By Anna Gustafson
Diane Ravitch, a leading educational historian who spoke at St. John’s University this week, had some advice for the woman selected to be the city’s next schools chancellor.
Respect teachers, work closely with parents, do not close schools and do not locate charter schools inside current school buildings were some of the actions Ravitch urged Cathie Black to undertake in her remarks to the St. John’s biannual Carol Gresser Forum Lecture Monday.
“She has to listen beyond the circle of people around the leader who tend to be yes men and women,” Ravitch said, referring to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who chose Black. “You must listen to these parents and guardians and hear what they have to say. You work for them now, you don’t work for the mayor anymore.”
More than 300 people packed into St. John’s D’Angelo Center to hear Ravitch, whose most recent book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” has landed on The New York Times’ best-seller list.
Ravitch, a historian of education, has written 10 books on education and from 1991-93 was the assistant secretary of education and counselor to U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the first President George Bush’s administration. She is now a research professor of education at New York University and serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C.
The Carol Gresser Forum Lecture is named for the former president of the city Board of Education and a Douglaston resident who now serves as a professor of education at St. John’s.
“She’s revered and rightly so,” Gresser said of Ravitch. “She is our rock star, truly.”
Ravitch said her speech Monday was meant as advice for Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines who has come under fire from some borough and city lawmakers as well as parent and education groups for having no educational experience after being picked by Bloomberg to replace Chancellor Joel Klein. Because she does not have a background in education, state law mandates she must receive a waiver from state Education Commissioner David Steiner to serve as chancellor.
“She’ll be approved not because she’s qualified but because the mayor’s a very powerful man,” Ravitch said. “I don’t approve of it, but it will happen.”
Once a staunch advocate for charters and testing, Ravitch said she changed her position once she saw minimal data to support them and has lambasted the administrations of both Bloomberg and President Barack Obama for what she said is an over-reliance on testing that does little to actually show how students are progressing.
“Charters in New York City serve about 3 percent of the children,” Ravitch said. “If you double that, as Cathie Black and the mayor said they would, 94 percent of New York City children won’t be in charter schools. What will you do for the 94 percent?”
Ravitch said she hopes Black will support more resources for failing schools instead of closing them, as the city has proposed to do with a number of schools in Queens, including Jamaica High School.
“Jamaica High School had so many wonderful programs,” Ravitch said. “They could’ve given it more support, but they didn’t.”
Moving smaller schools into current school buildings, as the city has done with Jamaica, only exacerbates problems, Ravitch said.
“Small schools can’t offer the same programs as big schools,” she said. “They can’t offer the same special education services, the array of foreign languages, the advanced placement courses.”
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.