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Posted at 4:15 PM ET, 03/25/2010

Diane Ravitch didn’t make a U-turn--Senechal

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Diana Senechal, who taught for four years in the New York City public schools and is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture. She was a research assistant to education historian Diane Ravitch.

By Diana Senechal
Over the decades, throughout her work, Diane Ravitch has shown how far educational fads can stray from the essential purposes of schooling. In her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” Ravitch continues in this vein, explaining how she herself got caught up in a movement only to see its flaws and dangers.

Now a cliche has arisen in the media about Ravitch herself: the assertion that she has made an “about-face,” a “U-turn,” or a “180-degree turn,” that she now says she was “wrong about everything.”

Reviewers, reporters, and bloggers have latched onto these phrases as though they were established truths, quoting each other instead of reading the book closely. In doing so, they distort and distract from her points.

As Ravitch’s research assistant, I had the great honor of reading her book many times and assisting with documentation and editing. In addition, I have read all the books she has written and some of those she has edited. In the spirit of her work, which challenges fads, clichés, and jargon, I dispute the “about-face” bromide.

It is honorable to admit to being wrong. But to recognize our error in the first place, we need lasting principles. How otherwise are we to assess our actions and views?

It is Ravitch’s long-standing values, combined with recent evidence, that have brought her to criticize the reforms that she once endorsed. She has always been critical of rushed reforms and educational fads. She has always championed independent thinkers who spoke against the damaging trends of their time. She has spoken often in favor of a strong, rich curriculum and warned about the pitfalls of standardized tests. And she has a profound understanding of the challenges that teachers have faced over the past century.

In chapters 18-20 of her first book, "The Great School Wars" (1974), Ravitch described how policymakers hurried to expand a reform model without adequate thought and planning.

In the spring of 1914, New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel visited Gary, Indiana, to see the reorganized schools, where students spent the day in workshops in large spaces rather than classrooms. He liked what he saw and approved a pilot plan at a school in the Bronx, based on the Gary model. Soon afterward, a Brooklyn school was added.

Despite the skepticism (and, later, the scathing report) of Supt. William Henry Maxwell, despite parent concerns about the weak curriculum, despite growing protests in the community, Mayor Mitchel insisted on expanding the plan throughout the city.

“Why the haste to install the Gary plan?” Ravitch asked. “The Mitchel administration had decided that it was the answer to the problem of overcrowded schools and had stopped the school-construction program.” The expansion was both reckless and academically unsound — two recurring characteristics of reforms that Ravitch criticizes in her new book.

Ravitch has consistently honored independent thinkers who stood apart from the fashions of their time, whose insights lasted long past their day.

It is thanks to Ravitch’s work that I became acquainted with the works of William Torrey Harris, W. H. Maxwell, William C. Bagley, Isaac Leon Kandel, Michael John Demiashkevich, Charles Beard, Boyd H. Bode, Mortimer Smith, and others. Their work, like Ravitch’s own work, lit up many days and evenings for me.

I have spent many hours with Ravitch’s anthologies, reading aloud speeches from “The American Reader,” memorizing poems from “The English Reader” (co-edited with her son Michael Ravitch) and reveling in education writing (in “Forgotten Heroes of American Education,” co-edited with J. Wesley Null). My “favorite characters” in Diane Ravitch’s new book are likewise those who think and speak on their own—John Maynard Keynes (quoted in the first chapter), Terrel Bell, Mrs. Ratliff, and others, not to mention the author.

Throughout her career, Ravitch has criticized the tendency of reformers to latch onto the newest educational idea at the expense of a rich curriculum. In “The Troubled Crusade” (1983), and later, in “Left Back” (2000), she describes the curriculum revision movement of the early decades of the twentieth century.

To bring themselves in line with the times, many school districts tossed out their academic curricula and engaged in ongoing cooperative curriculum planning. The schools of Kingsport, Tennessee, abandoned their traditional high school curriculum, dropped mythology and Hebrew history from the elementary curriculum, merged history and geography with social studies, and committed themselves to further revision. The story of constant revision — overhaul after overhaul without regard for what should stay — recurs in her new book as well.

Many assume that Ravitch was previously an ardent supporter of accountability and testing and has switched her views completely. But she has warned over the decades that standardized tests could narrow the curriculum.

In her 1984 essay “The Uses and Misuses of Tests” (included in "The Schools We Deserve"), she observes that “overreliance on standardized testing may be dangerous to the health of education.” The SAT, which is curriculum free (at least the verbal component), “left many high schools without a good argument for requiring students to take history, literature, science, or anything not specifically demanded by the college of their choice.”

In “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” (1987), Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr. make compelling arguments about the drawbacks of multiple-choice tests: in particular, that students “have learned, sometimes from experience, sometimes from direct instruction, that there is a technique to answering the multiple-choice questions”; the authors warned that this path, “if followed long enough, will produce a nation of guessers.” This problem is now compounded by the high-stakes nature of the tests, as Ravitch powerfully demonstrates in her new book.

Ravitch’s work shows compassion for teachers and understanding of their extraordinary responsibilities. In “Scapegoating the Teachers” (1983, in The Schools We Deserve) she points out that “the most common response to the current crisis in education has been to assail public school teachers.” This is unfair, she argues, because there are “many guilty parties still at large”; moreover, “as teaching conditions worsen, it is teachers who suffer the consequences.”

In “Left Back,” she describes the overwhelming demands on teachers over the past century, as one drastic movement replaced another. These themes recur in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

“As one innovation follows another,” she writes in the final chapter, “as one reform overtakes the last, teachers may be forgiven if from time to time they suffer an acute case of reform fatigue.”

Yes, Ravitch has changed, but to call her changes an “about-face,” “U-turn,” or “180” is to trivialize their nature. Hasn’t each of us at some point in life reassessed a course of action? Haven’t we all been wrong at some point? I know I have, and without some guiding principles I might not have recognized my mistakes. There are reasons for her changes; there is wisdom and experience behind them. Should we not pay attention to the reasons, the experience, the wisdom? Should we not focus on the arguments and see what they hold? Should we not consider what is at stake for our public schools, the dangers she describes, the reform illusions she lays bare?

An earlier version of this piece appeared on the Core Knowledge Blog; some of the revisions were inspired by readers’ thoughtful comments. She previously wrote on The Answer Sheet about effective teaching.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 25, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  Diana Senechal, Diane Ravitch  
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Thank you Diana Senechal for an article that is thoughtful and beautifully written.

I am guessing that you can write like this because you know the value of solitude, the topic you are addressing in your book.
It would be great to read about some of the key issues regarding the lack of solitude in our society and school as a preamble to the publication of your book.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 25, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse


There's really nothing wrong with a u-turn, about face, or a 180. New evidence always pops up and folks are entitled to have a change of heart. Besides, is any social policy ever really carved in stone?

Validating Ravitch's change is her scholarship. If anyone is entitled to change their mind on education policy, it's Diane Ravitch.

Posted by: phoss1 | March 25, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse

Of course understanding Ravitch's changes requires openness to new evidence, not jumping to conclusions and not being stubbornly attached to past thinking - everything that accounted for Ravitch's change of mind.

Unfortunately even some of the most educated among us have somehow not learned to use this kind of thinking.

Why is that?

Posted by: efavorite | March 26, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse


Thank you! I would love to write an article along those lines, maybe adapting a chapter from the book or bringing together different parts. Will see what I can do. I have an op-ed in Education Week ("Solitude: A Flashlight Under the Covers"), but my thoughts have developed a bit since then.


Of course we are entitled to change our minds. I said clearly: "It is honorable to admit to being wrong. But to recognize our error in the first place, we need lasting principles. How otherwise are we to assess our actions and views?"

My point is that a profound change of heart and mind requires lasting principles. Those who use the terms "U-Turn," "about-face," etc. often suggest (or even state outright) that Ravitch has recanted all of her previous views. That is not accurate, and it distracts from her points.

Posted by: DianaSenechal | March 26, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

While it is commendable that Diane Ravitch has admitted her mistakes, it is not enough to undo the damage that has been done to the public school system due to her support for the "business" model we are seeing implemented today. Just look at SB 6 in Florida, and the apology rings hollow. If more people, educated educators were more vocal in their opposition to the reliance of standardized testing and the witchhunt for teachers early on, we might not be fighting what may be the destruction of our public school system here in Florida. Given our president is listening to Arne Duncan is frightening to me both as parent and a teacher. I have read her book and she needs to start protesting much more loudly because it seems these reforms that she once supported are not going away but becoming more entrenched at the peril of our children's education.

Posted by: Live4literacy | March 26, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Anyone in Washington that has anything to do with the reauthorization/redo of NCLB should have to read Ravitch's new book! I've spent Spring Break reading and highlighting vast portions of it. I now have a great background for why we're in the middle of the insanity that is current public education. There has been a certain comfort in finding out that what has happened/is happening in my district is happening elsewhere. When Ravitch writes about New York District 2 and San Diego--I understand what has trickled down to us (on us??) and why. I've spoken out against the quickly implemented and poorly researched reforms we've been dragged through. I'm always asked, "Can you show us any research for your opinion?" This book is the cohesive, well-thought-out, well-researched argument I haven't have the background to present.

Posted by: inthetrenches1 | March 26, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Ravitch Contemptuous of Parents

I wrote earlier about being disappointed about a big hole in Ravitch’s work -- about the lack of respect she conveys about parents. I will repeat most of what I said earlier on Feb 28 to Valerie’s post on Ravitch’s book. Mine was the last comment before they were closed so there were no responses. I would really like to know if any one else shares my frustration at seeing parents so poorly regarded by Ravitch.

I would appreciate if Diana Senechal, who knows the most about Ravitch's work, could show me where Ravitch respects parents.

Ravitch is contemptuous of parents. In none of her writings or many presentations before commissions, hearings or panels has she said that parents have, or should have, an instrumental role in education of their children. That is why she opposes any choice beyond the monopolistic funnel of the public school system.

She is a great spokesperson for the usurpers in education -- the whole establishment which presents a united front against parents. It is the parents, in most legislation I have seen, who are charged with the responsibility to “cause” their children to be educated. State systems are supposed to be there as a safety net, a backup, to parents who don’t fulfill their obligation.

The “system” has turned this ownership entirely on its head and taken over -- by stealth, fraud, lobbies, power, and misrepresentation -- and treats parents as second-class citizens.

I don’t mind the state providing funds for parents to fulfill their duty. That is why I agree with Elinor Ostrom, this year’s Nobel Economics winner, who says policy makers should reconsider the past reforms and recommend “charter schools, voucher systems, and other reforms to create more responsive schools.” See: “Policy Analysis in the Future of Good Societies”

What is Ravitch’s position on independent and private schools? What is her opinion of home education? If she is against choice, she’s against these successful, effective and efficient modes of education. They contribute mightily to the public good of an educated public.

Furthermore, her credibility is low with me. As long as she remains a Director of the Albert Shanker Institute which is funded and housed at the American Federation of Teachers HQ in Washington, DC, I will continue to see her as in the pocket of teacher unions. Albert Shanker, president of the AFT from ’74-’97 to my knowledge, never disavowed being a Marxist.

Marxists, socialists, progressives, and probably Ravitch too see education of the young through a government provided and regulated one-best-system as the best way to go. Unfortunately!

(PS: I’m from Canada and feel our education systems are identical twins with identical issues, problems and threats.)

Posted by: tunyasez | March 26, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse


I don't know where to begin, except to recommend that you read "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," "The Language Police," and "Left Back" (for starters).

Here's a passage from "Left Back":

"The invention of the scientific curriculum expert represented an extraordinary shift of power away from teachers, parents, and local communities to professional experts. The most vital educational decisions would in the future be made by experts who spoke an arcane language of their own, incomprehensible to laymen. This shift redefined the meaning of democratic control of education."

Here is a moving passage from "The Language Police":

"The question before us, the battle really, is whether we have the will to fight against censorship. I, for one, want to be free to refer to 'the brotherhood of man' without being corrected by the language police. I want to decide for myself whether I should be called a chairman, a chairwoman, or a chairperson (I am not a chair). I want to see 'My Fair Lady' and laugh when Professor Higgins sings, 'Why can't a woman be more like a man?' As a writer, I want to know that I am free to use the words and images of my choosing. As a grandmother, I want to feel sure that my grandchildren can read works of literature and history that have not been cleansed, sanitized, expurgated, and bowdlerized by the language police. As an American, I would like to be certain that future generations of children will no longer be robbed of their cultural heritage and their right to read--free of censorship."

And here is a passage from "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" (at the end of chapter 5):

"It solves no problems to exclude parents and the public from important decisions about education policy or to disregard the educators who work with students daily.
Public education is a vital institution in our democratic society, and its governance must be democratic, open to public discussion and public participation."

All of these quotes should be read in the context of the entire books--the isolated quotes are not sufficient--but they are anything but contemptuous of parents.

Posted by: DianaSenechal | March 26, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

tunyasez - I read Ravitch's book and did not feel she was contemptuous of parents at all.

Posted by: efavorite | March 26, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Diana Senechal

Has Ravitch ever shown any respect or acknowledgment for the instrumental role parents are supposed to have in the education of their children?

I really appreciate your taking the time to respond to my questions, but I think we’ll have to probe further. All the examples you provided support my observation that Ravitch does not in any way see that parents are different from “the community” or “the public”.

I say parents are different because they are blood-related to their child in the school. They have a hormonal connection. They have instincts to protect and to train and to educate their children. They have the right and duty to advocate for their children.

The grief I have with educators like Ravitch is that they lump parents in with “the community”. Parents should have a different voice and position in decision-making than just as citizens of the community. This attitude is being very dismissive of parents.

Every parent in North America has the right to educate their own child and can legally withdraw them from schools.

Look at the First School Laws in America (Massachusetts 1642) which embodied all the basic principles which underlie the system today:

- 1. Universal education of youth is essential to the well-being of the State.
- 2. The obligation to furnish this education rests primarily upon the parents.
- 3. The State has a right to enforce this obligation.
- 4. The State may fix a standard which shall determine the kind of education and the minimum amount.
- 5. Public money, raised by a general tax, may be used to provide such education as the State requires. The tax may be general although the school attendance is not.

By virtue of my biological connection to my children AND from reading the laws of the land (North America and UK) I stand in my conviction that those who deny that parents have an instrumental right, role, and duty in educating their children, or causing them to be educated, are usurpers.

I will consider that Ravitch is not of usurpatious mind concerning parents if you show me any defense she provides for parents being the key instruments in their children’s education.

Posted by: tunyasez | March 26, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse


I am not going to try to represent Ravitch's views on your terms. They aren't fair terms; you seem to imply that she is of "usurpatious mind" unless she shares your views both of parental responsibility and of its implications. Must one be entirely in agreement with you to be non-usurpatious? That would indicate a bit of "usurpatious mind" on your end. I recognize that you may not have meant that, so I reiterate my suggestion that you read her books.

As far as laws go, I enjoy this passage from the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (ratified 1780):

"Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people."

Posted by: DianaSenechal | March 26, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

I am writing this column out a bit of ignorance. I have read a half dozen reviews and listened to Ms. Ravitch on NPR and Diane Rheme. I have not read her book yet, public library has it on order and then I will have to get in line. But from what I can tell those pro-Charter and anti-charter as Mr. Ravitch appears to be are facing the classic problem of science. To actually get good results, you need large datasets, time and opportunity to replicate. All these circumstances are difficult to replicate within education for practical and ethical reasons. NCLB and the charter movement have lasted around 10 years for the charters and 8 for NCLB, this is really hardly long enough to have valid evidence if all these reforms are working and what can be scaled up and cannot be scaled up. I think this is especially true of the charter movement because so much of the evidence is just now coming foward. I also think that a lot of people really underestimate what it is like going through one of these intense reform movements such as the district is undergoing. I have children in a school that has issues, no doubt we have poverty, a high degree of second language and parents only partially able to advocate and involve themselves in their children's education. We have with one exception teachers with experience and generally good teaching skills but I don't think we will ever crack the 50% mark for NCLB. I don't think it is all the teachers, I do think we need to radically rethink the model at this school. We cannot afford to fail 50% of these kids. I don't think we would feel the urgency to address this level of failure without NCLB. But right now I hear from teachers that are just bitter, they hate the chancellor, blame the kids and their parents and many just honestly don't believe these kids can make it. These are good people that work hard and I think have good intentions. The reality is that we need the numbers and the accountablity of NCLB, we need charters to help rethink options, but we also need a less demoralized teaching core that does not feel like it is set up to fail (whether that is a cop out or not). I feel like teaching is much like capitol hill the leaders set the tone and both sides the unions and the chancellor have set up a war and imbued the other side witht the worst intentions and thus kids keep loosing. I think Ravitch or at least those that keep touting her book need to be more honest where many, especially urban school systems were before NCLB. We really need to be more systematic about what we have learned and all sides need to think in terms of what has worked using real evidence that is just barely starting to come forward. I am just tired of my child's education being a political football and some debate socieities score point. Both by the unions and by the politicians.

Posted by: Brooklander | March 27, 2010 7:58 AM | Report abuse

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