Teachers, Superman and the ‘anti-Michelle Rhee’

Education historian Diane Ravitch says education reformers are killing the American school system

You’ve seen Waiting for Superman and were thrilled at education-reform superstar and part-time Sacramentan Michelle Rhee roughing up those bad teachers.

Bill Gates too is spreading the gospel of more testing and technology in the classroom. Even President Barack Obama is getting in on the school-reform act. He followed No Child Left Behind reforms with his own Race to the Top initiative, raising the stakes even higher for schools who lag on test scores.

The testing-and-accountability craze has swept the nation—but here and there are pockets of resistance, led by education historian Diane Ravitch. She was assistant secretary of education under Bush I, and was once a believer in testing and charter schools. She now also believes that Rhee and Gates and the other would-be reformers are actually hurting education, as she lays out in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch is coming to Sacramento speak about the state of public education on Friday, January 20, at the Sacramento Convention Center. For more information, go to www.sacteachers.org

You once believed in choice and testing and “market-based” school reforms. How has your thinking changed?

I’ve always been a critic of public schools and still am. I think they can be much better. When I went to work in the first Bush administration—that was in 1991 and ’92—I was supportive in general of the idea that testing was a good thing, that accountability was a good thing.

I describe in the book how I went to a meeting of a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., called the American Enterprise Institute. The day was devoted to how No Child Left Behind is doing. This was in 2006, so it was five years in. There were a dozen people who gave papers: They all described how it was not working. It’s not working in California. It’s not working in New Jersey, it’s not working in Miami, it’s not working in the rural areas. This went on all day long. My conclusion was, it’s not working.

So, once I crossed that bridge, I started seeing things somewhat differently. I began to watch the stories coming across my computer about districts eliminating the arts, districts cutting back on everything except what is tested. Kids were getting higher scores, but they didn’t know anything about the state they were living in.

You’re not just saying charter schools and school choice aren’t working well. You’re saying they are actually undermining education.

In the charter world, there’s this tremendous variety. Some charters, the people running them are earnestly trying to help kids who have tremendous needs.

Other charters have very high [test] scores and they are getting them by excluding low-performing kids. That’s one way charters can produce high scores and say, “Look how great we are, we deserve more charters and more funding.” But if you get great results by kicking out the low performers, that creates a burden on public education. There comes a point, almost an existential moment, where you say. “Do we value public education, and what’s the end game here?”

But parents don’t want to send their kids to neighborhood schools that are “failing” or struggling on their test scores.

Once you say we’re going to rank and rate and grade schools, you’ve got a problem. Rank 500 schools, nobody is going to want to go to the bottom 250, but not everyone can crowd into the top 250.

There’s an effort to take schools out of the public sector and make it this free-market activity, where it’s all about consumers and choice. If you don’t like this hamburger, you go to a different hamburger store. If the hamburger store doesn’t make enough profits, you close it and open another one.

Well, there are some services in our society that should not be market driven. I wouldn’t want the fire department or the police department or the public beaches or the public parks to be market driven. People ought to have good public services, even if their own incomes are not the highest in the district.

Well, what about that? There are poor neighborhoods, where the schools don’t have the same programs. The scores are low. Do you say to those families, “Well, that’s the neighborhood you live in, that’s the school you get”?

The problem with school choice is that it can never solve the problems. Low test scores are related more to poverty than to anything else. You can have very good teachers in a school that has very low test scores. Kids coming from affluence have huge advantages and kids coming from poverty are behind the eight ball. If we did something about poverty, we’d see schools improve dramatically.

But is that a cop-out? Should educators and school-board members and parents say, “Well, poverty is the problem,” and throw up their hands?

No. We need to make sure kids show up to school healthy and ready to learn. Early childhood education is a great investment. Smaller class sizes are particularly important for kids who are poor and kids who are minority. These are hugely important investments we ought to be making. Instead, we’re ignoring what we know works and going for more vouchers and more charters. It’s truly a cop-out to say school choice is going to solve the problems of poverty.

There’s another camp that says it’s not about poverty, that what we need is “highly effective teachers.”

The term “effective teacher” has come to mean, “Who can produce the higher test score?” Sometimes they produce a higher test score by just drill, drill, drill and deadening children’s interest in learning altogether. This is why we see so many people going through, passing test after test, who when they get to community college, need remediation in reading, writing and math.

I think testing is valuable. I’m not opposed to testing. What I’m opposed to is the misuse of testing. Testing is misused when it becomes the basis of handing out rewards and punishments.

Should teacher evaluations be based on test scores?

You might take a kid’s test scores into account, but to pass a law saying that it should count for 50 percent, that’s ridiculous. What does the Legislature know about whether it should be 50 percent or 12 percent or 90 percent or zero percent? This just de-professionalizes teaching.

There’s at least the perception that the evaluation system for teachers is not very meaningful, there’s no merit involved, and unions protect bad teachers.

There’s a lot of turnover in the early years of teaching. Within the first five years, something in the neighborhood of 40 percent of teachers are gone. So to say that teachers never get fired is simply not true.

Once teachers are tenured, no, they don’t have a right to a lifetime job, they have a right to due process. Of course, teachers should be evaluated. Incompetent teachers should be fired. If tenured, they should have due process before they are fired, have an impartial hearing. If he process drags on too long, then the process should be streamlined.

Now, if too many people are being granted tenure, and they’re not competent, you have to wonder about the quality of leadership. What are they being given tenure if they weren’t competent teachers?

Related to that is the issue of seniority and last-in-first-out-rules: Does seniority hurt poor schools more?

It’s a complicated issue. But ask yourself: Do you want your lawyer to be a partner in a law firm or a third-year law student? When you go to the hospital, do you want to be treated by an intern or by a doctor? The attack on [last-in-first-out] is funded very heavily by the corporate types who love the idea of being able to fire anybody for any reason at any time.

If it hurts poor schools to have a lot of inexperienced teachers, well, it hurts everybody to have inexperienced teachers.

The leadership of the district ought to make sure there’s a cadre of experienced teachers at every school. They’re the ones with experience. They’re the mentors, they are the leaders. They are the ones who make their school tick. They are the ones that the young people need in order to learn their craft.

I thought they learned the craft from the paid consultants that the district hires.

Right. Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind have created immense funds for outside people to make money selling services to schools that may or may not be needed. Someone one referred to NCLB as No Consultant Left Behind.

Is Race to the Top at all mitigating the problems of No Child Left Behind?

No, it’s making them worse. Race to the Top has set off this frenzy of using test scores to judge teachers. The first thing that any test publisher will tell you is, the test should be used only for the purpose for which it was designed. A fifth-grade reading test will tell you whether the students in your class are reading at a fifth-grade level. It won’t tell you anything about whether the kids have a good teacher.

I’ve seen you described as the “anti-Michelle Rhee.”

Well, I certainly don’t agree with her on many things that she says. We were on a panel last summer. She always goes into this thing about [the importance of] “three great teachers in a row.”

But there’s no evidence for that. That study is full of holes. And if it were true, which it’s not, one would expect to see somewhere a school or a district that had proven it. But there is none.

This kind of rhetoric turns out to be very anti-teacher. To continually say, we need great teachers, and all their great teachers turn out to be one semester removed from college.