An Interview with Diane Ravitch

Tomorrow evening, as part of the great Hunter Lecture Series, Diane Ravitch will be in town, speaking on Public Education in America.  I am an unabashed supporter of our public schools, and I believe part of my support of those institutions means to question and challenge them in all their variations (similar to what I think it means to be patriotic).  I am also an educator at a State University, where I encounter the product of those varied public school experiences within my classrooms.  Over the years, I've read my share of educational theorists, I've been inspired by and questioning of such films as Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere, and I've continued to pursue an almost Platonic Ideal of schools, if only in my own imagination.  What would it take? I have wondered.  I have dreamed up plans, imagined dramatic presidential addresses, I have argued with friends and colleagues, and (perhaps counter-intuitively) I even chose a private school for my kids to begin in because I believe so strongly in the method of teaching.  Schools matter.

My kids just started in an "excellent" public school in our new neighborhood, where they walk to school and have great friends.  I am glad they are there, thankful for all our new home has blessed us with, yet I remain concerned about the focus on testing and the culture of learning in the school, even for my kindergartner and 2nd grader (neither of which are subject to the annual NCLB testing).  Knowing all that, it should come as no surprise that I am interested in Ravitch's visit to town and in her most recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  Published in 2010, Ravitch uses this book to explore the recent history of public schools in America and to explain her shift from supporting the accountability and testing movement in the 1990s to fighting against this movement, which she now sees as destructive.  Later this week, I'll have a full review of her book.  For now, I am pleased to report that Ravitch agreed to answer some questions for us here at Wordy Evidence of the Fact.  Thanks to Ms. Ravitch and to all those who work on behalf of our kids every day.

WE:  What does it mean to be an "educational reformer"? 

DR: The term "reform" has been twisted out of shape. Typically "reform" is associated with improvement; "re-forming" what needs to be fixed.  Today "reform" can mean privatizing public education; lowering the status of teachers; replacing experienced teachers with inexperienced ones; using standardized tests as the sole measure of education quality. These days, anyone can take the word "reform" and turn it into meaning anything at all. For now, the word is meaningless.

WE:  If you could wave a magic wand and make instant change to our school systems, what would be your first three actions?

DR: First, every child in a high-quality pre-school to get ready for kindergarten; 
   Second, a health clinic available to every child, so that children are ready to learn;
   Third, a rich curriculum in every school, emphasizing the arts, so that children love to come to school.

WE:  During the early standards movement, many state standards were, you argue, "windy rhetoric, devoid of concrete descriptions of what students should be expected to now and be able to do."  Massachusetts, you say, was the exception, producing "stellar state standards in every subject area" (19).  What set these standards apart, and are they still being used today?

DR:  Massachusetts had standards that were rich in knowledge in every subject, including science and history. It dropped those standards and has replaced them with the Common Core standards.

WE:  Obviously, the Chicago Teachers' Strike has caught the attention of most Americans with an interest in education.  You have publicly stated your support for the teachers and for their union.  Why are teachers' unions so important, especially considering other professional fields don't find them to be necessary (ie, doctors, lawyers, pharmacists)?

DR: Teachers are a public profession. They are easily bullied by administrators and public officials. They need the right to bargain collectively to protect their members against arbitrary and capricious actions and to assure that their members have academic freedom, the freedom to teach controversial subjects and books. Teacher unions are also a bulwark to protect public education. Without them, privatization will erode and consume public education. That is already happening in many states.
WE: What would you say is the purpose of American public education?  Has that definition changed over time?

DR: The essential purpose of public education is to prepare citizens who are equipped to sustain our democracy into the future. Citizens need the knowledge, the skills and the character to be responsible for themselves and for the well-being of our society.
    Today, we are turning education into job training, or into a preparation for college, which is thought to be a higher level of job training. We are told we must do this for "global competitiveness," but there is more to childhood and adolescence than competing with other nations for jobs.

WE:  You seem to still support a national standards movement.  How does that movement answer to the limited diversity represented by the traditional Western canon?  

DR: I am not as hopeful about national standards as I was when I wrote my book. I would be happy to see a broad understanding that every child, every student should have a curriculum that includes history (American and world); the sciences; mathematics; literature; the arts; civics; geography; and foreign language. 
WE:  You have argued that there are very few "bad" teachers, that the problems in American schools have more to do with the external environments of the children rather than the inadequate preparation of the teacher.  With that in mind, what do you think makes a "good" teacher?  What would be the ideal way to prepare our teachers?

DR: There are many ways to be a good teacher. The best way to identify good teachers is by having expert school leaders and peers observe their teaching. Good teachers know their subject well, often they know more than one subject well. They know how to manage a classroom. They know how to take what they know and make it engaging for young people. Good teachers love teaching. The current narrative about "bad teachers" is absurd. Fifty percent of those who enter teaching are gone within five years. Many who leave were good teachers who didn't like the working conditions. Some were bad teachers who knew they were not successful. It is up to the school leaders and their peers to help newcomers improve, as well as to create a process to help older teachers or move them out of the profession if they can't be helped.

WE:  Working in higher education now (and recalling my own experience in school), I am aware of how often the brightest kids go into fields other than education.  Why do you think that is (if you agree) and what can we do to change it (if you even think we should)?

DR: I have met unbelievably bright teachers, teachers who were great in their work and really love what they do. I don't think we should buy the stereotype that teaching does not attract bright people. I would add that some of the really smart people at the top of their class in college do not make very good teachers; I have known graduates of Ivy League colleges who failed as teachers. They did not know how to communicate with adolescents. Having the best grades and being able to teach well are not necessarily congruent.

So, what about you, reader?  What makes a good teacher?  What makes a good school?  Did you have any excellent teachers?  How would you reform education today?

1 comment:

  1. Rousseau, Froebel, Helen Keller, Montessori, and John Dewey are some educators who not only learned from other people, but also from nature.
    Nature is a great teacher who both humbles and exhalts in turn. History is a great teacher.
    Diane Ravitch and Susan Ohanian are great teachers. And then of course, there's experience. My dad often reminded me of the old saying, "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other."