Diane Ravitch, the Anti-Rhee

In the month of April, Diane Ravitch, the 72-year-old preeminent historian of American education, sent 1,747 tweets, an average of about 58 messages per day, many between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.

On May 20 alone, Ravitch tweeted 99 times to her 13,000 followers. Linking to the news of a D.C. Public Schools investigation into test tampering under former chancellor Michelle Rhee, she asked: "How can teachers be evaluated by student test scores, when the scores are so often manipulated and inaccurate?" Throughout the day, she mused on the shortcomings of standardized tests, whose ubiquity in American schools she has compared — with characteristic hyperbole — to "the Chinese cultural revolution."

"Life's problems do not translate into four possible answer[s]," she tweeted. Minutes later, she added: "Just think: 12 years of picking the right answer, never taking a risk with a different approach to problems. Ugh." And then: "Those who can't teach, pass laws about how to evaluate teachers."

Ravitch went on to note that President Obama, whose education policies she opposes, is given more time to prove himself — four years — than the average teacher, who usually gets two or three years to win tenure. By afternoon, she was on to scorning Wall Street types, writing that "teachers can do more [good] than many who collect millions for betting on stocks or hog bellies or gold."

Ravitch was producing scholarly monographs well before anyone ever imagined microblogging. But like her books, Ravitch's 140-character missives are serious stuff. In the past year, they've become a major front in her war against what advocates call "school reform" and opponents like Ravitch sometimes label "school privatization." In the process, the Brooklynite has become a relevant figure in Washington's local debate: Somewhat improbably, this former education official from the first Bush administration has emerged as the most media-savvy progressive critic of the reform campaign embraced by everyone from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates — a campaign that, in the public mind, is perhaps most associated with Rhee.

Last March, Ravitch capped a long career with the publication of her 13th book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Though she says it was rejected by 15 publishers, Death and Life (its title is an homage to Jane Jacobs, the great defender of urban spaces) became a bestseller. It also proclaimed a sea change in Ravitch's worldview.

Once a vocal proponent of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay for teachers, Ravitch decided sometime around 2006 that there was actually no evidence that any of those policies improved American education. She now believes that the "corporatist agenda" of school choice, teacher layoffs, and standardized testing has undermined public respect for one of the nation's most vital institutions, the neighborhood school, and for one of society's most crucial professions: teaching.

The best way to improve American education, the post-epiphany Ravitch argues, is to fight child poverty with health care, jobs, child care, and affordable housing.

The apostasy turned Ravitch into a sort of rock star — much like Rhee, but with a different audience. The crowds at the 100-plus speeches Ravitch has given since publishing Death and Life are heavy on unionized teachers. Last year, she won the "Friend of Education" award from their largest union, the National Education Association; delegates at the group's annual convention greeted her with cheering, whooping glee. Death and Life has been translated into Korean and Japanese, and in the coming months, Ravitch will speak in Germany and Finland.

In November, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter dubbed Ravitch the "Whittaker Chambers of school reform," declaring her Gates' "biggest adversary" for speaking out against the Microsoft founder's efforts to bring corporate efficiency standards to public schools. In December, the American Academy of Political and Social Science awarded Ravitch the 2011 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, for public intellectuals who have used social-science research to improve public policy. And in April, she addressed an overflow crowd at the annual summit of the American Education Researchers' Association. She's likely the first headliner at the staid confab to have also appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

"She got two standing ovations," says Brad Olsen, a professor of education at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who attended the conference. "There were folks clamoring with their cellphones trying to get pictures of her. She seemed universally adored by the audience, many of whom were very young, quite frankly. They are graduate students, and they don't know about the Diane Ravitch from before."

If her late emergence as a liberal hero strikes progressives as ironic, it infuriates the Rhee fans who dominate both the Obama administration and the GOP. Critics call Ravitch a self-promoter, an opportunist, and a scholar who picks evidence to support her conclusions, rather than vice versa — in other words, a lot of the same things Rhee's critics say about her.

"The problem with 'I was wrong about everything' as the prelude to an argument is that it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the repudiator's judgment," Kevin Carey of the think tank Education Sector complained in The New Republic. "[Ravitch] simply trades one pre-defined agenda for another: the collected talking points of the reactionary education establishment. It is a philosophy of resentment and futility, grounded in the conviction that public schools — and the adults within them — can't really be expected to do better than they currently are."

That's a relatively respectful version of it. But the school-reform debate now has enough star power that there's plenty of lower-brow criticism, too. If the idea of an education-policy historian popping up on Jon Stewart's show is weird, the idea of a parody Twitter feed to caricature said education-policy historian may be even weirder.

But a review of Ravitch's career, which actually began on the left, suggests a more complex narrative. A lifelong political liberal who has always wrestled with a sort of innate personal conservatism, Ravitch — like Jane Jacobs, the urbanist whose book she referenced — has been constant in her deep attraction to institutions that have survived the test of time, and her aversion to intellectual fads. "It's the fierce urgency of no," Ravitch says of her worldview. "I like institutions, in part because I like to rebel against them, but also because I think society needs them and needs to continually reshape them, not blow them up." 

Diane Silvers was born into a middle-class family in Houston in 1938, the third of eight children. Her parents owned a small chain of liquor stores. A bookworm, she also found time for adolescent thrills: At San Jacinto High School, she was a tomboy and an ardent drag racer. She'd been in three car accidents by age 16.

The Houston of Ravitch's adolescence was embroiled in McCarthyism. Hailing from an FDR-loving, Democratic family, Ravitch was horrified by a campaign against her ninth-grade history teacher launched by the Minute Women of the USA The teacher, Nelda Davis, subscribed to a liberal internationalist worldview; she was eventually forced out. Another formative political experience came during Ravitch's senior year, when she discovered a cache of books on the Soviet Union stashed under the school library's circulation desk. They had been censored. She devoured them.

At the suggestion of her family rabbi's wife, Ravitch went off to Wellesley College, in Massachusetts. Her goal was to become a reporter, so she interned one summer at The Washington Post. The experience put her off newspapering: She says most of the women in the newsroom were "gal Fridays," making copies and fetching coffee, which seemed boring. But in D.C. she met her future husband, Richard Ravitch, who was working for a Democratic congressman from California. The couple married two weeks after Diane's 1960 graduation, settling in Manhattan.

Ravitch set out to find a job to match her writerly ambitions. Because she didn't want "women's work," it was a slog. "The only jobs available for someone with my inexperience were secretarial, typing," she says. "It was a big turnoff." Then, in January 1961, she came across a New York Times editorial about the death of Sol Levitas, the Russian exile who had run the small democratic socialist magazine The New Leader. The Times called The New Leader "one of the most stimulating and valuable magazines of our day," filled with "every variety of democratic opinion."

Tags: dana goldstein, diane ravitch, education, education reform, education system, obama, school reform, school system, schools, standardized tests, teachers, tuition, twitter, usa

    • Dana Goldstein
    • Dana Goldstein is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering education, public health, economic mobility, and women’s issues. She is a contributing writer to The Nation and The Daily Beast, and in 2010 was a recipient of the Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism, a competitive award supporting the long-form work of mid-career e...

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