Diane Ravitch’s Reversal on American Education

Diane Ravitch explains her changed positions on education in this book.

Although I went into journalism after 15 years as an educator, I still have a lot of teacher friends.

Many of them have just started back to school after their summer vacation has wound down.

Nearly all of them are worried about testing and accountability.

Dear friend, world traveler and master teacher Dave Russell has been named as one of Boston’s finest teachers.  Now entering his 24th year at McKinley School in Boston’s South End, his passion for reaching the learning disabled middle schoolers to whom he has devoted his adult life remains undimmed.

Still, he sounded a concerned note about school’s possibly being labeled a Turnaround School.  Under this system, the majority of the school’s teachers are removed and then replaced by a new crew.

One factor in the decision is the test scores achieved by the students.

For Dave, and for McKinley teachers generally, this can be a source of tension as their students enter with major needs and educational deficits, yet are held to the same standards as many of their less needy peers from wealthier communities.

In her most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, longtime education historian and bureaucrat  Diane Ravitch takes aim at what she sees as the excessively high emphasis on accountability and testing.

There’s only one problem.

Her previous actions and writings helped bring it about.

The Death and Life, then, is Ravitch’s attempt at a mea culpa, similar to Vietnam War architect Robert MacNamara’s book about the lessons learned in Vietnam.

In this work, whose title directly draws from Jane Jacobs’ classic work about American cities, Ravitch essentially tries to have it both ways.  She wants the reader to understand how she got to a pro-testing, pro-charter school, pro-schools as business approach, and pro-NCLB position while also letting you know that she realized eventually that those positions were either carried too far or altogether wrong.

Again, this would be more persuasive had there not been more voices opposing Ravitch at the time and advocating precisely the views she initially appeared to hold, but somehow lost after her appointment by the first George Bush as a high-level education official.

The vision she articulates in the book’s final chapter calls for many of the standard ingredients-a solid and standard curriculum that has some flexibility and a revival of neighborhood schools.  She also advocates against the overreliance on data, the proliferation of charter schools whose record of achievement is spotty, and the pro-business model.

While the indictment of this mentality is welcome enough and I’m not going so far as to say that she’s shedding crocodile tears. Still, her attacks would be a lot more welcome had they come when American education was being undermined by these forces, rather than her being an agent of the very state of education she now deplores.


2 responses to “Diane Ravitch’s Reversal on American Education

  1. Jeff, I’m not sure if I recognize myself in some of your words, but thank you. Yes, there is a lot to be worried about concerning public education. I was very taken by The Death and Life. Especially thought provoking was Ravitch’s account of her teacher–I don’t remember the name–and her question about how this woman’s undeniably excellent work might be evaluated today. It is hard to assess teaching, and it is important to try, but the methods gaining favor are troubling. I remember liking her earlier work even when I didn’t agree. She is a principled, widely knowledgeable writer. I find it telling that she has been convinced to adjust her perspective; that doesn’t often happen late in one’s career. I’m happy that the book seems to be getting a wide audience.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Dave, for your note and thoughtful reaction to Ravitch’s work. You are more understanding of her evolution than I am! 🙂

      Let’s talk soon.

      Love to your crew from ours.


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