Education Opinion

Reign of Terror: Diane Ravitch’s Personal Crusade

By Sam Chaltain — September 13, 2013 6 min read
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The first time I learned about Diane Ravitch is a lot like the first time I learned about Ronald Reagan.

Let me explain.

Back in 1980, as a nine-year-old kid in an election year in New Hampshire, I watched a friendly politician appear on my TV screen and tell me why he should be the next president. I was impressed, so much so that I announced to my left-leaning mom, “I want to vote for Ronald Reagan!”

“Oh nooooooooo!” she scolded. “Ronald Reagan is a very bad man.”

I was unsettled by the strength of her reaction. He seemed so nice! How could I have gotten it so wrong?

Now fast-forward twenty years, to a time when I was doing research on the history of K-12 school reform. Of all the books I read that year, the one I found to be most helpful was Left Back, a history of reform by a university historian named Diane Ravitch. I was impressed, so much so that I sang the book’s praises to a left-leaning colleague.

“Oh nooooooo!” he chided. “Diane Ravitch is a very bad woman.”

Here we go again, I thought. She seemed so reasonable! What did I miss?

Fast-forward another thirteen years, to 2013, and people are still calling Diane Ravitch (and Ronald Reagan, for that matter) a very bad person. But whereas the critics of Reagan have never varied, the critics of Ravitch have switched sides. And after reading her latest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, it’s easy to see why.

In the polarizing world of modern school reform, Ravitch is the ultimate turncoat. Formerly a champion of the push for greater accountability, choice and standards, she is now a muckraker driven to discredit her former ideas, one by one.

Indeed, the best word I can come up with to describe the Ravitch of today is muckraking - reform-minded journalism that aims to expose misconduct and conspiracy, often in sensational prose. The logic behind muckraking was explained by one of its finest, H.L. Mencken, when he wrote that “Man’s natural instinct is never toward what is sound and true; it is toward what is specious and false. Let any great nation of modern times be confronted by two conflicting propositions, the one grounded upon the utmost probability and reasonableness and the other upon the most glaring error, and it will invariably embrace the latter.”

That human tendency - to choose the “glaring error” - is what Ravitch is out to redirect. Yet after reading Reign of Error, I found myself most convinced by her least sensational passages - the ones where her skills as a historian overwhelmed her sensibilities as a crusader.

We should all question, for example, the motivation behind a federal program that helps foreign investors get immigration visas in exchange for investing $500,000 or more to build charter schools. We should worry about what’s happening in Michigan, where four out of five charter schools are operating for profit. And we should be extremely wary of the emerging case law suggesting that in several significant areas, charter schools are not, in fact, fully public schools. As Ravitch writes, “Charter operators want to have it both ways. When it is time for funds to be distributed, they want to be considered public schools. But when they are involved in litigation, charter operators insist they are private organizations.”

That particular message should matter to anyone who cares about public education, and we need public figures like Ravitch to highlight perilous trends (and illuminate promising paths). After all, when it comes to a nascent experiment like school choice, we have within us the capacity to turn an open marketplace of learning options into something creative and regenerative. But there is nothing automatic about it. Choice by itself leads to nothing. As John Dewey said, the purpose of education is not to merely grant children freedom of activity or choice or movement, but to empower them with the freedom to engage in intelligent activity, to make intelligent choices, and to exercise intelligent self-control in identifying, and then acting upon, their unique strengths and interests. And so it is with us.

The problem is that Ravitch’s historiography is increasingly overshadowed by her heresy, resulting in a landscape in which half the field has essentially tuned her out, in large part because she has already dismissed them as “high-priced consultants,” “snake-oil salesmen,” or, delivered with the greatest degree of contempt, “entrepreneurs.”

To be clear, there are snake-oil salesmen out there, and overpaid consultants, and selfish entrepreneurs - and we need informed watchdogs to expose them for what they are. But in the same way the majority of teachers today are not the selfish laggards we heard about in Waiting for Superman, most of the “reformers” Ravitch describes are not merely out to sell us snake oil. In fact, a majority of them want the same thing she does. “As a society,” Ravitch writes early on, “we must establish goals, strategies, and programs to reduce poverty and racial segregation. . . Black and Hispanic youths who attend high-poverty, racially isolated schools have serious problems. Large numbers are not completing high school. Our efforts should focus on reducing the causes of their disengagement from school, part of which has to do with being unprepared for high school work and part of which results from the circumstances in which they live.”

The disorienting truth of modern school reform is that a lot of different people are experimenting with a lot of different ways to create a lot of healthy, high-functioning schools. Some of these efforts are driven by making a profit, or privatizing public education entirely - and I am grateful that someone with as much influence as Diane Ravitch is keeping a watchful eye. But the rest (the majority, even) are merely searching for different ways to reach the same shared endgoal - of reducing disengagement, increasing graduation rates, and helping children overcome the circumstances in which they live.

American democracy was intended to generate, not suppress, the energy created by conflict. Our differences of opinion and approach, therefore, are not the problem. But the only way our ideological differences can lead to “civil friction” is if we allow the people and organizations we disagree with to become more than mere obstacles to greater efficiency, or stock characterizations of good or evil. “Our diversity consists only in part of demographic differences such as race, ethnicity, and social class,” writes Parker Palmer. “Equally important are the wildly different lenses through which we see, think, and believe.”

Reign of Error is a must-read book, but its research is diminished by its reductive characterizations of how we see, think and believe. The things we talk about when we talk about school reform - charter schools, testing, teachers, choice - are not black and white concepts; they are myriad shades of grey. That means the only chance we have of developing a system of schools worthy of our children is if we step out of our righteous certainty and lean into our empathetic openness. And the only way we’ll do that is if we’re willing to talk through our deepest differences respectfully, openly, and with urgent patience.

No excuses. No shortcuts.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.