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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Diane Ravitch on teachers, testing and Florida's progress



sp_339640_keel_ravitch_1c.jpgTwenty years ago, Diane Ravitch was an outspoken advocate for more standardized testing, more accountability and as an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, she helped launch the back-to-basics movement. These days Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, aims her ire at a different target: all those ideas she used to champion. "Particularly in Florida, it's a disaster," she said during a visit Wednesday with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. Ravitch was in town speaking at the Florida School Boards Association annual meeting in Tampa to continue her full-throated campaign to "save public education" from its obsession with testing. Here are some excerpts (edited for length and clarity) from Ravitch's visit with the Times Editorial Board:  

So do you think public education was better off before No Child Left Behind?
I think there were more possibilities to do good things. I think right now No Child Left Behind has become kind of a…a vice, squeezing the life out of education…I think that standardized testing…and I spent seven years on the National Assessment Governing Board so I know the testing stuff really well…I just think if you spend 12 years answering multiple choice questions it probably rots your brain. And, you know, I can remember a time where you’d once in a while, a long time ago, you’d once in a while encounter a multiple choice question but typically teachers ask you to write an essay or write out your math answer to the question and teachers had a lot of autonomy…and I think that we’re not getting better results but what we are doing is killing creativity, originality..diversion thinking…all the things we need for the 21 st century are what we’re squeezing out of a generation of children.
There’s been a lot of blame pointed at teachers unions in the educational malaise in the country. What is your view of the role of teachers unions?
Well, let me say first of all I don’t think there’s a crisis in education. I think this is truly a manufactured crisis and I know people other people have been saying this for years and I didn’t believe it. I now think it's true. The whole Waiting for Superman thing was totally phony….. And looking at the international test scores…I was there for the first Sputnik, the real Sputnik, and all of the newspapers were full of the stories that Soviet unionists were going to, you know, destroy us because their math and science scores were higher than us. They didn’t actually participate in the international assessments but we were always looking to the Soviet Union saying look how many engineers they have, or look how great their math and science education is and the first international assessment was 1964, there was 12 countries who participated. We came in 12 th out of 12. And since then…we’ve always been somewhere in the bottom portion and now all the sudden we’re somewhere in the middle…Somehow or another we end up still being the most successful and the most profitable economy in the world, built by people who were in the bottom of the international test rankings…. And the highest performing state in the country is Massachusetts, which is 100% union. And…Finland is the highest performing nation and its 100% union. I don’t think unions cause high performance, probably cause higher spending because they insist that people get paid a decent wage..but I don’t think they’re a barrier to high performance..
You’ve spoken and written a lot about the Gates Foundation. We have a local school district, Hillsborough, that has used $100 million in Gates money… and hired peer evaluators and mentors, gave them 20% of the evaluations along with 20% for principals and the other, the remainder 40% for, actually, 30-30 and 40 for a value added. Is that a reasonable approach?
Gates has basically shaped the national conversation. First Gates said that the we have big high schools. They’re obsolete….and we have to get rid of big high schools, so everybody followed the money and started doing that. And then he said, “Oh, the evaluations show that the kids in the big high schools are actually doing better than the kids in those small schools. We’re not going to do that anymore after we spent $2 billion.” So now he’s decided that the big idea we need to fix is teacher evaluations. He’s got the whole country focused on teacher evaluations. I think teacher evaluation is very important but I don’t think he has the answer….Gates believes in test scores because these economists who believe that performance is the only thing that counts persuaded him that test scores had to be (part of it.)
Ravitch continued….
  Every time somebody has a new idea in Washington , a new industry is created to suck up public money. Now there’s going to be a teacher evaluation industry. And the companies are already forming…google the term “education entrepreneur”. I did that a few weeks ago. I came up with almost a million hits. People are now longing on the education industry as a new frontier for big money…Now the big thing is “I can turn around schools”…A lot of these people in turn-around businesses never turned a school around. But they have a company who will tell you how to turn your school around...It seems to be, you come in and you say, “If you don’t get the scores up, I’ll close your schools down.” And then, whoa, the scores go up. But I think that it’s not that this is a better way. This is a worst way. We have to do so much better and I think that we could learn something from other countries that are doing it better. But I think that we, first of all...we need to have in this country is respect for teachers, to make the teaching profession honored, respected…to draw the best possible people in it… I mean if you said I were the Goddess of Education I would bring the best minds and say, “How do we begin planning to change the teaching profession so it is one of the most honored professions in America?” Not by firing people.
So how do you change that ethic so this is a position of respect, honor, community and reverence?
I think there a bunch of things we need to do. We need to raise the entry standards into teaching and in fact as a nation, state by state...There is a big thing now called alternative roots. I was in Texas not long ago, which is my home state, and there are big billboards all around saying, want to be a teacher? and I went to this website and for $400 down I was on my way to certification. It’s ridiculous, absolutely crazy that all you need to have I guess is not have a criminal record. We should be raising standards, We should make it more rigorous, we should require that those who are going to teach in a particular subject have mastered in that subject. The push coming from people like Bill Gates is to say well, his economists have told him that master’s degrees don’t make a difference to test scores. Baloney, I don’t care about test scores, master’s degrees are very critical because nobody has enough education even after four years of college to become a master teacher…You get what you pay for in this country as well as everywhere else. There are specific things we could do in terms of raising standards, getting a higher level of caliber of student coming into teaching and giving people very intensive support making sure when they come into this classroom, they have a master teacher working with them. Right now, our method is sink or swim.
What’s your analysis of what role colleges of education have played in the current state of affairs?
Mainly, I think they have played very little role. Either a negative role or no role because they haven’t taken seriously their obligation. They tend to get the least prepared students. I’ve always been opposed to the idea of having an undergraduate degree in education, and the only place I can see having a role is say for special education. Even for someone who is preparing in elementary school, it would be better if they had a bachelor’s degree in one subject or two subjects and then had their education as a master’s degree or as a minor. Being well educated is the first qualification for being a teacher and I’ve always been very critical of undergraduate schools of education for that reason.
It seems to me what you’re also talking about is culturally in terms of our system … completely redefining what does an education mean. Your emphasis or your criticism of the testing is not an education. It’s completely revolutionizing what it means to have an education.
I could go on about why it’s important about to be a citizen in this society and how you have to know enough about science not to be bamboozled by what people are saying about climate change or not to be bamboozled by the latest study to come out on XYZ that’s going to suede people’s minds on the next issue of the moment or look at the latest studies about how smoking effects your health. We’re constantly getting scientific studies… you can’t know everything but you have to have a general base of knowledge… know enough about civics to understand your government. That’s what a good education is, that you’re prepared as a citizen to go into the ballot booth and make a good decision and not be swayed simply by what you say on TV and to sit on a jury and weigh evidence. Those are two really important roles that a citizen has. Just the ability to think. This is one of the things that has turned me off to the multiple choice test. Not every question has four possible answers. Not every question has four answers in which only one is right. It could be that they’re all wrong, it could be two of the four of them are right. I could give you example after example. When I was sitting on the national assessment governing board, I was on the committee that would read all of the questions in history and in reading, I couldn’t do the math, I’m not sure I could pass the fourth grade math, I could never get through eighth grade math it was too hard… Very often in the history tests there would be two right answers. Later this week there is going to be the release of the history assessment, I can’t tell you what it says, I’m participating in the release. I was going through the questions and I noticed one of the questions had two correct answers. If I had been on the board, I would not have permitted that. Who was Martin Luther King more influenced by, and it gave two ridiculous names whoever they were and one was Jane Addams and Mahatma Gandhi. I thought the obvious answer was Mahatma Gandhi, but I said wait a minute, are you sure it’s not Jane Addams? It could have been Jane Addams, she was very influential, even in his lifetime. You could make a good argument even though Gandhi seemed so obviously right.
Is Florida doing anything right in your view? You mentioned NAEP scores several times. Our NAEP scores are rising as fast as anybody's, our grad rate is pathetic, but it’s rising as fast as anybody's.
I think it’s good that NAEP scores go up, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that matters. There are other things that are important. Looking at what’s happening now with the governor proposing radical cuts in the budget, that’s not good. I think with his encouragement of privatization, that’s going to harm public education. I was reading a very good piece someone wrote the other day in Providence, Rhode Island where he was saying every time a charter school opened, it took kids away. It was a loss of their full tuition from the school district, but the school district wasn’t able to deduct that from their costs. Its operating costs remained the same. It made so much sense. He said, say there are four of us riding from Providence to Cranston and it takes X dollars for gas money and one of the passengers decides not to ride with us, it still costs that much for the gas money. So the operating costs for the school system doesn’t go down but they have less revenue, and I think that the charter industry worries me because it’s become rapacious and there are some really good charters and there are some charters where people are thieves, and there are some charters where people have religious motives,
Do you think class size is the only reason we’re seeing gains and not credit any of the other policy changes?
I think that focusing on the reading is really important but I also notice that because I was on the task force that Florida test scores were doing much better in fourth grade, somewhat better in eighth grade, and not better at all in 12 th grade. So what gives here? Why is this…?
Part of this explanation of things, is that you haven’t had time, that fourth graders are moving through…
We’ll see… because we’ve seen the same pattern in the national scores where the fourth grade scores go up because now there’s more focus on phonetics and kids are breaking the code so they’re reading better in fourth grade, but when they get to eighth grade they have not had a broad enough education to have the vocabulary to even understand the test questions. I noticed on the NAPE for example, on the history questions, they weren’t even about history, they were just reading questions, so there was one fourth grade question about the Burmese distant leader who won the Nobel Prize… and I thought, fourth graders have no idea who she is. But what happens with these questions is the answer is in the question. If you can read the question you can find the answer. You don’t have to know what the names are. But you know at the time I looked at the Florida scores, there was already this leveling off and the leveling off happens in the national scores. The leveling begins in eighth grade and by upper grades the gains are gone and I think it’s because of the lack of knowledge and vocabulary that comes with studying science and civics and history, and you don’t have a broad curriculum while you’re left with your basic skills.
What do you think about the elimination of tenure, we’ve done that with new teachers in Florida ?
I think it’s just another effort to cut teachers down and make it easier to fire more experienced teachers because they cost too much and bring in new teachers. You could find a lot of different conflicts in educational research… and it’s hard to find consensus. The one thing where you can find consensus is that the least effective teachers are in their first two years….the least effective year for teachers is the first year because they don’t know what they’re doing and most of them are poorly prepared to begin with. Most by their third year, they figure out how to handle a class and how to connect with kids. Right now, the push is on to get rid of the older teachers because they cost too much, it’s a cost cutting measure, it’s not an educational improvement measure, it’s a cost cutting measure.
While we’re on that, we’re familiar with teachers who are far beyond their third year, all our kids have had them, and they know who they are in middle schools and high schools and they are not fired, they’re still there every year, and at least in this district and this area, there is a good argument to be made that you could say it’s administration?
But how are you going to make that judgment? Is it going to be by test scores? I mean, what’s the basis? They say we want to judge by merit and not be longevity. But how do you define merit?
You’ve talked about money and you get what we pay for, but you’re speaking to the school board’s association tomorrow and those are the folks who set teacher’s salaries and tax their localities, can you really raise standards without touching the third rail of education: local control as opposed to setting some national fundraising goal and federalizing some of that?
I think we’re already on our way towards federalization. I think that’s what Race to the Top is all about.
Is that a bad thing in terms of funding, though?
I don’t think it’s a bad thing in terms of funding, I just don’t see it happening. I think Washington would like to exert control and it’s doing that very nicely by in effect holding out a big packet of money and do it our way and you can have a piece of it. I think this is incredibly retrograde, this idea of having a competition for federal funding because it gives Washington control and they don’t have to make their equity applications. I don’t know if you recall this, but last summer, the six leading civil rights organizations put out a joint statement criticizing Race to the Top saying this is a step backward to pre-1965 days.
Ravitch added….
Right now, I don’t have a whole lot of trust for what’s coming out of Washington, might as well just have Bill Gates make all the decisions. Our biggest problem in this country is not teacher evaluation, and it may be there are teachers who should be fired, and there should not be any bad teachers and teachers should come up for periodic review. Peer review should be very important as well as principal review. I think we have problems that are much larger than this. I just think this is what Bill is most interested in right now. Maybe a couple years from now, he’ll be interested in something else.
International Baccalaureate programs are quite popular in Florida and they are rigorous and have high standards, and if you don’t pass the exam, you do not get the diploma. The exams are not multiple choice, so is that a good use of standardized exam? And Florida teacher’s kids who pass the exam get a bonus and they seem to be happy to get that money, even though they love what they do. Is that okay?
I think that’s okay, because first of all, I’ve always believed International Baccalaureate has a strong academic curriculum and it’s not just basic skills and I’ve always thought a curriculum based exam is better than a curriculum neutral exam, and most exams are curriculum neutral, they don’t know what you’ve been taught. So you’re just going to be tested on your generic skills on your math and reading and so I think a curriculum based exam is very good and teachers should be paid more for doing more and they’re not in competition with other IB teachers and they are doing an extra job they find very satisfying and they are getting rewarded for it. Where America, it becomes a problem is when teachers are put in competition with one another and the teamwork stops and the collaboration stops and they can’t sit around the table and say, we have this Johnny Smith, what are we going to do about him and everybody chimes in because they all know something different about Johnny and they can say what happened in their class and what worked. That’s collaboration.
Florida is slowly moving towards end of course exams, like Algebra 1. Are end of course exams reasonable tools?
I think if they are curriculum based, then it’s not going to hurt. There is a conundrum though about moving towards more exams and I think Florida is investing a huge amount of money in accountability and assessment which goes beyond the reason to put more money into assessment when you are cutting teaching positions seems kind of crazy. I think end of course exams, on their face reasonable, as long as they are curriculum based which they should be as opposed to a generic exam off the shelf from say Pearson.
  You probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that the education commissioner in Rhode Island is someone that the education powers-that-be in Florida would have liked to have seen as our new education commissioner. She's on the same page with them and she has roots in Tampa , I think. You and her were recently embroiled in a back-and-forth where after meeting with her, you said she was pretty condescending and kind of nasty. Apparently, there is a video of that meeting. And I was wondering, can you go ahead and agree to a release of that video so we can see it?
It’s not my video; I can’t release it.
From what I understand, if you gave the okay, it could be released.
No, that’s not true. Every person in the room had to give their permission and three of the people did not. It wasn’t me.
So you’re okay with it being released?
Yeah, it’s not a problem for me. The filmmaker said she wasn’t going to release it anyway because she’s going to make a movie and she’s not in a habit of releasing her raw footage. The context of that meeting was that I came with the promise of a one hour private, a one on one meeting with the Governor and 20 minutes before the meeting that Debra would be part of the meeting. And we spend the meeting vying to get a word in. And I had the feeling, what is she doing in my one on one meeting and she must of thought, you’re here to hear what I’m doing, I’m not here to hear what you are doing. I felt very dissed, I got an apology from her. And then her PR guy saw the tape and he put it out to all the right wing bloggers that I was rude to her and I began to get all of this National Review, Jay Greene stuff, release the tape. I don’t have the tape, I don’t have permission to release the tape, it’s not mine and what it would show is we are both vying for time and it was supposed to be my meeting.
Do you think Rick Scott knows what he is doing and if so, what is it he is trying to accomplish here?
I think he’s trying to privative education. I think he’s trying to open up entrepreneurial opportunities for all these businesses to make money, and he believes in the free market. I just don’t think it’s going to be good for kids.
Why does the free market not work in education?
Well, there are some parts of society where the free market works very well. It mostly works in providing goods and services...I generally prefer the free market because I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in places that used to be behind the iron curtain and that’s horrible. I think there are things that are public...and I think every community should have a police station, a fire house, a public school, a public library, free sanitation, you could probably think of a few other things that ought to be available that are public sector responsibilities. The problem when you privatize education is, then you get competing interests instead of the interests of the kids being their goal. The interests of the shareholders become the goal. I don’t know any example of a free market running school that has been a success. Edison tried that and failed miserably and didn’t even make a profit, lost a lot of money.
When was the last time you taught a grade school or high school class?
I’ve taught in higher education, I’ve never taught in grade school or high school.
Do you think the expansion of higher education in this country has also drained some of the teacher talent pool?
That doesn’t mean we necessarily have to lose all the talent from K-12. There is a certain appeal to teaching young children that is very different from teaching higher education. Higher education is having its own crisis brought about by for profit forces….People are buying degrees on the internet instead of attending a place… you can actual do virtual practice teaching with virtual children. I think this is crazy. I don’t know.
Are you hopeful any of this will turn around? It seems like all the currents are sweeping away from what you’d like to see happen.
There are moments when I’m hopeful. I like the fight. I debated Jonathan Alter in Colorado radio this morning and there were people listening from all over, because it was Tweeted all over the country, and I think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s supportive of KIPP and that’s about all he knows about education. But I think there are so many people who are parents and teachers, millions and millions of people, and there are so people who are running the show and I often think the recourse is to democracy, which is why it’s so important to teach people they do have rights, they can speak up for themselves, they can preserve public institutions, that it costs money to have good public institutions, we can’t privatize every public library, we can’t privatize anything that’s public and expect to have a decent society. The free market with all of its glory and I’m a strong believer in it, is not kind. A lot of people lose in the free market, it produces winners and losers and some win and a lot lose and that’s why we have public sector institutions so we don’t all lose all the time and there’s a safety net. And we’re shredding the safety net. So have I changed my views in 20 years, yes I have, have I changed them in ten years, yes I have You know, I’m at a point in life when I see the sands of time running out, and I’m thinking about the legacy I want to leave for my children and my grandchildren and my reputation, and this is what I believe. I believe that if you’re going to be a decent country, you cannot the crush the most vulnerable amongst us and I see this happening in this rush to monetize children and "marketize" everything. 

[Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 8:15pm]


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