Diane Ravitch in Boston

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch in Boston: Resist “Race to the Top,”
Defend Public Education

By Jackie Dee King

Nationally renowned education scholar Diane Ravitch called on Massachusetts teachers and their allies in early April to resist the destructive education policies sweeping the country, including those pushed by the Obama administration as requirements for receiving federal “Race to the Top” funds.

“What good is it to get these federal grants if they can only be used to fund harmful policies?” she asked hundreds of teachers, parents and local officials gathered at the Boston Teachers Union headquarters in Dorchester on April 5.

“We live in a time of national madness” in education policy, she told the audience, which erupted repeatedly in applause.

Ravitch deplored the “test and punish” direction of policy under Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan: the intensified use of high-stakes standardized tests to determine student and school progress; the closing of “underperforming schools,” firing of teachers, “moving kids around like pieces on a checkerboard,” and aggressive pursuit of charter schools as a panacea to all problems in education. Duncan began to implement these policies when he was CEO of the Chicago public schools, she noted, and they are now being touted as a model for the nation.

Ravitch has been touring the country to promote her best-selling book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” From Chicago to Boston to Los Angeles, the response, especially from educators, has been wildly enthusiastic. More than 1,000 people attended her April session at the National School Boards Association in Chicago and gave her a standing ovation. “Teachers love her—because she tells the truth,” said Tom Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Massachusetts, after her talk in Boston. Ravitch explains that teachers are demoralized as never before in their professional lives; they feel they are being scapegoated for problems in American education, and for many of the broader ills in society.

“Public Education is more in jeopardy than at any time in history”
–Diane Ravitch

Ravitch herself once espoused some of the views she now criticizes, such as increased testing and school choice. (She served as Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration.) In recent years, she has come under fire by conservatives for her change of heart. In response, she quotes John Maynard Keynes who was rebuked for his reversal on a key economic issue: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

Ravitch said she had hoped that accountability and choice would strengthen public education, and instead they are being used to attack and destroy it. “Public education is more in jeopardy than at any time in history,” she noted. While tests can be valuable as diagnostic tools, they should not be used for “accountability” purposes such as decisions about student graduation, teacher pay, or school closings—they are neither valid nor reliable for those uses.

Teachers are under attack as never before, Ravitch warned, citing the case of Central Falls, Rhode Island, where the entire staff of a struggling school was recently dismissed. Ravitch talked to a top Rhode Island administrator, who told her about a thoughtful teacher evaluation process that had recently been developed. However, that process was thrown out and the staff was told they would have to reapply for their jobs. “Here we have a poor community, many non-English-speaking students, the school is struggling. Is help on the way? No, they just fire everyone,” Ravitch said. (Since then, the staff has been rehired, after teachers made most of the contract concessions the district superintendent had demanded.)

Teachers’ unions are being demonized, Ravitch said. She herself has been attacked by many conservatives for being too supportive of teachers’ unions. “In general, I don’t pay much attention, but every now and then I like to dip in to these sites and ask them, ‘Have you found a high-performing school district yet in which the teachers are not unionized?’ So far, they haven’t come up with a single example,” she noted. “The non-unionized areas of the country are generally the lowest performing districts for students.”

In her book, Ravitch writes that one of the constants in her long career has been her strong belief in high standards—meaning a rigorous and well-rounded curriculum for all students in literature, history, math, science, geography, foreign languages, and the arts. But the standards movement has been hijacked by the “accountability” movement, she points out, and as a result education has been degraded, especially for low-income children. In many inner-city schools, the demands of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law have led to a narrowed curriculum, with real learning replaced by drill-and-kill exercises to increase test scores in math and English.

NCLB mandate that all children be “proficient” in math and English, according to state tests, by the year 2014 was an unrealistic goal that set public schools up for failure, Ravitch said. Schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress toward that goal were to be subject to increasingly severe sanctions – even to closure – and would be replaced by charter schools or private management. (While the Obama administration’s new regulations will not include the 2014 mandate, and will lift some of the most onerous requirements from higher performing schools, those in the bottom 5%—actually the bottom 20% which bob in and out of that lowest 5%—will still be subject to the same penalties.) “We are turning many of our most vulnerable children over to private enterprise,” she said, “and many neighborhoods won’t have any public schools anymore.”

National studies have repeatedly shown that, as a general rule, charter schools do not outperform regular public schools for any demographic group, and many do worse, Ravitch noted. A national 2009 study by researchers at Stanford University found that, of charter school students examined, 37% had learning gains that were significantly below that of local public schools, 46% had similar gains, and only 17% showed growth that was significantly better. While there is no doubt that many public schools, especially those serving low-income students, need significant improvements and creative reforms, these studies show that turning public schools over to charter operators is not a universal answer, she argued. Even though some charters do a good job of educating children, it is not clear that they are replicable on a wide scale. For one thing, charters often attract the most motivated students in a district, and they retain the ability to “counsel out” low-performing or disruptive students, who then go back into the regular public schools.

Yet Massachusetts legislators passed an education “reform” bill this winter which lifted the statewide cap on charter schools. The law was designed to conform to the requirements of the “Race to the Top” competition, in the hope of winning millions of education dollars for the state. School districts and teachers’ unions were under tremendous pressure to buy in to the program, dubbed by some as a “Dash to the Cash” or a “Race to the Trough.” While the new law instituted sweeping and expensive changes in policy (the charter schools are paid for out of funds that would otherwise have gone to regular public schools) Massachusetts so far has not won any new funds from the federal program (though it has reapplied for a second round). Only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, received the federal grants in the first round, but the Obama administration continues to dangle the prospect of future money before cash-strapped states – providing them with just enough incentive to continue on a path of testing, penalties, and privatization.

Ravitch ends a recent EdWeek blog post with a rousing call for political leadership to help reverse direction in education policy: “Everywhere I go, the same questions come up: Who will step up and lead the vast and widespread opposition to current policies? Who will give voice to the disempowered teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members who know we are headed in the wrong direction? Where is the political leader who will take this struggle to the next level?”

Until that call for elected leadership is answered, Diane Ravitch herself is proving to be remarkably effective in galvanizing audiences in support of the profound changes we need in national education policy. The rest is up to us.


Ravitch is a Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has worked with both Republican and Democratic Administrations. From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education under Lamar Alexander in the George H.W. Bush administration. President Clinton appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing. She is the author of more than 20 books published over a period of four decades. For further exploration of the issues raised here, visit her Ed Week blog Bridging Differences, for a discussion with Deborah Meier.

Jackie Dee King is co-editor of The Backpack, a Board Member of Citizens for Public Schools, and a former statewide coordinator of the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (MassCARE Inc.).