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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 3/25/16

So Many Children Left Behind: Interview: Education Reformer Diane Ravitch

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Children deserve education and a future
Children deserve education and a future
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The American Public School system is dying a slow death. And many leading educators feel it is being poisoned by a drumbeat toward privatization -- marketed as choice -- along with a regimen of useless, costly, and sometimes racist testing programs that cater to a privileged class. Indeed, the battle cry for the last two administrations is choice/charter schools and privatization.

Among the most high profile educators and educational researchers raising her voice on the issue is Diane Ravitch, a research professor in education at New York University. Ravitch served as the Assistant Secretary of Education and as counselor to the Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993. She is the author of 10 books, including "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

In a recent interview, Secretary Ravitch expressed deep concern regarding the current presidential campaign's profound lack of attention to the failing K-12 public school system and the abject failure of the last two administration's attempts to mitigate the failures through an expanded program of privatization and a regime of costly and useless testing.

"For the past 15 years, the nation's public schools have been victims of the failed federal policies of the Bush and Obama administrations," said Ravitch. "15 years ago, Congress passed George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which required that every child in every year from 3rd grade to 8th grade had to be tested. There's no other country in the world that tests every child every year. It's just on overload. No Child Left Behind was supposed to close the achievement gaps, raise the graduation rates, and do all kinds of wonderful things. But none of the things it was supposed to do came true. So it was ... it became a toxic brand."

Ravitch and other critics of testing and choice assumed that, since the policy had failed so measurably under Bush Two, when Obama took the reins of power he would transform the policy. But according to Ravitch, the Obama administration put No Child Left Behind on steroids, and did so with the appointment of Arne Duncan, a charter school cheerleader, as Secretary of Education. Duncan pressed on with the policies of No Child Left Behind and expanded them under a new name, Race to the Top. According to Ravitch, it became a race to the bottom.

"When Obama ran for office many people, particularly educators thought he was going to change this policy, because it obviously failed," said Ravitch. "Schools were being closed around the country based on No Child Left Behind. Almost all the schools that are closed are schools in poor communities. They are schools where black and brown children go, especially poor kids. Then Obama came in, brought in Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education, and doubled down on No Child Left Behind. They announced a program called Race to the Top. And that turned out to be even more reliant on standardized testing than No Child Left Behind. At some point you have to realize the testing has driven education out of a classroom. Kids are spending hours and hours, weeks and months, preparing to take the test, because the tests are so consequential. Your school might be closed, the teachers might be fired, and the principal might be fired if the test scores don't go up every year. So this is where we are. It's been disastrous, and ... none of the candidates talk about education much. So Republicans want more of the same, and the Democrats hardly mention it at all."

Dennis Bernstein: Welcome. Thank you for joining, Secretary Ravitch.

Diane Ravitch: Good to be with you.

DB: Alright, let's talk, let's go a little bit deeper with the impact of this kind of testing regime that has dominated K-12 for the past 15 years. There are many reverberations, and several of them are quite disturbing.

Ravitch: Well, yeah. And the main thing that it does is to cement social class and racial differences, because the one thing that testing does very accurately is that it correlates with family income. The kids who come from advantaged families, where they travel, they have library cards, they read to the kids at night, they have all these advantages " these kids do best on standardized testing. This is not just in the United States, it's all over the world. The haves get the high test scores, the have-nots get the low test scores. So we're taking this measure, and saying you're a good student or a bad student, you failed, when what's being measured more than anything else is family income.

The impact that it's had on teaching has been horrendous. I have a blog that's had almost 26 million pages at this point, and most of my readers are teachers. And there's not a day that goes by without some teacher saying, "I can't stand it anymore. All I do is administer tests. I give pre-tests, I give post-tests, I give interim assessments." This is what education has turned into. And this doesn't help kids. They don't get better because the stakes are made higher. They don't get smarter, if you raise the bar. I mean, the Obama's administration's gift to America was the Common Core Standards and they've been a disaster everywhere, because the tests associated with the Common Core Standards were made so hard that kids in every state, the majority of the kids, have failed. And if you were teaching, as I know you once did, and most of your kids failed the test, they would say, "Well, what kind of test did you give?" You have to give a test that the kids have some chance of passing. Not that you dumb the test down, but you have to know if it's a test for 4th grade, it has to be for 4th grade level. You don't give a 6th grade test to 4th graders. And that's in effect what we've been doing all over the country because of Common Core.

DB: What's the financial cost of testing? And does it take away from, for instance, all the possibilities for art and music programs? Does the money go to testing programs?

Ravitch: Well, what's happened is that the test scores matter more than anything else in American education today, and that's been true for the past 15 years. And so more and more time is devoted to testing, and less time, fewer resources are available for art or for music, or almost anything. Most states in this country have been defunding education, dis-investing in education. I think that's because most of the governors now are very, very conservative Republicans. And they don't want to invest in education. They would rather privatize, and have vouchers, and have charters, and let people be paid to homeschool their children. Things of that kind. They don't want to invest in public education.

So public education is being hit by a tsunami. The tsunami is, first of all, this pressure to get higher scores every year, and the budget cuts which give you fewer resources and larger class size. And the emphasis on testing also means you lose your art teacher, you lose your music teacher, you lose your social worker. There are cities like Philadelphia that are virtually bankrupt. And the answers from the government, state government, has been "Well, let's have more charters." And then the charters start pulling money away from the public school system, and all over this country we have, except in the affluent communities, we have public schools going into a tail spin because of underinvestment and because the charter schools are sucking away, luring away, the kids who are likeliest to succeed, and pushing out the kids who have special needs, the kids with disabilities, and the kids who don't speak English. And that way the public schools are overburdened with the most expensive children to educate.

DB: Let's just talk a little more about the other side of the destruction of the public school system, and that's the so-called privatization, the charter schools. Now it was interesting, and you point this out in your recent writing, that Bernie Sanders, when he was asked about charter schools, said, "Well, I only like the public charter schools." The point is that it shows his incredible ignorance, and not that I don't have a great deal of respect for him, but in that context there really aren't any public charter schools, right? By the very nature of it.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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