ISTHMUS: Schools expert warns Wisconsin off privatization, high-stakes testing

November 7, 2013
Catherine Capellaro
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Don't expect Diane Ravitch to pull any punches when she takes the podium Nov. 14 at the Orpheum Theater. The former assistant secretary of education is on a mission to expose the threat she says privatization poses to our nation's public schools.

Ravitch's newest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, and her acerbic chart the country's recent education trajectory. The New York University education professor believes people from both sides of the aisle have pursued wrongheaded education policies, using test-based accountability to punish teachers and schools. As a result, education has become a big business, and bashing schools and teachers a national obsession.

Less than a decade ago, Ravitch promoted many of the same policies she now rails against. As assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, and then as head of the federal testing program, she led the charge for state and national academic standards and supported ideas of "choice" and merit pay. "I believed in those things because in theory they made a lot of sense," Ravitch says when I ask about her dramatic about-face. "It sounds right that if you pay teachers a bonus they'll get higher scores. It just doesn't work."

Ravitch went public with her change of heart in her 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. In her new book, she uses data to rebut arguments for market-based solutions to education problems.

"When you look at the data, the test scores have never been higher in the last 40 years," says Ravitch. "Dropouts have never been lower than they are today."

Real gaps

"The achievement gap is real," Ravitch told me when I brought up Madison's racial and economic disparities.

She points to research showing the only time the black-white achievement gap has narrowed was in the late 1970s and early 1980s because of concerted efforts to desegregate schools, reduce class size, increase access to early childhood education and target federal resources to schools with low-income students.

But today's leaders have abandoned solutions that work, says Ravitch, who comes down as hard on President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan as she does on conservatives. "Our policymakers have given up on reducing class size," she adds, saying she visits classes with up to 40 students. "Are there expanding opportunities for African American families? Our society has thrown up its hands, and we're resegregating.

"The biggest crime is that a quarter of our children are living in poverty. All these gaps are tied to socioeconomics. If we didn't have the gap in poverty, we wouldn't have the gaps -- or the gaps would be random, and they would not be very large."

When I tell Ravitch about the Urban League of Greater Madison's unsuccessful attempt to open a charter school for students who are falling through the cracks, she retorts: "What are the Urban League's credentials to run a school? All this is about is taking professionals from education."

When I explain that the board for Madison Preparatory Academy was populated with such luminaries as UW education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ravitch holds firm. "I think you work within the public school system. I don't think you create a different school. It might work here, but where do you draw the lines with the parceling out of public funds to private individuals and entities?"

Ravitch says to look no further than Milwaukee, where the 23-year-long voucher experiment has left public schools strapped for resources. She says research has yet to prove voucher schools are more effective than public schools, especially at educating low-income black students, a main target of voucher school proponents.

In June, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a statewide voucher program that will provide tuition assistance to 500 students this school year and expand it to 1,000 in the 2014-15 school year.

"Where is the miracle of vouchers that it needed to be expanded to more kids?" asks Ravitch. "It's the camel's nose under the tent. They have no intention of stopping."

Common Core critic

Madison's new schools superintendent, Jennifer Cheatham, is a strong backer of the Common Core State Standards, a controversial set of national standards that 45 states, including Wisconsin, have adopted. Ravitch has been out front with her critique, saying the standards make the United States "a nation of guinea pigs."

Ravitch dislikes the "undemocratic way in which Common Core was imposed." States needed to adopt the Common Core standards to qualify for Race to the Top funds or opt out of No Child Left Behind testing requirements.

"Is it good? I don't know. It's never been tested. Why wasn't there a field test before this was imposed?"

Ravitch says tests aligned to the Common Core standards are so difficult that massive numbers of students are almost guaranteed to fail when the tests are implemented here. In New York state, only 30% of students taking the tests reached "proficiency."

Microsoft mogul Bill Gates has poured nearly $150 million into the development of Common Core, says Ravitch, and no matter how well intentioned the effort, she sees a problem. "He owns every part of it. He paid to have it created, written, evaluated. Now he pays lots of organizations to support it. I think there's a problem in a democracy when one man who has so many billions of dollars has that much power."

Wakeup call

Ravitch has structured Reign of Error as a rebuke to those who use the rhetoric of school failure to promote a privatization agenda. But saying schools aren't failing isn't the same as accepting the status quo. A vocal supporter of teachers unions, Ravitch says we need to pull together as a nation to support and improve public schools.

It should be harder than it is to become a teacher, for example, and the mission of public schools should be "making sure our children come to school healthy and prepared to learn, making sure our teachers are well prepared."

Ravitch says her book is a "wake-up call" for Democrats, who she believes have lost their way. "The Democratic agenda was always an equity agenda, reducing inequality. Testing was not part of the Democratic agenda; improving teaching was."

In the end, Ravitch's message is simple: She believes in our public schools and wants them to succeed. "Everything we're been told is a crisis is not a crisis. The crisis of our society is not a school crisis; it's a failure to do the right thing."

Editor's note: Ravitch's visit to Madison has been cancelled due to illness.

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