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A once-ardent and high-profile advocate of charter schools and high-stakes tests explains her recent conversion
At the start of an evening talk on December 1, in a crammed lecture hall at the Law School, noted education historian Diane Ravitch related that she is now being lashed in the press as the leading detractor of Bill Gates and his benign promotion of charter schools across the United States. “How exciting is that?” she said to a cascade of applause.
A research professor at New York University, and an assistant secretary of education during the administration of the first President Bush, when she favored charter schools, Ravitch was the headliner at a three-and-a-half-hour event—sponsored by the Lynch School of Education together with Citizens for Public Education, a Massachusetts advocacy group—that had the fervor of a political rally. Ravitch was preceded at the podium by no fewer than four speakers, including Lynch School dean Joseph O’Keefe, SJ, and followed by another speaker, MIT biology professor Jonathan King, treasurer of Citizens for Public Education; a raft of state senators and representatives were there to be seen on a rainy night. As gleaned from a show of hands, most of the lecture goers—who took all 300 seats, lined walls, and sat in aisles—were schoolteachers. They cheered almost as much as they clapped, which was often.
Ravitch, the author of the controversial 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, showed herself to be witty, personable, and well-practiced in the polemical arts. She has emerged as an unlikely champion of public school teachers, having once trumpeted, from her federal post and then from the conservative Hoover Institution’s task force on K–12 education, the very reform measures—charter schools and make-or-break standardized testing—she now deplores and that teachers’ unions have generally bemoaned. The reason for her change of perspective: research, she says. There’s simply no solid evidence attesting to benefits from “school choice” or from the use of testing to determine how a teacher is evaluated and a school is funded. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests that these policies are undermining public education, Ravitch said.
Not every assertion of hers was soothing to the audience, however. At one point while lecturing, Ravitch cast her eyes toward the front row, directing attention to O’Keefe, who had put in a good word for Catholic education in his opening remarks. “I’m a great supporter of Catholic schools,” she said, adding, “we should be saving Catholic education” instead of pouring public money into charter schools that siphon off the best students from public schools and tuition-paying students from parochial schools. Her implicit call for public support of private, Catholic education met with polite silence.
Ravitch devoted the first portion of her lecture to the Gates-Ravitch dispute, which has gotten media attention beyond the education press. In a flattering piece about the billionaire’s foray into education reform, published in the November 28 Newsweek, columnist Jonathan Alter wrote, “His biggest adversary now is Diane Ravitch, a jaundiced former Education Department official. . . .” According to Alter, Gates became riled in the interview upon mention of his supposed nemesis. “Does she like the status quo? Is she sticking up for decline? Does she really like 400-page [union] contracts? Does she think all those ‘dropout factories’ are lonely? If there’s some other way to reduce the dropout rate, we’re all ears,” Gates said, alluding to the charter-school solution. (For his part, Alter opined that Ravitch has given “intellectual heft to the National Education Association’s campaign to discredit even superb charter schools and trash intriguing reform ideas that may threaten its power.”) The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided seed money and lobbied for the creation of charter schools, which are otherwise publicly funded though largely autonomous.
Ravitch responded point by point. “No, I certainly don’t like the status quo. I don’t like the attacks on teachers. . . . [and] I don’t like the phony solutions that are now put forward that won’t improve our schools at all,” she countered, adding that the testing regime has put a lopsided focus on basic skills, crowding out subjects such as the arts, literature, history, geography, foreign languages, and physical education. “I don’t hear any of the corporate reformers expressing concern about the way standardized testing narrows the curriculum, the way it rewards convergent thinking and punishes divergent thinking, the way it stamps out creativity and originality.”
Regarding “dropout factories,” Ravitch stressed that such schools tend to serve high-need students, including those who don’t speak or read English or are otherwise far behind in their learning. She described many of these schools as being filled with heroic teachers and hard working administrators who do their best; to say these schools are worse than others because of their outsize dropout rates—”that’s like saying that an oncologist is not as good a doctor as a dermatologist because so many of his patients die,” she reasoned.
Having rebutted the Microsoft founder, Ravitch acknowledged that once upon a time, she liked charter schools because of their mission to serve those high-need students. But that thrust changed with No Child Left Behind, the federal education overhaul enacted in 2001, which rewards schools on the basis of test results and thus has induced charter schools to keep clear of students who might drag down their collective scores, she said. What’s surprising, she added, is that even though these publicly chartered schools can cherry-pick students, fire teachers at will, and fend off unions, study after study has shown that they still do not perform better than regular public schools. “It’s strange,” she remarked.
Ravitch defended the embattled teachers unions, dismissing the contention that they’re to blame for low-performing schools. The Texas native said that if this were true, then the Deep South, with the weakest unions, would have the best school systems in the country, while a state like Massachusetts, with robust unions, would have the worst schools. But the reverse is true, she said, drawing an extra roar of approval from the audience of mostly local teachers.
She lit into the recent trend toward shuttering public schools, usually in reaction to low test scores and high dropout rates. “No school was ever improved by closing,” she said. “I can tell you where it didn’t succeed—it didn’t succeed in Chicago.” An informed laughter rolled through the room: Ravitch was taking a swipe at Arne Duncan, the former Chicago schools chief who is now U.S. Secretary of Education and a protagonist of school closings in extreme circumstances. She pointed to research indicating that students who leave such low-performing schools see no improvement in their schoolwork.
The day after the lecture, Boston school superintendent Carol Johnson announced a plan to close or merge a dozen of the city’s schools. She cited economic reasons—schools with lagging enrollments—though she had previously remarked that such closings were needed to rescue students from underperforming programs. Some who turned out to hear Ravitch had received advanced word of the Johnson plan. Among them was Liz Malia ’71, a former teacher and since 1998 a Massachusetts state representative whose district includes parts of Dorchester, Roxbury, and other hard-pressed neighborhoods. In an interview, Malia was quick to note that public schools are closing at a time when the city is pumping more money into charter schools. “We’re bashing teachers,” she said, referring in general to policy makers and political leaders, “but we’re not offering real solutions about how to educate our kids.”
Before signing books and chatting with teachers until nearly 11:00 p.m., Ravitch left her audience with a sweeping agenda. “We need a national conversation” on poverty, she urged, highlighting the non-academic obstacles to learning, among them inadequate nutrition, housing, and medical care. “We should end high-stakes testing,” she insisted. “And every school should have a broad, rich, balanced curriculum.”
Her parting words were, “Don’t Agonize. Organize!”
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