Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reform: Smearing Ravitch Could Blow Up In Reformers' Faces

Ed blogger Alexander Russo didn't care for my latest attack on Ravitch – but in emailing it to both of us (plus a number of other well-known ed writers), his post had the effect of opening up an exchange of emails between her and me for the first time (see below).  First, here's Russo:

Reform: Smearing Ravitch Could Blow Up In Reformers' Faces


How much do Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Geoff Canada get paid for their appearances at various conferences and events, by whom -- and where are these payments disclosed to those who are listening and to the public?  How much did Steve Brill get paid to write his book and who was it who first suggested to him that he should look into Diane Ravitch's speaking fees?  These are some of the questions that come to mind in light of the attacks on Diane Ravitch in Brill's book that are the focus of Whitney Tilson's emailings this morning (see below).  I have issues with Ravitch -- earlier this year she demanded to have her blurb removed from the back of my book over my my expressing these thoughts -- but I have no questions about her integrity.  It's no secret that she has spoken to teachers at union events around the country, and (to me, at least) no particular problem that she's taken speaking fees for sharing her views without declaring the income at every opportunity. I have, however, had several Ravitch critics mention to me that I should look into her being paid over the past year or so. That Brill has made Ravitch's fees part of his book -- and Tilson has made them the focus - reminds me of the smear campaign conducted by Tilson and others against Linda Darling Hammond two years ago when reformers were (ridiculously, unnecessarily) woried about her role in the Obama administration. Ravitch supporters (especially those who think there's a secret Ravitch Group operating inside the USDE to destroy her reputation) will only be fueled by having their champion attacked (again). Reform supporters should be dismayed to see fearful people on "their side" resorting to cheap, below-the-belt, "blow-up-in-our-faces" tactics in order to try and sway opinion that is not necessarily trending their way. TILSON EMAILS BELOW 

Here was my reply to Russo, in which I hit Reply to All:




I simply fight fire with fire.  I wish you would write so passionately when Diane is accusing guys like me of somehow profiting from our involvement in ed reform, thereby impugning our motives.  Unlike her, I've never taken ONE DOLLAR from any of my activities in this area over 22 years -- not from my DVD, countless speeches, articles, etc. -- and I don't know of a single so-called "corporate/hedge fund" reformer who has.


As for supposedly smearing LDH, I assume you read my response in my email a few weeks ago to John Merrow, who also wrongly accused me of this (http://edreform.blogspot.com/2011/08/david-brooks-diane-ravitch-and.html).  What I wrote is still posted on my blog (I linked to it in my recent email) -- it was done very publicly.  And I didn't smear her -- I strongly opposed her based on well-articulated disagreements with many things she had written.






I didn't ask Ravitch's permission to publish her email in response, so I won't – other than to share enough so that my reply makes sense.  In short, she said she's never written about me, questioned my integrity or motives, or engaged in personal, ad hominem attacks on me.  She concluded: "I wish I could say the same for those who relentlessly attack me."


Here was my lengthy reply to her (cc'ing Russo and the others he'd cc'd):


Dear Dr. Ravitch,


You are technically correct – you've never written about me by name, but that's small comfort.  Tell me: who else could you be referring to when you (to use your words) "relentlessly attack" hedge fund managers who are involved in education reform?  Among hedge fund managers, most people would consider me to be among the most engaged, public, vocal, and well-known participants in the ed reform community.  Is it unreasonable for me to assume that your attacks have been aimed specifically at me and, more broadly, many of my good friends who are also involved? 


Your defense that you didn't use my name actually makes it worse in my opinion.  Perhaps it's a generational thing – Warren Buffett says he likes to praise by name, but criticize in generalities – but where I come from, if I'm debating a serious issue and disagree with someone, I'll come right out and say so.  To me, it's a matter of integrity and also shows respect to the other person.


Lest you and other readers of this email forget, you have stopped at nothing in your attacks on me and my hedge fund friends (though, in fairness, your personal attacks on Joel Klein, Eva Moskowitz and Michelle Rhee have been far more vicious).  For example, in March you said: "what is happening in our schools. It's about the hedge fund dollars. Corporate school reform is a fig leaf for the real purpose: getting rid of unions."  Later in the same speech, you said: "They're the ones who let the Global economy collapse in 2008. It wasn't the teachers. Were any teachers in charge of those hedge funds?"  (www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=2105).  You've said similar things many times – in May you said:


Then leaning on the advice from "All the President's Men" to "follow the money", Ravitch observed that hedge fund managers are key players in the current push for charter schools. The possibility of using public dollars to finance for-profit schools is viewed by them as a significant investment opportunity. (http://voicesweb.org/notes-diane-ravitch)


Allow me to summarize the primary accusations you've made about hedge fund managers who are involved with education reform (with my short response to each):


·        To us, this is about the money (i.e., personal profit) (fact: your assertion is beyond ludicrous: we have given countless millions of dollars and thousands of hours and none of us have made any profits on anything related to ed reform; in reality, our activities here are directly contrary to our financial interests in every way; as for the for-profit operators/investors, I don't know any of them – they are NOT hedge fund managers – but it's my understanding that they have done nothing but lose money; simply because something is structured as a for-profit doesn't mean it's profitable);

·        Our main goal is to weaken (and ideally destroy) the teachers unions (all unions?) (fact: some hedge fund managers surely favor this, but those of us involved in DFER are not anti-union – just anti-union-behavior-that-screws-kids – and DFER didn't support Gov. Walker's union busting in Wisconsin);

·        We are responsible for the global economic collapse in 2008 (fact: I and two of the major backers of DFER, David Einhorn and Bill Ackman, were among the most vocal people warning about the impending crisis; Ackman, for example, was one of the heroes of the documentary Inside Job, about which you raved);

·        We are selfish, greedy and unsympathetic to social inequalities and the plight of tens of millions of struggling Americans – and as evidence of this, we fight any attempts to raise our taxes, even slightly (fact: we are extremely philanthropic (I'm on 10 nonprofit boards) and have gotten involved in this issue mainly because we are troubled by social inequality and believe that the best way to combat it is via a better education for all children, especially disadvantaged ones; as for our willingness to pay higher taxes, I'm sure there are a variety of opinions among us, but I for one have publicly signed on to the Patriotic Millionaires' Campaign of wealthy people who want their taxes to go up by letting the Bush tax cuts expire).


In summary, you've said some pretty strong stuff, wouldn't you say? 


I'm not proud of what I've written questioning your character and motives, but I'm willing to fight fire with fire and I think you've gone much further down this path than I have – and the fact that you didn't use my name specifically is no excuse.


We obviously strongly disagree on what should be done to fix our schools.  That's fine – let's debate the issues.  But stop telling lies about me and my friends and impugning our motives. 


More broadly, despite what you might think, I don't enjoy regularly responding to what you say and write – it's exhausting in part because you're so prolific and in part because so much of what you say and write demands a response – not because what you say is completely wrong, but because you overly simplify things and only tell one side of the story.  These are extremely complex issues and there are no easy answers or silver bullets, but your commentary rarely acknowledges this (perhaps it's Twitter, which almost guarantees trite, superficial comments given its 160-character limit). 


Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about:


·        Charter schools: I've been on KIPP's board in NY for a decade and am also on the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, so there are few greater champions of charter schools than I – but whenever I talk about them, while I praise the great ones like KIPP, I'm also careful to say that they are not THE solution and there are lots of lousy ones that need to be shut down.  In contrast, the only thing I hear from you is bashing charter schools, never highlighting the great ones and what we might learn from them.  You regularly cite the national CREDO study, but never once have I heard you mention the follow-up CREDO study of charters in NY state which showed that charters there – a state with a strong charter law and many good CMOs – on average do much better than nearby regular public schools.  Can't we agree that great charters are a good thing and we should do everything to expand them, and lousy charters are a bad thing and we should do everything to shut them down?  And can't we agree that we should push for strong charter legislation in every state?


·        Testing: I agree with you that there are a lot of bad tests and that it's a disgrace when schools become little more than testing factories.  But do you really think that all tests are bad?  Are AP exams bad?  And how are students, parents, teachers, principals, politicians, policymakers, and taxpayers supposed to know if there's any learning going on without tests?  Rather than bashing all testing, why don't you apply your considerable experience and intellect to help develop good tests that provide valid data, are fair to teachers, can't be gamed, etc.?


·        NCLB:  We both agree that it's a deeply flawed piece of legislation, but can't you acknowledge that it's had at least one powerful effect of shining a spotlight on the pernicious achievement gaps?  Let's kill the bad parts of it and enhance the good parts.


·        Bad teachers: I don't recall you ever talking about the problem of bad teachers, and you dismiss those who do as engaging in teacher bashing.  Perhaps you think bad teachers are so rare that they're not really a problem – you once estimated that only 1 in 300 teachers was lousy – but I can't believe that you really believe this.  If you sent one of your grandchildren to a randomly selected classroom in the U.S., are you telling me that in 299 of 300 cases, you'd be happy with the teacher they ended up with?  A survey I did of mostly TFA teachers in inner-city schools revealed that they felt that 45% of teachers at their school were so bad that they were beyond redemption.  The true number is going to vary by school, district, city and state, but it's surely higher than 0.33% (and is surely lower than 45%, which is based on teachers in the toughest schools), but certainly we can agree that bad teachers are an issue worthy of discussion, right?  Why won't you acknowledge that it's an issue and engage in the discussion about how to identify struggling teachers and separate those who can be helped to improve from those who can't (and therefore need to be removed)?


·        Closing/reconstituting failing schools: you've written that it is "unethical" to close any school (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2011/02/closing_public_schools_a_truly.html).  Do you really believe that there's not a single school in the U.S. that is so truly horrible and dysfunctional, that has resisted endless efforts to fix it over countless years, that it shouldn't be closed?  I acknowledge that it's a very difficult issue to decide which schools to close/reconstitute, that it's very disruptive, and that there's no guarantee that the new school will be any better.  So rather than bashing all school closings as unethical, why don't you weigh in with your ideas on when a school should be closed/reconstituted, how it should be done, etc.?


My final comment is that you spend 90%+ of your energy attacking what reformers are doing, but in my view, you shouldn't be criticizing others unless you are offering a better alternative.  You've said you don't favor the status quo and you don't want to go back to the old days, so what are you for?  In your entire 300+ page book, I counted only the last 15 pages – a mere 5%! – where you turned to outlining an alternative to all that you relentlessly attacked for the first 285 pages.  But rather than a real program for reform/change, it was mostly superficial motherhood-and-apple-pie things that nobody could oppose (like the 10-point plan the Chicago teachers union outlined in this article about your speech to them: http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=2105). 


My friends Cami Anderson and John White just became superintendents of Newark and New Orleans, respectively.  I have no doubt that you will vociferously oppose most of what they will try to do over the next few years, but before you do so, why don't you write and open letter (or a private email that I'd be happy to forward) to them outlining the concrete, actionable steps you think they should take?


No need to respond – I'd be surprised if you've even read this far – but I at least wanted the other folks cc'd on this email to understand where I'm coming from.


Best regards,




Again, I don't have permission to share her full reply, but will take the liberty of including two key sentences:


I try my best not to engage in ad hominem attacks, but rather to stick to the issues. I have never criticized either Joel Klein's or Eva Moskowtiz's character or motives. 


I try not to fight fire with fire, but to look at important matters in relation to their historical context and in relation to research. 


I will let her have the last word – and will watch closely to see if she stops her attacks.  If so, I will gladly stop mine.

 Subscribe in a reader