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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Public education in America needs to be improved. You can get a lot of agreement on that statement. But how to do it, that's where you run into big disagreements.

Later, we'll hear from Andrew Rotherham, an education consultant and policy analyst who supports strategies to redesign American public education with the help of charter schools, public-sector choice, testing and accountability.

My first guest, Diane Ravitch, had been an advocate of choice, testing, accountability and market-based education reform. Now she has profound doubts about these same ideas. She says she was persuaded by accumulating evidence that these reforms were not likely to live up to their promise.

Diane Ravitch's latest book is called "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education." She served as assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration. President Clinton appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing of student progress in different subject areas. She served on that board for seven years. Diane Ravitch is a professor of education at NYU and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Diane Ravitch, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Professor DIANE RAVITCH (Education, NYU; Author): Thank you. It's great to be with you.

GROSS: Now, you were an early advocate of No Child Left Behind and test-based accountability of schools and teachers with related rewards and punishments. Let's start with the theory behind that. When you supported it, what did you think was going to work about that?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I supported test-based accountability for years, thinking that if we could just measure whether kids are learning, year after year, we could focus in on what the problems were. The tests could be used diagnostically, in effect, to identify what children's needs are, and that would enable schools to focus on the kids and do better.

I had never imagined that the tests 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 that children's test scores are far more complicated than the way they're being received today.

But the original idea was just that you could help kids and you could help teachers and you could help schools do a better job by focusing on whether kids were learning. It didn't turn out to work that way.

GROSS: So how are the test results used to close schools or to punish teachers?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, when No Child Left Behind was passed, I don't think that the Congress gave serious thought to what the ultimate results would be down the line. They had some very severe remedies or punishments in the law, for instance, saying that if a school didn't improve its test scores for every single group in the school, and if you weren't on track to be 100 percent proficient for every single child by the year 2014 - which is, for some reason, a magical year - then the school would be subjected to severe punishments.

The punishments would grow year by year, until eventually the school would either be turned into a charter school, it would be handed over to private management, it would be closed, or half the staff would be fired and the principal would be fire. This is called turning around a school.

But we've reached the point now where Secretary Duncan said not long ago that more than 80 percent of the schools are going to be labeled failing in the next year.

So I came to the conclusion and said in the book, I said that No Child Left Behind has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education.

GROSS: When the neighborhood school closes, where do the students go? To another neighborhood school?

Prof. RAVITCH: No, what happens is that their new schools are opened, and then the new schools, in some cases, are allowed to winnow-out the low-performing kids. So then the administration, the central district, can say: Well, see, our new schools are doing better.

But if they're not educating the same kids, then they're not doing better. The kids who are low-performing tend to get kicked around like checkers on a checkerboard, or pieces on a chessboard. They get pushed out of one school after another because everybody knows that they'll drag their scores down, and school people - whether they're in charters or regular public schools - try to avoid the kids who have the biggest problems.

GROSS: You know, I haven't seen any of the No Child Left Behind tests. What do the tests measure? What kind of questions do they ask?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, No Child Left Behind leaves every state to devise its own test, and they all go to the same commercial test-makers, and the tests are overwhelmingly multiple-choice, standardized tests.

So what happens is that teachers spend an inordinate amount of time preparing children to take tests. So they'll have the tests from the last several years, and they'll study the questions and take those tests over and over and over, so that when they get the next year's test, the next test will basically ask the same question, but change the numbers a little bit or just change the wording slightly, and the children are then prepared.

But all that testing and test preparation has fattened the testing industry. I mean, it's now a multi-billion-dollar industry, beyond their wildest dreams, and it's stolen time from good education.

GROSS: Some schools, and I think this is particularly true in neighborhoods that are poor, with a lot of violence, that the violence comes through in the school to children are under attack, teachers are under attack.

There was just a long series in the Philadelphia Inquirer about violence in the Philadelphia public schools. And it's hard for teachers to teach. It's hard for students to learn. And I think people have been in despair for so long about the state of some inner-city schools.

So you're saying shutting them down isn't the answer. No one's come up with a good answer.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, what you're describing is not failing schools. You're describing failing communities. You're describing communities where people are living desperate lives, where there's homelessness, where there's violence, where there's criminal activity, where children are subject to all kinds of abuse.

And these are failing communities, and we as a nation have failed to do anything about the social dysfunction in our midst, and then turn around and say the whole fault - the blame lies with teachers. Let's fire teachers.

There's something wrong there, and that doesn't make any sense, that the teachers are much the victims as the children are.

GROSS: Let's take a look at charter schools, another example of a type of school that you changed your mind about. So let's start with an explanation of what charter schools are and how they were started.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, charter schools originally were the idea of Albert Shanker, who was the president for many years of the American Federation of Teachers, which is a teachers union.

And his idea was that a group of teachers could say to their colleagues: Let us start a small school, with your permission, and we will go out into the streets, recruit the kids who dropped out, recruit the kids who are about to drop out, and let us see what we can do to come up with ideas that will help make public education better. And it'll be a collaborative venture.

That was the original idea. What has happened - and also why Shanker himself turned against his idea a few years after he proposed it - is that it has become an enormous entrepreneurial activity, and the private sector has moved in and is - it's now become a vehicle for privatization.

And so there are now charter chains, where the executives are paying themselves $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 a year. They compete with regular public schools. They do not see themselves as collaborators with public schools, but as business competitors. And in some cases, they actually want to take away the public school space and drive the public school out of business.

So it's very different from the idea, as it started, and charter schools in cities like New York and in other schools, where the charters are co-located in public buildings, have become a source of dissention and conflict, setting parent against parent.

Now, the idea that I've always felt was very attractive was that it takes a village to raise a child. But charter schools end up pitting parent against parent, teacher against teacher, and leading to not the village collaborating around children, but the village fighting over space and over who's better than whom.

GROSS: How does a charter school turn parent against parent, teacher against teacher, in your opinion?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, charters in New York, for example, where I live, will flood, as they put it, flood the zone with literature about how the new charter that they're opening is going to be so much better than the regular public schools.

And they will spend, literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing and publicity for their new charter. And so a lottery is held. Thousands of parents turn out, and there are 75 or 100 seats available. So thousands of parents go away disappointed.

The regular public-school parents are angry because space in their building has been taken away. They no longer have an art room. They no longer have a computer room. Whatever space they had had for extra activities gets taken away and given to the charters.

Then the charters 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 this city, and in some others, as well, they are better-funded, they don't - they may not get as much public funds, but the private funds they get are far more than the public funds that they don't get. So they have better everything. And the kids in the regular public school begin to feel like they're second-class citizens.

GROSS: You're making it sound like it's a bad thing when a hedge fund contributes money to help a charter school. I mean, people feel really good about giving money to education. You're making it sound like it's a problem.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, here's why I think it's a problem, and it's because I step back and I'm a historian and I look at the data from studies across the world, and what I see is that the best-performing nations in the world have strong public education systems.

I don't see any of the high-performing nations handing over control of children in the public sector and handing over public funding to entrepreneurs. I see them instead building a public school system, building and strengthening their education profession so that their teachers are the best, so that they're well-supported, so that they feel passionate and energetic about the work they're doing.

And we seem to be doing the opposite. We're privatizing many of our public schools. We're demoralizing the people who work in the regular public schools. We're doing, as a nation, at this moment in time, doing nothing to improve our public school system and everything to undermine it.

GROSS: What about the Geoffrey Canada model, the Harlem Children's Zone? This is a zone of nearly 100 blocks that's supposed to nurture and protect children from birth on? I mean, it starts with a baby college in which first-time parents - first-time, soon-to-be parents learn how to take care of a baby so that they're prepared when the baby's born. And then the program's supposed to, you know, provide, like, adult assistance and mentoring throughout the child's formative years in school and outside of school.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I actually love the Harlem Children's Zone model. I don't love that Geoffrey Canada has become a spokesman for privatization because Geoffrey Canada has far more resources than any public school in his neighborhood or in any neighborhood.

He has a board of trustees with very, very wealthy people on it who provide - I think the last time I looked at the 990 forms for the Harlem Children's Zone, it had $200 million in assets. So they're able to have very small classes. They are an anti-poverty program. They don't say, as far as I know, that resources don't matter, because they are amply funded with resources. So it would be very hard to compare the Harlem Children's Zone to regular public schools, which in Harlem, don't have resources anything near what he has.

GROSS: My guest is Diane Ravitch. Her latest book is called "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Diane Ravitch, and she's a historian of education, former U.S. assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, and she's now a research professor at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Her latest book is called "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education."

The current secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has started a program called Race to the Top. How does that compare to No Child Left Behind?

Prof. RAVITCH: 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.

What it said when it invited proposals from states was: You need to have more charter schools. You need to have merit pay, which is a terrible idea. You need 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. None of them are ideas that will help schools. They're all schools that create - work on the free-market model, that with more incentives and sanctions and with more competition, schools will somehow magically get better.

GROSS: Teachers unions have been criticized a lot lately. The Wisconsin legislature passed a bill that's now in the courts that would eliminate most collective bargaining rights of the teachers union. Teachers union tenure systems have been blamed for schools' inability to fire incompetent teachers.

In the movie "Waiting For Superman," which is very critical of the public school system, it describes what is commonly known as the rubber room, a room where teachers in New York awaiting disciplinary hearings -and they wait an average of three years - spend their workday in this holding room, where they're not teaching. They're not allowed to teach at that moment, but they're getting their full pay.

So what's your assessment of the pros and cons of teachers unions today?

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, the first thing you have to understand about teachers unions is they're not the problem. The state with the highest scores on the national tests, the ones given by the federal government, the state - 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 not just in Wisconsin, but also in Ohio and Florida and Indiana and in other states - 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 are really not the problem in education.

Just to give you an example, you mentioned the rubber room in New York. The rubber room consisted of teachers who had been accused, but had not had a hearing. Generally, in our country, we have a principle that until you have had a hearing and until you've been found guilty, you're innocent. So the rubber room was filled with people who were - had not had a hearing, and yet were judged to be guilty by "Waiting for Superman."

"Waiting for Superman," by the way, I reviewed it in the New York Review of Books, and the producers of the film are very supportive of vouchers and free-market strategies to school reform and everything else. So I think that film has to be taken with not just a grain of salt, but understood to be a pro-privatization film.

GROSS: You write a little bit about the history of unions in your latest book, of the teachers union. And you talk about how the union was created at a time when teachers were largely women, and there were specific needs that the women had and specific needs they had to be protected from.

Prof. RAVITCH: Well, yes. The unions were created because teachers didn't have a profession. And, by the way, tenure long predates the unions. Tenure goes back to the 1880s. It was part of civil service reform. And the unions didn't create tenure.

But people - the teachers wanted to collectively bargain because, alone, an individual is powerless. And yet as part of a union, they have power in negotiations for their working conditions and for wages and benefits.

And because the teaching profession not only was predominately female, but is still predominately female, it became important for women to have - and for teachers to have a collective voice, because otherwise, they were at the whim of very paternalistic boards of education.

There were cities - and I know New York was one of them, there were others, as well - where women would be fired if they got married, where teachers would be fired if they got married - not men teachers, but female teachers would be fired.

If they then were married and got pregnant, they would be fired if they were pregnant. So they had no job rights, and they were, I won't say oppressed, but certainly they had meager salaries, no pensions, and when they retired, it was to a retirement of poverty.

And so unions have made it possible for teachers to have a decent living and also a decent pension so that they don't retire into poverty.

GROSS: So many of the public schools are such a mess now in terms of learning and safety that, you know, a lot of people say just, like, blow up the system. You can never fix this system. So, like, blow it up and start from scratch, or blow it up and privatize it. But don't expect to really reform the public school system because there's too much bureaucracy to do it. You just can't make change in an effective way. What do you say to that?

Prof. RAVITCH: You know, I have friends from some of my conservative think-tank days who believe that. Those friends, of course, went to very elite boarding schools and sent their children to elite boarding schools, where class sizes were 12 to 15. And they were paying, of course, lots more than most people pay for public education.

I think that is a dramatic overstatement, and I would refer you to the latest Gallup poll about public education. The public has been so bombarded for so many years about how terrible public education is that there's a very low estimate of public schools. And you're correct: 18 percent said public education is doing a good job, and give it an A or a B.

But then when the poll said: How do you feel about your own child's school, the one that you know best? Seventy-seven percent said: Oh, my own child's school is great - 77 percent. That's the highest rating that their own child's school has gotten in the history of the poll, which I think goes back some 25 years of asking that question.

So I think that the - it's not true that public education is a mess. We have some great public schools. And it's like every other thing we've been discussing today, whether it's privatization, choice, vouchers, charter schools, and now this incredibly excessive testing and this narrowing of the curriculum where we end up deleting or not having time for history, for civics, for the arts, for science because testing is -focuses everybody just on reading and math.

We are destroying our education system, blowing it up by these stupid policies. And handing the schools in low-income neighborhoods over to private entrepreneurs does not, in itself, improve them.

There's plenty of evidence by now that the kids in those schools do no better, and it's simply a way of avoiding their - the public responsibility to provide good education.

GROSS: Diane Ravitch, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. RAVITCH: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Diane Ravitch is the author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org. We'll hear a contrasting point of view about education reform in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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