Diane Ravitch believes public school teachers are getting bashed for problems beyond their control. She's strongly critical of standardized testing, which she says is corroding public education, not building it.
She is an author, professor, and former Assistant Secretary of Education who is speaking in Sacramento Friday to the Coalition to Save Public Education. Many local teachers plan to attend her presentation.
Ravitch answered questions by phone from her San Francisco hotel on how to measure academic success and how charter schools affect local school districts. Below is an edited transcript of her responses.
Q: Why are you going from city to city to speak on education?
A: I'm touring because I've become a spokesman for people who teach who feel beleaguered. People have been telling me for two years that I have to keep speaking up, because there is no one else to do it.
Q: What has been lost as a result of programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top?
A: I think what's happened is there has been a bombardment of people who work in schools. They are hit with very negative messages. There is a national narrative about the bad teacher and needing to get rid of these bad teachers.
But the national leaders in this campaign are not teachers. They are foundation leaders and policy makers with no classroom experience. They don't know what they're talking about.
Q: What's a better way to look at academic achievement?
A: The single most important force is poverty when examining low academic achievement. Look at any testing; ACT, SAT scores. What they all show is a strong correlation between family income and test scores. The affluent are at the top, and low-income at the bottom. Where there is more poverty, there are lower scores.
And the people in this national campaign are saying poverty doesn't matter, that it's an excuse for bad teachers. That's not true. It's a way of diverting the conversation.
We need to focus on the real problems. So many children are living in poverty, with parents who are living hand to mouth, and their numbers are growing. I'm not making excuses; I'm looking at facts.
Q: What's an effective way to support and improve good teachers?
A: Stop beating up on them. So many are leaving, they say they can't take it any more.
Young people come up to me and say, "I always wanted to teach in poor neighborhoods and help kids and really make a difference. But if I work in a school with poverty, it will have low scores. It will be closed; I'll get fired and stigmatized before my career even starts."
How do you say you want to improve the profession when you've got so much trash talk about teachers?
They say anyone should be able to teach, with only a few weeks of training, and what only matters is the test scores. It totally diminishes the profession.
You cannot improve schools unless you work with the people who are in them, if you make them your enemy, impose views on the from the outside.
Q: Standardized testing is an almost inherent part of public education. After all, that's how a valedictorian is chosen. Without testing, how do you propose sorting students into groups?
A: Until kids reach the last year of school, sorting is a very bad idea.
With No Child Left Behind, in 10 years, all we managed to do was to sort kids. We said, "You're a winner, and most of the rest are losers." Sorting shouldn't happen until students are ready to move on to the next stage.
I'm not opposed to testing. I am opposed to using testing for punishments or rewards. Testing should be used for diagnostic, to help teachers help students. All kinds of bad things happen when you incentivize testing.
Q: What's your take on charter schools? Do they help or hinder local school districts?
A: Depends on nature of charter school. They were intended to seek out and help support the lowest performing students. Many have abandoned that original idea and are seeking out the most successful students.
Regular schools get overloaded with kids these charters don't want, students who are English-language learners or have disabilities. It's a "No Child Left Behind" environ, when judged by test scores.
We would be better off as a nation if we paid less attention to test scores and considered them not that important. There are many ways to be successful.
Q: What do you mean?
A: Students who are successful in the band or in the dramatics are successful people, too, even if they don't test well. We live in a society where people with high test scores are running everything and they think that's the only way to be successful.
I feel there are different ways to be successful. Plenty who aren't good at test-taking should be encouraged and should find a way they can make their contributions to society.
It's one tool among many to measure success. Some things can't be measured. Suppose you really love learning and the outdoors. You're probably wonderful at things not on the standardized test, but you still have a lot to contribute.
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish?
A: I want to give hope and heart to teachers across California. I want to talk to lawmakers and policymakers about positive things they can be doing. California has ruthlessly cut education budgets over years. Class sizes are soaring to the point where it's difficult to provide a full education.
Students need a full curriculum, with arts and dramatics and libraries. All those things matter. It takes the conversation away from "what's your number."
The best thing to do is to not talk about test scores. Talk about how we can produce decent human beings who can carry our society into the future.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.