anything else, when you have a single statistical measure, you then corrupt the goal of the organization to meet that measure. For instance, if you say to a principal, “I want you to have 100 percent graduation rate,” that’s easy to achieve. You just graduate everybody, give them all a diploma. Sure, they won’t be able to read and write, but that’s an easy number. You want to have them all pass a test? Then dumb the test down.
Q: Were you surprised that education wasn’t a bigger factor in Mayor Bloomberg’s re-election in November?
A: Well, it was a very big issue for the mayor, and I think that you have to have a certain level of investigation just to know that there’s a dispute about the quality of the numbers. I had written articles in the New York Times and elsewhere about how the state tests had become easier over time. I think there seemed to be some general knowledge of that. But the DOE has a very successful public relations operation, and I think they convinced the public and the mayor, through his campaign—and it certainly was a well-funded campaign—that the numbers were good numbers.
Q: How would you like to see charter schools working in New York City?
A: I could see a partnership in which charter schools existed as they were originally supposed to: to take the kids who were the least motivated and help them figure out what methods and materials could we use to help these kids become excited about school. What could we do to make the transition easier for kids who don’t speak English, who are immigrant kids? There are all kinds of children with problems at school—certainly kids with disabilities would be another area.
Q: It might be difficult to sell this idea when many parents have felt very threatened by charter schools taking public school space.
A: Well, that’s the thing about New York City: You have 3 percent or less of the kids in charter schools. Think about how much angst is spilled on charter schools. You have the chancellor championing charter schools. Who’s championing the other 97 percent? It’s like the president of Macy’s telling you to shop at Gimbel’s—“We have a big department store, but we’re terrible.”
Q: When your children were growing up, was it difficult to maintain distance from their classrooms?
A: When they were little, I didn’t have any professional reputation. So I had nothing I could bring to the table other than being a concerned parent. With my first one, I pretty much backed off. With my second one, one time I went in and said something like, “Do you think Michael could learn to diagram sentences?” The teacher said, “Well, I know how to do that, but the kids here don’t do that.” “Well, could you teach Michael since you know how to do that?” He loved it, and in like two weeks, everyone in the class was diagramming sentences. They thought it was a game, and it’s actually fun, because you learn about the structure of language.
Q: Did you ever want to move back to Texas?
A: No, I like New York.
Q: You have some fond memories though?
A: Oh, yes. I actually just got a letter the other day asking me for a speaking engagement in Houston, and I said “Oh, yeah! I can’t wait to go for Mexican food and barbecue.”
Q: You must have strong opinions about barbecue.
A: There’s barbecue I like and barbecue I don’t like.
Q: Can you get good barbecue in New York?
A: Nothing is ever as good as you remember from home. I’ve had good barbeque at Blue Smoke and Virgil’s. I’m not too picky.
Q: Last question: Is your ex-husband, Lieutenant Gov. Richard Ravitch, about to become governor?
A: Who knows? He keeps telling me he’s not.
Q: So you have no insider information.
A: I’ve asked him a few times. He says, “No, no, the governor’s not resigning and I’ll do what I can to help.”
Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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