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Administrator Magazine: Profile/Interview
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Alexander Russo Interviews Diane Ravitch

Enough with the quick fixes.

Historian and former U.S. Department of Education official Diane Ravitch surprised the education world last spring when she released her book rejecting many popular school reform ideas—including charters and test-based accountability—that she herself had long promoted. Watching the effects of reforms on her hometown, New York City, as well as at the national level, the 72-year-old Ravitch became an unlikely enemy of Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and other national education ideas. Her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, hit a nerve, selling out in many places and generating big crowds during a lengthy book tour. This fall, the feisty Ravitch aims to get Washington to change course before it's too late.

Q What's wrong with school reform today?
A So much of today's reforms are just quick fixes that will do nothing to improve education in the long run, especially for the neediest students.

Q Why has your new book been so controversial?
A There I was, a prominent proponent of testing, accountability, and choice, now renouncing these ideas because of their by-now evident limitations.

Q What's wrong with measuring the results that schools generate, as long as we're careful about how we interpret them?
A I have no problem with tests, as long as the tests measure what students know and can do, rather than rely on test prepping and bubble-guessing. My issue is not with measurement, but with how measurements are used. At present, the numbers derived from tests are used to punish teachers and principals and close schools. I see no evidence to support this use (or misuse) of testing data.

Q What about using multiple measures to evaluate students and schools?
A Everyone agrees that teachers and students should be judged by multiple measures, but in the end only the test results get compiled, reported, and acted on. And that's wrong.

Q Do you see similarities between the Obama and Bush administrations on education issues?
A There is very little difference between them in terms of their devotion to seeing education as a marketplace that needs incentives and sanctions.

Q What's the worst kind of overreliance on accountability and choice that you've seen-one scenario that proves your view to even the most diehard choice proponents?
A The story of Milwaukee is instructive. Milwaukee is the district that was the showplace for choice. Choice proponents said that competition would cause the public schools to improve, that a rising tide would lift all boats. A study last April from a nonpartisan research group at the University of Arkansas concluded that voucher students were not gaining any more than students in the other sectors. The 2009 NAEP scores of black students in that city were no better than or worse than those of black students in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. There was no rising tide; no boats were lifted.

Q What role does the media play in promoting reforms that may not be effective?
A The media regularly purveys the myth that charter schools are a panacea for poor kids and will close the achievement gap. Most people are not aware that some charters are worse than ordinary public schools. Most people have no understanding of the broad variability in the charter movement, from some excellent schools at one extreme to abysmal ones at the other. Most do not know that the charter sector on the whole does not outperform those in the regular public sector, and that on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, students in charters have never outperformed regular public schools, not among black students, Hispanic students, low-income students, or students in urban districts. Nor does the media ask penetrating questions about the long-term consequences of privatization of education for our society.

Q Have you seen any concrete responses to your arguments?
A The response to my book by educators has frankly overwhelmed me. I have spoken to administrators, teachers, parents, and school board members and received amazing concurrence and support. Even lawmakers have quietly told me that they agree.


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