Education expert Ravitch shares views with Durham

Feb. 11, 2014 @ 07:54 PM

When Diane Ravitch speaks, people interested in education listen.

So, educators, politicians and others who support public schools were all ears Tuesday when the noted education historian and policy expert came to Durham.

Ravitch spoke at the Holton Career and Resources Center at the invitation of the East Durham Children’s Initiative, a nonprofit working to improve life for children and families in a 120-block area of East Durham.

She was in the Triangle this week to speak in Raleigh at the 29th Annual Emerging Issues Forum, which focused on recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

In Durham, The New York Times best-selling author touched on the difficulty of teaching children who live in poverty, over-zealous testing and what she believes is a political assault on public schools by elected officials and others who are anti-government.

Ravitch said the kind of attack launched against public schools in North Carolina also occurs in other states, particularly where a “hard, reactionary” element has taken charge of state government.

In those states, Ravitch said, moderate Republicans have been replaced by those who are simply opposed to government.

“There is a strong ideological bent against public education and a strong belief that the way you educate children is to rank and rate them and put a number on their head,” she said. 

High-stakes testing has led society to label poor children as failures when they do not perform well on standardized tests, she said.

Society now hands out rewards based on people’s ability to perform well on tests, such as the SAT and ACT, Ravitch said.

“It bothers me to think that the good test-takers have taken over the world, and that’s what I see happening,” Ravitch said, acknowledging that she was a good test-taker. “If you’re not good enough to have high SAT scores, you’re not good enough to have a good life, and that’s wrong.”

Turning to teacher pay, Ravitch said states such as North Carolina seem to have a bias against experience, often paying teachers in their second five years on the job the same as those in their first five years.

“No rational organization has a bias against experience,” Ravitch said. “No rational organization would take away a bonus from a teacher for getting more education.”

Durham Public Schools Board of Education member Leigh Bordley asked Ravitch about school districts that do a good job of balancing testing requirements and remaining focused on the educational needs of low-income children.

Ravitch replied that the school system in San Diego performs best.

She said critics, however, point to that school district’s test scores and see failure.

“They’ve created what I think is unusual in this country because they are not competing for testing scores,” Ravitch said. “What they’re trying to build is community and what they have succeeded in doing is building collaboration

Ken Dodge, the founding director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, asked Ravitch what advice she would give Durham’s school board about how to engage teachers, principals and parents in continuing to move DPS forward.

Ravitch noted that the district is looking for a new superintendent and advised them to consider someone from within for the job.

“I hope that as you are looking that you will first off see if there’s anybody at home that can do the job who is trusted by other members of the staff,” Ravitch said.

But she said that the most important thing the board can do is hire a professional educator to lead the school district.

“Don’t bring in someone who is a military general,” Ravitch said, bringing chuckles from the crowd, which caught the reference to former Wake County superintendent Tony Tata, who is now the state’s transportation secretary.

She said New York City finally has an educator atop its school system, a move made possible with the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Ravitch said the new chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has surrounded herself with educators - unlike past chancellors who favored MBAs.

She said someone with a background in education is more likely to respect the hard work that teachers do.

“North Carolina is a place where, right now, because of the legislature and what they’re putting out to the world, educators are not respected,” Ravitch said. “Because of that, it becomes doubly important that you find someone who is a team builder … someone who appreciates how hard it is to be a teacher.”