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Ravitch Warns Obama on Education Policy: 'Change Course Before it is Too Late"

by Valerie Strauss

Education historian Diane Ravitch has been talking with thousands of people as she crisscrosses the country talking about education reform and her New York Times best-selling book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

I have written a lot about Ravitch recently because I think she occupies a unique place in the world of education. For years, she was part of the conservative wing of the education world, serving as an assistant secretary in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and becoming a vocal backer of the second President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative.

But after looking at the data -- one of the mantras of today's misguided education leaders -- Ravitch reversed her position on NCLB, calling it a failure. And she has become a strong critic of using business principles to run public school districts.

It is the rarest of education book that makes the best seller list, but Ravitch's reads like a scary novel with a plot that drives you to keep turning the page. It would be a great thriller -- if it weren't true.

I conducted an email interview with Ravitch to get an update on what she is encountering as she meets teachers and parents:

Q) I am interested in hearing what you are hearing and learning as you go around the country. Are you getting an earful? A) Over the past three months I have traveled from one end of the country to the other. All told, I have spoken to about 20,000 people, mostly teachers. They are deeply demoralized. They don't like [the $4 billion competition called Race to the Top; they don't like NCLB. They feel that education has been turned into a testing game, with all the life and creativity sucked out of it. Most of them worked for the election of [President] Obama and were hopeful that NCLB was finished.

Imagine how shocked they were to discover that Race to the Top continues the testing regime, expands the Republican push for charters, and now demands that teachers be evaluated by their students' test scores. So, teachers feel trapped. Wherever I go, people ask the same question: "What can we do to stop this madness? Who can we turn to? Who will speak for us?" I don't have very good answers for them, though I do my best to encourage them not to lose hope. Bottom line is that I have yet to encounter a teacher who feels hopeful about what is called "education reform" today. Instead, they see it as an attack on public education and on the teaching profession.

Q) Why do you think your book became a best seller? What space is it filling? A) My book is in its 7th printing in its first three months and it continues to do well. The book has a couple of important pluses: As a historian of education, I am able to explain the historical background of many current policies; readers like that. Also, I write for non-specialists; I avoid jargon. Readers like that too.

I truly think that its popularity has been driven by teachers and parents who are looking for an alternative narrative about the current era of "school reform." Teachers and parents don't understand why President Obama latched onto charters and testing, and my book provides historical context. I have received literally hundreds of emails from teachers thanking me for giving them hope. I am not sure why they find it hopeful, because the situation these days looks hopeless.

As a historian, I cling to the belief that bad ideas eventually lose steam and that evidence will eventually prevail. So much is at stake -- really, our children and our future as a nation -- that we can't afford to lose hope, to stop pushing for a broader, more generous conception of education. We must stop blaming the schools and teachers for social conditions that are beyond their control. We need a far better vision of education than NCLB, the Race or Obama's Blueprint [for school reform] offers.

Critics say that I am defending the status quo, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I have been a critic of the status quo since long before most of today's so-called reformers were born. We must lift our sights and recognize that no high-performing nation is tying its education system to basic skills testing and privatization.

Q) Who have you been meeting as you've been traveling? A) I have talked to anyone who wants to hear me, within the limits of my energy. My audiences are usually dominated by teachers. Many have already read my book. Frequently, I get a standing ovation before I begin speaking and then again when I conclude. I have been around for many, many years, and believe me, this is not what I expected or what I am used to. I have talked at universities, to administrators, to teachers' unions, to school board members, to students in education programs.

Wherever I have gone, the response has been the same: People are worried about what is happening today; they detest NCLB and they now realize that Race to the Top is more of the same and probably worse. My most interesting experience recently was as the keynote speaker at the Reverend Jesse Jackson's Rainbow-PUSH Coalition conference. The audience of parents, teachers, and students was very warm and welcoming. They are fearful for the future of public education. They are concerned that public schools in minority communities have been targeted for privatization, and they don't think this is a positive development.

Q) What specifically have teachers been saying to you? Parents? Principals? A) The story everywhere is the same. I hear that schools have become totally focused on state tests. People are sick of seeing education reduced to test scores. Everyone seems to recognize that standardized tests should be an indicator, not the end of education. They hate the idea that schools are being closed because of low test scores. They know that the schools likeliest to suffer are in low-income communities. They don't want to lose public education. Yet everyone--teachers, parents, administrators--feels helpless, not knowing where to turn because they are now up against a bipartisan consensus around bad ideas. Who will be their champion?

Every teacher knew about the firing of the entire staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island; every teacher that I encountered was dismayed that the mass firing was applauded by Secretary Duncan and President Obama. Even though the firing was eventually canceled, teachers got the message; what they heard was mean-spirited, punitive, and deeply indifferent to the real problems that teachers face today in struggling schools. I met young people preparing to teach who wondered whether they had chosen the wrong career, given the way that teachers are to blame if students don't get high scores.

Q) You know the history of education policy -- and the effects -- as well or better than anyone. What are the biggest mistakes the Obama administration is making right now? A) The biggest mistake they have made is that they bought into the consensus around high-stakes testing, this NCLB belief that someone must be punished if scores don't rise every year, especially "bad" teachers. They adopted Republican ideas about accountability and choice, and they have used Race to the Top to promote more privately managed schools and more high-stakes testing.

Living outside the Beltway, I am struck by the fact that the education think tanks in DC are like an echo chamber. Almost all share the "consensus," and because they agree with one another, they think they are right. The Obama administration bought into that consensus, and seems utterly tone-deaf to how their agenda is received outside the Beltway.

Teachers -- not just union leaders -- are unhappy, frustrated, and demoralized. So are parents, because they don't like the high-stakes testing regime either. They don't like that their children are losing time for the arts, science, history, geography, physical education, foreign languages, and everything that is not tested. They may not be well-informed, yet they know that their children are missing out on a good education.

Q) Have you met with any Obama administration officials? Members of Congress? What do you say? What did they say? A) I was recently invited to meet with high-level administration officials in the White House. I told them my concerns. I told them what I have heard from teachers and parents. They told me I was misinformed. I think they should listen more to the grassroots, not just to the think tanks and the media. Over the past few weeks, I have met with many Democratic members of Congress. I have met some really impressive members who understand how destructive the current "reform" movement is. Many agree with me that the emphasis on evaluating teachers will simply produce more teaching to the test, more narrowing the curriculum, more gaming the system. They have heard from their constituents, and they don't like what is going on.

But frankly, these same Congressmen and women tell me that they are probably helpless to stop the President's agenda. The Democratic leadership will give the President and Secretary Duncan what they want, and they will have the support of Republicans. That leaves the Democrats in a quandary. They were not happy to see Secretary Duncan campaigning for his approach with Newt Gingrich. Maybe it will turn out to be a winning strategy for Secretary Duncan. He may get what he wants. It just won't be good for American education or our kids.

Q) When the administration officials told you you were mistaken, what did they say you were mistaken about? A) I asked why they are pushing states to increase the number of charter schools, when studies and NAEP show that charters don't get better results on average than regular public schools; they said they are not pushing states to increase the number of charter schools. I was incredulous because many states lifted their charter caps in hopes of getting RTTT money. When I asked if they thought it was a good idea for state legislatures to set professional standards for evaluating teachers, they again disclaimed any connection with what states are doing to get RTTT money, even though the administration wrote the criteria and the states are responding to them.

Q) If you got a chance to talk to President Obama, what would you tell him? A) I would urge him to change course before it is too late. I would tell him that charter schools in the aggregate don't get better results than regular public schools. I would tell him that his push to have teachers evaluated by student test scores is wrong, and that standards for evaluation should be designed by professionals, not by politicians. I would urge him to stop using language of failing, punishing, closing, and firing and speak instead of improving, building, supporting, and encouraging.

I would urge him to think about ways of strengthening American public education because it is one of the foundational elements of our democracy. I would urge him to speak about the importance of a strong curriculum for all kids in every school, one that includes the arts, history, literature, foreign languages, civics, economics, physical education, science, and mathematics. I would urge him to recognize that high-stakes testing in basic skills steals time from everything else that should be taught and that it is thus undermining education. I would also implore him not to recommend testing every other subject, as there would soon be no time for instruction, only testing.

Q) Do you think there will be political consequences for the administration's education policy? A) The administration's alienation of teachers is a really bad idea politically. There are four million teachers, and they vote. They have families. There are retired teachers, who care deeply about our public education system. The President is heading into a tough mid-term election. I don't see the point of cultivating Republicans and endorsing their agenda of privatization and tough accountability, because they won't vote for him anyway. And I don't see the point of disrespecting public school teachers, who are one of his core constituencies.

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