For four decades, Diane Ravitch has been a perceptive student of American education. From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H. W. Bush. Under President Clinton, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing. Her many books include The Schools We Deserve; Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms; and The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. Her latest volume, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, explores the current debate about standards and accountability, and explains why she has changed her mind about the efficacy of No Child Left Behind and similar initiatives (her book is subtitled "How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education").
In early April, I traveled to the author's home in Brooklyn Heights to discuss the ideas and issues the book treats. We talked in the nicely appointed front parlor of her 19th-century brownstone, a room which, for this reader at least, is distinguished by an impressive collection of first editions -- including The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, Tell My Horse, and Their Eyes Were Watching God -- of which Ravitch is rightly proud. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. -- James Mustich
James Mustich: You've been blessed by the timing of your book's publication. Education has been in the headlines in a prominent and persistent way recently, from the national standards push by the Obama administration, to the history curriculum developments in Texas, to the mass firing of faculty at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. Your publicity department could not have arranged a better scenario
Diane Ravitch: You know, for many years (and I've been in this field now for forty years), educators used to complain that they wanted to be on the national agenda, and they weren't -- they couldn't get any attention. Now we're living in a case of "Be careful what you wish for." A lot of parents and educators are really unhappy. I'd say that at this point, the big audience for my book has been teachers and parents, because they see what's happening in their schools. The teachers absolutely hate what's going on, and the parents are very unhappy because they don't like what's happening to their kids. Just judging by the volume of emails that I'm getting, that's where the book buyers are.
JM: In reading reviews and feature stories about the book, there's been a lot of focus on the newsiness of it -- that you were in one educational camp, advocating for the kind of measures of accountability built into No Child Left Behind, and now you've changed you mind and have switched to the other camp.
JM: A focus that, like much of the current education debate, I think, obscures the real issues.
DR: Yes, right. It does. In a way, I'm kind of happy to dispense with that very quickly. When I was writing the book, I sent it out to a lot of people to read -- sometimes a chapter or two, sometimes the whole book. One of them, Richard Rothstein, who has written on the subject for many years, said, "Diane, we've all said this." I said, "Yeah, but now I'm saying it." It's true. It makes a big difference when you say, "I've been in the other camp, I know all the arguments for accountability, I know all the arguments for competition and the marketplace -- and having been on that side, and watched the data and the evidence accumulate, I've decided that I was wrong."
Somehow, people react to that in one of two ways. Mainly, I've gotten a response that says, "It's so refreshing to see somebody in public life say, 'I was wrong,'" because no one ever does that. We're red or we're blue, we're on the left or the right, and people don't ever reexamine their premises. So that's one side of the reaction. The other side is "How dare you? How dare you leave my side?" There are even a few people who say, "How dare you come to my side?" [LAUGHS] So that's been kind of funny.
But I think the main thing is that, you know, I'm 71 years old. I'm not looking for a position in anyone's administration. I don't want a grant from any foundation. There's nothing at this point in my life that I want other than to say, "This is what I believe; I think it's based on evidence; I may be wrong; I could be proved wrong in the future -- but this is what I'm writing, and if you don't agree with me, it's a free country."
JM: I think some of the buzzwords surrounding No Child Left Behind -- "standards," "accountability," "high-performing charter schools" -- have controlled the language of the debate so much that we continue to avoid, rather than engage, the real issue. While we're
swimming in data that lend this language an aura of legitimacy (and you include much of it in your book), it seems inclusive on every score -- on whether the new regime of standardized testing is effective, say, or whether charters are more effective when compared to traditional schools, or whether students fare better or worse under a unionized teaching force.
There was a passage from you in The New York Times Magazine a few months back which struck me as getting beyond the buzzwords to the real crux of the issue. And it's a theme that runs throughout The Death and Life of the Great American School System. You wrote, "The single biggest problem in American education is that no one agrees on why we educate. Faced with this lack of consensus, policy makers define good education as higher test scores. But higher test scores are not a definition of good education. Students can get higher scores in reading and mathematics yet remain completely ignorant of science, the arts, civics, history, literature and foreign languages. . . . [B]ecause of our narrow-minded utilitarianism, we have forgotten what good education is."
DR: I tried to make that point throughout the book.
JM: You do it quite powerfully.
DR: Let me refer here to the rejected titles for the book. One of them was "Measure and Punish"; then that ended up being the title for the No Child Left Behind chapter, because that's pretty much the definition of what NCLB is. But another rejected title was "Data Mania." You have all these quants running around saying, "I have the data." We now have education research being driven by economists. They don't go into a classroom. They've never looked at how anyone teaches. They don't say anything about what's good instruction or what's good curriculum. They just say, "I have the data."
What they forget about is that the data is crummy data. The data is all based on basic skills tests. I tried to deconstruct the tests in Chapter 8 and show how the data is so easily manipulated. If you make an analogy, as I do on occasion, with the business world, I think we know from the experience of the fall of 2008 -- and the years even before then -- how clever business people manipulate data, how they can show rising profits, rising sales, rising this, rising that, right up until the day that the company collapses. I mean, Enron is the perfect example. The data was great until the day the company went bankrupt and sucked everybody down with it. Bernie Madoff always had great data.
Economists just think, "Wow, the data shows, research shows...," and they want to use this lousy data to, say, judge teachers. The state of Florida right now is about to pass a law that says, "We're going to evaluate teachers only by test scores, and if you get gains, you're a good teacher; if you don't get gains, you're a bad teacher." Experience doesn't count. Education doesn't count. Credentials don't count. Well, maybe it will turn out that a teacher right out of high school can actually produce bigger gains in test scores than somebody who's got ten years in the classroom. There's something insane about this, and it all comes from the economists who are putting together the data to say, "If you get higher test scores, you're a better teacher. Therefore, since you can never predict in advance who is going to get higher test scores, anyone can be a teacher. You can walk into the classroom, and, let's see -- we'll find out in 3 to 5 years whether you're a great teacher." Well, this is a recipe for insanity. Because, after 3 to 5 years, you say, "You didn't get five years in a row of higher test scores. You're out. We'll replace you with someone who has never taught." And then it will take us five years to find out if the new one is a "good" teacher.
I don't understand how you can organize a school system this way. I keep coming back to the fact that there is no high performing nation in the world that does this. There is no other nation, whether it's Finland or Japan or any other you can think of, that is embarking on this kind of insane path. I think we're at a moment of national madness.
JM: Even if the data were sound, the problem, it seems to me, is that it takes a mindset from the business world, or from the market economy, and applies it to something to which it does not apply. In fact, it strikes me that we're treating test scores like stock prices: a business can do a lot of things to drive stock price, some of which are sound practice, some of which are based on fundamentally dishonest manipulation of data, like Enron. But what you really have to examine is the effect the stock price focus has on the company's actual product (if it has one other than its stock price, but that's another issue). You can buy a company, say, that makes furniture. You can sell off part of it, you can close plants, you can make it much more profitable through management decisions and new procedures, all of which may be sound business and investment decisions. But it doesn't necessarily lead to better furniture.
JM: So when you talk about education, of applying strictly quantitative methods of assessment to its products -- which, after all, are children who are malleable, growing, learning, misbehaving, changing from week to week, month to month, year to year -- it seems to me to draw a dangerous analogy between business and education. And the idea test scores should be the only measure of a teacher or a school's performance rests on this false analogy. It's driving the stock price because it's easy to measure, and ignoring the real concerns we should have about the quality of the products.
DR: Well, in that sense the analogy between what's going on in the business world and the situation in education today is correct. The focus on test scores encourages you to just get rid of the low-performing kids. This is the way the numbers get manipulated: if the goal is to have higher performance, the first thing you have to do is make sure that the low-performing kids are not there on testing day, or that you throw them out of the school so that your numbers go higher. It's a way of phonying the data.
But I started smiling because as you were talking about the business metaphor, I was reminded that in preparing for writing this book, I spent about six months reading business books. I read The Smartest Guys in The Room. There was another bestselling book about Enron that I read, too. I read the book At Any Cost, about G.E. and Jack Welch. Barbarians at the Gate. There was a string of maybe a dozen business books, which had all been bestsellers, and were about how different businesses and business leaders had created their success stories. I was thinking about G.E. as a company that, when Jack Welch came, was a consumer products company; he turned it into a financial services company, because he could get a higher stock price by getting rid of almost all the consumer products, selling them off to France and here and there -- at any cost, you know. And he got the stock price up, and it's still there.
But a lot of the companies that went through that process are not there. I remember the book about Michael Milken. He would buy a company, bring in somebody who knew absolutely nothing about the product, and they would proceed to disassemble the company, sell it off in pieces, and the original product was gone -- and it became a totally different kind of company.
It was instructive to see how these great minds of American business made numbers their god. To do that in education would be a tragedy. Public education is responsible for children, and you can't offshore them. You can't send them to China to be manufactured. You can't get rid of them. They're there. They have to be educated. But instead of figuring out how to educate the kids, people are figuring out how to get the right data, so we can look good to ourselves, so that we, the leadership, can say, "We have succeeded. We're not counting all kids, we're getting rid of some of the kids, but we've succeeded -- just look how good our numbers are!"
JM: There is a wonderful sentence late in the book, which I have to say I think may have been a typo that the editor didn't catch. But it's marvelous in any case in this context. The sentence is: "A wide vanity of reformers and..."
DR: [LAUGHING] That's an error.
JM: "...and reform movements have offered their own diagnoses and cures."
DR: That's not in the later printings. It's supposed...
JM: It was supposed to be "variety."
DR: Right. It's supposed to be "a wide variety." I have this terrific research assistant who lives in New Haven. I said to her, "Didn't we say 'a wide variety?'" And she said, "Yes, but maybe we should treat this like 'a pride of lions.'"
JM: [LAUGHS] From what you were saying about the leadership wanting to boast about the numbers, that's exactly what ran through my head.
DR: It's funny. Because that was the first thing I noticed. "My god, how did that get in?" We had all the lists of edits, and I saw I had rewritten that paragraph to make it seem more comprehensible, and the typing guy made that mistake. It's corrected in later printing. However, we decided it could be a new collective noun: "a vanity of reformers."
JM: I like that very much. Let's take a step back for a moment. You're an historian of education. Has there ever been a time when education has not been in crisis, or perceived to be in crisis? Have there been periods in which you think everyone agreed that the educational system was well oiled, running on all cylinders?
DR: When I started studying the history of education in graduate school, what struck me was that there was always a crisis. In the early part of the twentieth century, the crisis was: "We don't have enough vocational education, we have all these immigrants coming in, they should learn how to use their hands, they're not smart enough to be able to do book learning -- and so we need more vocational-industrial education." That produced the first federal legislation for education, which was the Smith-Hughes Act for vocational education, and that's been there since 1917. But there was a lot of agitation in the teens. Progressives centered on the idea that industrial and vocational education would help to adjust this vast polyglot population that was forming.
I think in the twenties the great crisis was that the schools were just so terribly overcrowded. There was a huge building boom in the 1920s. New York in particular added something like a half-million seats because the classes were so crowded.
But there was this deep, deep affection for public education. I have a poster in my office that says, "The public school is the foundation of our nation." It shows a rose-covered single-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Midwest. It's sort of like that dreamy portrait on the cover of my book.
In the thirties, the crisis was the Depression: some reformers said, "Our schools are so far behind, they should be preparing kids to solve the problems of the Depression, and instead they're still stuck with this traditional curriculum." Progressives were saying, "The schools should be building a new social order." I wrote about this in my book, Left Back, which is a history of American education in the twentieth century. Throughout the century, you're constantly getting reform after reform after reform. Most of the reforms, though, didn't really penetrate; they didn't really go into the classroom -- there were changes at the margin. I think what's different about No Child Left Behind is that it has really penetrated every classroom in America, and there is no question that every school is now being judged by test scores of basic skills.
All these reform movements make me think of the ocean. You see the waves moving back and forth, but underneath things stay pretty much the same. Historians will say, "Well, the classroom of 1910 may have been more crowded than the classroom of today, but it was pretty much the same." What they call the grammar of the classroom -- a teacher, books, kids in chairs, maybe a blackboard that becomes a smartboard -- the fundamental grammar is pretty much the same. But what really-really-really hit the school and reached all the way down to everybody was No Child Left Behind.
The other thing that's critical about No Child Left Behind is that the utopianism of it is very much at odds with what every educator knows. Every teacher today knows that, whatever district they're in, they're going to have kids who come from very dysfunctional families, kids who come from poverty, kids who don't speak English. So if you say to them, "Can you get 100% proficiency?" they'll say, "Don't be ridiculous."
There is human variability. There has never been 100% proficiency. I remember going to an event in D.C. just a couple of months after No Child Left Behind was signed. The Hoover Institution sponsored a panel at the Willard Hotel. I had asked one of the Senators on the panel, "Do you really think that 100% of kids will be proficient by the year 2014?" -- which is what the new law demanded. He said, "It's good to have goals." That's OK. But the question is, is it good to punish people for not being able to reach a goal that you know can't be reached? That's where the rubber hits the road. That's where NCLB is not only utopian, but it's almost as if it's designed to delegitimate public education.
JM: In the book, you suggest that the goals of incremental growth toward 100% proficiency in 2014 are forcing school systems to treat No Child Left Behind as some kind of educational balloon mortgage. We'll keep the tiny payments now and hope like hell we have a windfall to help us make the big payoff later.
DR: Exactly. It also encourages lying and fraud. When you say to people, "You're going to be lined up and shot unless you can produce the numbers," they produce the numbers. But the numbers are not real. The only data at this point that I give any credence to is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, because nobody really knows how to study for it -- or they don't know what the questions are going to be, so they can't study for it. And these results have been consistently been flat. The reading scores just came out a week ago, showing that the kids in 8th grade who have been the NCLB babies have made almost no progress. Overall, the scores for 8th graders in 2009 were the same as in 1998.
JM: Even if 100% proficiency in basic reading and math skills, at least as measured by standardized tests, were an attainable goal by 2014, it doesn't seem like much of a goal -- it seems to create an idea of success that is based on a severely restricted idea of what an education should be. It's treating education like it's a credit score instead of a wealth of knowledge. As you say in the book, there are more things students should be learning.
DR: Right, and these things are not being measured, and therefore come to be seen as unimportant. A school could be considered an extremely effective school even if it didn't teach any arts or science or history; the kids coming out of it would be considered 100% proficient, even though they were totally dumb about everything except basic skills. What I believe is that kids become better readers as they develop their vocabulary and their background knowledge, which they get from learning history and reading literature (E. D. Hirsch says the same thing). This is why while fourth grade reading scores will go up -- because the kids are getting better at the mechanics of reading -- when it comes to having the comprehension to do well on the 8th grade questions, which are harder, and require background knowledge, they can't do it. That's why the scores in 8th grade are like a flat line.
JM: Is it impossible for educators to change the terms of the debate? Everything surrounding No Child Left Behind and the kind of thinking that engendered it has impoverished the language available to talk about education in the public sphere. Our definition of education has been reduced to test scores at one end, and getting into Harvard at another [LAUGHS]. How can educators, or any of us, begin expanding the definition of what education is, or should be?
DR: The sad thing is that right now educators are completely powerless, despite the fact that there has been this mantra over the past generation, especially coming from very conservative forces, that the teacher unions are all-powerful. But the teacher unions feel powerless, because they have been so demonized over the years. I believe that one of the consequences of this, if not the cause, is that it excludes any educator voice from the table. The policy-making table now is dominated by foundations and think tanks, and the foundations are paying the think tanks, and they all agree with each other. There are very few outside the consensus. The corporate suites, the editorial boards, the New York Times and the Washington Post, they say hurrah to all of the same things that the think tanks, and foundations are producing -- they all clap each other on the back. Meanwhile, the educators -- and this is my audience, I've been talking to educators across the country -- they're all saying, "This is terrible; how do we stop it?"
I spoke to the American Association of School Administrators in Phoenix. There were some 500 people in the audience, and they said, "We're powerless." I said, "You're a big organization. Speak up." I've spoken to teacher groups here. Monday I was at the Boston Teachers Union. I'm speaking to one group after another representing teachers, educators -- on March 5th I spoke at an event at the Hilton Hotel called the Channel 13 Celebration of Teaching and Learning. My book had come out three days earlier. The organizers said, "You're going to have an audience of 200 people." I went into the Mercury Ballroom, which is a huge room, and I thought, "Oh my god, such a big room for 200 people." I sat in the front row talking to the guy who was going to introduce me -- and when I got up and turned around, the room had over 1,000 people in it. People were sitting in the aisles and lined up along the walls. When I was introduced, I got a standing ovation. Afterwards, people -- they all seemed to be educators -- said, "What can we do? How can we stop this?" There's this feeling like there's this giant train wreck, that the schools are in the train, and the kids, too, and everybody is being pulled fast in the wrong direction -- and nobody has access to the cab. The cab is being driven by this so-called dominant consensus: the foundations, the think tanks funded by the foundations, the U.S. Department of Education, which is very closely aligned with the foundations. The only voices that are completely shut out are the people who interact with children every day.
JM: You say at one point in the book, "One does not need to know anything about children or education to be a market reformer."
DR: Right. It's like Ronald Perelman taking over Revlon -- Michael Milken gave him Revlon, because he was his friend. He knew nothing about the product, and he proceeded to dismantle the business and sell it off in pieces. All you need to know is the data.
JM: It's distressing to read, as I recently did, in a New York Times editorial, vehement support for "data-driven evaluation of teachers" and "high-performing charter schools" when the effectiveness of each of those approaches appears to be supported by no sound evidence.
DR: Right. The Times just automatically parrots this, as does the Washington Post, as does -- you can just go through all the major newspapers. And the Daily News and the New York Post are rabid on the subject. Periodically, I'll have an op-ed piece in one of them taking issue with their stances. But it doesn't affect the editorial boards and what they write. Because they love all this.
Fundamentally, there is an attitude in this country right now that teachers are bad. The cover of Newsweek a few weeks ago summed it up; it made me upset, because Newsweek had an advance copy of my book, and they had asked me if I would write an essay or if they could do an excerpt. Then they dropped the whole thing, and instead ran a cover story called "The Key to Saving American Education." The background was like a backboard on which was written, "We must fire bad teachers. We must fire bad teachers. We must fire bad teachers." The story inside was, as I wrote on my blog, a parody of a right-wing rant, which is that the nation's schools are overrun with bad teachers.
JM: There seems to have been no letup in the advance of these forces under the Obama administration. If anything, they seem to have turned the heat up.
DR: Absolutely. They've bought into every aspect of NCLB. They are changing the law. They'll get rid of the name, they'll get rid of the 2014 deadline. They'll now say that the goal is college and career readiness, although no one is quite sure what that means. But they'll continue to insist that every child in every public school be tested in basic skills and reading and math, they'll continue to rank every school, they'll keep the heat up, as you say. But now they're moving the heat from all the schools to the bottom 10%. The bottom 5% will face draconian penalties. They will either be closed, turned into charter schools, privatized, or turned over to the state, and then the next 5% -- that's 5,000 schools -- will be put on notice that they are right at the cusp, and they, too, better focus on drill-drill-drill and basic skills. Just based on the random variation in tests, that probably will influence the bottom 20%. So we're talking about 20,000 out of 100,000 public schools where the focus will remain on drilling and testing for basic skills. Presumably, each year, more schools might drop into the bottom 5,000. Thousands of schools stand to be Central Falls High School: thousands of schools will see educators fired, whole staffs fired, maybe half the staff fired.
JM: When I was younger, the general explanation for poor performing schools revolved around environment and social circumstances. As a society, we seem to have gone over to the other end of the spectrum. Do you think there is an element of willful self-delusion to this -- that we're using education to prove somehow that these other issues aren't as important as we thought, because problems in schools aren't really about . . .
JM: Right. Poverty or anything else. It's strictly about bad teachers and poorly run schools.
DR: Yes. Well, we've had this mantra now for a few years. A lot of it is coming from [New York] Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor [of New York City Department of Education] Klein. Klein has said, and Michelle Rhee [chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools] has said, "Poverty is an excuse." Poverty is not an excuse. Poverty actually affects people's lives. It affects children's ability, first of all, to attend school regularly. If you look at the history of social science over the past century -- or even if you say the first half-century was not good social science, and just look at the last fifty years or so, when it has been good -- the one most reliable predictor of academic achievement is family SES, socioeconomic status. Kids from affluent families tend to have higher scores and tend to do better in school and tend to go to college because their families pass on the advantages of education, books in the home, and the like. Children from poverty tend not to have those advantages. You can always find students who are exceptions -- here's this poor student who got to Harvard, and here's a rich kid who's a total screw-up and dropped out of school -- but those kids are beating the odds. The odds are that the poor kids are not going to have an equal chance, and the rich kids will have more than an equal chance.
So we are now embarked on a path that says, "Forget all that. We'll just teach everybody to read and do math, and everybody will be proficient, and that's good. Poverty doesn't count. Student motivation doesn't count. We'll hang everything around the teacher's neck, and if we can simply fire enough bad teachers, everything will be fine." How we're going to replace them, I don't know. We'll replace them with somebody who has never taught, and they will be better. It's insane.
JM: Let's go back to the start. Why do we educate? Why should we educate?
DR: I would like to see all kids get a high quality education, and my definition of a high quality education is one where kids study history and geography and literature and civics and science and the arts, and have an opportunity to do things in the arts. I've said, sort of halfway tongue-in-cheek, that the only federal mandate I'd like to see would be that every child should have the chance to learn to play an instrument. When people say, "What do you mean?" I say, "They'd learn self-discipline, they'd learn the importance of practice, they'd learn to do it alone (because no one else can do it for you), and they'd learn to do it in a group." What can be better? That's like a complete education right there.
Many kids come to school because of the arts, and because of the things that are now going to be gone because of budget cuts. I think that every teacher believes and understands how important basic skills are. But you can't make that the end point of education.
JM: It's like having a basketball team that only practices dribbling.
DR: Right. You could have the best dribblers in the world, but they couldn't even play the game.
JM: You spoke earlier about searching for a title for the book. The one you chose obviously evokes Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Why?
DR: Jane Jacobs, right.
DR: I guess there are two reasons. One is because, as I say in the book, I love the notion that something that seemed to be dying could be reborn. I say also that I live in this 19th-century brownstone, and this house, and this neighborhood, without Jane Jacobs, might well have been leveled and replaced by high-rise buildings. She did something to bring about the renaissance and preservation of historic neighborhoods like this one. Obviously, I'd like my book to have something of the far-reaching effect that hers has had. If it's possible to stand on the tracks and stop this monstrous train that's driving us in the wrong direction, I would consider that to be the greatest achievement of my life. Not that I have any illusion that I could do it alone. But to be able to awaken people, encourage them to fight back, to organize and employ their political power. I'm going to talk to people in Congress, and I'm talking to anybody I can to say that we can't let what's happening now continue. Everybody says it's all about global competitiveness, but the people we're competing with globally are not just teaching basic skills.
The other reason is that I was really having a hard time getting a title. [LAUGHS] So I mentioned some of the titles I was thinking about. One was No Silver Bullets, and everybody went "Naahhhhhh" at that. Then I said, "How about 'Measure and Punish'?" That ended up being the title of Chapter 6. Then "Data Mania," as I mentioned before. Nobody liked that. So I was just going through title after title after title. My editor, Tim Sullivan at Basic, suggested The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and I said, "It's kind of wordy, but I like it."
JM: I do, too.
DR: I like the resonance of it, and it's different. Also, it conveys what I was trying to convey, which is: this is not a narrow book. This is a big book. This is a book about where we are and where we are going. I think about things that I've come across since I published it, and one of them was the opening lines of Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union address. He says, "We have to know where we are and whither we are tending in order to know what to do and how to do it."
I've been assailed by a few blog critics, who say, "You didn't give us a recipe for what to do." And I think about those lines from Lincoln. In the Washington Post last week I did propose a recipe, the recipe being that we need more professionalism and not less, that part of this whole train wreck is that we're saying that anyone can be a superintendent with no credentials, and anyone can be a principal by taking a one-year quickie course in how to be a leader. Then we expect these quickie principals to go in and evaluate teachers and to be able to help teachers. They can't do it. The teachers will have much more experience than they have. They have to be master teachers in order to be effective principals.
Then we're saying that Teach For America is going to solve all our problems. I'm not against Teach For America. I think it's a lovely program, and if I were a young person I'd probably join it myself. But sending 4,000 kids a year into a profession of over 3 million people, and having them leave after 2 to 3 to 4 years -- that's not going to change teaching. Everybody is looking for a simple quick solution.
Take charter schools. The media is in love with the idea of charters. Of course, I know all the arguments, because I made them myself -- which is what makes me so dangerous. My biggest gripe with charter schools is that they enroll 3% of the kids yet get most of the media attention. The real danger is that in focusing on the 3% and putting more energy and more money into making them 6%, we are ignoring the 94% to 97%. It's the education system that has to get better, and it's not going to get better unless we have higher standards for entry into teaching; more insistence that teachers have a strong subject matter background, and preferably in two subjects, so that they can teach math and music, history and literature, art and science. And then, they have to learn how to teach. They have to learn how to manage classes. Because if they have knowledge in their head and they don't know how to teach it to a 12-year-old, they're lost. We need to have greater professionalism, better assessments where kids are asked not to check one of four bubbles, but to explain, to show that they actually understand and have knowledge of what they've learned.
People say, "Well, how are we going to hold teachers accountable?" I'm not against testing. I'm against using tests to punish or reward people. What we should be doing instead of closing schools is having teams of crack educators go out and say, "Here are the problems, this is the diagnosis, here are recommendations, and here are the resources to help solve the problem," so that we fix the schools instead of killing them.
I spoke last week to a conservative think tank, and I chastised them. I said to them, "Conservatives should love my book. Conservatives don't like utopianism, yet here you're endorsing NCLB, which is totally utopian. Conservatives like a traditional curriculum, yet here you are endorsing a program that throws out the traditional curriculum. Conservatives don't believe in blowing up institutions, but NCLB is radical. I'm not a radical. I don't believe in blowing up our school system." One of my very close friends wrote a review on Forbes.com, where he said that I've become more conservative because I want to save the school system, and he's become more radical -- he wants to blow it up. I don't believe in blowing things up. I didn't plant bombs in the '60s. I ain't gonna plant 'em now.
--April 7, 2010
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- Beneath the Surface: Jeff VanderMeer on 'Annihila...
- "I Love to Travel Alone": Molly Antopol and Justin...
- The Summit: Rebecca Mead on My Life in Middlemarc...
- Hang-Gliding with Gary Shteyngart
- Wave of the Future: Chang-rae Lee
- Centaur Style: Clive Thompson on Smarter Than You...
- Gene Wolfe: No Comparison
Jerome Charyn's fiftieth book may be his best. Abraham Lincoln, known to his contemporaries as a man who loved to tell a good story, steps down from history's pedestal to narrate his improbable career with wit and charm. A bravura act of literary ventriloquism.
The name Eliot Ness and his struggles to bring down Al Capone have passed into the annals of pop heroism via "The Untouchables." But Douglas Perry's biography reveals the less glamorous -- yet no less thrilling -- truth behind the crimefighting myth.
Hassan Blasim offers his first-hand account of contemporary Iraq, in surreal short stories alive with awe, empathy, and a native son's vantage point.