The historian Diane Ravitch is a proud graduate of the public schools she so often takes to task in her books, including Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, published last month by Simon and Schuster.
A 62-year-old native of Texas, she attended the Houston public schools from 1943 to 1956, along with her seven brothers and sisters. “I treasure the memory of wonderful teachers,” she writes, “though I also recall the large number of classmates who were guided into nonacademic programs, as well as the policy of de jure racial segregation that prevented me from meeting children of other racial backgrounds.”
She received a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College in 1960 and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University’s graduate school of arts and sciences in 1975. Her mentor at Columbia was the late Lawrence A. Cremin, who wrote a seminal history of progressivism in American education. Ms. Ravitch served as an adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, from 1975 to 1991.
From 1991 to 1993, she served as the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the Bush administration. While at the agency, she helped launch a national push for academic standards that she saw as a means of giving all students access to a rigorous curriculum. In 1995, she wrote a defense of the effort, National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide.
Several of her historical works on public education, including The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (1983), and The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 (1974), chronicle her view of the extent to which schools have been used, often unsuccessfully, to achieve social rather than academic ends.
She is currently a research professor of education at New York University and holds the Brown chair in education policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, where she is a senior fellow and edits the Brookings Papers on Education Policy.
While Ms. Ravitch often skewers progressives in her writing, she calls herself an independent, in politics and in education. Her own children attended a private progressive school in New York City she describes as “academically rigorous and pedagogically venturesome.”