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Q & A: Former Assistant Education Secretary Diane Ravitch on Why She Changed Her Mind

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Friday, February 3, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Diane Ravitch is an education historian and the former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education.

Controversial education advocate Diane Ravitch is spending the day in Cleveland to talk about school reform.

The one-time supporter of school choice and standardized testing now backs teacher unions and says charter schools undermine public education.

We caught up with Ravitch to talk about education reform in Ohio.

[audio href="" title="Q & A: Diane Ravitch Talks Education Reform and Changing Her Mind."]Former U.S. Assistant Education Secretary and Education Historian Diane Ravitch says charter schools are ruining public education, and teachers should be appreciated more.[/audio]

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing education in Ohio and America today?

A: Well the biggest problem facing Ohio is that in your big 8 districts you've got tremendous poverty and the single biggest cause of low academic performance is poverty, and if you do nothing about poverty you're not going to change the performance levels. So the best thing you can do in the state, first of all is to initiate a program of early childhood education to make sure that children, when they arrive in school they have the vocabulary, they have the social skills so that they're ready to learn. You should also make sure that every woman in the state that gets pregnant has decent medical care. You should make sure that children have access to medical care so that they're not missing school because of unnecessary health problems so that they have vision screening and are testing for their hearing, all these things are necessary. This is what middle class and upper middle class parents are able to provide their children. So, this is one thing that's important.

I think that economic development is crucial for school improvement. But I think in terms of the school, you've got to focus on school improvement, and that's to make sure kids are not just getting test, test, test but that they have arts programs, that they have science programs, that they have time to play. I mean, all of these things are crucial for having good schools. It's what parents in affluent suburbs expect as a matter or right, and wer'e increasingly denying this to children in the inner city who have so little to begin with.

Q: Early on in your career you were a pretty strong supporter of school choice, charter schools, school vouchers and you have since changed your mind. What made you change your mind?

A: Well it's true, I supported testing, accountability, choice, charters, all of those things. But I realized in theory they all sounded great, in reality I discovered either that they didn't work or that they didn't make any difference. What we're doing in this country is tearing apart public education and bringing in lots of entrepreneurial people to make money off education but we're not providing a better education. In fact I've concluded and it's reconfirmed every day, we're making education worse.

Q: Now in Ohio we have a big voucher program, it's been expanding recently, we have a lot of charter schools. If that's not the solution to education reform, what is?

A: Well you can't start doing the right thing until you realize that you're doing the wrong thing and there's no evidence that vouchers improve education, there's no evidence that charters improve education and I think that what we do have strong evidence of is that the highest performing nations in the world have a strong public school system. That's where resources should go.

Q: What are your thoughts on these efforts to keep good teachers in the classroom, push the bad ones out, tie student performance pay. Is that a good way to go about improving education?

A: What we have today is a line of talk about teaching that will cause us to lose good teachers, not just get rid of bad teachers because it's not like there's a line of people standing at the school house door saying 'hire me, I'm a better teacher.' We're going to have trouble recruiting teachers. Right now there are more first year teachers in America than there are people with any experience. We have been driving away good teachers and experienced teachers with all of this negative trash talk about teachers and we should stop it now and begin to talk about how to have a positive approach. First of all giving respect to teachers, that's the least we should do, and secondly just to recognize that they have a really, really hard job and to give them the support and resources that they need to do their job.

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