The cover story of this week's Washington City Paper is my longish profile of Diane Ravitch, the leading education historian and former George H.W. Bush appointee who, in recent years, has switched sides from standards-and-accountability reform to progressivism.
Ravitch has led a very full and interesting life. She grew up in Texas, where she was a teen drag racer, and got her start in journalism at The New Leader, a democratic socialist magazine. Tragically, she lost a son to leukemia in the 1960s, which contributed to her lack of sympathy toward the counterculture, which she believed had too much contempt for valuable cultural institutions. A friend of Al Shanker's, in the late 1980s Ravitch visited the newly-liberated countries of Eastern Europe to speak to nascent teachers' unions.
Ravitch gets a lot of attention for changing her mind on issues like testing and charter schools, but on some other questions, she has been quite consistent. She's always been a defender of teacher professionalism and a critic of the idea that teachers alone are to blame for failing schools. She's always been wary of the outsized role of foundations in education policy–whether she was writing about the Ford Foundation's support for identity-politics curricula in the 1960s, or the Gates Foundation's support for teacher merit pay today. She deplores public policy faddishness.
This didn't make it into the article, but I think a large part of Ravitch's influence in the education debate is due to the fact that she is a very pithy and persuasive writer. Her entire canon is worth having on hand, particularly her two sweeping histories, The Great School Wars, about public education in New York City, and Left Back, about American education reform efforts over time. Her Twitter feed is as addictive to read as Ravitch seems to find writing it. She told me that she spends so much time tweeting because she enjoys the medium's back-and-forth quality, and the way it allows her to engage directly and immediately with both her critics and supporters. She's a good tweeter because she's a good writer: She produces short, clear, declarative sentences.
Lastly, Ravitch is funny. When she speaks publicly, she often leaves audiences chuckling as she drops smart one-liners and analogies that are packed with complex ideas, but simple to understand. For example, when speaking in Washington last month about her opposition to closing low-performing schools, she said, "They’re not shoe stores that you can close and move to a different mall. We don’t close the firehouse if there are more fires in the neighborhood. We don’t close the police station if there is more crime in the neighborhood."
In part to make the story accessible to the local D.C. readership, the piece frames Ravitch as a foil to Michelle Rhee, who is, of course, the most prominent school reformer in the national media. I do want to note that Ravitch's role in the education policy debate dates back to the early 1970s. When The Great Schools Wars was published, Rhee was in elementary school. What the two women share is an overwhelming passion for improving education, and a willingness to fight hard against those who disagree with their take on how to do that.
People are always fascinated by political intellectuals who publicly change their minds. In Ravitch's case, after spending several hours speaking with her one-on-one about her beliefs, and immersing myself in her writing, I believe she is motivated very much by a desire to defend the idea of public schools as a shared societal institution. She rightly points out, I think, that many free market school reformers do not share her bedrock commitment to the idea that every neighborhood deserves a high-quality, government-run, publicly-accountable school.
I could write 10,000 words about Ravitch, because she's been involved in so many interesting policy debates over the years, and has been such a prolific writer. I'll stop here for now, but I do hope you read the City Paper piece.