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Ravitch: Standardized Testing Undermines Teaching
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Public education in America needs to be improved. You can get a lot of
agreement on that statement. But how to do it, that's where you run into
Later, we'll hear from Andrew Rotherham, an education consultant and
policy analyst who supports strategies to redesign American public
education with the help of charter schools, public-sector choice,
testing and accountability.
My first guest, Diane Ravitch, had been an advocate of choice, testing,
accountability and market-based education reform. Now she has profound
doubts about these same ideas. She says she was persuaded by
accumulating evidence that these reforms were not likely to live up to
Diane Ravitch's latest book is called "The Death and Life of the Great
American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education." She
served as assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush
administration. President Clinton appointed her to the National
Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal testing of student
progress in different subject areas. She served on that board for seven
years. Diane Ravitch is a professor of education at NYU and senior
fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Diane Ravitch, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Professor DIANE RAVITCH (Education, NYU; Author): Thank you. It's great
to be with you.
GROSS: Now, you were an early advocate of No Child Left Behind and test-
based accountability of schools and teachers with related rewards and
punishments. Let's start with the theory behind that. When you supported
it, what did you think was going to work about that?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I supported test-based accountability for years,
thinking that if we could just measure whether kids are learning, year
after year, we could focus in on what the problems were. The tests could
be used diagnostically, in effect, to identify what children's needs
are, and that would enable schools to focus on the kids and do better.
I had never imagined that the tests would someday be turned into a blunt
instrument to close schools or to say whether teachers are good teachers
or not, because I always knew that children's test scores are far more
complicated than the way they're being received today.
But the original idea was just that you could help kids and you could
help teachers and you could help schools do a better job by focusing on
whether kids were learning. It didn't turn out to work that way.
GROSS: So how are the test results used to close schools or to punish
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, when No Child Left Behind was passed, I don't think
that the Congress gave serious thought to what the ultimate results
would be down the line. They had some very severe remedies or
punishments in the law, for instance, saying that if a school didn't
improve its test scores for every single group in the school, and if you
weren't on track to be 100 percent proficient for every single child by
the year 2014 - which is, for some reason, a magical year - then the
school would be subjected to severe punishments.
The punishments would grow year by year, until eventually the school
would either be turned into a charter school, it would be handed over to
private management, it would be closed, or half the staff would be fired
and the principal would be fire. This is called turning around a school.
But we've reached the point now where Secretary Duncan said not long ago
that more than 80 percent of the schools are going to be labeled failing
in the next year.
So I came to the conclusion and said in the book, I said that No Child
Left Behind has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American
GROSS: When the neighborhood school closes, where do the students go? To
another neighborhood school?
Prof. RAVITCH: No, what happens is that their new schools are opened,
and then the new schools, in some cases, are allowed to winnow-out the
low-performing kids. So then the administration, the central district,
can say: Well, see, our new schools are doing better.
But if they're not educating the same kids, then they're not doing
better. The kids who are low-performing tend to get kicked around like
checkers on a checkerboard, or pieces on a chessboard. They get pushed
out of one school after another because everybody knows that they'll
drag their scores down, and school people - whether they're in charters
or regular public schools - try to avoid the kids who have the biggest
GROSS: You know, I haven't seen any of the No Child Left Behind tests.
What do the tests measure? What kind of questions do they ask?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, No Child Left Behind leaves every state to devise
its own test, and they all go to the same commercial test-makers, and
the tests are overwhelmingly multiple-choice, standardized tests.
So what happens is that teachers spend an inordinate amount of time
preparing children to take tests. So they'll have the tests from the
last several years, and they'll study the questions and take those tests
over and over and over, so that when they get the next year's test, the
next test will basically ask the same question, but change the numbers a
little bit or just change the wording slightly, and the children are
But all that testing and test preparation has fattened the testing
industry. I mean, it's now a multi-billion-dollar industry, beyond their
wildest dreams, and it's stolen time from good education.
GROSS: Some schools, and I think this is particularly true in
neighborhoods that are poor, with a lot of violence, that the violence
comes through in the school to children are under attack, teachers are
There was just a long series in the Philadelphia Inquirer about violence
in the Philadelphia public schools. And it's hard for teachers to teach.
It's hard for students to learn. And I think people have been in despair
for so long about the state of some inner-city schools.
So you're saying shutting them down isn't the answer. No one's come up
with a good answer.
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, what you're describing is not failing schools.
You're describing failing communities. You're describing communities
where people are living desperate lives, where there's homelessness,
where there's violence, where there's criminal activity, where children
are subject to all kinds of abuse.
And these are failing communities, and we as a nation have failed to do
anything about the social dysfunction in our midst, and then turn around
and say the whole fault - the blame lies with teachers. Let's fire
There's something wrong there, and that doesn't make any sense, that the
teachers are much the victims as the children are.
GROSS: Let's take a look at charter schools, another example of a type
of school that you changed your mind about. So let's start with an
explanation of what charter schools are and how they were started.
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, charter schools originally were the idea of Albert
Shanker, who was the president for many years of the American Federation
of Teachers, which is a teachers union.
And his idea was that a group of teachers could say to their colleagues:
Let us start a small school, with your permission, and we will go out
into the streets, recruit the kids who dropped out, recruit the kids who
are about to drop out, and let us see what we can do to come up with
ideas that will help make public education better. And it'll be a
That was the original idea. What has happened - and also why Shanker
himself turned against his idea a few years after he proposed it - is
that it has become an enormous entrepreneurial activity, and the private
sector has moved in and is - it's now become a vehicle for
And so there are now charter chains, where the executives are paying
themselves $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 a year. They compete with
regular public schools. They do not see themselves as collaborators with
public schools, but as business competitors. And in some cases, they
actually want to take away the public school space and drive the public
school out of business.
So it's very different from the idea, as it started, and charter schools
in cities like New York and in other schools, where the charters are co-
located in public buildings, have become a source of dissention and
conflict, setting parent against parent.
Now, the idea that I've always felt was very attractive was that it
takes a village to raise a child. But charter schools end up pitting
parent against parent, teacher against teacher, and leading to not the
village collaborating around children, but the village fighting over
space and over who's better than whom.
GROSS: How does a charter school turn parent against parent, teacher
against teacher, in your opinion?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, charters in New York, for example, where I live,
will flood, as they put it, flood the zone with literature about how the
new charter that they're opening is going to be so much better than the
regular public schools.
And they will spend, literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars on
marketing and publicity for their new charter. And so a lottery is held.
Thousands of parents turn out, and there are 75 or 100 seats available.
So thousands of parents go away disappointed.
The regular public-school parents are angry because space in their
building has been taken away. They no longer have an art room. They no
longer have a computer room. Whatever space they had had for extra
activities gets taken away and given to the charters.
Then the charters better facilities. They have a lot of philanthropic
money behind them. Wall Street hedge fund managers have made this their
favorite cause. So at least in this city, and in some others, as well,
they are better-funded, they don't - they may not get as much public
funds, but the private funds they get are far more than the public funds
that they don't get. So they have better everything. And the kids in the
regular public school begin to feel like they're second-class citizens.
GROSS: You're making it sound like it's a bad thing when a hedge fund
contributes money to help a charter school. I mean, people feel really
good about giving money to education. You're making it sound like it's a
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, here's why I think it's a problem, and it's because
I step back and I'm a historian and I look at the data from studies
across the world, and what I see is that the best-performing nations in
the world have strong public education systems.
I don't see any of the high-performing nations handing over control of
children in the public sector and handing over public funding to
entrepreneurs. I see them instead building a public school system,
building and strengthening their education profession so that their
teachers are the best, so that they're well-supported, so that they feel
passionate and energetic about the work they're doing.
And we seem to be doing the opposite. We're privatizing many of our
public schools. We're demoralizing the people who work in the regular
public schools. We're doing, as a nation, at this moment in time, doing
nothing to improve our public school system and everything to undermine
GROSS: What about the Geoffrey Canada model, the Harlem Children's Zone?
This is a zone of nearly 100 blocks that's supposed to nurture and
protect children from birth on? I mean, it starts with a baby college in
which first-time parents - first-time, soon-to-be parents learn how to
take care of a baby so that they're prepared when the baby's born. And
then the program's supposed to, you know, provide, like, adult
assistance and mentoring throughout the child's formative years in
school and outside of school.
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, I actually love the Harlem Children's Zone model. I
don't love that Geoffrey Canada has become a spokesman for privatization
because Geoffrey Canada has far more resources than any public school in
his neighborhood or in any neighborhood.
He has a board of trustees with very, very wealthy people on it who
provide - I think the last time I looked at the 990 forms for the Harlem
Children's Zone, it had $200 million in assets. So they're able to have
very small classes. They are an anti-poverty program. They don't say, as
far as I know, that resources don't matter, because they are amply
funded with resources. So it would be very hard to compare the Harlem
Children's Zone to regular public schools, which in Harlem, don't have
resources anything near what he has.
GROSS: My guest is Diane Ravitch. Her latest book is called "The Death
and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Diane Ravitch, and she's a
historian of education, former U.S. assistant secretary of education in
the Bush administration, and she's now a research professor at NYU's
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Her
latest book is called "The Death and Life of the Great American School
System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education."
The current secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has started a program
called Race to the Top. How does that compare to No Child Left Behind?
Prof. RAVITCH: Race to the Top is an extension of No Child Left Behind.
It contains all of the punitive features. It encourages states to have
more charter schools.
What it said when it invited proposals from states was: You need to have
more charter schools. You need to have merit pay, which is a terrible
idea. You need to judge teachers by test scores, which is even a worse
idea. And you need to be prepared to turn around low-performing schools.
So this is what many state legislators adopted, hoping to get money from
Race to the Top. Only 11 states and the District of Columbia did get
that money. These were all bad ideas. None of them are ideas that will
help schools. They're all schools that create - work on the free-market
model, that with more incentives and sanctions and with more
competition, schools will somehow magically get better.
GROSS: Teachers unions have been criticized a lot lately. The Wisconsin
legislature passed a bill that's now in the courts that would eliminate
most collective bargaining rights of the teachers union. Teachers union
tenure systems have been blamed for schools' inability to fire
In the movie "Waiting For Superman," which is very critical of the
public school system, it describes what is commonly known as the rubber
room, a room where teachers in New York awaiting disciplinary hearings -
and they wait an average of three years - spend their workday in this
holding room, where they're not teaching. They're not allowed to teach
at that moment, but they're getting their full pay.
So what's your assessment of the pros and cons of teachers unions today?
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, the first thing you have to understand about
teachers unions is they're not the problem. The state with the highest
scores on the national tests, the ones given by the federal government,
the state - that state is Massachusetts, which is 100 percent union.
The nation with the highest scores in the world is Finland, which is 100
percent union. Management and labor can always work together around the
needs of children if they're willing to. I think what's happening in
Wisconsin - and not just in Wisconsin, but also in Ohio and Florida and
Indiana and in other states - is very, very conservative right-wing
governors want to break the unions because the unions provide support to
the Democratic Party. But the unions really are really not the problem
Just to give you an example, you mentioned the rubber room in New York.
The rubber room consisted of teachers who had been accused, but had not
had a hearing. Generally, in our country, we have a principle that until
you have had a hearing and until you've been found guilty, you're
innocent. So the rubber room was filled with people who were - had not
had a hearing, and yet were judged to be guilty by "Waiting for
"Waiting for Superman," by the way, I reviewed it in the New York Review
of Books, and the producers of the film are very supportive of vouchers
and free-market strategies to school reform and everything else. So I
think that film has to be taken with not just a grain of salt, but
understood to be a pro-privatization film.
GROSS: You write a little bit about the history of unions in your latest
book, of the teachers union. And you talk about how the union was
created at a time when teachers were largely women, and there were
specific needs that the women had and specific needs they had to be
Prof. RAVITCH: Well, yes. The unions were created because teachers
didn't have a profession. And, by the way, tenure long predates the
unions. Tenure goes back to the 1880s. It was part of civil service
reform. And the unions didn't create tenure.
But people - the teachers wanted to collectively bargain because, alone,
an individual is powerless. And yet as part of a union, they have power
in negotiations for their working conditions and for wages and benefits.
And because the teaching profession not only was predominately female,
but is still predominately female, it became important for women to have
- and for teachers to have a collective voice, because otherwise, they
were at the whim of very paternalistic boards of education.
There were cities - and I know New York was one of them, there were
others, as well - where women would be fired if they got married, where
teachers would be fired if they got married - not men teachers, but
female teachers would be fired.
If they then were married and got pregnant, they would be fired if they
were pregnant. So they had no job rights, and they were, I won't say
oppressed, but certainly they had meager salaries, no pensions, and when
they retired, it was to a retirement of poverty.
And so unions have made it possible for teachers to have a decent living
and also a decent pension so that they don't retire into poverty.
GROSS: So many of the public schools are such a mess now in terms of
learning and safety that, you know, a lot of people say just, like, blow
up the system. You can never fix this system. So, like, blow it up and
start from scratch, or blow it up and privatize it. But don't expect to
really reform the public school system because there's too much
bureaucracy to do it. You just can't make change in an effective way.
What do you say to that?
Prof. RAVITCH: You know, I have friends from some of my conservative
think-tank days who believe that. Those friends, of course, went to very
elite boarding schools and sent their children to elite boarding
schools, where class sizes were 12 to 15. And they were paying, of
course, lots more than most people pay for public education.
I think that is a dramatic overstatement, and I would refer you to the
latest Gallup poll about public education. The public has been so
bombarded for so many years about how terrible public education is that
there's a very low estimate of public schools. And you're correct: 18
percent said public education is doing a good job, and give it an A or a
But then when the poll said: How do you feel about your own child's
school, the one that you know best? Seventy-seven percent said: Oh, my
own child's school is great - 77 percent. That's the highest rating that
their own child's school has gotten in the history of the poll, which I
think goes back some 25 years of asking that question.
So I think that the - it's not true that public education is a mess. We
have some great public schools. And it's like every other thing we've
been discussing today, whether it's privatization, choice, vouchers,
charter schools, and now this incredibly excessive testing and this
narrowing of the curriculum where we end up deleting or not having time
for history, for civics, for the arts, for science because testing is -
focuses everybody just on reading and math.
We are destroying our education system, blowing it up by these stupid
policies. And handing the schools in low-income neighborhoods over to
private entrepreneurs does not, in itself, improve them.
There's plenty of evidence by now that the kids in those schools do no
better, and it's simply a way of avoiding their - the public
responsibility to provide good education.
GROSS: Diane Ravitch, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. RAVITCH: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Diane Ravitch is the author of "The Death and Life of the Great
American School System." You can read an excerpt on our website:
freshair.npr.org. We'll hear a contrasting point of view about education
reform in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Rotherham: Don't Discount Charter School Model
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Earlier in our show, Diane Ravitch explained why she's become
disillusioned with school reforms she once supported, like No Child Left
Behind and charter schools.
My guest Andrew Rotherham supports testing accountability, charter
schools and choice as important strategies in redesigning public
education. Rotherham is an education consultant and policy analyst. He
co-founded Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit organization
working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. He
writes the column "School of Thought" for Time.com. He's the author of
four books about education policy.
Although he supports charter schools as an important part of reforming
education in America, he says depending on the student and the
community, a charter school isn't necessarily the best option.
Mr. ROTHERHAM (Education Consultant, Policy Analyst): Parents should not
get hung up on this label of charter or traditional public - or frankly
private, for that matter. Schools are schools, and they're going to be a
good fit for your child, or not. They're going to be performing well or
not, depending on a variety of factors. And you can find examples of
excellence, and you can find examples of acute failure in all sectors,
whether they're in the charter sector, or whether they're in the
traditional public school sector.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of a charter school whose success
you'd like to see used as a model?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Sure. I can give an example of a bunch. And so these can
be sort of individual schools - so, for example, like, the MATCH School
in Boston is a really terrific school, focused on getting kids into
college. There's networks of schools like Achievement First...
GROSS: This is a high school?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: MATCH School is a high school. There's networks of
schools like Achievement First, Uncommon Schools. Obviously, KIPP is
sort of a household name in the debate. And then there's schools like -
here in Washington, D.C., there's a school called the SEED School. It's
a public boarding school.
And when you tell people about it, you say, you know, it's a public
boarding school. The kids come in on Sunday nights, and they leave on
Fridays. People think, oh, that's a crazy idea. That could never happen.
And yet, we have this school, and it's been operating in Washington.
They're opening a new one in Maryland and thinking about expanding
elsewhere. And that's actually, more than anything else, what I would
like to see replicated, is that sense of possibility.
So these are good schools. There's sort of technical things they do that
we can talk about, whether it's the way they hire teachers, evaluate
performance, use data. But I think more than anything else, the thing
that I'd like to see replicated is that sort of ethos of possibility and
thinking differently about what's possible for kids that have been
really failed by public schools for a very long time, that sense of
thinking big and really doing things different in an effort to change
outcomes for them. And those schools all, in different ways, sort of
provide proof points. And that's what I - more than anything else, that
ethos is what I'd like to see.
GROSS: Yeah. But, you know, there's charter schools that have tried
things and have failed, and charter schools that have tried things and
have succeeded in getting better results. So give us an example of one
or two things that you've seen charter schools try that you think
actually work in improving the educational environment.
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Sure. And I'm not trying to be deliberately vague, but
I'll say the thing is - and that you can do this in traditional public
schools, too, it's nothing magic about charters - it's intentionality.
The very best schools, they're intentional about everything they do.
They're intentional about who is in the building, who is teaching, how
they use data, what's happening for students, the experience for
students, the support for students, the curriculum, how progress is
assessed. Everything is intentional, and nothing is left to chance.
That's, again, nothing to do with the charter, as much as simply the
freedom to sort of build that kind of community. And too often in
traditional public schools, whether it's through inertia and the buildup
of regulations, whether it's through different various rules in
contracts or state law, things happen in different ways that aren't as
When you're in the best schools - again, whether they're charter schools
or traditional public schools - that intentionality about everything
they do, it is inescapable. And that is more important, Terry, than the
particular method. You can be in schools that have different educational
philosophies and are very good schools, but what they have in common is
that intentionality about what they're doing. You really can't - you
can't escape that, and you just don't see success in places where
they're not intentional about what they're doing.
GROSS: Have you given up on public schools?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Oh, absolutely not. Look, I'm a product of public
schools. I couldn't do the work that I do if I didn't believe in the
possibility and the promise of public schools. Most students are going
to continue to be educated in the public schools. There's all this talk
about virtual, and so forth. Most parents don't have the luxury of
educating their kids at home, so public schools may start to look
different, but kids are still going to go to school. There's sort of a
basic custodial function.
And so the work I do - and I really think that the big ballgame - is
about: How do you make public schools better? How do you make them work
for more kids? They worked great for me, but I grew up in a nice suburb
outside of Washington, D.C. If I had been born just a few miles away, I
would've had a very different public education experience. That's the
It's not about giving up on public schools, but it is about
acknowledging that right now, when you step back, this country, eight
percent of low-income kids can expect to get a bachelor's degree by the
time they're 24. I mean, just stop right there. That is a stunning
figure. And so all this rhetoric about are we giving up on public
schools, are they working or not, I don't know how anybody can look at
that figure and not say we need to come together and really get much
more serious about not just improving a little bit, not just changing a
little bit, but dramatically changing what we're doing in public
education so we can do a better job for the kids who really need it the
GROSS: I know there's some concern from people who work in public
schools that charter schools and vouchers are taking the best students
away from your average public school, and that the most motivated
parents and the most motivated students are seeking the alternative
schools. Now, on one hand, you can argue, well, great for them. They
should go to the best schools possible. On the other hand, you can
argue, but the public schools now are being left with the students who
are less motivated and who aren't trying to get into the best schools
and make those schools more difficult to teach in, more difficult to
learn in, and those schools are kind of being doomed to perform at a
Mr. ROTHERHAM: You know, it's complicated place by place, and you have a
few places where, you know, charters have achieved a really significant
market share. So, for example, Washington, D.C. is a very noteworthy
example of that, increasingly in Los Angeles. But in most places,
charters are still not a sort of enormous presence on the landscape. You
know, there's 5,000 public charter schools around the country. There's
about 100,000 traditional public schools. So you can do the math.
So two - I think there's sort of two takeaways from this. One is one of
the things that makes charter schools attractive is the fact they are
non-selective. They take kids open admission or by lottery. And so they,
you know, you're not creating sort of a selective set of public schools.
That's, again, one of the things that make them attractive.
The second - sort of the bottom-line issue is there is more choice
coming to education. Choice comes to all American industries, and
education's one of the last ones that's sort of - has resisted that. And
so the challenge for public schools is: How do you make, in these
communities, make the public schools not the choice of last resort, but
the first choice for parents? That's the imperative now.
The competition is going to continue to be there, different kinds of
schools, different kinds of options. And frankly, parents are going to
continue to do for their own children the very best that they can,
whether that's move to different communities, avail themselves of other
options and so forth.
And so the challenge for the public schools is: How do you make the
public schools the - really, the first choice for parents? And you don't
get there through sort of a lot of rhetoric. We get there by rolling up
our sleeves and really improving the quality of schooling in a lot of
GROSS: Well, the question arises: Is it the school that's failing the
students, or is it poverty that has put students in a position where
they are likely to fail?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Poverty plays a huge role. Schools play a huge role, too,
and there are a lot of things that schools can do to help ameliorate the
problems that kids bring to school. And we know that both from the
overall data, and we know that from plenty of very compelling examples.
It's oversimplified to say it's just schools, and if schools just do
this, we wouldn't have these other issues. But what you do see, looking
across the country, is different schools produce different outcomes with
similar kids, so there are things schools do that matter.
You have sort of schools serving high poverty kids. You have schools
that do that, and those kids are graduating. Those kids are going off to
college. You have schools that do that with abysmal outcomes.
We see differences in teacher effects and the effectiveness of teachers
in how much they improve achievement. So there are levers that schools
can pull to help address this problem. And what too frequently happens
with this conversation about poverty is people just want to throw up
their hands. The reality is poverty is an issue. It's an extremely
challenging issue. But schools can do much more to address it than they
GROSS: What can they do? What can schools do to address the problem of
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Sure. As I said earlier, they can be intentional about
making sure the kids who come to school with the least are getting the
most. So they're getting the most effective teachers. They're getting a
rich, high-quality curriculum. They are supported in school. There is
sort of rigorous intentionality. They get extra time. They get
everything that they need to succeed to give them the best chance of
succeeding. And that, what I just described, is really a mirror image -
or the exact opposite, if you will - of what happens today.
Again, if you - from everything from how much money is spent on these
schools to how they're staffed, these kids tend to get the least. And
that's why we see the outcomes that we see. And sort of underneath sort
of all the rhetoric about these various things, that's the problem that
that we need to solve if we're serious about improving equity.
And, by the way, in a lot of these communities, we also have an
insufficient supply of financial services, grocery stores, health care
services. I mean, these are underserved communities in general, and
they're underserved on education, as well. And on these other issues,
well, you know, I think there's a general agreement - at least there's a
general agreement sort of from the center-left to the left that the way
to solve these problems is get those services in there. You know, make
sure that people have access to those things.
Schools are so political, that we have this entirely different
conversation. We should be having the exact same conversation: How do
you open more good public schools in these communities? There's going to
be charter schools. They can be district-run schools. They can be
contract schools. There's a lot of ways to address that, but the problem
is, right now, parents in those communities have too few choices.
GROSS: My guest is Andrew Rotherham, a consultant on education reform
and education policy.
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about reforming the education system in America. My
guest is Andrew Rotherham, a consultant on education reform and
education policy, and a former member of the Virginia Board of
Education. He's a partner at Bellwether Education, a non-profit
organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income
The Bush administration created No Child Left Behind. The Obama
administration created Race to the Top. Both of those programs rely on
testing to evaluate how teachers and schools are performing. How would
you describe the difference between the two programs?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: So, No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001. It was
basically a bipartisan effort to build on what had happened during the
'90s with standards-based reform, but address some of the problems,
particularly that states had set varying standards and there weren't a
lot of consequences in it for schools that persistently, year after
year, weren't doing well.
So No Child Left Behind was really about sort of prodding the laggard
states. Race to the Top was about building on that, but instead of
prodding laggards, it was about the rewarding the leaders, rewarding
states that were either really doing avant-garde and really forward-
looking things, or states that were willing to commit to do those things
as part of the Race to the Top competition. And the points in Race to
the Top was really - half were for sort of what you'd done, and half
were for what you were committing to do. And so right now, you have 12
winners, and they're out there sort of trying to implement their plans.
And I think you're seeing sort of varying degrees of success and
challenges on that. And in a few years, we'll have a sense on how well
that initiative worked and what we can learn and draw from it.
GROSS: I think for teachers, there's something very major in common
about No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and that is the emphasis
on testing, on measuring by testing. And I think a lot of teachers feel
that they are being forced to teach to the test, to teach so that kids
do well on the test, and that it's limiting their creativity as
teachers, and it's limiting what they can actually focus on.
Do you think that that's a legitimate complaint, judging from your
experience and from your analysis of the data?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Sure. There's some validity to that, of course. I think
what you really see - and so let's just be clear on what No Child Left
Behind requires. It requires annual tests in math and in language arts,
reading in grades three through eight. Individual states do additional
testing on top of that, local districts do additional testing. So in a
lot of places, teachers are under a burden of too much testing, but it's
important to sort of disentangle where that dole comes from. What the
law requires is once a year in grades three through eight.
And the data from that is actually very valuable, and to the extent
people want to have better accountability systems, want to have better
ways of evaluating performance and so forth, that data is sort of a
cornerstone for actually doing that.
What we're seeing - and this is a very sort of hard and complicated
conversation that, unfortunately, is clouded by a lot of frankly,
irresponsible rhetoric. A lot of schools struggle to deliver a really
powerful instructional program for kids, and they struggled to do that
before No Child Left Behind. Educational history in this country didn't
start in 2001.
And so what you see is a lot of anxiety about the test. You see a lot of
counterproductive strategies, drilling kids and so forth, cutting out
subjects like social studies and so forth to focus on reading, when the
best way - and research actually shows this. There's been studies on
this. The best way to really teach kids in a rich way is to teach kids
in a rich way.
The schools that don't worry about the tests, that actually focus on
delivering a powerful curriculum and powerful instruction to kids - it
shows up in the test scores, and they do okay. The schools that are
struggling, it's because we have a lot of problems out there in terms of
the capacity to really, at scale â and by at scale, I mean across
schools for all kids, across districts for all kids and across states
for all kids, deliver really high-quality instruction. That's what
There's a whole bunch of things bound up in that, and it's creating a
very contentious debate. Teachers have not been as nearly supported as
they need to be in terms of reaching these standards. There's been more
on the demand side than on the support side. They're understandably
frustrated by that.
The rules have basically changed. If you came into education 25 years
ago, even 20 years ago, what you're being asked to do now is radically
different than what you were asked to do when you came in. The
expectations have changed, and so forth. I mean, this is basically a
very large industry that's in fairly rapid transformation. And so it's,
you know, people are frustrated. They're understandably confused. They
feel whipsawed. And again, I don't think policymakers have done enough
to support teachers.
But underneath this, again, is the kernel of this problem, that when you
have a system that produces eight percent of the kids getting out of
college - low-income kids getting out of college by the time they're 24,
something is wrong. And to the extent we focus only on shooting the
messenger, we're missing a larger problem.
GROSS: There's a lot of criticism now of teachers unions and of tenure.
From your experience, do you think that teachers unions and teacher
tenure are part of the problem in education?
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, tenure's kind of a misnomer. What we're talking
about with tenure is sort of a set of rules and regulations and due
process proceedings and so forth for teachers who have been teaching
after a certain period of time, and it varies from - you know, usually,
it's in a neighborhood of a couple of years. So it's not tenure as we
sort of think about it in terms of higher education. I mean, don't take
my word for it. Randi Weingarten recently gave a talk where she was
talking about some reforms at the AFT, which is this second-largest
teachers union in the country.
GROSS: She's the head of the union.
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Right. She's the head of the American Federation of
Teachers, and she was talking about some reforms. And Randi said, you
know, in some places tenure's becomes a job for life. She told that to
CBS. So, I mean, I would defer to that. And I think it takes on, again,
as a lot of these things do, sort of an outsized importance. If you were
to sort of abolish quote/unquote "tenure" today, our school system would
not sort of experience some sort of a renaissance. These issues are all
sort of a bound up part-and-parcel, and that's just one piece of it.
You know, teacher unions get blamed for a lot of things that aren't
their fault. I mean, it is not the fault of the teachers unions that
funding is so, you know, inequitable within states, for instance. In
many ways, it would probably be worse without them.
I think if you really want to lay blame at their feet today, it would be
are they doing enough to help us address this challenge and are they out
in front enough in terms of addressing this challenge? And I would say
right now, the answer is no. But they get blamed sort of
disproportionately in the debate to their actual influence.
And I think if they were to sort of - if they were to go away tomorrow,
there would be - a lot of people who would be disappointed, sort of,
that - in terms of what that would actually - the changes that that
would actually bring. So they're a challenge. In some places, they're
leading and they're doing some interesting things. In other places,
they're clearly in the way. But they're not the only challenge that we
face, and they need to be seen sort of in that larger context.
GROSS: What would you like to see teachers unions do to be out front in
Mr. MATAR: I'd like to see them work to help us build more of a genuine
profession. I mean, sort of this whole idea of industrial unionism, it
really is at odds with sort of how really high-performing organizations
that do that kind of work that schools do and how sort of professionals
like that are going to organize themselves make decisions, govern
themselves, and I'd like to see them sort of leaving that conversation,
because we really don't hear a lot of talk about teaching as a
profession. We don't yet treat teachers as professionals, either on the
reward side or the risk side in what it means to be a professional. And
they could meet that conversation.
GROSS: Does what you're saying translate, in a way, to we should treat
teachers were professionally, attract the best teachers? Part of that is
offering a professional salary. We're in a time now when the opposite is
happening, I think, when states are looking for ways to cut back on
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Yeah, we should be offering - I mean, this is - you know,
we have pursued a strategy in education over the last 30 years of more.
We've hired more and more teachers rather than thinking about: Do you
potentially hire fewer and pay them more? And so we're in a little bit
in a box of our own creation.
Teachers do need to be paid more. They also need to be paid differently.
And that's the second piece of this. We have to start differentiating
salary much more, and performance pay sort of takes on this sort of
outsized place in this debate.
When we talk about differentiation, it's around, sort of, what subjects
do you teach? It is easier to find teachers in some subjects than
others. We have acute shortages in math, science, special education,
Where do you teach? Some schools are simply harder to staff than other
schools. How can we differentiate and reward that? Other kinds of things
- we talk about this in monetary terms, but professionals are rewarded
in other fields in non-monetary ways, too - opportunities for
professional growth, different kinds of training and so forth. We don't
do any of those things at any scale for teachers. And those are sort of
some of the basic aspects of being a professional.
So we have to pay, but it's also much more. And then with that comes
this different kind of accountability, this different kind of risk that
you have in professional work, and just the different way things are
organized. Professionals, you're not organized around sort of contracts.
We don't talk about contractual days and these kinds of things. These
are the sorts of changes that have to happen. But again, they're
controversial. It's really changing how things have been for a long
time, and that's, you know, understandably contentious.
And - and this is the subject of a recent column I did for a Time - we
don't know exactly. It's not as if there's a template out there, and if
we could only apply it, we'd be better off. There's going to be a lot of
innovation. There's going to be a lot of trial and error. We haven't
done this and paid attention to this in education for so long. And so,
you know, no one's going to get it right on the first stroke.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, I thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Andrew Rotherham is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners
and writes a column for Time.com. You can find links to his blogs on our
Coming up, a clue to what shaped our TV critic David Bianculli's sense
of humor. He reviews a new box set of the complete adventures of "Rocky
and Bullwinkle and Friends."
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Bullwinkle DVD: Take A Trip In The Wayback Machine
TERRY GROSS, host:
A recent DVD box set from Classic Media presents, for the first time,
the complete adventures of "Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends" - hundreds
of installments of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose,
as well as "Fractured Fairy Tales," Dudley Do-Right and Mr. Peabody, the
genius dog with a pet boy named Sherman. These prime-time TV cartoons go
back about 50 years, and our TV critic David Bianculli says that while
watching them all over again, so did he.
(Soundbite of song, "Rocky and Bullwinkle" theme)
DAVID BIANCULLI: The TV cartoon series that most people refer to as
"Rocky and Bullwinkle" actually was two shows with two different titles,
shown on two different networks. "Rocky and His Friends" came first, in
1959, and when ABC canceled that series after two years, NBC picked up
the ball the very next night to present "The Bullwinkle Show," which ran
from 1961 to 1964. Both shows were co-created by Jay Ward and Bill
Scott, and both were aimed at adults as much as children.
Back then, I thought these shows were just about the best television
ever made. Half a century later, after conning my way into watching TV
for a living, I still do.
I had just turned six when "Rocky and His Friends" premiered, and the
show arrived on TV like a birthday present meant just for me. It was the
first TV show I remember staying up late to watch, and waiting eagerly
for each new installment to arrive.
Through the years, each 30-minute program had different ingredients, but
the same, basic format. A serialized adventure of Rocky and Bullwinkle
would open and close each show. In between would be other features -
just as warped, and just as funny. During the first season, for example,
Bullwinkle would recite poetry or offer little-known facts as Mr. Know-
It-All. And Mr. Peabody, the time-traveling talking dog, would set his
Wayback Machine, and he and his pet boy Sherman would visit famous
moments in history.
And then there was my favorite.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: "Fractured Fairy Tales."
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: These short cartoons were narrated by Edward Everett Horton,
who had the most soothing TV voice this side of Fred Rogers. He told -
or retold - familiar fairy tales, but with wickedly modern spins.
In this first-season take on "Sleeping Beauty," for example, the voice
of the Prince is provided by Daws Butler, who later played Yogi Bear.
And when this prince discovered his sleeping beauty, his unique reaction
owes its inspiration to a famous theme park that had opened just four
(Soundbite of TV show, "Rocky and Bullwinkle")
Mr. EDWARD EVERETT HORTON (Actor): (as narrator) The prince made
straight for the tower rooms.
Mr. DAWS BUTLER (Actor): (as The Prince) Sleeping Beauty! I've come at
last. With one kiss, I shall waken you and â wait a minute. Awake, she's
just another princess. Asleep, she's a gold mine. I can see it now:
Sleeping Beauty comics, Sleeping Beauty hats, Sleeping Beauty bubblegum
and biggest of all: Sleeping Beauty Land.
Mr. HORTON: (as narrator) Sure enough, the castle was soon made ready as
a great tourist attraction. There was Mote Land.
(Soundbite of drums)
Mr. BUTLER: (as The Prince) Have your X coupons ready, please. Have your
X coupons ready.
Mr. HORTON: (as narrator) There was Entrance Hall Land.
Mr. BUTLER: (as The Prince) Y coupons, please.
Mr. HORTON: (as narrator) There was Stair Land.
Mr. BUTLER: (as The Prince) That's a Z coupon, folks. A Z coupon.
Mr. HORTON: (as narrator) And, of course, Sleeping Beauty herself.
BIANCULLI: In later years, "Fractured Fairy Tales" would give way to
other features, like "Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties." But Rocky and
Bullwinkle remained constant, with their adventures pitting them against
Cold War spies Boris and Natasha.
I was well into my 20s when I finally put it together that Boris Badenov
was a play on an opera called Boris Godunov. But some jokes I got right
away, and they still make me laugh. Like the episode where Rocky and
Bullwinkle take a wheelbarrow full of box tops - which kids used to save
to send in for prizes - and try to deposit them at their local bank.
(Soundbite of "Rocky and Bullwinkle")
Ms. JUNE FORAY (Actor): (as Rocky) Could we have a little service,
Unidentified Actor: Why certainly, sir. Arbogast(ph), call the police,
the FBI, my wife.
Mr. BILL SCOTT (Actor): (as Bullwinkle) I'd like to start a box top
account with your bank
Mr. KEITH SCOTT (Actor): (as Bullwinkle) I'd like to start a box top
account with your bank.
Unidentified Actor: Why, yes, sir. What kind? Just checking?
Mr. SCOTT: (as Bullwinkle) No. I really mean it.
(Soundbite of sirens)
Mr. WILLIAM CONRAD (Actor): (as Narrator) Meanwhile, a bevy of law
enforcement officers were...
BIANCULLI: Clearly, this is where my love of puns and bad jokes comes
from, and my love of satire. And I know I'm not alone. Matt Groening
told me once that if not for MAD Magazine and "Rocky and Bullwinkle," he
probably never would have had his sense of humor or love of cartoons.
And all he did was go off and create "The Simpsons," the longest-running
animated series in TV history.
But "Rocky and Bullwinkle" was there first, entertaining us all, and
influencing a lot of us. It's a delight to have the entire series in one
set, to relive the early days. The animation, especially on the ABC
series, is pretty crude - but the humor, time and again, hits it out of
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com, and
teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.