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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Diane Ravitch battles the system she helped build

From the St. Petersburg Times

by Tom Marshall

ST. PETERSBURG — Diane Ravitch has never been one to mince words.

Twenty years ago, she was an outspoken advocate for more standardized testing, more accountability, less fluff in the classroom. As an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, she helped launch the back-to-basics movement.

These days her language is still fiery. But Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, now aims her ire at a different target: all those ideas she used to champion.

"Particularly in Florida, it's a disaster," she said during a visit Wednesday with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. "What we are doing is killing creativity, originality, divergent thinking. All the things we need in the 21st century are what we're squeezing out of a generation of children."

In a speech today at the Florida School Boards Association annual meeting in Tampa, Ravitch plans to continue her full-throated campaign to "save public education" from its obsession with testing.

"This is institutionalized fraud," she said, referring to the phenomenon of ever-rising scores. "Because we are graduating just as many kids who can't read as we did 10 years ago."

She acknowledged that Florida's focus on reading has produced real gains. But she said other test improvements may have come about partly from the state's focus on reducing class sizes.

Gov. Rick Scott's focus on charter schools and vouchers is emblematic of a "monstrous regime" aimed at creating business opportunities for the emerging for-profit education industry.

"I think he's trying to privatize education," Ravitch said.

In Twitter posts and her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch has decried the influence of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private groups, saying their grants have stifled competing views and pushed an agenda that fixates on test scores.

She supports giving new teachers mentors and using peer evaluators to judge them fairly, as Hillsborough County has done using a $100 million Gates grant. But she said there's no credible research to support using value-added analysis — a statistical method that judges teachers by analyzing student test scores — as the district and state of Florida plan to do.

And Ravitch says the focus on merit pay, tenure reform and private-sector solutions is destroying the nation's teaching corps.

"These are people who don't come into education motivated by merit pay," Ravitch said. "Our society is disrespecting them en masse."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.

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