The Diane Ravitch myth
Anybody reading much of the commentary written on education policy could be forgiven for thinking that education historian Diane Ravitch is somehow the Wizardess of Ed, the woman behind the curtain secretly pulling the strings.
So many commentators take verbal shots at her that you’d think she had the policy-making power of, say, President Obama, or Education Secretary Arne Duncan, or billionaire education philanthropist Bill Gates. (When Gates decides to fund a particular initiative, it immediately becomes the reform approach of the hour.)
Gates has, in fact, mocked her. Billionaire Whitney Tilson has made a second career out of attacking her. Even my colleague Jay Mathews wrote a column on his Class Struggle blog that called “erudite” a Tilson piece in which Tilson personally attacked Ravitch, and then Jay took Ravitch to task for something she said about Teach for America about which I don't think she was wrong.
Ravitch has developed a powerful following among public school teachers, who have found in her a champion amidst what they see as a governmental assault on their profession. She is the most prominent voice articulating opposition to the corporate-driven reforms being pursued by the Obama administration, with Republican approval.
But having support from teachers doesn’t equal an ounce of policy-making power, of which she has none. And let’s be clear, her viewpoint isn’t exactly winning the day.
School “reform” in this country is well down a specific road, one that seeks to view the public school system as something of a business rather than a civic institution and that promotes choice in the form of charter schools, vouchers, etc., as well as standardized tests as the key measurement of student achievement and teacher effectiveness.
You can like the road that we are on, or you can dislike the road that we are on, but you can’t, with any credibility, deny that we are on it:
* The Obama administration’s central education initiative to date, the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, sent money to 11 states and the District of Columbia, all of which promised to implement these reforms. Other states are passing laws to implement them, too, in some cases with more support from teachers unions than the public is led to believe.
* New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg installed Cathleen Black, a woman with no experience in public schools, as chancellor of the country’s largest public school system. She was tapped because she was an excellent media executive who knows how to run a business.
* The superstar in education is Michelle Rhee, who, after a 3 1/2-year run as D.C. schools chancellor in which she had mixed results, is fronting a new organization that is raising $1 billion to take on teachers unions. Rhee has been on “The Colbert Report,” not Ravitch. (Jon Stewart is hosting Ravitch tonight on "The Daily Show" for the first time since 2003.)
* Gates gives speeches that sound like they were written by Duncan’s speechwriter. (Both men, for example, have recently been promoting the idea of raising class size.)
Who controls policy? Who controls the debate? Not Diane Ravitch.
Ravitch is a 72-year-old grandmother, education historian, New York University research professor, policy analyst, former deputy education secretary and author who essentially works alone. Her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” became a best-seller last year and injected into the country's reform narrative a smart, dissenting voice.
Teachers look to her because she says:
* Public schools should not be run like businesses.
* Teachers alone cannot be held responsible for poverty, apathy, neglect, abuse, hunger, sickness and uneven distribution of resources that leaves some of them spending their own money to buy pencils for their students. But in our rush to make standardized testing the measure of how students and teachers perform, we pretend they are.
* Public schools should be funded by the public, not super-wealthy Americans and foundations who set the education agenda for the rest of us.
* Charter schools, many of them run by private companies trying to make a profit, are not the the answer to the country's educational problems.
Ravitch was recently tapped as the recipient of the 2011 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize from the American Academy of Political and Social Science, an award created to "recognize social scientists and other leaders in the public arena who champion the use of informed judgment to advance the public good." And her book was named by readers of Education Next -- a publication that does NOT subscribe to Ravitch’s education views -- as the most important book of the last decade by a wide margin.
Ravitch is a tough lady, and she knows that her public position opens her up to attack. Still, I can’t help wondering why she is so often the target of things that don’t matter. In recent months:
* She’s been attacked for having changed her positions; she was once a supporter of No Child Left Behind but changed her mind after looking at the results. Big-time activists and fundraisers in the Democratic Party, the longtime supporter of traditional public schools, are pouring millions into the reforms that they once would have repudiated at the same time some of them belittle Ravitch for changing her own positions.
* She’s been attacked for not having a step-by-step program for fixing broken schools, as if one exists, as if any of her attackers really know the answer, and as if she claimed to be anything other than a historian.
* She’s been accused of tweeting too much. (When I think of too much tweeting, frankly, Ashton Kutcher comes to mind, but maybe that’s just me.)
* Her opinions have been pronounced to be personal vendettas as opposed to legitimate policy positions based on her own research.
Attacking Ravitch has become almost reflexive for Tilson; he recently wrote a post on his blog defending Joel Klein against a piece I published on my blog by a New York City teacher, but started it by saying that it sounded like Ravitch had written it. [Tilson asked me to publish his Klein defense, which I have not yet done.] Ravitch, incidentally, hasn’t ever written about Tilson, who is one of the founding members of Teach for America.
At least nobody has accused Ravitch of mistreating her dog. Yet.
This all underscores the sad level of debate on education policy in this question. We can’t even agree on the questions, much less the answers. And those that dare deviate from the official line find themselves open to attack, much of it not fair. At least if you are Diane Ravitch.
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| March 3, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories: Diane Ravitch | Tags: arne duncan, bill gates, charter schools, colbert report, diane ravitch, jon stewart, president obama, school reform, whitney tilson
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