On The HotSeat: Uber-Contrarian Diane Ravitch

Education historian and former USDE muckety-muck Diane Ravitch says she’s trying to lead a quieter life, but still it seems like she’s pretty much everywhere – in the papers, on the bookshelves, and even in the blogosphere.

On the HotSeat, Ravitch explains how education research is slowly getting better, why textbook snafus don't get as much attention as testing foul-ups, how the whole K12 voucher debate is nothing more than a fluke, who the Republican rising star of the moment is, and why she likes a few blogs but doesn't want to blog too much.

Whatever you do, don't try and pigeon-hole Ravitch. Think she’s a rightie? She says she’s not. Think she’s for mayoral control? Au contraire. Big on vouchers? Not so much as you’d think. Gung-ho for local control? Actually, she's more for national standards. Ready for an ed school beat-down? Not really.


Years ago when you were at the Department and I was working at a research firm, I had a sign up on my bulletin board quoting you about how education research was "a jobs program for the over-educated." Have things gotten any better, or are they worse?

DR: I don't recall saying that, but I do think that education research is definitely improving. There are more and more randomized field trials, more concern for quality, and more education researchers with a strong background in social science.

You and others had been arguing of late that the time was nigh for national standards and testing. I and others had been arguing that the timing wasn't right. Where are you on this topic as of now?

DR: I think that the time will come when this country adopts some form of national curriculum and testing, probably first in mathematics and science. I don't think the time is right around the corner (although it was the Thatcher government in Britain that installed a national curriculum and national testing), but I do think it will happen.

How does a national system actually happen?

DR: I see NCLB as a transition in that direction, with the federal government taking on more responsibility for education quality, and with growing confusion about the difference between high scores on NAEP and much lower scores on state tests. Maybe in three years, or five years, or ten years, but it will happen.

What happens to NCLB in the next reauthorization, generally or in particular?

DR: It will be reauthorized, perhaps switching to value-added measures, with possible addition of other subjects to be tested, such as history.

Looking at the HEA reauthorization and beyond, what do you think should be done with the nation's ed schools and teacher prep programs?

DR: I am reluctant to see more federal mandates piled onto educational institutions, even those doing a poor job of preparing teachers. I would hope that all states would insist--as some already do--that newly prepared teachers demonstrate that they know what they are expected to teach and that the states hold the preparing institutions accountable for their students.

In light of recent debacles surrounding the testing industry, tell us the main things we need to know about the textbook approval and publishing industry about which you've written. Same players and issues, or an entirely different beast?

DR: The issues are somewhat different, and to some extent so are the beasts. The basic problem, which is common to both testing and textbooks, is the reliability of the product. The media is shocked, shocked, when there is a foul-up in the testing industry and scores are not reported correctly or lost or something else goes wrong. They should be equally shocked by the errors that appear in textbooks and by the insertion of political correctness or the elimination of controversial passages, but those things don't capture headlines the way the testing problems do.

Why don't textbook errors get as much attention?

DR: In the main, I'd say it is because textbook reviews are few and far between, many are issued by single-issue groups, and even when they are on target and eye-popping, the most coverage they get is a single story on p. 14. Why do testing scandals make big waves and textbook "issues" turn into yawning non-scandals? Probably it is that specific individual students get hurt by the testing scandals, while the "victims" of bad textbooks are widely scattered and have no names.

Paige or Spellings, and why?

DR: The job of the secretary is to explain the President's agenda and build public support for it. Paige was excellent at this. Another part of the job is to lobby Congress for the agenda and negotiate behind closed doors; this seems to be Spellings' strength. A tossup.

Clinton or GWB, and why?

DR: That's a tough one for me, as I like both of them. Clinton was the best articulator of education issues that I have ever met or heard. He really believed (and I guess still believes) in the importance of strong standards (his original platform—Putting People First-- called for a system of national standards and tests). One time I saw him talk to an assembly at a high school in Silver Spring, Maryland. The kids were nearly leaping out of their chairs and cheering as he urged them to take harder courses and study more. The man really understood and communicated.

GWB is obviously not in the same league as a talker as Clinton. But he understands the issues too and NCLB was his attempt to address them. There are a lot of things wrong with NCLB, but there are a lot of things right about it too. Recall that it passed both houses with 90% of the votes. Many compromises wre required to get to that 90% mark.

Where do you and other right-leaning education thinkers overlap on policy issues, and where -- assuming things aren't as monolithic as they seem -- do you differ?

DR: I am not a right-leaning education thinker. I am an independent-minded education thinker. I put a premium on having a rich liberal arts curriculum, which serves as the basis for testing, professional development, teacher education. That's why I like the Core Knowledge curriculum, which has much similarity to AP and IB but is aimed at pre-K through 8. I care more about what kids learn and whether they get a good education than about the political structure that surrounds schooling. Thus, while I have written favorably about choice, I worry about letting thousands of flowers bloom and discovering that most of them are weeds; I prefer, as one of my heroes Isaac Kandel wrote many years ago, to "prejudice the garden toward roses."

What ideas, left or right, seem over-hyped or otherwise unlikely to meet the expectations that have been set for them?

DR: A favorite of the left--more money--will not by itself produce great education; how it is spent makes a world of difference. A favorite of the right--vouchers--seems unlikely ever to happen, and if it did happen, would be bogged down in endless legal challenges, and even then, might lead to a plethora of mediocre schools that don't get great results. A favorite of the coroporate reformers, who are now in the saddle, is to change the structure (e.g., let the mayor run the schools), but that ignores the fundamental problems of curriculum and instruction.

How has it happened to turn out that it's considered just fine to give federal funding to private and parochial colleges but not to private and parochial K12 schools?

DR: This is a historical fluke. When Pell grants were debated, there was a big issue about whether aid should go to institutions or to students. Ultimately the decision was to aid needy students, and that effectively ended the question about "funding" private and parochial colleges since they too had students who were eligible for Pell grants. Underlying the difference, however, is the fact that the organized interests attached to K-12 education have always been focused on the goal of excluding private and parochial schools from aid formulas. The reasons for this are complex, but the end result has been fairly consistent (with the exception of Title I in 1965, which did include religious schools on a funding-follows-the-student basis).

What about Catholic schools?

DR: Although I’m Jewish and attended public schools for 13 years, I care a lot about Catholic schools, which are especially valuable in urban centers, and would hope we can figure out a way to help them survive. I say this as someone who is deeply committed to public education. In higher education, there is no inherent conflict between supporting the state university and the local Catholic college. Both serve important public purposes.

Is there anyone out there that qualifies as a rising star on education issues from the right, an academic or politician? Who and why?

DR: Frederick Hess of AEI, because he is so articulate and brilliant, even when people disagree with him.

Do you track any of the education blogs, and if so what do you think of them?

DR: I read your blog and Eduwonk and Joe Williams. They are snappy and I always learn something new from them.

A lot of my readers are education reporters. Who are the best education writers our there in the press, and what do you look for in a good education story?

DR: My personal bests are Sam Freedman of the NY Times and Jay Mathews of the Washington Post. To me a good education story is one in which the writer examines the situation, the claims, the press releases, and questions whatever the authorities told him (or her). If for example the government or a think tank or someone else releases a major study, the writer reads it carefully, checks the evidence, talks to people with contrary views, and writes a story that puts the study or report into context.

Who are the worst, and what does a bad education story look like?

DR: A bad education story is one that takes such a study or report at face value, without checking the facts or evidence. A bad education story is one that allows public officials to use the media for its own purpose, that treats press releases from public officials as if they were facts that were beyond dispute.

Why aren't there scads of right-leaning education blogs out there to go along with the scads of left-leaning ones, and do you think it matters?

DR: I have no idea why there aren't, and no idea if it matters.

What did you make of your experience guest-blogging for EdWize the other day? Instant commentary is interesting, isn't it?

DR: I enjoy blogging and could undoubtedly write a commentary every day (I do my best thinking in the middle of the night). My two worries are a) that I would pop off and be irresponsible and later regret what I wrote in haste; b) that I would waste a good idea that could have been published somewhere as an op-ed with a possibly larger audience.

What are you up to right now in terms of writing projects, teaching, research? What's coming next?

DR: Among several things, I am putting the finishing touches on an anthology that I edited with my son Michael Ravitch; it is called The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know, and it will be published later this year by Oxford University Press. I am also finishing up a glossary that I call EDSPEAK, which contains about 1,500-2,000 words and phrases of lingo and jargon that educators use. I am also writing and doing research for the Hoover and Brookings Institution, where I am a senior fellow. I am trying to lead a quieter life, with fewer obligations other than to my writing.


Blogger KDeRosa said...

I put a premium on having a rich liberal arts curriculum, which serves as the basis for testing, professional development, teacher education. That's why I like the Core Knowledge curriculum, which has much similarity to AP and IB but is aimed at pre-K through 8.

I think that the CK curriculum is a fine program for kids who are already excelling in school. Not so much for the kids who aren't, especially the low performers.

Engelmann's critiques here and here are especially compelling.

In Engelmann's view CK has the same problem that mayorial control has brought--too many ininformed experts.

4:17 PM  

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