Ravitch: Standardized Testing Undermines Teaching

April 28, 2011

NPR Staff

Emrah Turudu

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch was once an early advocate of No Child Left Behind, school vouchers and charter schools.

In 2005, she wrote, "We should thank President George W. Bush and Congress for passing the No Child Left Behind Act ... All this attention and focus is paying off for younger students, who are reading and solving mathematics problems better than their parents' generation."

But four years later, Ravitch changed her mind.

"I came to the conclusion ... that No Child Left Behind has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools — or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not — because I always knew children's test scores are far more complicated than the way they're being received today."

No Child Left Behind required schools to administer yearly state standardized tests. Student progress on those tests was measured to see if the schools met their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals. Schools missing those goals for several years in a row could be restructured, replaced or shut down.

"The whole purpose of federal law and state law should be to help schools improve, not to come in and close them down and say, 'We're going to start with a clean slate' because there's no guarantee that the clean slate's going to be better than the old slate," says Ravitch. "Most of the schools that will be closed are in poor or minority communities where large numbers of children are very poor and large numbers of children don't speak English. They have high needs. They come from all kinds of difficult circumstances and they need help — they don't need their school closed."

In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch criticizes the emphasis on standardized testing and closing schools as well as the practice to replace public schools with charter schools. One reason, she says, is the increasing emphasis on privatization.

"What has happened ... is that [charter schools have] become an enormous entrepreneurial activity and the private sector has moved in," she says. "So there are now charter chains where the heads are paying themselves $300,000 [or] $400,000 [or] $500,000 a year. They compete with regular public schools. They do not see themselves as collaborators with public schools but business competitors and in some cases, they actually want to take away the public school space and take away the public school business."

Ravitch says that charter schools undercut the opportunities for public schools, making public school students feel like "second-class citizens."

"Regular public school parents are angry because they no longer have an art room, they no longer have a computer room — whatever space they had for extra activities gets given to the charters and then they have better facilities. They have a lot of philanthropic money behind them — Wall Street hedge fund managers have made this their favorite cause. So at least in [New York City] they are better-funded ... so they have better everything."

But change in the public schools is possible, says Ravitch, if parents work together.

"In the neighborhood where I live in Brooklyn, there was a school that was considered a bad public school and it enrolled many children from a local public housing project," she says. "But parents in the neighborhood who were middle-class parents and were educated people banded together and decided, 'Well, if we all send our child to the local public school, it will get better.' And it did get better and it's now one of the best schools in the city. So yes, you can change the neighborhood school. ... But school officials have a particular responsibility to make sure there's a good school in every neighborhood. And handing the schools in low-income neighborhoods over to entrepreneurs does not, in itself, improve them. It's simply a way of avoiding the public responsibility to provide good education."


Interview Highlights

On The Obama Administration's Race to the Top Program

"Race to the Top is an extension of No Child Left Behind. It contains all of the punitive features. It encourages states to have more charter schools. It said, when it invited proposals from states, that you needed to have more charter schools, you needed to have merit pay — which is a terrible idea — you needed to judge teachers by test scores, which is even a worse idea. And you need to be prepared to turn around low performing schools. So this is what many state legislators adopted hoping to get money from Race to the Top. Only 11 states and the District of Columbia did get that money. These were all bad ideas. They were terrible ideas that won't help schools. They're all schools that work on the free-market model that with more incentives and competition, schools will somehow get better. And the turnaround idea is a particularly noxious idea because it usually means close the school, fire the principal, fire the staff, and then it sets off a game of musical chairs where teachers from one low-performing school are hired at another low-performing school."

On Teachers' Unions

"They're not the problem. The state with the highest scores on the national test, that state is Massachusetts which is 100 percent union. The nation with the highest scores in the world is Finland which is 100 percent union. Management and labor can always work together around the needs of children if they're willing to. I think what's happening in Wisconsin and Ohio and Florida and Indiana is very, very conservative right-wing governors want to break the unions because the unions provide support to the Democratic Party. But the unions really aren't the problem in education."

On the film Waiting for Superman

"Waiting for Superman is a pro-privatization propaganda film. I reviewed it in The New York Review of Books and its statistics were wrong, its charges were wrong, it made claims that were unsustainable. One of the charter schools it featured as being a miracle school has an attrition rate of 75 percent. And it made the claim that 70 percent of American eighth graders read below grade level and that's simply false. ... And the producers of the film are very supportive of vouchers and free-market strategies and everything else. So I think that film has to be taken not just with a grain of salt, but understood to be a pro-privatization film." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.