At Reclaiming Public Education 101 (my website for ed reform neophytes), I’m trying to create and collect materials to answer some of the questions newby ed reform students might have. I’m not a fan of cults of personality– any time I’m in a group that drops its mission to sing a hymn of praise to its leaders, I get itchy. But I also know that many folks who are not fully involved–yet– in the issue of education reform don’t really know the best-known players beyond simple name recognition. Part of learning your way around this stuff is knowing who’s who, and Diane Ravitch seems like the place to start.
If you are a regular reader of Curmudgucation, you probably know who Diane Ravitch is. But you would be surprised how many people do not, and do not know what the big deal is. Let me draw the broad outline.
Ravitch was born in 1938 in Houston, Texas. She attended Wellesley College, did graduate work at Columbia, established herself as an education historian and cemented her professional reputation with the 1974 book The Great School Wars, a history of New York City schools.
Five years after the release of A Nation at Risk, the 1983 critique of US public schools, she co-authored with Chester Finn What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know, marking her as part of the conservative chorus calling for higher standards and tougher classical content.
President George H. W. Bush’s administration made her an assistant secretary of education. She wrote books and articles touting charter schools and lifting up the accountability movement. She helped found the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution. She worked with NAEP (the testing people). She was a hard-core fan of charters and testing, and when No Child Left Behind was launched, she was there on the docks cheering loudly.
In short, when the current wave of school reform was starting, Ravitch was there helping it take shape. But then a few years went by, and something happened.
Ravitch looked at the reforms she had championed, and she concluded that they weren’t helping. They were making the school world worse.
Ravitch did two extraordinary things. She recognized that the actual events on the ground were proving her wrong. And then she said so.
She said so in books. (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and Reign of Error are the most recent). She said so on twitter and in blogs, ahead of the curve on using technology to make her voice heard. And when reporters started looking for a credible voice of criticism of faux reformers like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan, she talked to the press.
Ravitch has never been a teacher, and she spent most of her adult life on the reformer’s side of education. Critics have called her as opportunistic and self-promoting, but it’s worth remembering that if Ravitch had wanted to become rich, famous, and secure, her best move would have been to keep her mouth shut and stay put. She walked out on the side of the debate that has most of the money and power, and there was no reason for her to expect that she would be greeted with open arms by her erstwhile opponents. I wasn’t there, and I don’t spend much time in the halls of power, but it seems to me that all she could have reasonably expected was that her erstwhile allies would cast her out and cut her down. DC has never been a friendly town for people who turn on their patrons. Ravitch took a leap with no predictable benefit except knowing that she’d done the right thing.
Put another way, the backers of school reform have all been assured that they’ll make a good living by supporting it; Ravitch’s choice of sides has never provided that assurance. There was no way of knowing her next book would be a best-seller, or that she would become a major voice of the movement to reclaim public education.
Ravitch looks like your grandmother, but she talks like your high school football coach and she writes like a Bible-thumping preacher. She tweets and blogs with a sixteen-year-old’s regularity (and straight through her vacations and travels). She is not tireless– she had to take a health break a while ago– but she is relentless.
She is a fan of facts. She can sling rhetoric, but her books are heavily researched and thoroughly fact-based. She is passionate about American public education and defending it from the ongoing attempt to privatize it, dismantle it, and profit from the parts. Her blog is widely read (over ten million reads and growing) and she is generous with that platform. Following that one blog will bring you in contact with most of the voices and news of the education reform world; for an opportunistic self-promoter, she spends a lot of time aiming her spotlight at other people.
Diane Ravitch has lived on every side of the current education debate. She knows all the key players, she knows the data, and she knows what’s at stake. She has made a choice. The nature of that choice speaks to her sincerity, and that sincerity speaks to the many people who listen to what she has to say.
Opponents criticize her for flip-flopping, for following a meandering path, but it seems that she’s always followed a path marked by devotion to public education and a willingness to confront the facts whatever they may say. She is uniquely qualified to be a voice for what has always been best and good about American public education.