Education historian Diane Ravitch was once a fan of testing and accountability as the way to fix schools. She worked under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. She backed No Child Left Behind.

But she’s had a change of mind. In her newest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she has come to criticize the school reform ideas she once championed.

Ravitch zooms in on San Diego Unified and the school reform battles under former Superintendent Alan Bersin as one example of the kind of change she believes has not worked — and will not work — in schools.

Her book is a unique outside look at one of our most controversial school leaders, one who has continued to spark debate over how schools should be fixed long after his departure.

It is an even more fascinating look now, after San Diego Unified has chosen a very different leader to carry out a different, grassroots model of reform. I couldn’t swing a flight to New York, so I chatted with Ravitch over e-mail this week.

Why San Diego? What is it about the battles here that proved important for you in illustrating a larger point about school reform?

San Diego was a very important district in the current reform narrative because it was the first big district to apply the top-down approach. The leadership knew exactly what teachers should be doing, and they required compliance. Its “take-no-prisoners” approach was subsequently copied by Joel Klein in New York City and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C.

Have you talked to Alan Bersin since the book came out? How did he react? Was he cooperative when you were writing it?

I had a delightful dinner with Alan Bersin while I was gathering information for the San Diego chapter. He was very candid and helpful. I have not talked to him since the book appeared in March.

You talk a lot about the “top-down mandates” under Bersin and a lack of collaboration. Was style the problem with Bersin — or was this about substantive differences on his reforms?

From what I learned, the problem is one of style. I heard repeatedly from teachers and principals that they agreed with the substance of the reforms, but they hated the top-down, accelerator-to-the-floor style. They hated the feeling that they were treated as lesser human beings, that there was no collaboration or consultation, just mandates. The resentment and rage that built up undercut the reforms.

It’s really easy, as journalists and observers, to get wrapped up in the conflict itself in school systems and to conclude that conflict itself is a sign of failed leadership. Is it? Do you think there ever is any justification for the rapid, take-no-prisoners style of education reform that Bersin represented?

Conflict is a sign of failed leadership in education. When one is running a prison system, it is important to have a tough, top-down style, because you can’t take chances. But in education, the leadership must rely on the teachers to do the daily work. If the leadership does not win their willing, even enthusiastic, support, then the reforms will stall. Teachers are educated adults; they have experience with students. They don’t like to be treated like children. They need to feel respected.

People have described this book as a big shift in your thinking, rejecting the things that you once praised — No Child Left Behind and charter schools, for instance. Do you yourself see it as a reversal?

The book is a reversal of my views about testing, accountability, and choice. I supported No Child Left Behind when it was passed; I now think it has been a failure, based on the evidence about how it affected schools and narrowed teaching to the basic skills.

The book is NOT a reversal of my educational philosophy, which has always been that every child should have a great education, one that includes the arts, sciences, history, civics, geography, literature, mathematics, foreign language, physical education, and health.

Do you think No Child Left Behind did anything good?

The damage caused by No Child Left Behind has been so great in terms of dumbing down standards, promoting cheating and gaming the system, reducing education to testing, and relying on punishments, that it outweighs any potential good that might have been done.

Some say we should thank NCLB for identifying achievement gaps among children of different racial and ethnic groups, but quite honestly, those gaps were well known long before NCLB.

You decry the influence of big foundations on educational policy in public schools. But as school districts lose funding, those groups have also played a crucial role in stepping in with money. Is there any way schools can involve private groups without letting them control their decisions?

Never in our history have foundations been so assertive in seeking to control and direct education policy.

In many instances, the policymakers themselves have been trained by the same foundations that are seeking to take control.

We are at risk of abandoning the democratic governance of education and handing it over to a small number of very wealthy foundations, whose knowledge of education reflects the priorities of the very wealthy men who created them, and to a select group of hedge fund managers who think they know how to solve every problem despite their lack of experience.

Your book leaves San Diego when Carl Cohn has become superintendent and seems to endorse his view of slow, grassroots school reform. Yet Cohn ended up spending much less time in San Diego than Bersin and test scores flattened on his watch. What do you make of that?

I make of it that we have unrealistic goals for public education, which is a legacy from NCLB. NCLB decreed that 100 percent of students would be proficient by 2014. That won’t happen. It will never happen, unless we dumb down standards low enough. Test scores will go up and down. Some of the changes will be due to school policies, some will be due to factors beyond the control of the school, like immigration and poverty. We should give up the idiotic idea that scores will go up every year no matter what else happens.

— Interview conducted and edited by EMILY ALPERT

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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