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“Dante” Ravitch’s Abhorrent Attack on Ben Austin

By Rick Hess — May 28, 2013 4 min read
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I’ve been friendly with Diane Ravitch for a long time. Encountering her historical work 20 years ago, I was struck by her hard-hitting, erudite analyses. She invited me to deliver my first featured talk (at Brookings, on my then-forthcoming Spinning Wheels book). When I was leaving UVA’s Curry School of Education, she was one of the handful of mentors I turned to for guidance. A few years ago now, I hosted the first public event for her Death and Life book.

All of which left me enormously disappointed as I read two blog posts that Ravitch penned over the weekend. Ravitch weighed in on a situation in Los Angeles, where principal Irma Cobian was removed from her position at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts when Parent Revolution helped parents exercise California’s “parent trigger” law. Ravitch started out reasonably enough, pointing out that 21 of 22 teachers requested a transfer in response to Cobian’s removal, and that one third-grade teacher said that Cobian’s the best principal she’s had in her nine years at the school. (It’s also worth noting, though, as Parent Revolution does, that the school ranks close to the bottom of all LAUSD elementary schools on California’s Academic Performance Index and that scores have fallen over the past three years under Cobian.)

Ravitch then shifted gears, summoning shades of Dante’s Inferno, as she wrote of Parent Revolution, “There is a special place in hell reserved for everyone who administers and funds this revolting organization.” One can just picture Ravitch fastidiously consigning these folks to their proper stations in the various circles of hell.

Ravitch grew even more heated as she wrote of Parent Revolution’s founder Ben Austin, “Ben Austin is loathsome. He ruined the life and career of a dedicated educator. She was devoted to the children, he is devoted to the equally culpable foundations that fund his Frankenstein organization.” She continued, “Ben, you ruined the life of a good person for filthy lucre. Ben, every day when you wake up, you should think of Irma Cobian. When you look in the mirror, think Irma Cobian. Your last thought every night should be Irma Cobian. She should be on your conscience-if you have one-forever.”

Now, I’ve got my own qualms about Parent Revolution. I’ve mixed feelings on the trigger and on Parent Revolution’s policy recommendations. But none of this, not one iota, even begins in the tiniest way to justify Ravitch’s tirade. Moreover, I know Ben Austin and will attest to just how smart, well-intentioned, passionate, humble, and nice he actually is. Indeed, last fall, when I proffered a pretty tough critique of Parent Revolution, Ben’s genteel response moved me to note, “I was cheered recently by Parent Revolution’s impassioned but thoughtful and courteous [tone],” and to hail their contribution to healthy civil debate.

Let’s consider the supposedly horrific nature of what Parent Revolution helped the parents at Weigand to do. Cobian had been at Weigand since 2009, and there’s no evidence that things were getting any better. Meanwhile, a very sympathetic L.A. Times story reported parent leader Llury Garcia describing Cobian as “inaccessible and rude.” Garcia, leader of Weigand Parents United, said in a private communication, “We love the teachers at our school and don’t want them to leave. However... many of the teachers have turned on us, calling us ‘uneducated’ and unable to make good decisions for our children. By trying to support the principal who is leaving after years of failure, the teachers are the ones now trying to divide our community.”

Nonprofits, for-profits, military units, sports franchises, and even churches routinely demote, transfer, or fire executives, generals, coaches, and pastors when they deem it appropriate. Sometimes it’s undoubtedly the wrong call, and good leaders sometimes unfairly get the boot. But there’s a sense, and it strikes me as a reasonable one, that it can be essential to change leaders in order to give a persistently low-performing organization a fresh start.

As Ben Austin wrote to me, in response to Ravitch’s attack, “Her argument (and the reporter’s argument) is that the principal was on the cusp of turning things around. It’s possible, but the parents didn’t think so. [Cobian’s] tenure has been almost as long as the academic lifetime of an elementary school kid and [Weigand] is still 15th from the bottom of all LAUSD elementary schools (out of over 500). The parents felt they had waited long enough.” Oh, and complicating the question of how ardently Cobian’s teachers have her back, Parent Revolution communications chief David Phelps writes, “Contrary to the Times reporting, it is our understanding the teachers who have said they are leaving have not submitted official transfer requests to the district.”

Now, I have no trouble with the notion that it’s a mistake to fire leaders too casually, or that Cobian may have been treated unfairly. There’s no clear evidence that Cobian did anything especially wrong. Indeed, Austin wrote to me, “We have gone out of our way to not personally attack the principal, or anyone else. As you can see in our media statement, we rely only on objective data to make our case and intentionally don’t even mention her name.” At the same time, despite Cobian’s apparent popularity with the current staff, she has not been able to make a difference during nearly a half-decade as principal. In such a situation, pushing for a change hardly seems an act of malice.

I’d have loved to see Ravitch challenge the notion that replacing school principals is much of a restorative. I’d be especially open to the notion that Cobian got a raw deal if Ravitch had offered evidence that she’s good at her job, and not just popular with the teachers at a persistently lousy school. But I can’t focus on the merits when the arguments are swaddled in vicious, Dante-esque hyperbole that is unworthy of the author.

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