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Diane Ravitch: Testing and Vouchers Hurt Our Schools. Here’s What Works

Education reformers have it all wrong, says Diane Ravitch, and keep pushing policies that make schools worse.

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Diane Ravitch has become one of the fiercest — and most lucid — critics of many commonly accepted ideas about education in America. Once a supporter of charter schools and the standardized testing movement that inspired George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, she now lambastes the tests as ineffective and even harmful to schools and children. With her new book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” the educational historian writes that the reform movement – pro-charter schools, anti-teacher unions, dedicated to teacher evaluations built on test scores — threatens to undermine democracy.

Ravitch has been derided by critics as a tool of the unions, an apologist for failing educators, and as a reductive thinker who doesn’t capture the complexity of the charter-school movement. But she is a hero to many teachers, who have not fared well in the fiery debates about the future of education.

Here, she describes her change of heart on testing and charter schools and takes on reform queen Michelle Rhee, Teach for America and the upcoming Common Core standards. She also offers up a very different vision for closing the ever-broadening achievement gap that threatens to derail our public education system and, quite possibly, our society.

She spoke to Salon from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., while dealing with a bad back.

Let me throw out what we hear on the radio on our drive home from work: Billions and billions of dollars spent without evidence of improvement; many teachers are just plain bad and it’s almost impossible to get rid of them because they’re so protected. Test scores are declining, students aren’t learning what they need to learn to compete in the world. Considering all of this, isn’t it time to just scrap it all and start over again?

Well, the problem is all of those assumptions are wrong. Test scores are not declining — I think they’re at their highest point in history.  High school graduation rates are at their highest point in history, and dropout rates are at their lowest point in history.  If you started out with those as your premise, people would say, “Wow, our schools are doing a great job.”  And if you recognize that where the scores are low, where there is a crisis in education, is where there is concentrated poverty and concentrated racial segregation. Nothing we’re doing now addresses either poverty or segregation, so we’re on a course that’s based on false premises with solutions that don’t recognize what the problem is.

Some, like Michelle Rhee — you have a whole chapter about her – would say that that’s just making excuses, that everything has to happen at school and focusing what happens in the home is taking the responsibility away from the schools. What would you have to say to an argument like that?

I’d say that the research is very clear that family is far more important than anything that happens in the school, and when the family is economically secure and when the parents are educated and when they pay attention to what happens to their children, their children get higher test scores. When families live in poverty and their kids don’t get medical checkups, and they have eye problems, ear problems, asthma, they have lower scores.  That’s just a reality. That’s not an excuse.

So obviously healthcare would be incredibly important to you for closing the achievement gap, but what about home culture, too?  I’ve worked at two schools in urban areas. There is a sense that education has to be entertaining all the time. Many of the students’ attention spans are very, very short and motivating them can be hard. What can be done about problems like that?