Education historian Diane Ravitch counters the testing and privatization of public schools

As for cyber charter schools: 'They're scams'


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New York University professor Diane Ravitch -- once a supporter of the education overhaul movement and now an outspoken critic of testing and privatization of public schools -- believes the tide is turning against a culture reliant on test scores and corporate profit.

Ms. Ravitch spoke Monday to more than 600 people at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill where her appearance was hosted by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, which includes Action United, One Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union and Yinzercation. The event took on the air of a pep rally, with student musicians performing and a group sing.

The visit was co-sponsored by the education schools or departments at Carlow, Chatham, Duquesne, Robert Morris and Slippery Rock universities, University of Pittsburgh and Westminster College as well as Temple Sinai, First Unitarian Church Social Justice Endowment and Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Her speech came on the eve of the release of her latest book, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools."

Ms. Ravitch, 75, a research professor of education, is the president of the Network for Public Education, a national group formed in the spring to counter the testing and privatization movement. She also started a blog (dianeravitch.net) in 2012 that has received 6.5 million hits. Ms. Ravitch, who had been active in conservative foundations and was assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, had what she calls an epiphany in 2006. Listening to a series of research studies, she realized the school choices she had been supporting didn't work. She wrote about her changed ideas in a 2010 book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

In her latest book, she tries to dispel myths that maintain American public schools and their students are failing. She said high school graduation rates are at an all-time high, high school dropouts are at an all-time low and test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are at their highest point.

In her speech, she emphasized the hoaxes she said have been pulled on the American public, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which sanctioned schools and districts for low test scores, and the Race to the Top, a competitive federal funding program. Both have led to excessive testing and the misuse of the results, she said.

Pennsylvania this year is beginning to use student test scores as part of a teacher's evaluation. Ms. Ravitch said a "substantial body of research" shows that creates "perverse incentives," including teaching to the test, a narrowing of the curriculum and cheating. She said using test scores results in good teachers being fired.

Ms. Ravitch said there is too much emphasis on firing bad teachers and that there should be more emphasis on increasing standards to be a teacher, training before entering the classroom and supports to help teachers improve and stay in the classroom.

"You can't fire your way to excellence," she said.

She said bigger predictors of test scores than teaching are family income and family education.

Rather than test scores, she said the nation's biggest problems are segregation and poverty.

She had harsh words for charter schools where she said corporations make big money and some of the neediest students are excluded. She said it is important to keep public schools under public control as part of a democratic society in which students become ready for their role as citizens.

Noting Pennsylvania has 16 cyber charter schools, she said they have low test scores, low graduation rates and high attrition. "They're scams," she said.

She suggested several solutions to improve education, including providing prenatal care so children are born healthier and less likely to need special education services; access to early childhood education for all; smaller class sizes; health clinics at schools; and a full curriculum that includes not only math and reading but also the arts, science, history and world languages.

She urged the audience to be activists, noting the teachers in Seattle who refused to give certain tests, the parents in Texas who fought for less testing and the students in Rhode Island who demonstrated against tests.

"I feel a tremendous sense of optimism. I feel the tide is turning," she said.

Ms. Ravitch has become a fan of the "opting out" movement in which parents refuse to let their children take state tests. "I would love to see entire districts say to the state, 'We are not taking the test. We are going to spend this time singing and dancing. We are going to make our schools places of learning and joy.' "

education

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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