Calling her 18-month tenure at the Department of Education "one of the most exciting experiences of my life," Diane Ravitch provides a glimpse of her Washington days in the autumn issue of The American Scholar.
Her 20-page essay, "Adventures in Wonderland: A Scholar in Washington," begins with an account of how Ms. Ravitch was wooed to serve in the post at the behest of former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander; her tenure ends with Ms. Ravitch spending one day as Acting Secretary during the transition to the Clinton Administration, a day she spent signing pink slips.
Ms. Ravitch, now a senior research scholar at New York University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, declines to name names. But knowledgeable readers will recognize many of the characters.
Ms. Ravitch excoriates education lobbyists, whom she equates with their corporate cousins. "Lobbyists are lobbyists," she writes, "and the same principle obtains: Follow the money."
She speaks highly of senators and their aides, but includes a lengthy discussion of the "arrogance" of House members and staff.
"Exchanges with [aides] often made me feel like a freshman undergoing a hazing ritual," she writes. "The attitude of House members was that they (and they alone) decided every educational issue and the department did their bidding."
Several employees in her office performed top-notch work, Ms. Ravitch says. But others were dead weight: the person who ran a business on the side, the employee who claimed to suffer from an affliction that required an office with a window, and the guy who "was noted for his distinctive lack of personal hygiene."
Ms. Ravitch recalls her role in helping to launch the movement toward national academic standards with mixed feelings, saying that she now wonders "about our arrogance (and my own responsibility) in letting this genie out of the bottle."
"At worst," she writes, "the effort to create national standards gave millions of federal dollars to partisans in the culture wars; but at best, the discussion about standards, what they are and why we need them, has become an undeniable factor in state and national debates about education, which is valuable in itself."