Diane Ravitch has worked as a historian of education for more than four decades. She’s served as the assistant secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush, written numerous books on education and has taught as a research professor of education at New York University for the last 26 years. In that time she’s watched the evolution of the American education system, and has been vocal about the evolution of her own thoughts on the matter.
“In the last 10 years I’ve become an activist on behalf of public schools and the importance of public education in a democracy,” Ravitch said in an April interview with Education Week. “This was a big change from where I was before then.”
“Ravitch is one of the country’s strongest advocates for public education, and with that advocacy comes strong criticism of the current education reform movement,” said Matt Ewalt, an Institution vice president and the Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education. “During a week that looks at reform efforts throughout the United States, Professor Ravitch will make the case against privatization and highlight those who have fought against these forces.”
In 2010, after being known for years as a conservative advocate for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, charter schools and school choice, Ravitch came out against these policies. In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she writes about becoming disillusioned with NCLB.
“I realized that the remedies were not working, I started to doubt the entire approach to school reform that NCLB represented,” she wrote. “I realized that incentives and sanctions were not the right levers to improve education; incentives and sanctions may be right for business organizations, where the bottom line — profit — is the highest priority, but they are not right for schools. I started to see the danger of the culture of testing that was spreading through every school, community, town, city, and state.”
Ravitch has come to realize that national standardized testing and penalizing “under-performing” schools does little to raise education standards or address the root causes of undereducation.
“Standardized tests themselves are a social construction of very limited value,” she told Education Week. “When we use standardized tests we judge children, we stigmatize them unless they’re in the top. … (They) have become a way of adding to the privilege of those who are already privileged.”
She is highly critical of billionaire philanthropists trying to “disrupt” the education system through the advocacy of such measures at the Common Core.
“The great failure of the billionaires, aside from their arrogance in thinking that they are somehow entitled to reinvent education without paying attention to the people who do the work, is that they change the subject,” Ravitch said in the same interview. “The subject to me is, what do we do about the dramatic inequality in our society?”
To her, the only way the American education system will improve is if politicians and voters see it as a resource worth investing in.
“Almost half the kids in this country are, by federal definition, living below the poverty line, and an enormous number of them have special needs,” she told Education Week. “It costs money to address all those needs. Are we willing to pay teachers a professional salary and have a teaching profession, or do we want to just keep skimping and pretending that choice and testing are somehow a substitute for genuine social and political action?”
This program is made possible by The Locke-Irwin Fund.