The Life and Death of Education

Diane Ravitch on the real threats to public education

Austin Chronicle
SEPTEMBER 28, 2012

On the subject of public education, Diane Ravitch may be America’s most important whistle-blower. The former U.S. assistant secretary of education doesn’t employ hidden cameras or purloined documents, and she doesn’t entrap teachers or find evidence of financial malfeasance by district administrators. Instead, she uses cold, hard numbers to expose the Big Lie: that the education reforms of the last two decades – from No Child Left Behind to high-stakes testing and the ongoing, bipartisan, national love affair with charter schools – have done much, or anything, to fix American public education.

What makes Ravitch’s findings even bolder and more telling is that she began her career as one of the big cheerleaders for that culture of “reform.” Now a research professor of education at New York Uni­ver­sity, she travels this month to the belly of the education beast – Texas, the home of No Child Left Behind. On Sept. 30, she’ll be holding a public meeting at Eastside Memorial High School; she’s been following the plans to eventually turn the campus over to IDEA Public Schools and sees that proposal as just another part of the demolition of public education.

The preparatory wrecking ball for public schools has been high-stakes, standardized testing. In a bit of dramatic irony, Ravitch’s visit comes just after new Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, in the political home of standardized testing, announced he’ll be asking the feds for an NCLB waiver from meeting the ever-rising testing accountability standards. A waiver’s not good enough for Ravitch, who argues, “NCLB should be repealed, and it should be rewritten.” For her, the waiver program is just as bad, if not worse, than the main program, because it allows the U.S. secretary of education to unilaterally rewrite the law. “I wish someone would challenge that in court,” says Ravitch, “because waivers take the pressure off Congress.”

When we spoke, Ravitch had just read a column in the Texas Tribune by Texas Assoc­i­ation of Business CEO Bill Hammond, who argued “we must stay the course” on the modern accountability culture. Ravitch was not persuaded. For her, our state is instead the laboratory that has demonstrated the failure of the high-stakes testing experiment. “Texas has been doing this stuff since Ross Perot,” she said. “Twenty years is not enough? Thirty years is not enough? How many generations does it take?”

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