HANOVER, N.H. — Diane Ravitch, a prominent figure in the education policy world, was in the Upper Valley on Wednesday evening to talk about a movement she says is endangering public education.
Vermont has proven largely impervious to those threats, Ravitch told the crowd of educators, lawmakers, school board members, and other community members.
Ravitch is probably best known for doing a very public 180-degree turn on her stance toward the school reform movement. As an assistant secretary of education for President George H.W. Bush and as a developer of national education assessments for President Bill Clinton, Ravitch supported the creation of charter schools to supplant failing public schools. She also supported standardized tests and tying teacher evaluations to those tests.
Then in 2010, Ravitch did an about-face, publishing a book in which she declared the movement a failure that’s been undermining the nation’s public school system.
Ravitch, currently an education historian and a research professor at New York University, recently published another book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Ravitch has been traveling and speaking extensively about her central message in “Reign of Error” — wealthy corporations have co-opted public education by promoting the misguided notion that public schools are failing.
Wednesday’s event, held at Dartmouth College, was co-sponsored by the Vermont School Boards Association, Dartmouth’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, and the Teacher Education Program.
Prior to the event, Ravitch dined at the Norwich Inn, along with a number of the state’s education policy makers, including state legislators, incoming education secretary Rebecca Holcombe, members of the state’s teachers union, the Vermont NEA, the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Principals’ Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association.
VTDigger interviewed Ravitch in the inn’s foyer after dinner. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VTD: I ran into a state legislator on my way here. She’s coming to your talk, and I asked her what she would ask you. She said she would ask you for your No. 1 recommendation on what Vermont can do to improve its public education system.
Ravitch: Show incredible appreciation to teachers and parents about what a great job Vermont is doing. There’s too much fault-finding.
The first thing is not to feel complacent, but on the other hand recognize that Vermont is a really successful state, probably the most successful state in the country in terms of the [high school] graduation rate. There’s a wonderful climate here for education, and people really care about it. What seems to be different here in Vermont is the strong sense of community and recognition that public education is the backbone of democracy.
Vermont seems to be the strong exception to what’s happening, the national trends.
That matters because there are so many places around the country where public education is being ripped apart and kids are being horribly underfunded, particularly in urban districts.
Vermont seems to be the strong exception to what’s happening, the national trends. For me it’s very gratifying to come to a place that feels a little like Finland, and Finland is the wonder of the world in terms of the education system, and I sense some of the same feeling of community that I felt there.
VTD: There are fierce battles around town meeting time, when towns are passing their budgets, and the property tax rates, which are paying for the schools, can be a huge source of contention.
Ravitch: But you know, that’s democracy and what’s happened in place after place in this country, particularly in cities, is an elimination of democracy. You have cities like Chicago and New York and Boston where the mayor controls the school board and communities, if they are lucky they get paid attention to, but in many cases they are not listened to at all. Here there is a strong sense of, the town matters, the town makes the decision — there is a very strong democratic control of education and that’s terribly important.
VTD: There’s one town, North Bennington, and this I think stems from that devotion you’re talking about, where they’ve decided to turn their public school private because they are concerned that somewhere down the road the state is going to mandate that small schools be consolidated and they’ll be targeted for that.
I’m wondering what you think about that because I know how you feel about the for-profit charter school model, but how do you feel about a whole town going private?
Ravitch: I think it’s a terrible idea, actually.
Ravitch: Because it’s privatization. It’s taking the public schools private, and there are districts around the country that are doing this but they are doing it as a way of cutting the budget and getting themselves out of public education. They see it as almost a voucher scheme.
VTD: But if it’s still the community that’s operating the school? What’s the danger there, if it’s still community-run?
Ravitch: If it becomes a pattern across the state, then we do lose the sense of we’re all in this together. You can’t just say, ‘Well it works in Bennington, we’ll leave it there.’ Other communities will say if Bennington does it, why can’t we do it, too? And at some point you look around and say, gee, what happened to public education? We don’t have it anymore.
VTD: Something that a lot of businesses are talking about and something the governor has talked a lot about is the fact that there’s sort of a disconnect between the graduates coming out of our high schools and our colleges and the skills and needs of the businesses in the state. There’s a lot of concern about kids leaving the state because they can’t find job opportunities in Vermont.
The governor has made it a priority to focus on the STEM fields and trying to align high schools and tech centers to match the skills that students have with the businesses in Vermont, and I wonder what you think about that approach?
Ravitch: Well, I certainly think that all students today need STEM skills, but very often I’ve heard companies complain that they can’t find high school graduates with the right set of skills, but what they really mean is they want to hire people at low wages with the right set of skills. So they outsource their jobs to China because they can find that set of skills where the people work for $20 a day, and I don’t think American workers will work for $20 a day.
I think it’s very important as long as, there’s a new acronym called STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics, because the arts are terribly important.
So you have to be clear when you approach that problem about whether they are just looking for low-wage workers or whether they truly can’t find the people who have the skills. I have discovered lots of people of who have the skills who can’t find jobs.
But I wouldn’t do anything to discourage the governor’s emphasis on STEM. I think it’s very important as long as, there’s a new acronym called STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics, because the arts are terribly important.
VTD: Vermont has signed up for the Common Core Standards, and that’s a concern for teachers and schools in terms of how they are going to adjust. I know you have deep reservations about the standards, but I’m wondering what advice you’d offer?
Ravitch: I have a lot of reservations about the Common Core, I think it’s been moved much too rapidly and its not ready for prime time. It’s never been field tested. The few states that have used the Common Core test have found that the level of the test questions was far beyond the reasonable ability of students.
I’m very concerned about the lack of teacher preparation, lack of student preparation, lack of curriculum, lack of resources. It’s also extremely expensive to switch to Common Core because all the testing will be done online, which means all students will have to access to some form of computer to take the test and every school will have to have the bandwith to support the computers.
VTD: So what would you say to Vermont teachers who at this point don’t have a choice? They have to adapt to this.
Ravitch: I’d say do whatever you can to delay the testing. Try to get at least a three-year moratorium, maybe a five- year moratorium on the testing and adapt the standards, make the standards work for you. I think they are particularly bad in the early grades. Most early childhood education experts say they are developmentally inappropriate.
VTD: Could Vermont do that?
Ravitch: Why not? Who’s to say you can’t do it?
VTD: Wouldn’t we forgo federal funding?
Ravitch: Why? The federal government has no right to tell you that you have to do Common Core. It’s against the law. The federal government created these two testing consortia but the law actually says the federal Department of Education is prohibited from influencing the curriculum or instruction. So it would be illegal for the federal government …
VTD: But they have tied funding to the adoption of the standards, haven’t they?
Ravitch: That was probably illegal too, and Arne Duncan keeps insisting he had nothing to do with it.
VTD: What’s the danger if Vermont puts the testing in place and scores come back way lower than we are used to?
Ravitch: It will create an anti-testing movement. That’s what happens. People don’t get angry at the school, they don’t get angry at the teacher, they get angry at the test and the state department of education.
VTD: But from your perspective, that might be a good thing, right?
Ravitch: Yeah, sure.
VTD: I hear you saying standardized testing isn’t the best way to judge how any given public school is doing. What data or what statistics do think it is important for a state to be looking at if it’s trying to evaluate its public school system?
Ravitch: I would look at it a different way. I wouldn’t ask how well a school is doing. I would ask, are we doing a good job of providing good schools in every neighborhood? Have we made sure that we have the right resources; is there a good arts program at every school; is there a foreign language program at every school.
VTD: Beyond looking at a school and saying, OK, you’ve got an arts program in place, you’ve got a robust math program in place, how do you gauge success?
Ravitch: Just take Finland as an example — they have no standardized testing at all. How do they gauge success? They put highly qualified people — I’m not talking people who have five weeks of training — but they have people who have excellent preparation in every classroom and they have excellent principals and schools have the resources they need for the kids they enroll. And their goal is equity.
VTD: We haven’t really seen any signs of the charter school movement coming to the state. Is this something we should be worried about or are we different because we don’t have urban settings with high levels of poverty?
Ravitch: I think they have bypassed you, but that doesn’t mean they always will. I’ve been getting letters from Idaho that there’s now a big push to bring charter schools to Idaho. And Idaho is in some ways like Vermont in that it’s a very dispersed and rural population. Why in the world would anyone want charter schools in Idaho? But there are you are, there’s a big multi-billion dollar foundation that’s making a big push for this in Idaho. But I think where the charter school movement is most successful is where there’s a failure narrative and I don’t think Vermont has any reason to have a failure narrative. You have incredibly successful schools.