Don’t Call It Reform

An Interview with Diane Ravitch
Former Assistant Secretary of Education, author of “Slaying Goliath,” Diane Ravitch (Jack Miller, Miller Photo 2019)

Diane Ravitch, founder and president of the Network for Public Education, is a research professor of education at New York University and a historian of education. From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education in the administration of President George H. W. Bush. Her new book is Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, in which she details the work of parents, advocates, teachers, and others in opposing efforts by the federal government and private interests to remake public education through high-stakes testing, charter schools, and other initiatives. The following is an edited transcript of her interview with Commonweal editor Dominic Preziosi for the Commonweal Podcast.

Dominic Preziosi: You contend in your book that the resistance to the reform-and-privatization movement in public education has succeeded. But before we talk about the victory of the resistance, maybe you could provide a quick history of what you criticize as the “so-called reform movement” itself: its major influencers, the role of philanthropic capital, and the people you identify disapprovingly as the “disruptors.”

Diane Ravitch: Public education has always been a local and a state responsibility, and the federal government was there in the background providing support, but not telling people how to teach, what to teach, when to test, how to test, and so forth. That’s changed in the past twenty years; there has been greater federal intrusion thanks to this narrative that “public schools are failing.” We’ve been hearing this now since a report came out in 1983, during the Reagan administration, saying that public education was mediocre and there was a crisis. It turned out that report was wrong. Public education was not failing. If you look back from 1983 to the present, our society has been in crisis because of the widening inequality in income and wealth and a dramatic increase in poverty—child poverty in particular. We now have 40 percent to 50 percent of our children, according to official government statistics, living in some state of poverty.

This has a dramatic impact on the schools, particularly on test scores. So there was a movement that really got going in the mid-1980s. And then the big change was the passage of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan, which said that we should test every child every year and give rewards to schools or recognition to schools where the scores went up, and punish schools, even to the extent of closing them, where scores went down. That program was then “enhanced” and made even worse by Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” program, and so we’ve been living with the effects of this high-stakes testing and the belief that privatization is a remedy for poor test performance.

The thing with standardized tests is that over the past twenty years we have invested literally billions of dollars in testing every child from third grade to eighth grade, and we have nothing to show for it. All this emphasis on standardized testing has enriched the testing corporations, but it has not produced any change in the relative standing of the states nor has it closed achievement gaps between the rich and the poor or between black and white kids or Asian and other kids.

Politicians have operated on the theory that the more you test kids, and the harder the tests are, the smarter the kids will get. And that turns out to be a ridiculous proposition. It’s simply not true. So we’ve wasted a huge amount of money on testing, and it’s corrupted the classroom. Many schools have deemphasized the teaching of history and civics and the arts. Many schools have dropped recess: there’s no time for play because children have to prepare for the tests.

You also have some of the richest people in America, some of the leading billionaires, like Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, the DeVos family [of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos], and many others who decided that since American education was broken, it was up to them to fix it. I could go on with the list of billionaires and corporations that, though none had any public-school experience, have decided they know how to fix American education. All of their ideas involve privatization and usually corporate takeovers of schools.

And what my book concludes is that after twenty years of this experimentation, it has been a disastrous failure. It has not achieved any of its promises.

After twenty years of this experimentation, privatization has been a disastrous failure. It has not achieved any of its promises.

DP: I think people generally understand what the reformers said they were trying to do in terms of parental choice and charters, standardizing on core measures, and emphasizing teacher accountability. But since you raise the idea of privatization, I wonder if you could draw the link between how this push for reform led to ideas like the monetization and privatization of public education. You mention in your book, for instance, the reformers using terms like “opportunities of scale” and “market penetration” in their approach to public education.

DR: Well, one of the problems that’s arisen in the past twenty years is the shift of control and power from educators to businesspeople, and politicians have welcomed the entry of entrepreneurs. So there are many charter schools, for example, that are run by entrepreneurs. There are charter chains that are corporate-run, and though there may be an educator somewhere along the line, the owners and leaders of the chains are in many instances not educators. They’re businessmen.

And so in the charter world you have incredible deals where property changes hands. The one corporation buys the property, leases that to another branch of the same corporation. A lot of self-dealing and conflict of interest. I’ve documented this all over the country: it’s rampant in states like Florida, Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. And even though they say they’re “not for profit,” money is changing hands, and in some cases, the CEO is making $600,000 or $700,000.

There’s also a debate about accountability. In California, in the spring of 2019, the biggest charter scandal in history occurred. Two entrepreneurs who had created a charter chain were indicted for the theft of $50 million. They were paying people in small districts to sign up kids or to put their names down as students in athletic programs for which they were getting reimbursed by the state, but there were no athletic programs, and no one knew because no one was checking. One of the problems in the charter sector is the lack of oversight, but charter advocates say they can only succeed if they have no regulation. And when there is no regulation, no oversight, and no accountability, they say, well, that’s what gives them the freedom to innovate. In fact, that’s what gives grifters the freedom to steal. And so you can’t have it both ways. If you want government money, you have to have oversight. You have to have regulation. You have to be sure that the money is being spent the way it’s supposed to be spent and not spent on the administrative overhead or going into the bank account of the person running the place.

DP: One of the most compelling sections of your book is when you talk about terms like “disruption” and “entrepreneurialism” and point out that you can’t use these terms when it comes to public education. How can you measure “disruption” or apply a metric to engaging with a work of literature? How is it that the language of the reform movement seemed to seduce so many?

DR: I’m always hesitant to call them “reformers,” and I draw the distinction between real reformers and these folks. They call these folks “reformers” because this is a poll-tested word. We all know that reform means good. In American history, the reformers were always the good guys. They were the ones who wanted to make things better. And so there’s a long history in education that reformers want teachers to be paid more. They wanted desegregation. They wanted to get rid of the kind of backward ideas about dinosaurs riding around with people on their backs. They wanted to have modern education where professionals were well compensated.

But these reformers instead pushed for testing. Or for hiring young teachers who will stay for a year or two and then go away. They’re really attacking the teaching profession as such. They despise unions. The folks who call themselves reformers really want to privatize public education, and that is why they use the term “disruption.” I remember listening to the CEO of a major tech company say, “We disrupt our company every two years.” And I thought, that’s fine. You know, if that’s what you want to do, go ahead and do it. And if it makes you better, do it, but please leave the children alone. Children and families don’t want disruption. Schools don’t need disruption. Schools need to have steadiness of purpose. They need to have very competent and experienced educators, and they need to have stability for the children.

DP: We’ve talked about what you identify as the failings of reform. Your book highlights the resistance movement. Could you say what ended up lighting the match for the resistance? Who are some of the forces and players? Was it the striking teachers we’ve seen over the past couple of years? Informed educators who are becoming more vocal? The army of bloggers like yourself who are proponents of public education?

DR: For me the turning point was two years ago in February 2018 when the West Virginia teachers walked out en masse. Every single teacher in the state—and this in a right-to-work state where teachers are not allowed to strike. Every single teacher walked out of their classroom and showed up at the state capital to demand not only higher pay, but better working conditions and better learning conditions. They also took a strong stand against charter schools. This was very inspiring, not only to me, but to people and teachers all over the country. And that lit a flame that went from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles. I don’t think this is over. This will continue because teachers have now seen this, a picture of the power that they have when they unite, when they stand together for their demands.

The bloggers have given tremendous heart to the resistance. And what I did in this book was to single out people who either single-handedly or with a small number of allies made a huge difference.

DP: How long have you had your blog?

DR: I started my blog in 2012, after I had written a book about my very serious change of mind. I had worked on the conservative side for many years. I was an advocate of all the things that I now criticize. I worked in the administration of George H. W.  Bush, and I supported high-stakes testing. I thought that it would lead to better outcomes. I supported charter schools and I knew all the people in the beginning who were on that side.

But I was never too sure about vouchers. I have to say I’ve always been a very strong supporter of Catholic schools, but I’m not in favor of vouchers, so I have interesting conversations with my many Catholic friends about my belief that Catholic school should be supported by private philanthropy. Since Melinda Gates [wife of Bill Gates] is a graduate of Catholic schools, I think they should set aside about $2 billion as a permanent endowment fund to keep Catholic education alive.

There’s not a single strategy or methodology that the reformers have promoted that has any record of success.

DP: I’m wondering if you might be able to speak to a couple other issues challenging public education. There’s the issue of de facto segregation, for instance, where well-off communities and districts that are mostly white tend to dominate and perpetuate their control of what they identify as good schools. There are wealthy PTAs that are able to create what almost amounts to private schools within the public system. What can be done to keep public education both public and equal?

DR: I think it’s going to be difficult, and it’s difficult because there is not just residual racism, but outright racism, where people who have privilege don’t want to give it up. It’s a tough problem, but it is not insoluble. I think there are creative ways of rezoning districts. But it may involve state solutions. One of my fantasies is that when the Obama administration came up with “Race to the Top,” instead of promising federal money for adopting the Common Core and agreeing to evaluate teachers by test scores, what if they said—or what if the next Secretary of Education were to say—here’s $5 billion and we’re going to have a national contest, and the money will go to the states that come up with the best plans for desegregation? It might involve rezoning and might involve different ways of approaching housing, but it will be one that we can actually do.

I think that if we want to have a better society, we’re going to really have to address the issues of poverty and segregation head-on, and the longer we put it off, the more urgent it will become. We could do it now if there were the will to do it. But under the current administration, there is no will to advance integration. There’s also no will to do anything about civil rights in general.

DP: Getting back to the title of your book: Is Goliath really dead?

DR: Goliath is dead for sure. There’s not a single strategy or methodology that the reformers have promoted that has any record of success. So when you come in and say, we’re going to reinvent public education and we have the answers, and then it turns out that all of your answers are wrong, it means that you are basically not even a Goliath. You’re just a big empty-headed monster.

But the thing that’s propping Goliath up is the vast amounts of money behind it. There’s one other point I want to make because I think it’s important. The attack on public education is not isolated. This is also part of an attack on everything that’s public. People like Betsy DeVos, Charles Koch, Bill Gates, whether they mean well or not, what they’re doing is very damaging to the public sector in general. Think of something better to do. I think that if they’re as well-intended as I believe Bill Gates is, he can use his money to open health clinics in every impoverished community, because one of the reasons kids do poorly on tests is because they’re in poor health and they don’t see a doctor. The Walton family, which is the single biggest funder of charter schools, is worth $150 billion dollars, and they have 1 million low-wage workers. If they really wanted to help children, they could raise their 1 million workers’ wages to $20 an hour. If parents have a steady job where they’re paid $20 an hour, that would make a huge difference in terms of children’s ability to do well in school. So there are things we can do and we don’t have to wait generations to do them. But I think we have to persuade the billionaires to stop attacking the public sector.

Published in the March 2020 issue: 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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