An education historian, Diane Ravitch served as assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush and worked on state testing and standards in that position. She is currently a research professor of education at New York University and keeps a regular blog, “Bridging Differences” with Deborah Meier at the Education Week website. The author or editor of 24 books, her most recent book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010).
What characteristics does an excellent teacher bring to the classroom?
An excellent teacher has infinite patience, loves teaching, stays abreast of new information about his or her field, and cares deeply about the well-being of his or her students.
How can teachers become leaders in improving education?
Most teachers are too busy teaching to take leadership outside the classroom. Some teachers, however, seek a larger role and become leaders in their schools or take an active role in their district. This is not easy, since teachers have a very demanding daily job and direct responsibility for children. I hope that teachers will become more outspoken about the needs of the schools, attending community forums, writing blogs and letters to the editor, and taking every opportunity to express the views and needs of their colleagues in the public arena.
How can teacher education programs contribute to improving America’s schools?
Teacher education programs should establish high standards for admission. They should offer excellent preparation, research, and practice so that their graduates are ready for the multiple challenges of today's schools and students.
I have seen excellent teacher education programs, with excellent faculty and courses. And I have seen online courses that clearly do not prepare teachers well because they have no experience in the classroom, no interaction with students. Excellent programs give teachers the knowledge and skills they need to manage the classroom, help students of differing skill levels, give lively lessons, know their content, and manage their own time so they don't burn out.
In your recent articles for The New York Review of Books, you point to the success of Finland’s educational system. What in the Finnish system do you think would be both desirable and possible for the U.S. to emulate?
One, excellent teacher education programs that have great prestige. Two, social policies to make sure that children are healthy, well-nourished, and ready to learn when they enter school. Three, intensive focus on the early years, so that children’s learning problems are addressed before the children fall behind. Four, there is no standardized testing, only teacher-made tests. Fifth, there is a strong emphasis on the arts and physical fitness. Sixth, the schools de-emphasize competition and stress cooperation, teamwork, and joyful activities.
From your perspective as a historian, what is it that children need today in schools that is different from in the past? What should we be trying to design schools to accomplish?
There are so many distractions in children's lives today. Teachers must compete with the Internet and TV and a culture that worships celebrity and disrespects teachers. Families are often unavailable because of job stress, divorce, or other stress. It's hard to get students to focus on math, or literature, or science in light of all the distractions.
So a teacher’s job is harder than in the past. Schools should be safe havens, places where students find friendship, support, a chance to take risks and try new things, a place where they are not afraid of failing or being ridiculed. The most important aspect of the school is the culture and climate, where students feel welcome, secure, and respected.
You’ve been critical of measures of teacher quality that include student test scores. What do you think are the most effective ways to evaluate teachers?
The best way to evaluate teachers is by professional means. Test scores are not a valid or reliable way to evaluate teacher. Professionals should be evaluated by professionals. Principals — hopefully, people who were master teachers — should evaluate teachers, with the help of the school's best teachers. A combination of peer review and principal review is best, with the promise of support to improve where needed. The best way to measure teacher performance is to see teachers perform.
You’ve also been critical of current federal programs of educational testing. What, in your view, is the proper role of testing in schools?
Tests should be used to diagnose and fix problems of learning, not to hand out bonuses and punish students, teachers, principals and schools.
Do you think character is something that can and should be taught in the classroom? If so, how can teachers teach character?
"I hope teachers will become more outspoken about the needs of the schools."
No, character is best taught by example and by modeling, not by classes on character.
Are students today choosing teaching as a career? Should they be preparing differently than teachers did 10, 20, or 30 years ago?
I do not know for sure, but many college officials have told me that they have seen a decline in the number of people who enter teacher-education programs. This is not surprising in view of layoffs in districts across nation.
Which teachers have influenced you the most? What made them effective and inspiring?
I had many inspiring teachers, some in public school, some in college, some in graduate school. All shared an enthusiasm for teaching and learning. They believed that what they did was truly important. They cared about me as a learner.