Famed Education Analysts Blast Fixation on Testing, Data

Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten say some reforms are privatizing public education.

Education historian Diane Ravitch speaks about the state of public education at an event hosted by the American Federation of Teachers.

Education historian Diane Ravitch speaks about the state of public education at an event hosted by the American Federation of Teachers.

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Many popular education reforms, such as school choice and data collection on students, are not progress, but regress, two leading thinkers in education claimed Tuesday night.

In a wide-ranging conversation about the state of American public education, historian Diane Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten discussed the many ways in which they believe changes in education policy are privatizing the system, and depriving children of a quality education.

“I think we’re at a turning point in public education,” Ravitch said. “And that’s about whether public education has a future.”

[READ: Republicans Use School Choice to Spur Debate on Inequality]

Ravitch said that reforms -- such as increasing the number of charter and magnet schools, collecting and using more student data, increasing the prevalence of standardized tests and evaluating teachers based on student performance -- are turning public education into the hands of private companies.

“I joined the first Bush administration thinking education was nonpartisan,” said Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under former president George H.W. Bush. “But along the way I found the things I believed in weren’t working. … I found the charters I testified for and advocated for were doing no better than the public schools, and were draining money from the public schools.”

Proponents of school choice and voucher systems -- which are now present in 20 states -- say they give more opportunity for low-income and minority students to escape failing schools. Republican Senators Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, and Tim Scott, of South Carolina, recently introduced two separate bills that would free up federal education funds to support the expansion of these programs in states which would receive federal grants.

“What we should ask ourselves is if failing schools produce failing products that don’t have opportunities in the job market, should we then keep those kids trapped on that path?” Scott said during an event announcing the legislation last week.

But Ravitch said none of the high-performing nations the United States compares itself to have charters and voucher systems. The movement in America, she says, is growing without states making an effort to sufficiently fund public education. To improve academic success, she said, states should also invest in health policies that will help children succeed, such as prenatal care to help lower the number of children born with learning disabilities, and making sure all children have regular health check-ups.

[MORE: Parents Worry Student Data Will Be Used for Marketing, Not Education]

“What we have instead of that is that we’re turning over school buildings and children to private corporations,” Ravitch said. “There will be cities, if we continue on this path, that don’t have public education anymore.”

While Republican lawmakers have advocated for school choice as a solution to inequality in America, opponents have said other policy changes could have the same effect. The school choice movement, Weingarten told U.S. News following the AFT event, is “cynical and hypocritical” because she says it doesn't truly level the playing field for all people.

“If we really want to level the playing field for all folks...since the economy and education are so interconnected, we create a pathway for good jobs, workforce development, good housing, affordable housing, and great neighborhood public schools -- in all neighborhoods,” Weingarten says. “I’d love real choice. But real choice means leveling the playing field for all people, not suggesting that the only choice is to give a few people, a few kids, access to better schools.”

The pair also spoke about what they say is a fixation with testing in America. Ravitch compared the United States to other industrialized nations that consistently outperform American students on international tests, saying no other nation puts such an emphasis on standardized testing. The insistence on testing and tracking information about students, Ravitch said, is sometimes what can hold students back.

The prevalence of  standardized tests that are required for accountability purposes has promoted an interest in collecting data about students. Those who support such data collection say it can help teachers improve their instruction and better target struggling students.

[ALSO: States Improve Policies Tied to Teacher Effectiveness, Report Says]

“The status quo says we have to rank and rate everybody, and parcel out opportunities, based on their ranking and rating,” Ravitch said. “There’s a different paradigm, and it’s the paradigm that i consider a better one. and i say, ‘I dream of a world where the purpose of education is human development, and recognizing that every human has the potential for development.’”

Weingarten said that although Big Data is “the thing” right now, it actually shows a distrust of teachers, implying they cannot effectively identify those who are struggling and help all of their students succeed. Ravitch went so far as to say the White House’s “obsession with data collection is sick.”

“I know that Bill Gates thinks that problems can only be solved if you measure them,” Ravitch said. “And I hear all this talk about ‘our children are global competitors’...My grandchildren are not global competitors, they’re children. And I don’t want them measured at every turn.”