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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Central Falls fired the high school staff, in part, to comply with the No Child Left Behind law. That law demands accountability from districts with failing schools. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch was once a very big supporter of No Child Left Behind. Now, she's changed her mind.

Professor DIANE RAVITCH (New York University): I was known as a conservative advocate of many of these policies. But I've looked at the evidence, and I've concluded they're wrong. I feel passionately about the improvement of public education, and I don't think any of this is going to improve public education.

INSKEEP: Diane Ravitch is the author of a new book called "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." The other day, she came by our New York bureau to tell us she thinks No Child Left Behind misuses standardized testing.

Prof. RAVITCH: The basic strategy is measuring and punishing. And it turns out that as a result of putting so much emphasis on the test scores, there's a lot of cheating going on; there's a lot of gaming the system. Instead of raising standards, it's actually lowered standards because many states have dumbed down their tests, or changed the scoring of the tests, to say that more kids are passing than actually are.

There are states that say that 80 to 90 percent of their children are proficient readers and proficient in math. But when the national test is given, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the same state will have not 90 percent proficient, but 25 or 30 percent.

You know, Secretary Duncan often says we're lying to our kids, and we are�lying to our kids. It's a kind of an institutionalized fraud that's been going on these past few years.

INSKEEP: The threat of failure is so great because the schools can lose funding?

Prof. RAVITCH: It's because there's punishment attached to the testing. I have no problem with testing. The problem is that when we attach - or when the state or the district attaches high stakes to the test, and says that teachers will get rewards or theyll lose their job, or that principals will get bonuses or their school will be closed, this then corrupts the value of the measure because everybody's striving to meet the measure. And they meet the measure but usually, it's fraudulent.

INSKEEP: But aren't there some states - like Massachusetts, for example - that have imposed very high standards and have been successful with them?

Prof. RAVITCH: Yes. Massachusetts has the best standards in the country. But Massachusetts is an exception. There are only a handful of states, with Massachusetts in the lead, that really had excellent standards. Most of the states dont.

INSKEEP: You also trace a little bit of history here, in which you seem to argue that there was a time when schools were broadening their curriculum and giving students far, far more choice about what to take and went maybe too far in one direction. And now, weve gone too far in the opposite direction.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I wouldnt make an argument that the schools in the past were so much better. I was very critical of the quality of public education, and I still am. But I would say that if we went back to the 1960s, when criticism was very keen, the critics didnt say public education itself is fundamentally flawed and we should get rid of it. This is whats new about our current rhetoric.

We now have critics saying public education, in itself, is fundamentally flawed, and it has to be replaced by privatization of the schools. That's coming, obviously, from very ultraconservative sources. And what's happened with the Race to the Top is that we're on the wrong track, and we're accelerating the pace of being on the wrong track.

INSKEEP: What do you mean, Race to the Top?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, the Obama administration had $100 billion in stimulus money for education, and they set aside about 5 billion of that. And they said to the states, if you want to compete for this $5 billion, you must do several things. One of the several things is that you must get rid of any limits on the number of privately managed charter schools. This is, I think, advancing privatization.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with charter schools?

Prof. RAVITCH: They remove students from the public sphere, and turn them over to private management.

INSKEEP: Although, in some sense, they're public, right? They're under the auspices of the local government, even though it might be local parents or someone who manages the school.

Prof. RAVITCH: No, not really, because there's very little transparency with charter schools. You really dont know who's going on, or what the salaries are. The basic point about charter schools is, they're about 5,000 of them today and they range across the board from very, very fine schools to absolutely horrible schools. And the only national study that's been done said that 17 percent of the charter schools did better than the local public schools with which they were matched, and 83 percent were either no different or worse. So we dont have any evidence that this is going to make it any better.

INSKEEP: You know, there's also placed into this bill - No Child Left Behind -the notion of competition between schools because, of course, schools are being compared to the test scores of other schools. And that's, of course, competition, a cherished American idea. Is there something wrong with inserting some competition into the education marketplace, if you want to call it that?

Prof. RAVITCH: Yes. There should not be an education marketplace. There should not be competition. Schools should operate like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration. Teachers are supposed to share what works; schools are supposed to get together and talk about what's succeeded for them. They're not supposed to hide their trade secrets, and try to have a survival of the fittest competition with the school down the block.

INSKEEP: Diane Ravitch is a former Education Department official in the Bush administration - the first Bush administration - and a professor of education at New York University. Her new book is called "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

Thanks very much.

Prof. RAVITCH: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you can find an excerpt of that book at our Web site, NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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