Education Letter to the Editor

The Turning of Diane Ravitch

March 30, 2010 3 min read

To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch’s flip-flop on educational ideas and institutions is symptomatic of a larger problem exhibited by the university professoriate in the academic study of education (“Ravitch Lays Out Change of Heart on Earlier Ideas”, March 10, 2010).

From their isolated, tenured perches in universities, these academics hold forth on all manner of concepts and practices with only the flimsiest evidence to support what they say, save their own personal opinions. The study of education is a notoriously biased, politically influenced, and poorly standardized hodgepodge of such dreamed-up beliefs and vaguely left-wing fantasies about how things ought to be in America’s crumbling public schools. Even in the loosey-goosey world of social science research, education’s shoddy research designs and lack of rigor are a laughingstock.

It’s high time these waffling academics be treated with the contempt they deserve for creating chaos in country’s classrooms with their off-the-wall ideas, for which they are never held accountable. An appropriate punishment would be to do away with their tenure and have them spend a year of public service in an inner-city school. The latter would inform their high-blown theories better than any amount of pontificating on the pages of pseudo-intellectual journals of educational theory.

Alan Hull

Conyers, Ga.

To the Editor:

Having read much of Diane Ravitch’s work, I learned decades ago to give more attention to her unsurpassed accounts of what is wrong with public schooling than to her policy prescriptions.

A good example is her 2003 best-seller, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. This book earned well-deserved praise across the political spectrum, and from major publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and others.

The Language Police offers marvelous insights on just how mind-numbing the textbooks that public school children must endure really are, and how they got that way.

Ms. Ravitch’s recommendations are another matter. They include ending state textbook adoption, thereby opening up the textbook market and freeing teachers to make selections; publishing state bias guidelines and releasing lists of rejected words, phrases, and stories to the public (supplying abundant “sunshine”); making sure that textbooks are reviewed in the same way trade books are; and hiring better-educated teachers—all of which strike me as perfectly sensible but perfectly impractical.

Indeed, none have been implemented. That Ms. Ravitch should ever have entertained a faint hope that any of them would be speaks to her weakness as an education reformer.

Public schooling’s decisionmakers—legislatures, state and local school boards, state education departments, Congress—have no incentive to fix textbooks, or even to know what’s wrong with them. Resources and political support flow uninterrupted to these decisionmakers whether or not they make good decisions. All incentives are aligned to preserve the status quo.

Perhaps the ultimate futility of applying Ravitch-like intelligence and sensibility to public schools is best captured by a remark from Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, in 1989:

“It is time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy. It’s a bureaucratic system where everybody’s role is spelled out in advance, and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s not a surprise when a school system doesn’t improve. It more resembles a Communist economy than our own market economy.”

Tom Shuford

Lenoir, N.C.

To the Editor:

I am completely flabbergasted by your article outlining Diane Ravitch’s 180-degree turn from her previous ideas. Actually, what I feel is more like disgust.

I haven’t read Ms. Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, but I sincerely hope that somewhere within it is a huge apology. Should she be considered a hero for admitting her errors, or a fool for making those errors in the first place? As an important, powerful voice in education, she has contributed to an incredible amount of damage by advocating the reforms she now refutes.

Unfortunately, her reversal comes much too late. Education, as currently practiced, is a runaway train, and she helped set it in motion. I, for one, am a voluntarily retired educator as the direct result of her initial positions.

Laurence M. Lieberman

Boston, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Turning of Diane Ravitch