Ned Barnett

Ravitch stands up for beleaguered public schools

Diane Ravitch, a leading advocate for public schools, brought her group’s annual conference to Raleigh this year to boost teachers in North Carolina.
Diane Ravitch, a leading advocate for public schools, brought her group’s annual conference to Raleigh this year to boost teachers in North Carolina.

Diane Ravitch, the well-known historian of education and fierce defender of public schools, came to Raleigh last week with a mix of reluctance and dismay.

The group she co-founded in 2013, the Network for Public Education (NPE), held its national conference at the Raleigh Convention Center April 16-17. She wanted to cancel the gathering of 500 people as part of the growing protest against HB2, but doing so on such short notice would have cost the group its deposits and many participants coming from around the nation would have lost their airfares.

The dilemma gave Ravitch a direct sense of how North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature can cause headaches. She’s been hearing for years about the Republican leadership’s denigration of teachers and the legislature’s agenda for education – expanded charters, vouchers, schools graded A to F – that is exactly what she thinks shouldn’t be done to improve public schools.

“The legislature seems to be systematically pulling apart the education system,” she said. “I get email from people in North Carolina all the time telling me about egregious acts.”

NPE wanted to lend support to North Carolina teachers and other public school advocates here, but the group didn’t expect to arrive just as the legislature and governor ignited a national controversy not about how schools should run their classrooms, but about how they should police their bathrooms.

“When we picked North Carolina it was because it was in trouble,” she said. “Now things are even worse.”

A prolific writer of books on education and the keeper of the widely read Diane Ravitch’s blog, Ravitch, 77, is one of a dwindling number of prominent leaders who are unapologetic advocates for public schools. She sees the once unquestioned commitment to public schools dissolving. Conservatives are pushing to privatize public education and divert more tax dollars to private schools, she said, but that approach will narrow opportunity and increase inequality.

She helped form NPE, she said, “to support public education and students and teachers in the fight against privatization and high-stakes testing, both of which are very harmful to teachers and students.”

Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, has the fervor of a convert. She started out taking a conservative approach, stressing testing and teacher accountability. She served as an assistant secretary of education in George H.W. Bush’s administration and was an early supporter of charter schools and No Child Left Behind.

Now she said she is disillusioned about charter schools and opposed to vouchers and extensive testing. She thinks schools would improve if politicians stopped excoriating teachers and started appreciating what public schools achieve despite the increasing demands, inadequate funding and the social ills that are funneled into the classroom. In truth, she said, public schools are getting good results overall. “Test scores today are the highest they’ve ever been and blacks have made the greatest gains,” she said.

The effectiveness of public schools, Ravitch noted, should be assessed by measuring more than students who are behind. “Our smart kids are as smart as any in the world,” she said.

Behind the criticism of public schools, she senses a nostalgia for simpler “days of yore” when many schools were segregated, all students spoke English and disabled children were kept out of school altogether.

Ravitch, who attended segregated public schools while growing up in Texas, thinks race still plays a big role. When laws promoted integration, some whites engaged in “massive resistance” that was followed by demands for “school choice.” Choice is a mantra again as schools are increasingly re-segregating.

To her, the refrain about “failing schools” is a “false narrative.” She said it’s not the schools that are failing, it’s society failing its children. Child poverty is growing, and some schools are overwhelmed with the problems that come with it.

“I have never had so many teachers say, ‘I have so many kids without shoes, without a coat,’ ” she said. Despite these conditions schools are doing the opposite of falling apart. Rather, she said, time spent in school is “the most stable part of these kids’ lives.”

Blaming teachers at struggling schools makes the problem worse, she said. Teachers get demoralized and turnover increases. In 2000, half the nation’s teachers had more than 15 years experience and half had less, she said. Now half have more than one year and half have less.

“It’s an exodus of experienced teachers and people are not coming in,” she said. “People don’t want to be teachers anymore. The pay is bad and the conditions are horrible.” She added, “We’re ignoring all the social causes and saying, ‘We have bad teachers.’ Well, who are you going to replace them with?”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com