City Journal

Sol Stern
The Closing of Diane Ravitch’s Mind
A once-great education scholar rejects everything she previously believed.
Autumn 2013
Ravitch sees school reform today as a plot by private interests to destroy public education.
OZIER MUHAMMAD/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
Ravitch sees school reform today as a plot by private interests to destroy public education.

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.

In April 2012, Ravitch launched a blog that today serves as a propaganda hub for the national anti–corporate reform coalition. By her account, over the past year and a half, she has had 6 million page views, published more than 5,000 posts, and received more than 100,000 reader responses. Her comments about the latest atrocities perpetuated against children in the name of reform appear up to ten times daily, seven days a week, and almost 52 weeks a year. She hammers reformers for backing teacher evaluations based on student test scores, closing failing schools, expanding charter schools, and trying to impose a “nationalized” Common Core curriculum on the states, among other policies.

The blog has all the subtlety of an Occupy Wall Street poster. This past Labor Day, for example, Ravitch posted the words of militant union songs like “Joe Hill” and “Which Side Are You On?” and lamented that teacher unions don’t have enough power or influence in America—though try telling that, say, to a California politician who dares oppose them. “In education, unions are being crushed,” Ravitch writes, “and there is no one to advocate for them when the Governor and Legislature cut the budget for education. Teachers get pink slips, kids get larger classes and lose the arts, library, and much else that used to be taken for granted as a basic in American schools.” “What is happening to our country?” Ravitch wailed in another post. “Why are the bankers and the major corporations blaming teachers and public schools for problems they not only created but benefit from? Why do they think that adoption of the Common Core standards or the privatization of public schools will heal the deep economic and social problems caused by the outsourcing of our manufacturing base and deep income inequality?”

Ravitch uses her blog to publicize and organize support for antireform school board candidates from Rochester to Los Angeles. She recently wrote an impassioned endorsement of Bill de Blasio, the most radical of the Democrats running in the New York mayoral primary and the eventual winner. (The United Federation of Teachers supported the more moderate Bill Thompson.) Ravitch’s self-important announcement came with a drumroll: “After much deliberation, I have decided to support Bill de Blasio for mayor of New York City.” It’s a reflection of Ravitch’s success in her activist role that the de Blasio camp coveted her support. Her endorsement likely influenced some voters, particularly teachers.

The latest incarnation of Diane Ravitch, then, depicts a Manichaean struggle for the future of America’s children. On one side are the forces of darkness, the malefactors of wealth, scheming to kill the public schools. On the other side are the forces of light, including all the courageous parents, teachers, and ordinary Americans struggling to preserve their precious schools. Any middle ground from which someone might offer an independent, case-by-case evaluation of the policies most likely to improve the schools is lost. As in the words of the union song, all Ravitch wants to know is “Which Side Are You On?”

This crude, politicized approach isn’t going to produce smart school policies. For starters, Ravitch’s central premise about the school-reform movement is absurd. The philanthropists financing the movement may have exaggerated the potential benefits of some reforms and taken some wrong turns, but there’s no conspiracy to destroy the public schools. The corporate reformers whom Ravitch sees as a monolithic force disagree with one another about many education issues. Some support vouchers; others don’t. Bill Gates went all in with hundreds of millions of dollars to support the Common Core State Standards; the Waltons demurred, suspicious of federal intervention in education policy.

Actually, it is Ravitch’s sudden and unwarranted attack on Hirsch and the Core Knowledge curriculum that will likely do the public schools real harm. Just three years ago, Ravitch blurbed Hirsch’s The Making of Americans as “the one book I would recommend to every legislator and school board member.” In her own book that year, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she rightly observed that “students who have the benefit of [Hirsch’s] sequential, knowledge-rich curriculum do well on the standardized tests they must take. They do well on tests because they have absorbed the background knowledge to comprehend what they read.”

Soon afterward, in a sign of what was to come, Ravitch resigned from the Core Knowledge Foundation’s board, ostensibly because it entered into a licensing agreement with Joel Klein’s private education company, Amplify, to distribute its early-grade literacy curriculum to schools. She suggested that Hirsch made the deal with Klein’s company because “this is quite a goldmine.” She also decided that the Core Knowledge reading curriculum adopted by New York State was bad for young children. The curriculum’s requirement that children in the early grades learn key facts about ancient civilizations was, Ravitch contended, “developmentally inappropriate” and “a circus trick, an effort to prove that a six-year-old can do mental gymnastics.” But the lessons Ravitch found so disturbing were exactly the kind of curriculum she had praised for almost all her professional career. As her City Journal article proposed, young students should “learn about the great deeds of significant men and women [and] study distant civilizations.”

Ravitch now apparently agrees with the progressive-ed icon Jean Piaget that children in the early grades shouldn’t be pressured with too much academic learning. “I don’t care if my two grandsons—one now entering second grade, the other not yet 1—have higher or lower scores than children their age in California, Florida, Iowa, Finland, Japan, Korea, or any other place you can think of,” she recently declared. “I don’t think their parents care either. They care that their children are healthy; are curious about the world; are loved; learn to love learning; are kind to their friends and to animals; and have the confidence to tackle new challenges. . . . Let’s all read Walden, read poetry, listen to good music, visit a museum, look at the stars, and think more about what matters most in life. Let us see our children not as global competitors, but as children, little human beings in need of loving care and kindness.”

Too bad that poor minority parents can’t afford Ravitch’s newly discovered educational romanticism. Their kids often enter school far behind Ravitch’s middle-class grandchildren, and if they aren’t taught lots of content knowledge in the early grades, they’re doomed to fall further behind. They will never be able to read Walden or understand poetry.

After Ravitch first announced her “change of mind” on free-market reforms, she complained that some former colleagues had launched ugly attacks against her. She was right to object, but these days she engages in scurrilous denunciations of anyone—liberal or conservative—not on board with her current antireform positions. She was outraged, for instance, when New York Times columnist Bill Keller (no right-winger he) came out in favor of the Common Core Standards, which she thinks the Gates Foundation forced on states, and she struck back by posting (approvingly) the rant of a leftist education blogger, Susan Ohanian:

Well, at least New York Times editorial remains consistent, proving once again that you can lead a reporter to evidence but can’t make him think. Keller was executive editor at the New York Times from 2003–2011, where he was a leading supporter of the Iraq invasion. Although he has since returned to his status as writer, he remains infected by the Times editorial bias on education policy. It seems significant that Keller’s father was chairman and chief executive of the Chevron Corporation.

This is the classic ad-hominem style of radical-left political discourse.

Another tenet of the far Left is that progressives should have “no enemies on the left,” and Ravitch apparently agrees. Thus, she has praised the former Weather Underground terrorist and radical educator William Ayers for his contributions to the anticorporate insurgency. (She concedes that Ayers made some political “mistakes” in the sixties.) Ravitch has also had kind words for leftist education activist and onetime Ayers ally Mike Klonsky. On her blog, she recounted visiting two universities in Chicago in 2010, with Klonsky as her host. “For me, the fallen-away conservative, it was a trip getting to know Mike, because he had long ago been a leader of the SDS, which was a radical group in the 1960s that I did not admire. So meeting him and discovering that he and his wife Susan were thoughtful, caring, and kind people was an experience in itself.” Ravitch apparently didn’t know, or preferred not to disclose, that Klonsky broke with Ayers’s Weather Underground faction to create a Maoist-oriented party in the U.S. and then spent several years in China during the horrific Cultural Revolution, attending state dinners with the Great Helmsman.

Onetime admirers of Diane Ravitch recall her as a careful scholar and a moderate. They may find it hard to make sense of her slash-and-burn polemics and new political alliances. What they haven’t yet appreciated is how much this rhetorical aggression is part of a deliberate strategy. After all, there’s a new people’s education movement to build in America, and nothing grows a movement faster than indignation directed against the enemy.

Notwithstanding the time and energy she devotes to her blog, Ravitch has managed to write another book about the calamities of the school-reform movement: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Published by Knopf, the book has a huge first printing of 75,000 and one week after release reached the New York Times bestseller list. It contains all the appropriate scholarly apparatus—hundreds of footnotes and dozens of charts on student-achievement trends from the federal government. But make no mistake: this is primarily a political tract.

In a 350-page volume on twenty-first-century American education, neither the Core Knowledge curriculum nor Hirsch bears mentioning. This is no mere oversight; it’s a calculated omission that lets Ravitch frame the current school-reform debate as a winner-take-all struggle between those avaricious privatizers and the heroic defenders of the public schools. While writing the book, Ravitch was surely aware that, as part of its implementation of the national Common Core Standards, New York had contracted with the Core Knowledge Foundation to develop the state’s pre-K–2 reading curriculum. That project is now completed. Every New York school will be able to use the Hirsch curriculum, and state officials are strongly encouraging them to do so. The entire grade-by-grade curriculum is also freely available on the Internet for any school in the United States to utilize. The Diane Ravitch of old would have welcomed all this; today’s version has written Core Knowledge out of history and denounces the Common Core Standards as a gigantic “hoax” that the privatizers have perpetuated on the American people (how, exactly, the adoption of standards benefits privatization remains fuzzy).

Reign of Error starts off with 20 short chapters detailing and “correcting” all the reformers’ supposedly fraudulent claims. Anyone reading Ravitch’s blog will find little new in her catalog of errors, though school reformers should take some of her arguments seriously—including that inner-city school-voucher programs haven’t yet delivered on the promise of improved student achievement and that evaluating teachers based on student test scores has encouraged cheating and other undesirable classroom side effects.

Ravitch does add one new count to her indictment of school reform. In a chapter called “The Facts About Test Scores,” she disputes the reformers’ “crisis narrative” of declining academic performance, which began with the Nation at Risk report, whose conclusions she accepted until three years ago. The Ravitch of 2013 argues that test scores for American students in all age groups have steadily improved for the last 40 years and today stand “at their highest point ever recorded.” To support this bold assertion, Ravitch cites data from the highly respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—in particular, NAEP’s “long-term trend assessment,” which tests a sample of the country’s nine-year-olds, 13-year-olds, and 17-year-olds in math and reading every four years.

Ravitch’s claim of across-the-board improvement on NAEP tests is definitely new—and it’s also wrong. Even the NAEP graph included in the book shows clearly that 17-year-olds showed no improvement in their unimpressive scores from 1971 (when the tests began) to 2008. Further, a new NAEP long-term assessment was released in June 2013 (probably too late to be included in the book), adding four more years to the dismal trend. According to the official NAEP report, “average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year.” Ravitch bases her case for improvement solely on higher scores for nine-year-olds and modest improvements among 13-year-olds. But these aren’t significant if the gains disappear in high school and if students about to enter college or the workforce—the end product of the public school system—still can’t read or write very well, or at all.

Aside from the NAEP data, we can confirm that graduating seniors these days know very little from the countless reports by universities about the extent of remediation needed by entering freshmen, as well as from books like Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation. Just three years ago, Ravitch emphasized the same point. “Many reports and surveys have demonstrated that large numbers of young people leave school knowing little or nothing about history, literature, foreign languages, the arts, geography, civics or science,” she wrote in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Ravitch’s own recommendations for improving the schools, laid out in Reign of Error’s second half, are basically the same prohibitively expensive, pie-in-the-sky programs that the education Left has advocated for decades: smaller class sizes, universal prekindergarten, after-school programs, and comprehensive health and nutrition services. Ravitch doesn’t even try costing out her suggestions—the price tag would be in the billions—or indicate where extra school funding might come from. After all, the United States already ranks first in the world in K–12 education spending. Considering her politics these days, she probably would begin with major cuts in the defense budget. If test scores are at an all-time high, though, as Ravitch contends, why would we need to pour billions more into the schools?

The widespread sense of how “dumb” the country’s college freshmen are nowadays was a big reason the nation’s governors called for the development of the Common Core Standards. It’s also why it is imperative that the standards get implemented in the states with fidelity to the Common Core document’s call for a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Ravitch once knew why content knowledge is so important to improving literacy. In her book on the appalling lack of knowledge of the nation’s 17-year-olds, she wrote that “students who know the mechanics of reading but lack background knowledge are handicapped as readers.”

Many valid criticisms can and have been made of the manner in which the standards were adopted in many states, including the undue influence of the Obama administration. As well, there’s no guarantee that states and school districts will be successful in creating coherent, content-rich school curricula. But these considerations are now somewhat academic. A dramatic struggle is unfolding over the content that teachers should actually be teaching in their classrooms. Educators who support teaching strong content knowledge might have benefited from the constructive criticism and wisdom of the Diane Ravitch of the not so distant past. This could have been her moment, just as it is Hirsch’s.

But Ravitch has walked away from the struggle for a knowledge-based curriculum. Instead, she is standing outside the schoolhouse doors with her angry insurgent army of education progressives, protesting that the Common Core is a fraudulent reform, a creation of the hated corporations. (Ironically, just down the street, Tea Party activists are also denouncing the Common Core, which they have renamed “Obama Core.”) With strange new allies such as Deborah Meier, Susan Ohanian, and Mike Klonsky, Ravitch is trying to tear down this once-in-a-lifetime national effort to improve instruction, which could give disadvantaged children, in particular, a better chance of meeting the challenge of higher education.

After Ravitch’s many years of intellectual zigzagging, it’s a travesty that she has ended up in solidarity with the destructive radicals of the education Left. For poor kids, it’s a tragedy.

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