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The Dissenter

What happened when the education world’s most prominent intellectual switched sides.

On July 30, 2011, thousands of public school teachers rallied on the southwest corner of the Ellipse, near the White House. Union members mingled with the occasional communist pamphleteer, and, on a temporary stage, a series of activists, students, scholars, and teachers put forward variations on a theme: Standardized tests and corporate interests are ruining public education.

Late in the program, the actor Matt Damon showed up and began chatting amiably with an older, gray-haired woman sitting next to him on the stage. It turned out he wasn’t the only star in attendance. The next speaker “is the torchbearer, the champion for children,” an organizer announced. “Like Britney and Cher and Gaga, in the education world, all you need to say is ‘Diane.’ ”

The gray-haired woman walked to the microphone as the crowd chanted, “Diane! Diane!” “This is a historic day. I’m a historian,” she told them. She spoke for only eight minutes, in short, punchy sentences. “Carrots and sticks are for donkeys.” “Education is a right, not a race.” “Our problem is poverty, not our schools.” When she finished, the crowd began chanting again: “Thank you! Thank you!” 

It was, historically speaking, a strange place for Diane Ravitch to be. There was no indication that, until recently, she had championed many of the policies that were denounced at the rally as tools of racism and oppression. That she had spent years in the inner circle of conservative education policy, advocating for school vouchers, firing incompetent teachers, and shutting down failing schools. Ravitch once assured the public, “Vouchers and charters will not destroy public education. This is an incredible and fantastical fear.” Now she says things like, “Vouchers are a con, intended to destroy public education.”

Improbably, at the end of a four-decade-long career as the nation’s most prominent education historian and a vocal advocate for education reform, Ravitch has emerged as reform’s fiercest critic. Her about-face has made her more famous and influential than she has ever been. Now, pundits, scholars, philanthropists, and education leaders are all asking the same question: What happened to Diane Ravitch? 

“WRITING,” RAVITCH TOLD ME when we met near her Brooklyn home, “is what I’ve always done.” Born in 1938, she was raised in Houston, along with seven brothers and sisters. Although neither of her parents went to college, she made her way to Wellesley and, two weeks after graduating, married Richard Ravitch. Her husband joined his family’s thriving real estate business in Manhattan (he would eventually become lieutenant governor of New York), while she stayed home and raised their three sons. The second, Steven, died of leukemia at age two.

In January 1961, Ravitch showed up at the offices of The New Leader, a small but influential publication of the anti-communist left, and asked for a job. When the editor, Myron Kolatch, said he couldn’t afford to hire her, Ravitch offered to work for free. 

The New Leader was where Ravitch received her true education. The small staff was crammed into one room on the fourth floor of an old building. Then and future luminaries like Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer would drop by to turn in their latest essays; strong argument was prized. “This is where she learned how to write,” says Kolatch. Ravitch worked intermittently for The New Leader until 1967, when she took a part-time assignment from the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation to report on the city’s school system. 

In the late 1960s, New York City public education was a battleground. After years of failed desegregation efforts, black and Puerto Rican groups were demanding control of their children’s education. A handful of local groups were given limited authority over their schools. One, a militant board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, promptly fired 19 mostly white,  Jewish teachers and administrators. Racial and religious tensions escalated and spilled onto the streets. To protest the firings, Al Shanker, the head of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), called for a series of citywide teacher strikes, shutting down the million-student school system for much of the fall of 1968. City officials were terrified the situation would erupt into full-blown riots. The resulting compromise decentralized education in New York City and left scars that lasted decades.

Curious about the origins of this clash, Ravitch looked for a comprehensive history of the New York City school system and discovered that none existed. She contacted Lawrence Cremin, the esteemed education historian at Teachers College, Columbia University, and floated the idea of writing one herself. A book-length history was way beyond her capacity, he counseled—better to start with a few essays instead.

Ravitch ignored his advice and spent the next five years researching her book, usually writing after she’d put the children to bed. During this time, she applied to the doctoral program in Columbia’s history department, only to be turned away, she says, on the grounds of being old (she was 34), female, and interested in the unimportant subject of education. She obtained her Ph.D. through the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and Teachers College instead. Although her book was a work of popular history and not an academic one, the college allowed her to use it for her dissertation. 

The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools was published in 1974 and exceeded all expectations. It argued that four successive waves of immigration to the city had ignited four “school wars” over the promise of public education to lift up the poor and newly arrived; and, as a result, the city had oscillated between central and local control of its schools.

The thesis itself was perhaps too tidy—in Contemporary Sociology, California State University Professor Linda Fritschner pointed out that, according to immigration data, “a simple correlation between immigration and the school wars is nonexistent.” But, as a work of narrative, it was incredibly compelling. Twenty years later, The New York Times would call The Great School Wars one of the ten best books about New York City ever written. In a stroke, Diane Ravitch became the most well-known education historian in America. It is a position she has never relinquished. 

At that time, the great division in the education debate centered not on standards or testing, but on race. Racial separatist groups like those who took over in Ocean Hill-Brownsville wanted their children taught by black teachers and disassociated from the white establishment. That put them in opposition to Shanker’s UFT. Today, teachers unions are synonymous with interest-group liberalism, but back then local black and Puerto Rican groups were the favored cause among the city’s left-wing intelligentsia.

Ravitch’s sympathies were clearly with Shanker and against the further reaches of the left. Her next book, The Revisionists Revised, was a scathing attack on scholars who employed class-based analysis to critique public education as a tool by which racist power structures oppressed minorities. By then an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Ravitch accused well-known revisionists like Michael Katz of, among other things, promoting arguments “entirely consistent with an anarchist outlook.” 

James Fraser, now a professor of history and education at New York University (NYU), studied with Ravitch at Teachers College. He is still aghast at the vehemence of her attack. “You don’t have to smash someone to disagree with them,” he says. Ellen Lagemann, another classmate of Ravitch’s, who went on to become dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says the book “forced people to be with or against the revisionists. It was many years before that split began to heal.” 

RAVITCH DIDN’T LEAD the normal life of an academic. She taught some classes, but mainly focused on writing books, as well as op-eds and essays for the popular press. Her next book, The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-80, trained a withering eye on what she saw as a history of failed reforms ranging from Lyndon Johnson-era anti-poverty programs to utopian promises of computer-assisted learning. 

By then, the national education debate was taking a new direction. In 1983, the Reagan administration published an iconic report titled A Nation at Risk, denouncing U.S. schools for lax academic standards. Ravitch was deeply skeptical of what she saw as the unstructured, relativistic ideas of progressives. She and Checker Finn, a conservative thinker (and, later, a Reagan official), formed the Educational Excellence Network to promote standards-based reform. 

Then, in 1991, she received an unexpected call. Lamar Alexander, the secretary of education, invited her to serve as assistant secretary for educational research. Excited and intrigued, she accepted. During her 18-month tenure, she pushed for the development of voluntary national standards for all students.

Upon returning to New York, Ravitch discovered that Teachers College didn’t want her back. She says the faculty objected to her increasingly rightward leanings. But the Brookings Institution made her a senior fellow, NYU hired her as a professor, and she was appointed by President Clinton to the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the federal government’s periodic national tests of student learning.

By this time, Ravitch had become fully ensconced in the world of conservative education reform. She joined the conservative Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, a policy group that included Finn; Eric Hanushek, an economist famous for arguing that increasing education funding doesn’t necessarily improve student learning; and John Chubb and Terry Moe, authors of the definitive early manifesto for markets and choice in public schools. By the end of the decade, she was quoting Hayek in asserting that “standards, choice, deregulation, charter schools,” and private-school vouchers would make public education “far stronger.”

Ravitch’s role in conservative education reform was not as a generator of ideas; others developed the framework of standards and market competition. Rather, she served as a kind of scribe who could communicate the movement’s agenda with clarity. Her arguments were mostly unconcerned with evidence—there was little at the time, since reforms like vouchers were largely untried. Instead, she appealed to moral urgency. Parents “should not be expected to wait patiently for the eventual transformation of the failing schools their children are required to attend each day,” she said. “We would not thus sacrifice our own children. Why must they?” 

At the same time, Ravitch was writing her third major history, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. In many ways her most ambitious book, Left Back mounted a sustained critique of the progressive education movement in the twentieth century. In particular, it took aim at Teachers College, which she depicted as the source of ideas that harmed low-income and minority children.

The reaction from the academy was stronger this time. “Ravitch’s style of analysis frequently moves toward the creation of straw men and ‘either-ors’ as she seeks to cast progressive education in the least favorable light,” wrote one education professor. In constructing a grand narrative, several reviewers noted, she had included many contradictory ideas—both mechanistic IQ testing and unstructured, “child-centered” learning, for example—under the “progressive” umbrella. But the opinions of education historians didn’t matter much. The popular press treated Left Back as a major event. In this magazine, Alan Wolfe called it “the most important book written in many decades about America’s most important public institution.” 

Ravitch had made a name for herself as a dissident in the education world. But, by the 2000 election, her views were increasingly seen as mainstream. During the previous decade, centrist Democrats like Clinton had endorsed holding schools accountable for test scores and building charter schools. When George W. Bush was elected, he promoted a brand of education reform that relied heavily on standards and tests, winning the support of Democrats like Senator Edward Kennedy. In December 2001, Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act passed Congress by overwhelming margins.

At the same time, the new mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, was moving to implement the biggest structural changes to the school system since the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis of 1968. To carry out his agenda, Bloomberg appointed Joel Klein as chancellor of New York City schools. Klein was new to education, but he felt strongly that the system needed tougher standards and more accountability. Naturally, he looked for intellectual allies. The public figure who seemed most aligned with his thinking was Ravitch. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, Diane Ravitch would become the most implacable opponent Joel Klein would ever have.

DIANE AND RICHARD Ravitch had divorced in 1986. She moved to Brooklyn Heights, where she still lives with her longtime partner, Mary Butz, who worked for many years as a school principal. 

In 2000, Ravitch published a New York Times op-ed blasting the city’s plans to require hundreds of thousands of students to attend summer school. The then-head of the school system, Harold Levy, called to inform her the district was far more prepared than she’d described. “No one told me that!” she replied. They became friends, and Levy speaks of her with great warmth and respect. When he created a program to train new principals, Ravitch suggested he tap Butz to lead it. Butz got the job. 

When Klein became schools chancellor, he created a new principal-training program. This time, Butz wasn’t hired, and she left New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) a year later. In the course of reporting this story, I was given e-mails between Ravitch and Klein that had been obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They helped to shed light on what may have happened behind the scenes.

In November 2002, The New York Times published an editorial calling for Klein to “give potential principals access to a sophisticated training program.” Ravitch sent a testy e-mail to the Times editorial-page editor, Gail Collins, noting that Butz was already running a principal training program: “Those who have struggled to make it happen deserve recognition for their successes; today’s editorial suggests that they don’t even exist.” Ravitch then forwarded the e-mail, which did not identify Butz as anything other than a department employee, to Klein. “Perhaps in the future,” she wrote, “if you talked about what the Department is presently doing to help inexperienced principals, more people in the press would know about it.” 

Over the next two months, Klein and Ravitch exchanged a series of e-mails. Their contents were almost entirely redacted by the department when it responded to the FOIA request. But several people who worked for the department at the time, including one who saw the e-mails personally, say Ravitch aggressively lobbied Klein to hire Butz to lead the new program—and reacted with anger when he didn’t.

Ravitch disputes this, saying she did not ask for Butz to be put in charge of the program, was not angry, and only urged Klein to call upon Butz for her deep knowledge and experience. She also told me she was glad Butz was no longer at the New York City DOE, because it had constrained her own ability to criticize the department. 

During the course of 2003, Ravitch met with former high-ranking Klein employees who were critical of his administration. And she began to question the Bloomberg administration’s efforts at reform, at first in private, and then very publicly. In early 2004, she went on the offensive. “Joel Klein is not an educator,” she told The New York Times. She also co-authored an anti-Klein op-ed in the Times with UFT President Randi Weingarten, accusing the Bloomberg administration of running schools as if it were “selling toothpaste.” Her alliance with Weingarten was significant: While Ravitch had never indulged in the strident anti-labor rhetoric common among educational conservatives, her reform views were far from the union agenda. 

Ravitch clearly got under Klein’s skin. Over dinner with New York magazine’s John Heilemann, Klein said, “You got a couple of pundits, like Ravitch, who knows nothing, she’s never educated anyone.” Ravitch fired off an e-mail to Klein: “Your nasty comment about me in the new article in New York magazine was unwarranted. I have never attacked you personally as you now attack me. Shame on you.” Klein apologized, but Ravitch still fumed. One longtime reformer says that, at national policy meetings, Ravitch would “obsessively” turn every conversation toward her grievances with Klein. 

The Klein administration felt that many of Ravitch’s charges amounted to open hypocrisy. A staffer attended several of her public appearances, recording her remarks. “From the start, the chancellor seems to have deliberately engaged in a process of destroying the culture of the school system,” she told an audience at St. John’s University in 2007. Ravitch was incensed by these recordings—and still is. She told me the taping amounted to an abuse of power. “I’m a dissident,” she says. “I felt intimidated.” 

At the same time, Ravitch began distancing herself from her previous convictions. By 2007, she was writing that NCLB was “fundamentally flawed,” based on “absurd” goals. She was also writing a book to explain her rapidly changing views. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education was published in 2010 and became a surprise best-seller. It was partly a history of the previous decade of education reform. But it was also an explanation of sorts for her apostasy. “I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures,” she wrote. But, as time went on, she “lost the faith.” 

The book outlined the narrative Ravitch would promote in the coming years: Rich men are trying to impose their market ideology on public education and in doing so will destroy it. Their tools are standardized tests, government punishments, private-school vouchers, and charter schools. These efforts must be defeated if public education is to survive. 

Once again, Ravitch was swimming against the tide. President Obama had appointed the reform-minded Arne Duncan as his secretary of education. Wealthy philanthropists, including Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, were pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into education reform. In Davis Guggenheim’s much-publicized documentary Waiting for Superman, charter-school entrepreneurs were valorized, while teachers unions—specifically, Randi Weingarten, now head of the national American Federation of Teachers—were cast as the villains. Money, political power, and public opinion were increasingly aligning on the side of the reformers.

Ravitch was the perfect person to lead the resistance. Her identity as an academic gave her an implied expertise and impartiality; her government service gave her credibility. Added to this was the assumed integrity of the convert. In November 2010, she penned an influential critique of Waiting for Superman in The New York Review of Books, providing an intellectual blueprint for left-leaning critics of education reform. Jon Stewart invited her on “The Daily Show.” From there, it was a direct path to the “Save Our Schools” rally outside the White House. The die-hard reform opponents needed Diane Ravitch, and, in her own way, Diane Ravitch needed them, too.

SINCE HER INTELLECTUAL conversion, Ravitch has become fond of John Maynard Keynes’s apocryphal quote: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Indeed, it would be a sign of extreme dogmatism for someone to spend four decades engaged with education policy and never change her mind. When Ravitch first voiced enthusiastic support for private-school vouchers, they were largely untried. As she now observes, the results of long-term voucher experiments have been disappointing. Ten years after No Child Left Behind, a lot of children are still behind.

These are reasonable points. The problem is that Ravitch’s use of evidence to support her new positions is often dubious, selective, and inconsistent. 

International comparisons are one example. Average test scores for American schoolchildren usually lag behind those of many other nations (although results vary somewhat by test and subject). Ravitch herself often used to point this out. “By the end of high school,” she wrote in 1999, “American twelfth-graders performed very poorly, outscoring only those in Cyprus and South Africa.”

At the Save Our Schools rally, Ravitch again brought up international tests—but this time to observe that students in the least-poor U.S. schools (which also tend to have the wealthiest families and best-paid teachers) score better than the average students in top-performing nations like Finland and South Korea. Back then, she compared our average to their average. Now, she compares our best with their average. The facts haven’t changed; the way Ravitch uses the facts has changed. 

Or, she picks and chooses which facts to cite. Take a 2009 Stanford study Ravitch frequently references, which found that only 17 percent of charters outperform regular public schools with similar students. By contrast, 37 percent perform worse than regular public schools, and the rest are about equal. It is a well-designed study and a sobering reminder that some localities have done far better than others in recruiting, funding, and monitoring high-quality charter operators. But the Stanford study is only one of many. And the general consensus among researchers is that, on average, charter schools perform evenly with regular public schools. 

In 2000, Ravitch, seemingly anticipating just such a consensus, argued: “If we found that there is no difference in performance between charter schools, voucher schools, and regular public schools, it would not be a victory for the status quo. Instead, we would have to say that the choice of school belongs to the parent.” Now that the overall research consensus matches this scenario, Ravitch focuses repeatedly on the Stanford study, asserting that it proves charters have failed. 

One locality that has done a good job with charter schools is New York City. At least, that’s the clear implication of a subsequent study performed by exactly the same Stanford researchers using exactly the same methods. In math, 50 percent of New York City charter schools outperformed regular public schools while only 16 percent were worse. Ravitch is surely aware of the second Stanford study, yet never seems to cite it.

Ravitch reserves special scorn for wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates and other members of what she calls “The Billionaire Boys’ Club.” This year, she wrote that Gates has “gotten bad advice,” explaining, “About a decade ago, he decided that the biggest problem in U.S. education was the size of high schools, and he proceeded to spend $2 billion to persuade school districts to downsize their high schools.” What kind of advice might Gates have been listening to? It could easily have been advice like this, from Ravitch circa 1987: 

Reduce the size of high schools. Most have an average of 3,000 students. They are far too large. Students should attend schools where adults know who they are, whether they are in school and what their problems are.

There are so many examples of this nature that, in early 2011, someone started an anonymous Twitter feed called @OldDianeRavitch, whose tweets consisted entirely of direct quotations from Ravitch dating to her conservative reform days. Ravitch asked Twitter to suspend the account on the grounds that it violated the company’s policies on “impersonation.” The writer was forced to rename the account @NOTDianeRavitch. 

Sometimes Ravitch’s critiques seem to reflect a kind of willful amnesia. Earlier this year, she mocked the media for praising George W. Bush for his success in implementing standards-based reforms while governor of Texas, a strategy that helped shape NCLB. “Mirabile dictu, it worked! Or so a credulous press told us. Test scores went up, graduation rates went up, and the achievement gap began to close.” But of course it is not the “press” who publish credulous accounts in newspapers. It is people like Ravitch, who wrote in The New York Times, one week after George W. Bush’s inauguration, that “Mr. Bush is basing his national plan on the Texas model, which over the past decade has successfully improved the performance of black and Hispanic students, particularly in math and writing.”

Similarly, when Ravitch writes, “Vouchers are a con, intended to destroy public education,” it raises an interesting question. Ravitch was there, in the conservative inner circle, when the voucher agenda was being developed. Was it, in fact, her goal to destroy public education? If so, it is a story she has somehow forgotten to tell.

Ravitch’s transition into full-time, anti-reform crusader has not served her writing well; her style has become increasingly dismissive and strident. In a review of a book by Steven Brill—Class Warfare, which was deeply critical of the UFT—she wrote, “Brill is completely ignorant of a vast body of research literature about teaching.” She began one speech, “I am here today because Arne Duncan, Davis Guggenheim—the director of Waiting for Superman—Oprah, Bill Gates, and a bunch of other very wealthy, powerful people have launched a campaign to slander and demonize American teachers and American public education.”

Given this, it was probably inevitable that Ravitch would find her own way to Twitter. Some weeks, she sends hundreds of 140-character missives to her 20,000 followers, such as “NCLB = The Death Star of American Education” or “Let’s have a contest: what name for those who oppose teacher-bashing, privatizing, test-loving deformers?” In August, she tweeted, “I no longer think in sentences longer than 140 characters.” This may be truer than she realizes.

What Ravitch is in the business of providing now, more than insight or historical perspective, is certainty. “I’m validating what they believe,” she told me. “And that makes people—even though it’s not good news—it makes people encouraged that they’re not alone.”

MANY OF Ravitch’s former conservative allies declined to be interviewed for this article. She is, by all accounts, a warm friend who inspires strong loyalty and affection. She maintains a wry, level tone when speaking in public. And, although I had published a critical review of Death and Life, she graciously agreed to meet with me, and we had an amiable conversation over a two-hour lunch at an outdoor café. 

But another side of Ravitch appears when she puts words to paper. It is the Diane Ravitch who left a polarized history profession in her wake and who has no trouble accusing those who disagree with her of utterly betraying the ideal of public education and the lives of children along with it. This Diane Ravitch makes people who have never been her friend nervous and guarded. 

Ravitch, unsurprisingly, does not see herself this way. “I try not to be ad hominem, as many people are ad hominem about me,” she told me. “I haven’t seen a lot of honest engagement with my ideas. I’ve seen personal attacks.” She also told me, “I have been singled out as the one whose head has to be cut off.” 

At times, her righteousness can be breathtaking. “This is where I differ certainly from all the reformers,” she said. “I want for America’s kids what I had for my kids. I think that, if Barack Obama wanted for America what he has for his kids, we’d have a very different education policy.” I asked her if she was really saying that President Obama doesn’t want American children to have the same kind of quality education his daughters receive at the well-known Sidwell Friends School. Ravitch reiterated the point. 

In the final chapters of The Great School Wars, Ravitch laments the escalation of hostility that occurred in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, where all sides professed to speak for the children even as they threatened to burn the city down. “Where rational communication is impossible, so also are settlements which satisfy both sides,” she wrote. “How can anyone compromise with someone who is ‘destroying’ his children?” In the last two years, Ravitch has accused private entrepreneurs, the “corporate-reform movement,” Florida Governor Rick Scott, charter schools, and voucher advocates, among others, of trying to “destroy” public education. The very qualities that she found so objectionable have increasingly come to define her own work. 

Under the mountain of Ravitch’s firmly held opinions, it is difficult to locate many enduring intellectual convictions. Only two stand out: the value of a common, core academic curriculum for all students and the role of public education as a pillar of democracy. These are fine things in which to believe. But they are nothing close to a comprehensive philosophy on which to base a lifetime of inquiry into something as complex as public education. 

I asked James Fraser if, as a historian, he could locate any consistent intellectual point of view in her work. He thought for a while before saying: “No. And that’s an interesting ‘No.’ I can’t really think of anything at this state, beyond her ability to use historical narrative in illustrating various points—sometimes hugely contradictory points!—about current debates in education.” 

The most consistent thing about Ravitch has been her desire to be heard. In many ways, she has never left the cramped, argumentative office of The New Leader in the 1960s. Her genius was in the construction of a public identity of partial affiliation—a university-based historian who never wrote an academic dissertation, a former government official whose career in public service lasted less than two years, an overseer of the national testing program with no particular expertise in testing, and a champion of public school teachers who has never taught in a public school. She enjoys the credibility of the sober analyst while employing all the tools of the polemicist.

Ravitch’s affect can be mordant sometimes; when we spoke, she repeatedly circled back to her own mortality. “I don’t know how much time I have left in me,” she remarked. And not long before the Save Our Schools rally, she wrote:

I only wish I might be alive and vigorous enough 20 years from now to write this story. I know I won’t be, but I see the outlines already. ... There will be heroes, villains, naïve collaborators, rigid ideologues. ... Those who will live forever in the minds of future generations are the ones who stood up against the powerful on behalf of children.

Increasingly, Ravitch seems to be writing herself into that future history. She has more readers than ever before, more people who hang on her every word. Everywhere she goes is an audience full of followers who want nothing but to thank her for saying what she believes to be true.

Kevin Carey works for Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C. This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.