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Education historian Ravitch: ‘Corporate reforms’ hurt public schools

American public education is in crisis, Diane Ravitch told an Indiana University audience last month (April 2011). But it's not a crisis of failing schools or underperforming students. Rather, it's a crisis that results from misguided "corporate reforms" that are undermining public schools.

"In the past, critics wanted better public schools," Ravitch said. "But then in last few years, something new has been happening. An awful lot of the critics want to get rid of public education. They wonder why we even have public schools."

An education historian and policy expert who was undersecretary of education in the first Bush Administration, Ravitch delivered a Branigin Lecture at IU Bloomington, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study. She also took part in a public conversation at IU's Willkie Auditorium with Deborah Meier, a longtime New York educator and leading advocate for personalized schools.


Diane Ravitch, right, takes part in a discussion with Deborah Meier at IU's Willkie Auditorium.

Print-Quality Photo

Ravitch, the author of the best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, was long identified as a conservative education policy advocate, and she was an early supporter of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

But she turned against NCLB and its focus on high-stakes testing and accountability as a result of its labeling of schools as "failing," its narrowing of the curriculum to focus on English and math, and its promotion of win-at-all-costs approaches to test-taking. She said the law's mandate that all students must be "proficient" in English and math by 2014 automatically sets schools up for failure.

"It sounds almost un-American to say it," she said, "but I think the focus on accountability is misplaced. The blaming and punishing that it produces are just doing tremendous damage."

Ravitch also criticized the Obama Administration's initiatives, such as Race to the Top, which awards grants to states on the condition that they adopt performance-based pay for teachers and strategies to turn around or close failing schools.

"Race to the Top is No Child Left Behind 2.0," she said.

Ravitch took issue with what she characterized as a pervasive myth -- that U.S. public education is getting worse and that American students can't compete with their international peers. She saved her strongest words for "corporate reformers," including hedge-fund managers and the heads of wealthy foundations who have decided that American schools can be saved by giving parents more choices via vouchers and charter schools and by rewarding effective teachers and firing bad ones.

"I believe the corporate reform movement will fail," she said. "The question is, how long will it take? How soon will people realize the damage that's being done?"

Ravitch said there's no "silver bullet" in education policy that will overcome the crippling effects of poverty and make schools effective overnight.

"Children are educated one day at a time. And it's hard," she said. "My solution is, let's get real. Let's stop asking for miracles, because only God makes miracles."