The New Republic has published a provocative profile of Diane Ravitch by my friend Kevin Carey, and it serves as a useful companion to the profile of Ravitch I wrote in June. Kevin, who works for the standards and accountability think tank Education Sector, is unsurprisingly more harshly critical of Ravitch than I was. He focuses a great deal of attention on her shortcomings as a historian, and while I think it's fair to point out that an ideological, polemical writing style has colored all of Ravitch's work, it's also the case that many celebrated, serious historians have held ideological worldviews, from Charles Beard to David Hofstadter to the Schlesingers. Gordon Wood's The Idea of America contains a lot of interesting thinking on the contributions and limitations of history colored by contemporary political concerns, and I think Ravitch's style follows the politically-engaged example set by the progressive historians in particular.
But unlike some her male role models, as a young woman, wife, and mother while she was working on her first major work, The Great School Wars, Ravitch faced what I have every reason to believe was a real and significant amount of sexism from the historical establishment, which took neither women nor public schools (as a subject matter) particularly seriously. Ravitch also experienced discrimination in the journalism world, when she interned at the Washington Post as a college student. There, it was made clear to her that women should not aspire to be reporters. So one reason Ravitch is argumentative and tough is because she's had to be that way in order to be taken seriously in a series of male-dominated professional and intellectual circles. Undoubtedly, her personality is also inherently confrontational and competitive, from her years as a teen drag racer to her recent delight in sparring with Joel Klein via email and with her many critics on Twitter.
Kevin allows that although Ravitch's positions on testing and school choice have flip-flopped, she has been constant on the need for a core curriculum. He is less sympathetic to Ravitch's defense of classroom teachers and their unions, but here, too, she has been fairly consistent. It's strange that The New Republic doesn't mention that some of Ravitch's most influential journalism was published in that magazine's pages. Her 1987 collection The Schools We Deserve reprints some of that work, including a 1983 essay, "Scapegoating the Teachers," which declares:
It is comforting to blame teachers for the low state of education, because it relieves so many others of their own responsibility for years of educational neglect.
This is very much a position Ravitch would take today. It's also worth noting that her affiliation with the anti-Communist left, dating back to her time at the small opinion magazine The New Leader, made her close friends with Al Shanker and some other labor folks who developed, as Ravitch did, neoconservative tics. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shanker sent Ravitch on a speaking tour to newly-organized Eastern European teachers' unions, so she has always been comfortable as an ally of organized labor.
In short, I believe that to understand Ravitch, you must understand her as a certain sort of lifelong counterintutive liberal, not all that constitutionally different, come to think of it, from the editors who established the tone of Slate and The New Republic in the 1980s and 1990s. Those magazines moved left when confronted with the the know-nothing conservatism of the post 9/11 era, and Ravitch has moved left, too, though she has applied her new beliefs to a subject — school reform — that many liberals continue to see through the lens of the bipartisan consensus that developed around "A Nation at Risk." Whether that center will hold over the coming years depends, I think, on how history evaluates the education reform records of Bloomberg, Klein, Rhee and their allies. Right now, I think we're lacking the perspective and longterm data we need to truly make that assessment, but as Kevin points out, Ravitch has put herself out in front of the debate by essentially predicting, before all the evidence is in, that this movement has failed.