Diane Ravitch is one of the most visible advocates in the United States today for quality public schools, and one of the most outspoken opponents of much that is being done in the name of "school reform."
Ravitch, education historian and author of the bestselling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education recently agreed to answer a few of my questions:
What got you interested in education issues -- was there a specific incident or family experience?
I have been interested in education as long as I can remember. My first paper in a political science course in college -- in 1956 -- was a study of the influence of a far-right fringe group on school board elections in Houston, where I attended public school. I have been writing about education since the late 1960s. My first book was a history of the New York City public schools, published in 1974.
In your education career, when were times you felt most discouraged? What got you through those moments?
I have never been more discouraged than I am right now. I have been lecturing this past year, and I have witnessed the profound demoralization of teachers across the nation in response to the vituperative, ill-informed and mean-spirited attacks on them. I am discouraged above all by the absence of any national officials willing to stand up for teachers. The current anti-teacher, anti-public education rhetoric is downright disheartening, and it is painful to acknowledge that both political parties have joined in, as has the national media.
What gets me through these times is my sense of history. I know that this: that many of the "reforms" are ill-considered, that the "reforms" that target teachers are doomed to fail, and that eventually this too will pass. Yet I worry about the lives and reputations that will be ruined before our leaders come to their senses.
In the face of all the policy battles, many of us teachers can feel discouraged. What is your best advice for teachers who might have days, weeks, or even months feeling like that?
I am asked this question whenever I meet with teachers, which is often. I urge teachers to hang in there, to focus on the social value of the work, to remember why they entered the profession, and to cling to their ideals. I also tell them that this is no time to be shrinking violets, but is a time to let your voice be heard. It is a time to write letters to the editor, write comments to blogs, contact your Congressman and your Senators and your local officials. Do not let the forces of ignorance, the wealthy and powerful and clueless "reformers" destroy the profession and privatize public education. Too much is at stake. Don't agonize, organize. Alone, you are only one voice; united with other educators and with parents, you can change the agenda and stop the attacks on education and educators.
Some of your critics say you spend all your time criticizing without offering constructive alternatives. What is your response to that kind of critique?
Public education is under attack; so is the education profession. My critics would prefer that I not say so, but I think it is demonstrably true. I am a historian and I try to ground my critique in history. My critics think that anyone who disagrees with their destructive policies is a "defender of the status quo." I think the "reformers" represent the status quo. It is now 10 years since the passage of No Child Left Behind. This law made testing, accountability and choice the law of the land. The law and the policies it spawned have proven ineffective, divisive and costly. The "reformers" want to change the name of the law -- perhaps call it Students First, Children First, Learning First, whatever -- but continue to fire principals, fire teachers, close schools, and privatize schools. All of this is wrong.
No high-performing nation is pursuing this punitive path. I don't believe in any quick fixes. I have proposed constructive alternatives:
I believe that all children should have a balanced curriculum in the arts and sciences, physical education and health. We must improve schools and strengthen the education profession instead of closing schools and destroying the profession. Every district should offer high-quality pre-K programs for all children. Teachers should have more and better preparation and mastery of their content. They should have good working conditions and adequate resources, including reasonable class sizes. All principals should have experience as master teachers. All superintendents should be highly experienced educators.
Instead of blaming schools for all that is wrong in school and society, we as a nation must take action to improve the lives of children; instead of saying that poverty is just an excuse, we should try to help families and do whatever is possible to reduce poverty and its related disadvantages. None of these is a quick fix, but together they represent constructive alternatives to the present course.
What do you see as the brightest rays of hope -- policies, people, organizations, etc. -- do you see for public education these days?
When I visited San Diego in November, I was very impressed by the collaboration I saw there among different stakeholders. The teachers' union was working together with the district leadership, and the school board, and together they are trying to create a vision of community-based school reform, involving parents and local communities. I saw a spirit of "it takes a village to educate a child." Will it last? I hope so. In Cincinnati, I was impressed by a collaboration of civic and educational organizations called STRIVE. The spirit again was one of people working together to improve education from many angles.
I was reminded in these places that the current "reform" movement is extremely divisive. It sets parent against parent, in battles for space in public buildings, and its sets young teachers against older teachers, and it sets the media and the public against teachers and public education. We won't make any genuine progress until everyone who cares begins to work together towards the common goal of educating children and improving their lives.