Diane Ravitch

Education professor and analyst Diane Ravitch joins us to discuss her new book “Reign of Error,” in which she explores what she calls “the hoax of the privatization movement” and how she thinks it’s harming public schools.

Diane Ravitch, research professor of education and a historian of education at New York University

  • Slappy

    The reason why people want to privatize the schools is because of the sheer idiocy of public school administrators and teachers. There are several problems with public schools.

    1) For decades, they have been decreasing educational requirements in K-12 and, to some extent, the CSU system. English class is no longer focused on English, but rather it is a political commentary session. Math is often taught by individuals who cannot explain concepts clearly, or explain pratical applications of certain concepts beyond “buying apples”. Economics is simply a vocab review section for words related to the economy; students don’t actually learn about how the world’s economy works. Political science is just a Bush/Republican-bashing session with a very slanted viewpoint on America’s politics.

    2) Students who do not care to do their work are simply passed through the system. These students are often trouble-makers that serve only to distract or harass the motivated students. Steps are never taken to segregate them from hard-working students.

    3) Our schools, especially in California, have worked hard to demotivate hard-working students while simultaneously worshiping the bad students. I am not kidding when I use the term “worship”, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen students paraded in front of other students for literally no significant achievement other than simply being “new” to the school, or for “good behavior” when in reality their behavior was no different than that of their peers.

    Public schools have only themselves to blame for their terrible performance. Don’t even think about blaming it on Bush; the No Child Left Behind Act simply made official what the schools have been doing for years on their own.

    • Cathy

      Funny, I had the exact opposite experience as a student of the California system a couple of decades ago. Granted I went to a suburban, middle-class school. Then some classes began to get cut in my senior year and a couple of counselors. Turns out it correlated exactly at the time funding was going down. Fortunately, living in a wealthier community, parents could provide additional resources to improve the school. Of course, Mr. Johnson was a beyond boring history teacher that I suspect was still there based on tenure. However, I highly doubt he was bringing down the whole system.

  • David

    “Reign of Error” should be required reading for people interested or involved in education policy. Whether you agree or disagree with the arguments, the book is well-research and full of important examples of what can go right or go wrong in education. I reviewed the book here: http://wp.me/pPltP-IU

    Diane Ravitch will be speaking at Stanford later today: 5:15 p.m., Memorial Auditorium, free and open to the public.

  • erictremont

    I agree with Ms. Ravitch on least one thing: there are some excellent charter schools, there are some mediocre charter schools, and there are some truly scandalous charter schools which are ripping off scarce public funds. Of course, any fair minded observer could say the exact same thing about public schools. So here’s my offer to Ms. Ravitch: I will support shutting down costly, ineffective charter schools if you and your friends in the teacher unions will hold public schools to the same standards. The problem, of course, is that the unions don’t want a level playing field—they perpetually make excuses about chronically underperforming public schools while demanding that lousy charter schools be shut down. You can’t have it both ways.

    • James Ivey

      Shutting down public schools isn’t an option unless you think it’s okay for communities to have no schools at all. I don’t. I’ve seen communities with no schools. Trust me, you don’t want to live there.

      Maybe you posted before she discussed this, but “tenure” in K-12 doesn’t mean you can’t be fired — it means you can only be fired “for cause”. Getting tenure in K-12 is like passing a probation period at a new job.

  • Bob Fry

    There’s something I’ve never understood about the industrial education establishment.

    Teaching and learning has been happening for thousands of years. Each year in the US I guess hundreds of PhDs are granted in Education. Tens of millions of students in classes at all levels. Yet, it seems to be a mystery as to the best way to teach. Every few years some new great “breakthrough” program is implemented, bazillions spent, then it falls out of favor and the cycle starts again.

    Education is as unscientific a field as I can imagine. If any objective observation, theories, and testing of theories occur, they sure are well hidden.

    • microlith

      Teaching and learning has been happening for thousands of years.

      But never on the scale we see in the modern world today. Only in the last hundred years or so has it been so widely available and even mandated for children to attend.

      it seems to be a mystery as to the best way to teach.

      Because we know that despite how we have taught in the past, we know there are ways to teach better. This is important if you wish to improve the average level of education acquired in early schooling.

      Education is as unscientific a fields as I can imagine.

      Possibly. The other problem is that it takes years to see the effects and you’re effectively experimenting on people – this makes everything rather conservative (i.e. you aren’t seeing real experimentation in the field of education because the impact can be so drastic.)

      • Bob Fry

        I’ll address the last paragraph: I don’t buy it. Medicine obviously experiments on people, but the experimentation does take place, mistakes and all, and progress does happen. Even psychology has seen progress.

        But education seems immune from the scientific method. It doesn’t take years to see some or most results…a year or two at most.

        Look at the LAUSD fiasco occurring now. Apparently a billion dollars spent on iPads, with no real notion of how they were supposed to improve students’ learning.

        Or, there still doesn’t seem to be any real consensus in practice as to class size and learning. I’ve occasionally seen mention of studies that make some conclusion or other, but at the policy and practice level it all seems driven by opinion and money available.

        • James Ivey

          “But education seems immune from the scientific method.”

          Just out of curiosity, how many academic papers in education have you read? I assume you’ve read at least a dozen from the last few years, or your statement would just be some garbage pulled from your posterior portions.

          Like I said, a good friend of mine is a dean of education at a university. The scientific method is carefully applied to each hypothesis and study.

          • Bob Fry

            Can you write a reply without personal insults?

            Academic papers are a good beginning, I’ll take your word for it that actual, scientific research in education takes place (though I’d like more assurance than “my friend says so”). But if it doesn’t result in implementation, it’s so much intellectual masturbation: great fun and no danger of anything happening in real life. Where are the practical results of all this research: of students learning faster, more, deeper, or at least learning the same stuff I did but by cheaper means? There must be some real-world impact of all your friend’s work.

          • James Ivey

            “There must be some real-world impact of all your friend’s work.”

            There is. Lots of it. My sister and my ex wife are and were, respectively, teachers. I talk(ed) to them all the time about their curriculae. The way language is taught has changed dramatically in recent years. Concepts of algebra are now being introduced as early as first grade. I can give many examples, but it’s hard to know where to begin.

            As for my friend, I’d gladly name him but not in a public forum without his prior permission. His publications are all over Google Scholar. You could read them yourself.

            I don’t mean to get personal, but what you’re saying is so contrary to everything I see in education that I can’t imagine where you’re getting your information from. People who express views similar to yours tend to be completely uninformed or pushing a political agenda. If you have some insight, based on actual facts that you can point to, I’ll reconsider my views.

    • James Ivey

      “Education is as unscientific a field as I can imagine. If any objective observation, theories, and testing of theories occur, they sure are well hidden.”

      Just because _you_ can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s hidden. A good friend of mine is a dean of education at a university. It’s very scientific. And, if we already knew everything about education, we wouldn’t need any more research. Yet, research is turning up new things all the time.

      Years ago, the smallest particles known were the electron, neutron, and proton. Yet, “[e]very few years some new great “breakthrough” [particle is discovered], bazillions spent, then it falls out of favor and the cycle starts again.” So, since research in physics never seems to be done, should we just stop it now?

      The same is true for education. New truths are being discovered all the time. The fact that we don’t know everything yet doesn’t mean we should stop trying. In fact, it means quite the opposite.

      • Bob Fry

        Oh please, the fact you try to equate research in physics and education only reveals your ignorance. Physics, like almost all other scientific fields, builds upon past discoveries. The cycle doesn’t repeat at all. If indeed new discoveries in education are being made, why are kids still basically being taught the same as as they have for a hundred+ years? I see little to no progress in teaching methods and more importantly, students learning “better”: faster, more, or deeper.

        • James Ivey

          “Oh please, the fact you try to equate research in physics and education only reveals your ignorance.”

          I never said they were equivalent. I pointed out that the discovery of new things every few years doesn’t indicate that a particular study is unscientific.

          “If indeed new discoveries in education are being made, why are kids still basically being taught the same as as they have for a hundred+ years?”

          They aren’t. How much have you studied about education? You don’t seem to know even the very basics of it.

          “I see little to no progress in teaching methods and more importantly, students learning “better”: faster, more, or deeper.”

          I see it. My daughter is in 5th grade and is learning things I didn’t learn until 7th grade (30ish years ago). And before you criticize my education, my public high school ranked very highly nationally and I attended and excelled at some of the nation’s top universities.

          There has definitely been some significant progress made in recent years.

      • timholton

        I see innumerable problems with trying to educate human beings by treating them as “particules.”

  • Another Mike

    The black man impregnating his daughter in Ellison’s Invisible Man would be a bit much for the average high school English class to discuss, in my opinion.

  • James Ivey

    I’m glad to hear Ms. Ravitch describe public education as a social obligation like police and fire. When people ask why they should pay to educate their neighbor’s kids, I say “because your neighbor’s kids will soon be voting.” Education and information are the life blood of any democracy.

    • Another Mike

      Their neighbor’s kids will be providing them goods and services till they day they die. Do they want competent help or klutzes?

      • James Ivey

        Yeah, I used to say “because some day your neighbor’s kid might be operating on you in the E.R.”

        • technokat

          That POV tends to stem from a position of selfish ignorance which requires a “what’s in it for me?” kind of answer. I always say to the people who complain about supporting public education, “An educated public helps sustain a positive and productive community. If your neighbor’s children are not getting an education, where are they? What are they learning about day-to-day life? And what are they going to start taking from you when they lack the skills necessary to support your community b/c they lack an education? Without education for your community, you best lock your doors at night.”

          • James Ivey

            Right, the point is to expand someone’s narrow self-interest into enlightened self-interest — self-interest of a larger community.

  • KS

    Re money used for technology: As a parent, I’ve noticed (already) in my daughter’s K class (in an elementary school in the Outer Sunset district of SF) that technology is replacing the teacher in regards to singing the alphabet, other songs.

    To those of you who advocate technology in the educational setting, I ask this: How can this make learning any better?

    In the case of the alphabet, the teacher is fully capable of helping the children learn their lowercase letters. However, the school district (SFUSD) wants all classrooms to have a “Promothean Board,” a technological replacement of the chalkboard or whiteboard.

    Read: This technology is a precursor to whatever else in the future…which will replace human teachers. Computers do not make us learn “better” or “faster,” to briefly quote recent studies from think tanks.

  • Allison

    The unintended consequence of charter schools may have been cherry-picking the better students instead of drawing in the dropouts and other needy students, as Ms. Ravitch says, but that could not have occurred had the public schools been doing their job of teaching well. The schools my children attended were rated California Distinguished schools, and yet the level of education was appalling. In one high school literature class, the students were assigned to read only three books the entire year. In another, the teacher had to have the students go around the room reading aloud a paragraph each of the assigned literature to make sure that they had read the books at all. No wonder I took my kids out of school as soon as I legally could. One went to a charter school which was far superior to our local “distinguished” school. Two I just took out early, one at 16 and one at 17, had them take the proficiency exam, and sent them straight to community college where they could work at their actual level and learn something. My hope was that the competition of charter schools will push the public schools to improve the level of education, but so far it seems to be continuing to teach to the lowest common denominator. Bright students need a good education as much as the ones who are disadvantaged, but the public school system as it stands ignores them if they aren’t in the very limited number of slots in advanced placement classes.

    • erictremont

      I suspect the “cherry picking” claim is exaggerated. Charter schools typically select students via a lottery that is open to everyone in the neighborhoods they serve—in predominantly low income neighborhoods, it is difficult to understand how the lottery system could result in a disproportionate number of slower learners or kids with behavior problems, unless such households are self-selecting out of charter schools by not participating in the lotterys.

      • BornBlonde

        Students selected “via a lottery”? How naive are you? Do you really think that the lottery could not rigged? Charter schoold want to be the super stars of education and it would be in their self interest to leave behind problamatic childen. If you want to know, you can find out exactly what is going happening.

        • Not only that, but charters have fine-tuned schemes for “encouraging” parents to withdraw “undesirable” students. There are reports all over the place about this.

        • Nanette Fynan

          All the charter school students I have encountered were there because they couldn’t cut it in the public school system. Why then are they performing so well, one to two grade levels above their age?

    • timholton

      I sympathize with parents like you trying to navigate a dysfunctional system, but believe we have to be careful to distinguish the micro-view from the macro. You cannot expect a school to compensate for extreme social inequality and the corresponding spread in advantages and disadvantages in children’s lives outside the classroom. Could they do a better job of individualization? Certainly. But wrong-headed reform dictates from outside the classroom prevent the flexibility teachers used to enjoy. They also discourage initiative on the part of students who instead are primed to simply get the right answer on tests. To a large degree it’s self-motivation that distinguishes high-achieving students. Talk to any college professor and you’ll hear about the alarming passivity and disengagement of the test-bombarded students of today relative to the past. The reform agenda has made a bad situation worse, with charter schools and a whole education industry trying to exploit the problems for private gain.

  • Brian

    I get the social obligation argument, but I have a soon-to-be kindergartner. I want her to get the best education she can . Apart from private school, a charter school is our only public option for that in our community which is a community with a large number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. What’s Ms. Ravitch’s solution for those facing schooling their children now? Where did Ms. Ravitch send her children? If a public school, what was the percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students?

    • Another Mike

      Does this mean anything other than “poor kids are icky”?

      • Bob Fry

        Maybe he means disruptive and dumb kids that will drag his kids down. Economic levels and even ethnicity need not have anything to do with it.

        • Another Mike

          So Brian sees the charter school as a lifeboat for his child, while the rest of the students must go down with the public school ship.

      • James Ivey

        I think I understand Brian. I was in a similar situation a few years ago. I wanted to do what I could to improve public schools, but what do you do if they’re not improved yet and your child must go to school now?

        I’m lucky. Our neighborhood school is very good and engages in numerous fund raising events to get the parents to bridge the gap between public funding and what’s needed to provide quality education. New teachers from other schools in the district are amazed at the level of parental participation.

        The result is that my daughter attends a great public school.

        I don’t know what I would have done if the parents in my neighborhood hadn’t stepped up.

    • Robert Thomas

      I don’t have any kids in school but I enthusiastically support our public schools and pay substantial taxes to fund them.

      But I pay my taxes to educate ALL of the kids in my community, not just yours and not just the lucky kids who have involved parents. I went to school a long time ago with a friend named Vicky. Some days, in front of me, Vicky’s mom put away a quart of gin before the late afternoon. One of the few safe, sane places Vicky had to spend time was at school, where her bright mind was nurtured by teachers who understood (even forty-five years ago) something was troubling at home and so provided her extra attention.

      Do you feel that I should continue to pay for special attention for your kid (which is what charter schools purport to provide) at the expense of kids whose parents aren’t particularly concerned for their education? Are those kids down to me, exclusively? Have you no responsibility for those kids? If you feel you don’t, then your option is to vote against school funding and put your kid in private school. Mississippi beckons.

  • jennifer

    As a mom of a first grader in berkeley public schools, I am committed to the practice of fair, accessible free education and I spend as much time volunteering as my full-time job will allow, however I am conflicted by the reality that my daughter, and at least a quarter of the kids in her class are BORED by the low level of the coursework, this leads to disruptive behavior and even more challenges for the kids who are struggling academically- where can I go for additional coursework I can take into the classroom?

  • KS

    Right, Ms. Ravitch! How do computers help our children learn? They do not. Unfortunately, they are replacing the teachers even at the K level. We try to foster books and hands-on learning at home, but we fear our children will be bored at school, with the slower learning pace.

  • HeatherGC

    My neighorhood school is the lowest performing school in the district. The PTA is non-existent. The school used their program improvement funds on iPads. I fought nail and tooth to get my child into one of the better schools in our district. Initially I was told our only option was a school several miles away that was virtually the same (academically and functionally) as my neighborhood school. My family has supported this school district for 35 years and I find this unacceptable. I looked into charter schools, private schools and even homeschooling. When your school district is spending vital funds on online math video games and iPads, rather than looking at the real issues- parent involvement, problems at home, different learning styles, poverty, comprehension and medical diagnoses…something is wrong with this picture.

    • Another Mike

      Wait a minute. The state of K-8 math education is uniformly dismal. My guess is that most people drawn to teach elementary school are not drawn to mathematics, and hate teaching it. Providing alternate means of teaching math, that do not rely on the teacher’s motivation and enthusiasm, sounds like a winner to me.

      • KS

        Re science/math: Another Mike, I am helping the teachers at my daughter’s elementary school with a sic program because the teachers, according to a PTA Board member, have no (1) knowledge of science, nor (2) do they have time. No knowledge or time! I fear even worse for math, a beautiful language.

        • As someone with a math/science background, I would say math is far more critical in the later elementary years, while science should be kept mostly at an exploratory level until the child reaches middle-school-age. Elementary students need to acquire the basics of mainly reading, writing and math, with ample exploration in social studies, art/music and science.

          • Another Mike

            Math is a subject best studied at a young age, like music, while the developing mind is still flexible enough to absorb it.

          • I believe early childhood development specialists will disagree with this concept. Abstract thinking capability is barely there in K-1 for most children, and it doesn’t “come of age” until years later.

          • Another Mike


      • As someone with a background in math, I’d like to read specifics of such a proposal, and frankly, evidence behind your assertion. I don’t recall my public school elementary teachers being math-averse.

        • Another Mike

          One indication is that our 15 year olds rank in the bottom third of OECD nations on the PISA test, decade after decade. For a more comprehensive look at how American math teaching fails our students, read this: tmmevol3no2_ohio_pp223_248.pdf

          • Well, you said that “My guess is that most people drawn to teach elementary school are not drawn to mathematics, and hate teaching it.” Anything to back this up? I won’t let you talk around it. This subject is too important to me.

          • Another Mike

            Did you read the reference I provided to you? I would hate to be wasting my time. Which I fear I am, because you don’t seem to have a firm grasp of the meaning of “guess.”

          • Erica Levine Sadowsky

            As a high school math teacher for 35 years I can testify that my students tell me that too many of their elementary teachers would rather hand them calculators than “teach” math. Too many of my students tell me it’s obvious that their elementary teachers were afraid of math.

  • sosnewark

    Diane Ravitch you make such sense!!! I applaud your last statement about poverty!!! In the Bay Area schools are divided up in an extreme clas system. if you live in a Palo Alto or Los altos 2 million dollar house you get a totally different experience because the PTAs/
    educational foundations can ask for $1000 per child extra.
    Once you give every child the same kind of Public school , same resources, independent of location! that’s when the richer districts/parents will get involved and there will be equality in Public School!

    • Another Mike

      Public schools should receive equal shares per pupil from our state income tax, not from property taxes which favor wealthy communities.

      • James Ivey

        I vaguely recall that Prop 13 was supposed to include the state increasing funding of schools in some areas to promote parity in education in different communities. My understanding is that the state has never (or rarely) provided any of the requisite funding. I recall hearing (on this program years ago, I believe) that there were several situations in which the state was required to provide funding for education but just failed to do it.

        To the extent my recollection is accurate, passing a law to require the state to fund education is not enough to get the state to actually fund education.

  • Educator

    Working in a small dysfunctional district right next to Palo Alto, it is clear that the teachers should be the number one priority. The inability to hold teachers accountable and the bureaucracy behind keeping bad teachers is disgusting. Our students deserve more than complacent, unmotivated, and ineffective teachers that we have in our school. It is up to us to shape the path for teachers, we need to pay them more to expect more. We need to offer more training, we need to provide the time and resources to do this. I blame this both on crucial policy decisions of the district (too much money on I-Pads, laptops, screenprinters) and the unions (protecting dangerously ineffective teachers). It time to use some common sense and find the balance between supporting our teachers and expecting more from them.

    • Another Mike

      Hold teachers accountable for what? Propose your metrics, then see how well the teachers measure up.

      • Educator

        Ms. Ravitch’s suggestion of teacher built metrics are fine enough… but there does need to be a metric. Standardized Tests are not perfect but at the rate in which our schools are failing them, that’s metric enough to understand that the system isn’t cutting it. Building a metric system for evaluation is an important step forward, and those that are opposed to building this system are only protecting the adults, not the students.

  • Robert Thomas

    This is a fraught thing, obviously.

    I don’t know very much about education. I know that kids with involved, concerned parents provide most of their kids’ education. They read to their kids and listen their kids read. They have books and interesting materials in their homes. They pay attention to and encourage their kids’ interests and answer their questions. For their kids, school is an important and useful adjunct to development where professionals provide exposure to broad subject matter and further guidance.

    If a community is healthy and the number of kids in it with distressed home lives is low enough, many of those unfortunate kids can turn to their school and teachers to provide some of the nurture their luckier peers enjoy.

    But if the community is largely in distress, even providing great schools will NOT fix it. Great schools will help kids with great parents (even poor, great parents) and will help SOME kids with chaotic home lives, but not enough of them. For progressives, who believe that government can help people, it’s tempting to think that broken communities can be rescued by improving (often also broken) public schools, which are state and local government’s biggest obligation and biggest expenditure. There’s no evidence that this works. Good schools (or at least the absence of bad schools) are necessary for a healthy community but they aren’t sufficient to make a community be healthy. A number of advocates have tried to argue the contrary, through advocacy in the media and with feature films and so on, but they haven’t been very convincing. Schools are scapegoats for social and economic failure they have little power to reverse.

    My sister was an elected school board member in a small, heavily ESL K-8 school district in Santa Clara county (where due to historical weirdness, there are over thirty school districts) for eight years. One thing she (as a concerned lay person and not a professional educator) learned was that while everyone who ever went to school thinks they know something about education, this is not often the case.

    • Terry Mond

      I was once told about “the 80 – 20” rule: 80% of the people can lift up 20% of the people, but 20% of the people can’t lift up 80% of the people. I believe this is the situation we face in many schools, particularly those in the inner cities.

      • Robert Thomas

        As usual, I spent a lot of words to say the same thing.

  • David

    I think the program included an incorrect start time for this evening’s event at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium. It begins at 5:15 p.m.

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Remember that parents who seek our public, charter, homeschooling do so because they are smart enough to realize their child will be in school very few years overall and that a poor school is like junk food.

    Anyone who has actually looked at the history of public education will know schools were 100% local. Not fed or state controlled. This meant parents felt shame if they did not encourage their child(ren) to do their homework, or behave well.

    Today we have so many parents who assume the school will raise their child and have the child do the work needed to succeed. But the fact is parents have to take education seriously and make this known to the child.

  • KBryant

    I am getting irked at the ongoing demonizing of the word charter. Privatization is more appropriate. I know that there is an educational industrial complex that is siphoning off the income of our public schools, and that the property tax model to funding schools perpetuates the unequal distribution of funding, but there is also a pervasive antiquated approach/strategy to educating our children that MUST change in order to move them into 21st century centers of learning. Technology has an important place in our schools, starting with how they are run (At registration each year, I have to fill out ten separate pieces of paper that ALL have at least five duplicate data points), and THAT is
    where it should be utilized first for efficiency and to reverse the upside
    down funding model of more cash in the administration than in the
    classroom. While our school district operates out of a 1950’s model for educating children, it has two excellent grassroots charter schools which DO exactly what charters were meant to: make sure each student is supported. They DO NOT handpick more successful students and have a whole approach to educational success – at the high school level, a mandate to not allow a single child to fall through the cracks. The District board fired the superintendent who fought the High school charter conversion and now principals of the other high schools are looking to the charter for ideas on how to transform the energy and success on their campuses.

  • Amy Valens

    When Mr. Krasny asked Ms. Ravitch how we would measure learning if we don’t use standardized tests (I’m paraphrasing) I groaned. Teachers are constantly appraising their students’ learning in very direct ways by observing them in action, as well as through tests that are related to what is being taught– which gives them immediate feedback so actually can be used to remediate, reteach, or go deeper. What standardized tests improve is the pocketbooks of the rapidly growing ‘education industry’. For a look at what is now taking place as a result of the latest round of “reform” read this: http://criticalclassrooms.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/danielson-4a-a-moral-inventory-of-my-compliance-work/

  • Nanette Fynan

    Hi Michael,

    Dr. Ravitch did some serious spin doctoring about the charter school movement. When it first started, all children were welcome. Recently (in time for the metrics) the rules were re-interpreted to exclude children with disabilities. The attack on charter schools is senseless as it hurts so many children who do not fit into the mainstream system. How do I know? My kids have been going to charter schools (that were highly integrated) for the last 20 years and have fared well. After the fact, they were diagnosed with various and sundry LD and autism. Give us a break and quit politicizing our kids education. Public means public, not whatever benefits a small minority of people who fit in the box.

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