Ravitch Criticizes Testing, Charters

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On WNYC's Brian Lehrer show, education historian Diane Ravitch came out swinging against the new Common Core learning standards, charter schools and what she called Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "academic apartheid." Listen to the full interview.

Ravitch is promoting her new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. She was featured as part of "30 Issues in 30 Days" series on The Brian Lehrer Show

"My problem with the Common Core is not that there are national standards, but that they've never been tested anywhere," she said, about the learning standards many states have adopted, including New York. Just about 30 percent of students in New York State were proficient on this year's first math and English exams aligned with the Common Core which generally emphasizes more writing and analysis.

Ravitch said she thought there should have been field tests first, but that the White House didn't want to wait. The Obama administration did not create the Common Core standards but it did reward states with extra money if they embraced the new standards. Although the standards are meant to encourage more critical thinking, Ravitch said they come at a difficult time because schools are are already "overloaded" and demoralized from the intense focus on testing, which has flourished since enactment of the No Child Left Behind law.

Yet several online comments came from parents who said they are not interested in going back to the way things were before. Joyce from Manhattan said the interview made her angry. "We have poor results, and there is a distinct lack of willingness to try new approaches and instead a desire to hunker down and fight change," she wrote " For the most part, we need a new generation of teachers. I give up on most of the old guard."

Lehrer asked Ravitch, who endorsed Bill de Blasio during the Democratic mayoral primary, about the candidate's plan to charge charter schools rent if they use space in district schools. He has opposed co-locating any schools, in general, without obtaining support from local communities. Republican candidate Joe Lhota has said these policies would "annihilate" charters, and has promised to double the number of charters to provide parents with more choices.

"To be perfectly frank, I endorsed Bill de Blasio because I think he will represent a sharp break from the Bloomberg education program," said Ravitch. "I think the Bloomberg education program is overwhelmingly rejected by New Yorkers." She noted that several polls show only 20-25 percent of New Yorkers agree with the Mayor's policies.

"People of the city live in neighborhoods and live in communities," she said. "Bloomberg has done everything possible to destroy community schools and neighborhoods schools, and the challenge for the next Mayor is how do we create good public schools in every neighborhood?"

Furthermore, Ravitch claimed Bloomberg's policies have led to "academic apartheid" in buildings where charters share space with district schools because, "instead of getting smaller classes they lose their facilities to a well-funded charter school which has billionaires on the school board and that's not right."

But one listener, whose child attends Community Roots Charter School in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, praised her school for being more diverse than some regular public schools in wealthy communities such as Park Slope. She said this was because of the charter school's lottery system and its commitment to take children from public housing.

Ravitch acknowledged she had heard good things about this charter, and said she wished that was typical. But she insisted the charter movement has been taken over by what she called "reactionary elements" of society who have made big donations to political campaigns to advance their reform agenda.

Another online listener wrote in support of the charter schools.

"What does Diane Ravitch say to parents who are fed up with the rubber room, teachers who were never punished for hitting or sexually assaulting students, senselessly routed bus service, and over the hill teachers who are just waiting to retire and collect their pensions? Charter schools are free of these entrenched problems," wrote Kat from Astoria. "Michael Mulgrew and the teachers union propose no solutions and are deaf to parents' ears. Parents need choices and charter schools are a positive one."

When asked about the better than average scores at some charters, such as the Success schools run by former city Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, Ravitch threw down a challenge.

"I think Eva Moskowitz needs to take over an entire school district so she can show what she can do when she takes all the kids. The kids with disabilities, the kids who don't read or speak English, that would be a proof of her message."

Despite her pessimistic view of New York City's school system, Ravitch pointed out that U.S. graduation rates have never been higher and dropout rates are at their lowest. It's the urban school systems that are struggling.

Her prescription? Smaller classes, more arts programs, guidance counselors and social workers, as well as daily physical education.

"They need all the same things that children in the affluent communities have that they need more of it," she said.