A once-great education scholar rejects everything she previously believed.
Education writer and activist Diane Ravitch is very angry these days. She’s convinced herself and her followers that elements of the American corporate elite are working to destroy the nation’s public schools, the indispensable institution that has held our republic together for more than two centuries. According to Ravitch, these fake reformers—the “billionaire boys’ club,” as she calls them—are driven by greed: after destroying the schools and stigmatizing hardworking teachers, she says, they want to privatize education and reap the profits from the new market.
Heading Ravitch’s corporate enemies list are superrich philanthropists such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, and Michael Bloomberg, who’ve promoted the hated ideas. Equally despised are the education officials and politicians carrying out their dirty work—reformers such as ex-Washington, D.C., public schools’ chief Michelle Rhee, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and education secretary Arne Duncan (and, by implication, his boss, the president, too).
A few years ago, Ravitch grew so troubled about the purported threat to the public schools that she went through an amazing life change for a 73-year-old historian, whose previous career had been spent writing scholarly books. She reinvented herself as a vehement political activist. Once one of the conservative school-reform movement’s most visible faces, Ravitch became the inspirational leader of a radical countermovement that is rising from the grass roots to oppose the corporate villains. Evoking the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Ravitch proclaims that the only answer to the corporate school-reform agenda is to “build a political movement so united and clear in its purpose that it would be heard in every state Capitol and even in Washington, D.C.” The problem is that Ravitch’s civil rights analogy is misplaced; her new ideological allies have proved themselves utterly incapable of raising the educational achievement of poor minority kids.
Ravitch first entered the education-reform wars in 1974 with her well-received The Great School Wars, a history of New York City’s public schools. She was then a research fellow and lecturer at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Teachers College was and remains a progressive-education bastion, but Ravitch brought a moderate, centrist perspective to exploring the public schools’ problems. She launched her writing career at publications such as the neoconservative Commentary and The New Leader. Politically, she was basically a Henry “Scoop” Jackson Democrat. The sixties New Left and counterculture seemed to have passed her by. In her book on the city schools, she scorned “limousine liberals” like New York mayor John Lindsay and the Ford Foundation for creating experimental, “community-controlled” school districts and turning them over to black nationalists, with disastrous results.
Ravitch gained wider prominence in the 1980s as she joined in the criticism of the public schools unleashed by the Reagan administration’s 1983 Nation at Risk report, with its frequently quoted warning: “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” Five years later, she coauthored, with Chester E. Finn, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? The well-researched book’s answer: not much. The authors blamed American students’ ignorance partly on the fact that public schools lacked a “coherent literature curriculum.” Indeed, Ravitch began calling for voluntary national standards and championed the teaching of rich academic content knowledge, even in the early grades, and she became associated with E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge movement. In his 1987 bestseller, Cultural Literacy, Hirsch credited Ravitch for providing “the single greatest impetus for writing this book” and for suggesting the title. Ravitch soon found herself facing nasty attacks from progressive educators for her “elitism” and for championing “dead white males.”
Though still nominally a Democrat, Ravitch accepted an offer from newly elected president George H. W. Bush to become his assistant secretary of education. Her official assignment was to develop voluntary national standards, but she also came to agree with the administration’s support for school choice. When Ravitch’s Bush stint was over, the Teachers College mandarins, offended by her making common cause with reactionary Republicans, told her not to bother reapplying for her old job. Instead, she became a fellow at the Brookings Institution and wrote a book on national standards. Though the federal government couldn’t require the states to adopt such standards, she concluded, students would benefit if the states voluntarily moved toward them.
Ravitch received financial support for her scholarly work from the conservative John M. Olin Foundation and eventually joined the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution. The education-reform movement had acquired a new star, a Democrat supporting almost the entire Republican education agenda—vouchers, more testing, teacher accountability, and higher standards. Ravitch even served on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign as an education advisor, though she withdrew before the election.
Sometime around 2007, Ravitch began having second thoughts about the free-market components of education reform. In a public debate at Hoover, she teamed with Hirsch to argue in favor of a resolution affirming that “true school reform demands more attention to curriculum and instruction than to markets and choice.” In a controversial 2008 City Journal essay, I argued something similar, and Ravitch came to my defense, publishing a short City Journal piece endorsing “a coherent, year-by-year progression of studies in science, history, literature, geography, civics, economics, and the arts” in the public schools. In history, she explained, students in the early grades would “learn about the great deeds of significant men and women, study distant civilizations, and begin to understand chronology and the relation between causes and effects.” Ravitch also urged reformers “to view the evidence with open minds and be prepared to change course in light of new evidence.”
Ravitch elaborated on these arguments in her best-selling 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. She explained there how “new evidence” had led her to change her mind on vouchers and on evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores, but she still expressed hope that the American people would support national standards and “a sequential, knowledge-rich curriculum.”
Ravitch had also initiated a series of written exchanges about key education issues with the prominent progressive educator Deborah Meier. “Bridging Differences” ran in Education Week for almost five years. Ravitch noted at the series’ outset that she “was wrong to support choice as a primary mechanism for school reform.” But throughout the colloquy, she held firm against the progressive-education agenda on issues such as curriculum and standards. It could not have been an easy situation for Ravitch. She now stood apart from both the Right and the Left, loyal only to the evidence—or so she claimed.
Then, Ravitch abruptly took yet another dramatic spin and wound up surrendering abjectly to Meier, champion of social-justice teaching and other progressive fads. For the progressives, it was similar to the defection of a top general from the enemy side. Ravitch later said that Meier had convinced her that she was wrong about everything. Not only had Ravitch changed her mind about school choice and testing; she had closed her mind to the possibility of any successful reforms, including national standards, curriculum, and classroom instruction. And anyone who persisted in supporting such “de-forms,” she maintained, must either be a reactionary or (like Duncan, presumably) a dupe of the reactionary corporate-reform movement. In Ravitch’s new lexicon, the word “reformer” became pejorative.