Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Dissenter

STOP THE PRESSES!!!  This article by Kevin Carey is the most insightful, thoughtful – and damning – about Ravitch I've ever read (and I think I've read them all).


First, he lays out the clearest evidence yet of what I've been saying for years: that far from a true intellectual conversion based on new facts and evidence (as Ravitch claims), her switching sides in this debate is rooted in a personal vendetta against Joel Klein because he didn't hire Ravitch's partner to run the new principal training program at the DOE – and then things spiraled downward from there.  The emotions are too strong and the timing is too perfect for there to be any other explanation (emphasis added):

Over the next two months, Klein and Ravitch exchanged a series of e-mails. Their contents were almost entirely redacted by the department when it responded to the FOIA request. But several people who worked for the department at the time, including one who saw the e-mails personally, say Ravitch aggressively lobbied Klein to hire Butz to lead the new program—and reacted with anger when he didn't.

Ravitch disputes this, saying she did not ask for Butz to be put in charge of the program, was not angry, and only urged Klein to call upon Butz for her deep knowledge and experience. She also told me she was glad Butz was no longer at the New York City DOE, because it had constrained her own ability to criticize the department. 

During the course of 2003, Ravitch met with former high-ranking Klein employees who were critical of his administration. And she began to question the Bloomberg administration's efforts at reform, at first in private, and then very publicly. In early 2004, she went on the offensive. "Joel Klein is not an educator," she told The New York Times. She also co-authored an anti-Klein op-ed in the Times with UFT President Randi Weingarten, accusing the Bloomberg administration of running schools as if it were "selling toothpaste." Her alliance with Weingarten was significant: While Ravitch had never indulged in the strident anti-labor rhetoric common among educational conservatives, her reform views were far from the union agenda. 

Ravitch clearly got under Klein's skin. Over dinner with New York magazine's John Heilemann, Klein said, "You got a couple of pundits, like Ravitch, who knows nothing, she's never educated anyone." Ravitch fired off an e-mail to Klein: "Your nasty comment about me in the new article in New York magazine was unwarranted. I have never attacked you personally as you now attack me. Shame on you." Klein apologized, but Ravitch still fumed. One longtime reformer says that, at national policy meetings, Ravitch would "obsessively" turn every conversation toward her grievances with Klein. 

The Klein administration felt that many of Ravitch's charges amounted to open hypocrisy. A staffer attended several of her public appearances, recording her remarks. "From the start, the chancellor seems to have deliberately engaged in a process of destroying the culture of the school system," she told an audience at St. John's University in 2007. Ravitch was incensed by these recordings—and still is. She told me the taping amounted to an abuse of power. "I'm a dissident," she says. "I felt intimidated." 

At the same time, Ravitch began distancing herself from her previous convictions.


Second, Carey makes a compelling case that Ravitch's arguments are intellectually bankrupt: the "use of evidence to support her new positions is often dubious, selective, and inconsistent" and there is no "consistent intellectual point of view in her work" (emphasis added):

SINCE HER INTELLECTUAL conversion, Ravitch has become fond of John Maynard Keynes's apocryphal quote: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Indeed, it would be a sign of extreme dogmatism for someone to spend four decades engaged with education policy and never change her mind. When Ravitch first voiced enthusiastic support for private-school vouchers, they were largely untried. As she now observes, the results of long-term voucher experiments have been disappointing. Ten years after No Child Left Behind, a lot of children are still behind.

These are reasonable points. The problem is that Ravitch's use of evidence to support her new positions is often dubious, selective, and inconsistent. 

International comparisons are one example…

…Or, she picks and chooses which facts to cite

…One locality that has done a good job with charter schools is New York City. At least, that's the clear implication of a subsequent study performed by exactly the same Stanford researchers using exactly the same methods. In math, 50 percent of New York City charter schools outperformed regular public schools while only 16 percent were worse. Ravitch is surely aware of the second Stanford study, yet never seems to cite it.

Sometimes Ravitch's critiques seem to reflect a kind of willful amnesia

…Similarly, when Ravitch writes, "Vouchers are a con, intended to destroy public education," it raises an interesting question. Ravitch was there, in the conservative inner circle, when the voucher agenda was being developed. Was it, in fact, her goal to destroy public education? If so, it is a story she has somehow forgotten to tell.

Ravitch's transition into full-time, anti-reform crusader has not served her writing well; her style has become increasingly dismissive and strident. In a review of a book by Steven Brill—Class Warfare, which was deeply critical of the UFT—she wrote, "Brill is completely ignorant of a vast body of research literature about teaching." She began one speech, "I am here today because Arne Duncan, Davis Guggenheim—the director of Waiting for Superman—Oprah, Bill Gates, and a bunch of other very wealthy, powerful people have launched a campaign to slander and demonize American teachers and American public education."

Given this, it was probably inevitable that Ravitch would find her own way to Twitter. Some weeks, she sends hundreds of 140-character missives to her 20,000 followers, such as "NCLB = The Death Star of American Education" or "Let's have a contest: what name for those who oppose teacher-bashing, privatizing, test-loving deformers?" In August, she tweeted, "I no longer think in sentences longer than 140 characters." This may be truer than she realizes.

…But another side of Ravitch appears when she puts words to paper. It is the Diane Ravitch who left a polarized history profession in her wake and who has no trouble accusing those who disagree with her of utterly betraying the ideal of public education and the lives of children along with it. This Diane Ravitch makes people who have never been her friend nervous and guarded. 

Ravitch, unsurprisingly, does not see herself this way. "I try not to be ad hominem, as many people are ad hominem about me," she told me. "I haven't seen a lot of honest engagement with my ideas. I've seen personal attacks." She also told me, "I have been singled out as the one whose head has to be cut off." 

At times, her righteousness can be breathtaking. "This is where I differ certainly from all the reformers," she said. "I want for America's kids what I had for my kids. I think that, if Barack Obama wanted for America what he has for his kids, we'd have a very different education policy." I asked her if she was really saying that President Obama doesn't want American children to have the same kind of quality education his daughters receive at the well-known Sidwell Friends School. Ravitch reiterated the point. 

…I asked James Fraser if, as a historian, he could locate any consistent intellectual point of view in her work. He thought for a while before saying: "No. And that's an interesting 'No.' I can't really think of anything at this state, beyond her ability to use historical narrative in illustrating various points—sometimes hugely contradictory points!—about current debates in education." 

The most consistent thing about Ravitch has been her desire to be heard. In many ways, she has never left the cramped, argumentative office of The New Leader in the 1960s. Her genius was in the construction of a public identity of partial affiliation—a university-based historian who never wrote an academic dissertation, a former government official whose career in public service lasted less than two years, an overseer of the national testing program with no particular expertise in testing, and a champion of public school teachers who has never taught in a public school. She enjoys the credibility of the sober analyst while employing all the tools of the polemicist.

For more on Ravitch, see my web page at:


The Dissenter

What happened when the education world's most prominent intellectual switched sides.

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