"We're close to a tipping point with public education, especially in big cities." That's the message that Diane Ravitch brought to Washington, D.C., last week in a series of meetings and public events with AFT President Randi Weingarten on reclaiming the promise of public education. Ravitch, a former education official in the George H.W. Bush administration, has become a staunch critic of education policies that began under former President George W. Bush and have continued under President Barack Obama.
Her claim about the danger to public education sounds familiar, but Ravitch says that the statements "reformers" make are way off base and they are the actual danger to public education. "The reformer narrative is broke," she says. While it is true that other countries perform better than the United States on standardized tests, politicians and education reformers in the United States have learned the wrong lessons from those scores. The biggest difference between the United States and those other countries is the high level of poverty in the United States in comparison. "If we ignore poverty, we cannot see significant improvement in education," she says.
Those countries that do better have no charter schools and no vouchers and have strong investment in public schools, Ravitch continues. Teachers in other countries are also 100% unionized. The recent push in the United States toward charter schools is harming public schools and could open the door for vouchers and privatization. One of the key tools used in the push toward charter schools is high-stakes testing. But such testing doesn't serve students, she says, all it does is label children in ways that hurt their hearts and minds and drives good teachers to quit. "The more I look at charters, the more critical I become that they aren't public schools," she says. Standardized test scores are not a good measure of educational success and do not predict how well the broader economy will perform. The tests aren't really standardized, she continues, and, more importantly, "Children aren't standard." A lot of brilliant children don't test well.
These assaults on public schools are particularly important because public schools are one of the foundations of democratic society, she argues. Many of the big problems we've tackled as a society and had success in addressing—gender inequality, segregation, treatment of Americans with disabilities—have been pursued through the public school system. Weingarten agrees: "It's just puts the whole notion of American democracy on its head. Universal education is key to the American Dream."
Ravitch notes that standardized test scores, graduation rates and dropout rates have all greatly improved in recent years, despite what reformers tell you. The reformers aren't actually trying to challenge the status quo, instead they are the status quo. She says they represent little more than the Republican agenda. Hedge fund managers and people who run education-related corporations push for reforms so they can make profit off the public school system. They've joined together with pure ideologues who hate anything public, including education.
She goes into greater detail about these problems, and solutions to them, in her new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools and on her blog. In particular, she says that she would abolish standardized testing, except as a sample to test overall effectiveness. But ranking of students and schools wouldn't be a part of that.
Weingarten says what we need in education is a different definition of success beyond just English and math scores on standardized tests. "What are we really trying to do for kids?" She suggests three goals for effective public education:
- Relationships: Kids learn to build them with each other and with adults.
- Applied knowledge, not just facts: Students need to learn critical thinking and problem solving.
- Character, persistence and grit: When adversity strikes, children need to be able to work through it.
Ravitch and Weingarten spent much of their time together in Washington, D.C., meeting with members of Congress in an effort to educate them on the public school reform movement and policy solutions that would really help students, teachers and the broader communities they live and go to school in.
Learn more about AFT's public school initiative Reclaim the Promise.