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Diane Ravitch Responds To Your Questions

Our hour with Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education and a current education historian and policy analyst, drew a lot of activity on our website and social media feeds. Many of you were really sold on Ravitch’s hard-charging stance on education reform and what she sees as the privatization of American public education, but others had some questions that you didn’t feel were properly addressed during our conversation with the author.

We collected a few of the more interesting comments and invited Ravitch to reply. Her responses are printed below in full:

Here in Chicago, 50 schools were closed yet CPS plans to open 50+ more, staffed mostly by Teach for America – with public funds but with no accountability. Meanwhile, public schools are being held more accountable than ever. How is this acceptable?

It is outrageous that Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, closed 50 public elementary schools. This is unprecedented in the history of US education. Every school that closed was a dagger in the heart of the community. In most communities, the public school is the most stable institution in the community. Why didn’t CPS help the schools that needed help instead of closing them? Having claimed that the schools were “underutilized,” CPS now plans to open 52 charter schools under private management. These schools will be staffed by teach for America, and very likely will be non-union. Thus, CPS will cut costs by laying off experienced teachers and replacing them with poorly trained temps who will leave within 2-3 years. The responsibility of the board of CPS and the mayor is to improve public schools, not to destroy them.

How are the statistics by state affected by square miles and population of each state?

In my book, I document the performance of states and the nation. The single most reliable predictor of test scores is family income. The widest achievement gaps are between the haves and the have-nots.

How do you rate a teacher? Better yet tell me what the mission is for a school?

The best way to rate a teacher is not by test scores — which say nothing about teacher quality but everything who was enrolled in the classroom–but by informed professional judgment. By that, i mean that those best qualified to do know if the teacher is doing a good job is the teacher’s principals and peers. There is actually an outstanding evaluation program in Montgomery County, Maryland, called “peer assistance and review.” every new teacher gets a mentor teacher who helps the teacher learn the ropes; every tenured teacher who gets a low rating from his or her principal is assigned a mentor teacher to help them improve. The mentor teachers report to a committee made up of principals and teachers; they recommend whether the teachers are improving, or whether they need more support, or whether they should be terminated. The committee decides. It has terminated over 200 teachers. The system works. It has the trust of teachers and principals. It is professional.

Don’t the wealthy already have a huge advantage in education? The parents are usually well educated, a major advantage to their children, they can send their children to private schools of their choice, they can live in communities with the best schools.

Of course the wealthy have huge advantages. Not only can they pay for private schools, they can pay to live in rich suburbs with public schools that can afford every advantage for their children. Meanwhile, when state budgets hit, the wealthy districts can raise their local property taxes to make up for any cuts, but the urban districts lay off teachers, librarians, guidance counselors, nurses, eliminate the arts, increase class sizes. We have a deeply unequal means of funding our public schools, based mostly on property taxes. We also have a higher degree of income inequality than at any time in the past century. The children with the low test scores need smaller classes; they need schools with guidance counselors and social workers; they need highly experienced teachers; they need health clinics; they need libraries; they need the arts. Instead, schools in urban districts are losing everything that kids need. This is a disgrace. What do we give them instead of what they need? Tests, test prep, and more tests.

I do not understand why having the ability to choose a school that fits an individual personality, learning style, and skill set and the ability to walk away from a school if it is not working for them (or not working period) can be anything but good.

When you walk away from the public responsibility to maintain a good public school in every neighborhood, you abandon the civic mission of public school. You abandon an institution that is a pillar of our democratic society. You turn citizens into consumers who feel no obligation to other people’s children, only to themselves. Many people look enviously at the high-performing nations of Finland and Korea. There are no charter schools or vouchers in Finland or Korea. They have built a strong education profession and strong schools in every neighborhood. The more choice, the more inequality, the more segregation. Do we really want to go in that direction?

Would Diane make private schools illegal if she could?

Absolutely not. I have a basic principle: if people want to pay for private schools, go right ahead. It is a free country. Private money for private schools; public money for public schools. If the philanthropists decided to support catholic education, it would be handsomely endowed. Instead the Walton family foundation is pouring hundreds of millions into campaigns to divert public money to privately managed schools and religious schools. We need a strong publicly funded public school system and a good public school in every neighborhood. 

Why can’t students be educated like athletes? Have business come in & recruit the best for jobs!

Business doesn’t know best how to educate children, we have many examples of that. Business operates on the basis of profit and loss. They engage in “risk management.” they throw out the slow learners; they exclude the ones with low test scores; they keep out the kids with disabilities and the English language learners; and that is how they can produce high test scores. Read “the blueberry story” in my book. American schools have to educate all, not just those who are likely to get high scores. Furthermore, as an aside, if you knew how flawed the tests are, you would not put so much stock in scores.the main thing you learn from test scores is the income of the students’ families. Some poor kids get high scores, and some rich kids get low scores, but they are outliers.

Where is the middle of the road argument? Let’s improve traditional public schools AND fix how charters operate.

Charters started as a means of helping and collaborating with public schools. Over the past 20 years, they became a vehicle for libertarians and others who hate public education and who want to transfer public funding to private management. Read in my book about ALEC, about the Walton family foundation, and the extremists in Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states who are attacking public education and want to replace it with vouchers and for-profit entrepreneurs. The middle of the road is when those who support a vibrant and successful public school system agree that charters must agree to accept the same proportion of English language learners and students with disabilities as the neighboring district. The middle of the road will be reached when charter supporters agree that collaboration is better than competition and that they must be both transparent and accountable and play by the same rules as public schools.

What about bussing and destroying the integrity of community in public schools?

I believe that integration is important but that it is best promoted by providing federal incentives for housing integration and attracting children from diverse communities to go to school together. The federal government, state governments, and local governments created segregation (i document this in my book). Today, the federal government could offer incentives and rewards to districts and schools that promote integration to overcome the effects of past policies. Imagine if the $5 billion that was wasted on duncan’s “race to the top” program had been spent to incentivize districts to show how they could promote integration? It would have had far better impact on communities, schools, and children than blowing those billions away to encourage more testing and more school closings and more privatization.

Have other questions for Ravitch? Think that reform is working in your community? Or is it a privatization scheme run by corporate forces? Let us know in the comment section below, on Facebook or @OnPointRadio. You can also visit Ravitch’s personal blog here.

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