ArtsEd Comeback? Ravitch Rails at “The Reign of Error”


Whether you love former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch or hate her, she’s definitely one known for controversy when it comes to education reform in the U.S. Ravitch joined The Century Foundation’s vice president of policy and programs, Greg Anrig, for a conversation on Mon., Sept. 23 ,at the Foundation’s sprawling lower Manhattan headquarters and I was there.

Ravitch Reign of ErrorComing off of Ravitch’s widely popular 2010 book The Death and the Life of the Great American School System, her latest release, The Reign of Error, focuses on the privatization of the U.S. education system; to promote it, she has also launched a national public speaking tour that is generating lots of controversy and rhetorical hyperbole on its own. Case in point: Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, called Ravitch an “evil woman” on Twitter, spawning a backlash of tweets, comments and online commentary.

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The conversation at the Century Foundation focused on three main topics:

  • The current state of the New York City Department of Education and the impact of New York City’s mayoral race on its future;
  • The effects that learning standards, testing and teacher evaluation are having on our education system;
  • The effects of the privatization of schools, particularly charter schools, and how foundation support, such as from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is influencing federal policy.

The State of Education in New York City
With the New York City mayoral election set for Nov. 4, Anrig asked Ravitch for her view of Michael Bloomberg’s three-term, 12-year rule and for the impact that a new mayor (presumably Democrat Bill de Blasio), could have on public education.

Ravitch went right for the jugular, stating that “accountability starts at the top” and that the “people in charge don’t seem to have a clue.” Then she went in for the kill, citing Bloomberg’s control of the school system.

Bloomberg, she said…

  • Has needlessly battled with the United Federation of Teachers;
  • Has instilled a “corrupt” system of leaders who are not educators — hiring people like former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the disastrous Cathie Black from the corporate world and, on top of that, hiring consultants who collect fat paychecks;
  • Has eliminated designated school districts where power and control have been taken away from teachers, administrators and parents in favor of appointed school board members who tune out the public;
  • Has focused too much attention on closing “failing” schools, while reopening smaller schools that prove just as unsuccessful. (Ravitch asked a salient question — “How can you provide a good school in every neighborhood?” — and then added, “the term turn-around sounds so positive, but the process is actually quite brutal.”)
  • Has placed a greater emphasis on standardized test scores, which in turn reflects teacher evaluations and pay (and then more money to test companies and consultants);
  • Has cut dedicated funding for arts education with the elimination of the Giuliani administration’s Project Arts mandate, which required principals to spend a certain percentage on arts programs. (Ravitch is a staunch supporter of reviving Project Arts, or at least the idea, and expresses equal concern for the lack of access to physical education.)

The last bullet point, as you might guess, is the one I’m most passionate about — although I’d like to right all those wrongs. I could write forever about the disappearing act of arts education in New York City public schools these past 10-plus years, but let me instead point to the Center for Arts Education, one of the best resources for advocacy initiatives, and the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable.

Here is my favorite quote from Ravitch: “The first thing [the new mayor] needs to do is clean out the people at Tweed.” I couldn’t agree with her more, especially when it comes to arts education. Hopefully a new mayor will be what our kids, teachers and parents need.

To follow the extensive Century Foundation interview with Diane Ravitch, you can watch the entire conversation online.