Becoming Diane Ravitch

October 4, 2010 | Blog

Even before Alexander Russo’s tweet last week (“I read somewhat [sic] that you should wait at least 30 min between switching sides and diving back into the debate, just like eating & swimming”), I was drafting this blog item about Diane Ravitch and had landed in just about the same place.

I struggle in making a professional assessment of Diane Ravitch’s conversion from a Lamar Alexander-era U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and a No Child Left Behind proponent to chief curmudgeon on all things draped in education reform. Her past explanations about “accumulating evidence” and getting “caught up in the rising tide of enthusiasm” for school choice don’t seem to tell the whole story. I’m not suggesting she’s insincere, but I just don’t understand how she got from here to there.

Don’t get me wrong. I find myself in agreement with many of Ravitch’s recent statements, especially those about the one-sidedness and rhetorical hyperbole surrounding Waiting for Superman and other education reform PR vehicles, such as NBC’s Education Nation. And I think she is right in her efforts to recast what education reform is or should be. So it’s not that I think that people don’t have the ability to change. It’s more about trying to process and understand so fundamental a change that takes someone from being a ringleader for an accountability-driven education system to a few years later being the foremost national critic of educational accountability, charter schools, and business-style approaches to education reform. How could a highly educated person have gotten it so wrong and so immediately reversed herself? Perhaps I should just go and read her book and see if the answer lies within?

Ravitch doesn’t make my job of processing her transformation any easier with her misleading tweets and blog posts. On 9/23/2010, Ravitch tweeted about the recent Vanderbilt University teacher merit pay study and its connection to the federally funded Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF):

Vanderbilt U study discredits merit pay so next day USDOE hands out hundreds of millions for…merit pay. Blind to evidence and research.

Really?!? Ravitch is too intelligent not to know that she is engaging in deliberate simplification in support of her apparent stance against differentiated compensation of teachers. With spin like that, she should go run a political campaign. ‘Tis the season, after all. Ravitch is engaged in the same kind of hyperbole that she rightly criticizes in what Alexander Russo has taken to calling “reformy types”.

The National Council on Teacher Quality provides a wise counterpoint to Ravitch on the merit pay study here:

Good teacher pay strategies are never written in a vacuum: they’re part of a well-thought out system of incentives and professional supports designed to attract and keep the best teachers…. First off, it’s no surprise that the findings showed no correlation between performance pay and increasing student achievement, meaning that the very premise of the study might be called into question. Performance pay is a reward system designed to send strong signals that the profession honors and rewards results but, perhaps even more critically, it should increase the profession’s appeal to individuals who might not otherwise consider teaching, convinced that the profession disdains excellence. It’s a silly notion to think that teachers leave their “A” game at home, absent the promise of a little extra pay.

Funded TIF proposals — and the federal program itself — are about much more than pay tied to student test scores. Proposals all have a compensation component, but also embed other critical elements such as classroom evaluation, professional development and collaboration. As examples, check out the CLASS Project led by the Chalkboard Project in Oregon, Chicago Public Schools District #299, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards proposal for the state of Maine and Richmond, Virginia, and several successful Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) proposals, including one in Knox County, Tennessee.

Absolute, steadfast consistency in the face of mounting or available evidence is not my suggested goal here. Blind faith and arrogance are found in too many education advocates and policymakers on all sides of the debate. So, at a certain level, I appreciate Ravitch’s conversion. But the credibility of her current positions and statements are, in part, determined by a plausible explanation for that evolution.

As a final thought, I recognize that I’ve been especially critical of some education reformers and reform ideas as of late (here and here and on Twitter). Given that I place my personal views somewhere in the middle between the most aggressive reformers and the most steadfast defenders of the educational status quo, I only felt it appropriate to share some nagging questions I’ve had about someone on the opposing side of the debate.

4 Comments

  1. Reply

    Rita S.

    October 4, 2010

    You are correct, Liam, you must read her book in order to understand that the evidence kept pouring in that these reforms were not working. She began writing editorials and speaking in opposition to this in 2007--well before March, 2010 when her book was released.

    I suppose that would make for a non sensationalized and non controversial blog. As for reporting on her 140 character or less tweets and claiming they are over simplified. Well, um, yes, they are because we are all restricted to 140 characters or less!

    Read her Bridging Differences articles, any of her published work, her in print interviews and, definitely, yes, you must read "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" which will fill in the blanks to your puzzle determining how she got 'from there to here.'

    Also, I'd suggest you visit www.dianeravitch.com and pull up an interview tape from Palm Beach County on May 12th or the CSPAN interview called "After Words". Dr. Ravitch clearly explains what "enquiring minds need to know!" After reading her book or looking at the interview tape, who knows you may just blog an apology to this brilliant and courageous woman who's dedicated her life to education reform. But that's just my opinion!

  2. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    October 4, 2010

    Thanks for the suggestions, Rita. Reading her book *is* on my to-do list. As a parent of two young'uns, it's sometimes hard to find the time to actually do it!

    To be clear, I don't doubt Ravitch's change of heart. But it just represents such a stunning sea change from what she espoused at the beginning of the decade, I'm honestly trying to understand how such a studied individual can get from here to there is such a short period of time. I will look the sources you suggest and see if they advance my understanding.

  3. Reply

    Anonymous

    October 9, 2010

    Some insiders have pointed out that Ravitch only began to change her mind once Joel Klein didn't hire her life partner; after that, she suddenly became against anything that Klein/Bloomberg were for.

    It makes more sense than her own explanations.

  4. Reply

    Anonymous

    December 29, 2010

    Read Left Back and her latest. I have no clue how she has flip-flopped so greatly. She is a historian. She has no solutions in her latest book. None that I saw and when pressed her solution on her blog Bridging Differences was what KIPP does and does well.

    I think it is about money, power and prestige...not about the children, but that is just my two cents worth....


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