If you’re into education and you’ve heard the name Diane Ravitch you may either shudder or nod approvingly.
Ravitch was once a strong supporter of standardized testing and charter schools, but has more recently become a leading voice against many trendy reforms that are now ingrained in U.S. public education.
Ravitch, an education historian and New York University research professor, has been named the University of Louisville’s 2014 Grawemeyer Award winner in education for her 2010 book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”
I spoke with Ravitch, who said she changed her opinion after realizing many popular education reforms haven’t been successful and aren’t providing students with an adequate education.
“What I saw happening was these ideas that I had supported strongly in theory didn’t work in practice,” she said. “And as the evidence began to accumulate I couldn’t support them anymore and I became increasingly critical because all of the negative effects began to outweigh any benefits.”
In education we hear a lot about evidence and research-based practices. There seems to be a lot of ways to do things right, but so many schools and systems seem to be falling short. How do you navigate and then implement the practices that work?
“Evidence based [practices] is very important and what has happened in the past decade is that we have a federal policy that is driving state policy and district policy that has no evidence behind it. And the more we learn about the effects of testing and about the negative effects of over testing the less evidence there is. There was a major report just a couple years ago from the National Research Council, 17 distinguished social scientists who said there was no evidence to support test-based accountability but that didn’t have any impact at all, either on Congress or the U.S. Department of Education.”
The word “reform” has almost lost its meaning. There hasn’t been the cultural shift that many people say needs to occur. What needs to happen that’s not happening now for true reforms to occur?
“The word reform has become utterly meaningless. And I tend to think not in terms of reform since the word is so elastic. I would say we should talk more about improvement. How do we improve the opportunities for children? How do we make sure we’re fulfilling the American philosophy of equal educational opportunity?”
“If you ask the question, How do we provide a good education for everybody, certainly then you would want to have the arts in every school. You would want to have a dynamic arts program where kids have the opportunity to express their imagination and to be creative, be innovative. These are the qualities that we value most, I think, when people are adults, is their ability to think outside the box and think differently. And yet what we’re doing is pushing everyone into the same format of ‘pick one out of four answers’ on the standardized test.”
What are your thoughts on the Common Core standards, which Kentucky and many states are now turning to as a way to keep the U.S. competitive with international benchmarks?
“I think there are some good sides to the Common Core standards. I don’t think they’re going to ultimately make a lot of difference in terms of student achievement because most of what affects student achievement is the home life of children and whether they have medical care and all the supports they need to come to school healthy and ready and able to learn.
“I think the problems that we should be looking at have to do with the quality of opportunity more so than the curriculum or the standards. And I’m not opposed to the standards as such because I think that standards could be a good thing, but I think that these standards—the Common Core standards—have to be reworked by teachers. Some of them are very good, some of them are not so good.
Large urban school districts often have more challenges, like larger disparities in poverty levels, literacy levels, etc. Have we seen any large urban districts do education well?
“The only large district that has come close to getting it right by trying to resist all of these mandates and fads and pressures is San Diego. And that’s because they’ve had an amazing relationship between the school board, the teachers union, the teachers, the administrators, the community.”
“I could point to many, many big school districts that are just trying to keep their head above water, just trying to survive and just trying to maintain public education. I think this is, to me, one of the biggest and scariest things about the moment we live in, which is that we’re seeing many large districts where public education may not actually survive and that’ s new in American history.”