Privatization Will Not Help Us Achieve Our Goals: An Interview with Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a prominent historian of education, the author of a dozen books including Edspeak: A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords and Jargon (2007), The Language Police (2003) and Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000).  Diane Ravitch

Diane is not a political type, but neither is she afraid of controversy.  In recent years she’s become a lightning rod for controversy.  She has been embroiled in an ongoing battle in the press with Joel Klein, the Chancellor of the New York City public schools, about academic achievement.  Here she takes on both Arne Duncan and NCLB!

The Interview

The Obama Administration and nearly every state have now endorsed national or common standards.  Is this a good thing?  Or is now the time to get worried, the logic being that, when ‘everyone’ is for something, the rest of us should watch out?

I have favored common standards for a long time. When I worked for Bush I in the early 1990s, I helped to launch federally funded projects to develop voluntary national standards in the arts, English, history, geography, civics, economics, science, and other essential school subjects. Some of the projects were successful; others were not. The whole enterprise foundered because a) it was not authorized by Congress, and b) it came to fruition during the transition between two administrations and had no oversight, no process of review and improvement. So, yes, I believe the concept is important.

However, I worry about today’s undertaking, first, because it will focus only on reading and mathematics, nothing else; and second, because I don’t know whether the effort will become a bureaucratic nightmare. But I won’t prejudge the outcome. I will hope for the best, and hope that today’s standardistas learned some lessons from what happened nearly two decades ago.

If we have common standards, are national tests likely to follow?

Not necessarily. If the standards are worthy, then any testing organization should be able to develop test specifications that are aligned with the standards.

On balance, has No Child Left Behind done more harm than good?

I would say, sorrowfully, that NCLB has failed. It did nothing to raise standards, because it left decisions about standards to the states. So many states have very low standards and yet announce that more and more students are “proficient,” as defined by that state.

We know from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that actual improvement has been very small over these past seven years, and in some ca ses, the rate of improvement has been less in these past seven years than in the years preceding the passage of NCLB. In the meantime, schools have become test-obsessed in a way that is not conducive to good education. Many schools and districts and states have learned how to game the system, and they are producing higher scores (by lowering the passing mark—or cut score—on their tests) that do not represent genuine improvement in learning. The amount of test-preparation now going on in the schools has a tendency to inflate test scores and even to invalidate the tests.

What’s the biggest downside of NCLB?

The biggest downside of NCLB is that it has promoted false, anti-educational values. Certainly high test scores are better than low test scores, but that is not all that matters in education. What about science, the arts, history, literature, foreign languages? My hunch is that NCLB is doing nothing to reverse the dumbing down of our children and our society, and may even be accelerating it.

The greatest benefit?

The greatest benefit of NCLB is that it has promoted concern for the lowest performing students and for narrowing the achievement gap among students of different racial groups. At least, that is the rhetorical benefit. But once again, if we examine the changes in the achievement gaps over time, we find that more progress was made in the years preceding NCLB than in the years since it was passed.

I remember your saying in an interview years ago that you favored public schools but not the public school system that we have.  In New Orleans Paul Vallas has called for ‘a system of schools, not a school system.’  What’s your ideal approach?  Are we moving in that direction?

If “a system of schools” means that the public schools should be handed over to anyone who wants to run a school, then I think we are headed in the wrong direction. Privatization will not help us achieve our goals. We know from the recent CREDO study at Stanford that charter schools run the gamut from excellent to abysmal, and many studies have found that charters, on average, produce no better results than the regular public schools. Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade, and we better be careful that we don’t destroy our public schools too.

At some point, we will have to get the kind of leadership that can figure out how to improve our public school system so that we have the education we want for our children.

Recently the Obama administration announced the regulations for its $5 billion “Race to the Top” fund. That’s an unprecedented amount of discretionary money.  How much was available when you worked in the first Bush Administration?

When I worked at the Department of Education in 1991, we had $10 million in discretionary funds, not $4.3 billion.

He’s using the money to push states in certain directions: lots more charter schools; lots more privatization; evaluate teach ers based on the test scores of their students; open more alternate routes into teaching to break the grip of professionalism.  What’s your reaction?

I find myself agreeing with Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who wrote on Gadfly that this “Race to the Top” program should be called “NCLB 2: The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick.” As a former Bush administration official, he knows what he’s talking about. He likes the Duncan plans, but can’t resist shedding a tear for the death of federalism. Now, says Petrilli, we have entered fully into the age of “Washington Knows Best at its worst.” He writes: “If you found No Child Left Behind prescriptive, just wait till you take a look at this baby.”

To me, the problem here is obvious: What if Washington doesn’t know best? What if the “reform” ideas are wrong? As I said before, the CREDO study at Stanford—which looked at performance in half the nation’s charters–found that 80% or more of charter schools are no better than or worse than their neighborhood public school. Why replace struggling public schools with worse charter schools? There is a ton of evidence that evaluating teachers based solely on student test scores is a bad idea (see the work of Jesse Rothstein at Princeton, for example). Test scores over at least three years should be part of the calculation, but only part of it.

Tell me more.

Sure. If Arne Duncan knows exactly how to reform American education, why didn’t he reform Chicago’s schools? A report came out a couple of weeks ago from the Civic Committee of Chicago (“Still Left Behind”) saying that Chicago’s much-touted score gains in the past several years were phony, that they were generated after the state lowered the passing mark on the state tests, that the purported gains did not show up on the federal tests, and that Chicago’s high schools are still failing. On the respected federal test (NAEP), Chicago continues to be one of the lowest performing cities in the nation.

I want to know why Washington is pushing “reform” ideas that have so little evidence behind them, ideas that might do serious damage to public education in America?

16 thoughts on “Privatization Will Not Help Us Achieve Our Goals: An Interview with Diane Ravitch

  1. I will be forwarding this interview to all my friends in the education community as “must reading!” Bravo and brava!


  2. Perceptive and balanced as usual, Diane. As journalist and ex-adjunct English prof, I still wonder about teaching history, basic English downfall (me and Bob,etc.) and lack of “common knowledge”. Once used quotes everyone should know in my English class==and was surprsed. Keep up the fight.


  3. Every one of Diane’s points is well taken. But the most tragic is the one leading to the conclusion that we are preparing a nation of illiterates. Unaware of the richness of the arts, of great literature, and of the lessons of history (as examples) our children will know little of, and will miss, the glorious mix of positive emotions and feelings created by past and present civilizations. Indeed, they will become that much less civilized, themselves, increasing the opportunities for world-wide strife.


  4. Until educators begin to look for accountability outside their system real reform is unlikely. Tests will not suffice. If schools are to prepare younsters for citizenship, work, and culture ask politicians, employers, and graduates how well the schools did.


  5. Ravitch really needs to be prominently featured on a program like “60 Minutes.” The wider masses need to hear this, too.


  6. Many will feel grateful to read Diane Ravitch’s astute comments. I would add another problem: Because many states have adopted multiple choice testing based on bite-sized knowledge, students have more trouble with tasks that require broader capacities. One teacher I interviewed put it this way: “More students may know where to put a comma in a sentence, but fewer know how to write a friendly letter.” I hope Washington will take note of this interview.


  7. One thing that greatly concerned me about the groups drafting the standards is the presence of people from testing organizations (ACT and ETS) and the absence of both classroom teachers and the professional groups for the subject areas. I think most would complain were medical standards drafted without the presence of any doctors.

    As to NLCB, I wonder if either John or Diane would care to comment on the idea that the most serious narrowing has occurred in the schools holding children much less likely to get things like art and music outside of school, and hence is actually punitive towards those the law was supposed to help?

    Finally – Diane, not quite sure what you are saying about using test scores to evaluate teachers. Your mention of three years concerns me, since William Sanders used to argue that under TVAAS he could measure teacher effects three years out, yet the two outside evaluations required by the State Auditor’s Office said that claim was not sustainable. Also, one major criticism of the measurement of AYP in NCLB is that we are comparing cohorts from different years who may vary significantly in important ways. Could you clarify what you mean that if test scores should be used there should be at least 3 years?

    Thanks. And looking forward to your new book being available.

    Ken Bernstein aka teacherken


  8. Once again, Diane is speaking clearly and wisely and with totally sincerity and honesty qualties that are rare among TeacherEd types who prefer clouds of nomenclature and non-communication. Speaking as a classroom teacher I think NCLB is poisonous not merely harmful. It results in the neglect and adbandonment of Advanced Placement classes ! because these programs do not help or contribute to school standards. Yes, the number of AP students or passing AP exams has nothing to do with the rating of schools which is about the most stupid thing imaginable. And yes I would say schools have become test obsessed in the WRONG WAY. Almost all the tests are scantron tests that require no writing or higher level work and of course can be falsified easily by unscrupulous teachers or administorators and of course the students cheat like mad on these tests. It is easy to do when you have 45 in a class and many have cell phones to text their friends or take pictures of the test. It is time America woke up to the fact that most standarized tests are academic junk food. At best they are a necessary evil but they have come to dominate all testing and in many schools teachers are required to give practice tests ONLY in the format of the state tests.

    “But the most tragic is the one leading to the conclusion that we are preparing a nation of illiterates. Unaware of the richness of the arts, of great literature, and of the lessons of history (as examples) our children will know little of, and will miss, the glorious mix of positive emotions and feelings created by past and present civilizations. Indeed, they will become that much less civilized, themselves, increasing the opportunities for world-wide strife.”

    I would only add to that not only is the danger of world wide strife greater but so is societal strife and even political disunion and an eventual 2nd American Civil War. If we continue our economic decline I would how societal peace will endure. If we continue our cultural and economic decline I wonder if even the veneer of civility and civilization we have no will disappear from entire regions. Already there is great fear of violence and crime -greater than I have ever known in my lifetime and the consenus is things will gradually get worse. I am a teacher and have always supported self-education , public education and education in general all of my life. But American schools seem to have no aim and true education happens there almost by accident not by design. Most of the standarized testing results in an enormous waste of time and resources. Almost 20% of the school year is dedicated EXCLUSIVELY to testing and test prep. It is not effective education and it is a bore for both teacher and student. It is just something we have to endure until the whole system goes bankrupt. Bankruptcy is terrible but it will at least bring some relief. We can teach by candle and use real books and not have to worry about the ball and chain of Scantrons and Edusoft.


  9. Ravitch is the true “Language Police”, constantly parsing the subtle eduction policy inflections which are found in our nation’s education standards. I will pass this information to others in the UFT. Thank you for always supporting public education.


  10. “Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade”

    That is false. In reality, an excess of regulation, or misguided regulation, caused problems in the economy. Deregulation is typically good for the economy and the ordinary consumer.

    “…we will have to get the kind of leadership that can figure out how to improve our public school system”

    We have had DECADES of atrocious public schools. At what point does that become a trend? Sorry to say, but smart people like Ms. Ravitch are not the solution. The right leadership will come from the parents who, given the choice (via vouchers), will have the ability put their kids in good schools.


  11. She is right to condemn federal mishandling of education. However, it appears that historians of education should refrain from opining on economics and ‘deregulation’. She is simply wrong in her assessment.

    Per Neal’s post at Cato (see above comment), she should not equate charter schools with private schools in making her mistaken conclusion that private schools are no better than public schools.

    She should look at better data, or learn about why charter schools are not private.


  12. An excellent interview, though I wish it were longer!

    There is nothing wrong with alternatives to the public schools, when they are carefully conceived and competently run. But the movement to create many, many new schools (charter, private, or regular public schools) is simply reckless. It takes so much to open a single school; even in the best of circumstances it can be hard.

    And new schools demand extraordinary energy. Teachers are “on the job” all the time. There is no letup. This is not good for teachers or even for the schools; schools need teachers who think on their own, pursue deep interests, and have some perspective on life. Frenzy backfires at some point.

    When there is constant rush and pressure, subject matter may be treated as an afterthought. It is heartening to read the words: “the arts, English, history, geography, civics, economics, science, and other essential school subjects.” Schools cannot devote adequate attention to these subjects if they are continually in startup mode.

    For these reasons, and many others, schools need stability as well as change. There is no stability in constant novelty. And without the stability, there is no freedom, since schools have to do so much just to get by.

    Diana Senechal


  13. Ravitch’s analysis of NCLB and school privatization,unlike most opinions about education, is in this case supported by actual facts and not based on political or emotional biases as are those who criticize her ideas here. Perhaps, these critics are simply unaware of the effects of NCLB. Those of us who actually teach in the classroom know that, whatever it was meant to be, it has become simply a numbers game that rewards the dishonest and reduces education of the whole child to once a year test taking. Students are divided into categories which are then judged independently with the same standardized tests–whether they be English language learners or even Special Ed students. Low scores for any one of these groups means failure for the entire school. In addition there is no humanity in this system,no recognition that our country and our world needs more than just mindless drones, but people who can evaluate and create goals worth pursuing for all of us. The “high standards” it purports to support are actually only the lowest thinking skills–identifying and manipulating data. Where is the critical thinking, the understanding and appreciation of complexity in nature and society, and the multi-faceted nature of human potentials? I demand far more from my students than mere memorizing and plugging in numbers or words. I want my students to be able to reflect, question, see the larger picture, think creatively, and appreciate and include in their lives the whole rich legacy of hmanity’s achievements. Standardized testing and charter schools have not–as shown by both studies and societal results–been successful in producing the educated, worldly citizens that are so desperately needed for our society at this time. And, of course, our children are not simply tools to be shaped for the workplace or even just for social ends, they are ends in themselves. They deserve to have not just economic lives, but also spiritual and cultural lives, and to know enough about the world to have real choices available to them. Only when we as school districts and as a society are truly clear about what the purposes of education should be will we create the smaller classes and greater cooperation among parents, teachers, and administrators that will provide the time and care our children deserve.


  14. Separating the state from schools is idiotic. We need freedom in education. We need to have the option of private schools, home schooling and life long adult education and self education. But no modern state can have an educated citizenry unless we provide free and universal access to public schools of some kind.

    We need to provide for the education of the poor and the common youth. There can be no question of that. The only argument is how much, where and when and by whom. I repeat, those who want to separate the school from the state are idiotic. That is just an Ultra conservative Shibboleth which ultimately is meaningless and does not bring any arguments of school reform forward. It is like saying “I am taking my ball home and I refuse to play.” It is much harder to compromise and fight countless little battles in the home, classroom and district level.

    I believe in high educational standards; I have been an AP teacher and Adjunct Faculty for ETS for many years. I believe in cultural literacy, patriotism and traditonal values. And I do my best to fight what is, in truth, a rear guard action for Western Civilization. So I am no enemy of Neil McClusky by any means. But I am pragmatic. You do as TR said, “the best you can, where you are with what you have.” I teach everyone I can when I can because teaching and learning is most of my life. I could throw up my hands and quit but I CARRY ON. Because it is not about me; its about the kids and it is about our communities and it is about passing the torch of our Splendid Ancient Heritage.

    [This comment was edited by the moderator]


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