Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Waiting for Diane Ravitch?

That tiny sliver of humanity who, like me, actually follow what historians of education have to say about school reform, almost certainly were once again dismayed to read Diane Ravitch's latest op-ed piece in today's New York Times.

For the uninitiated, Ravitch has been writing about reform and the history of American education since at least the mid-1970s. Her teacher and mentor was the late Lawrence Cremin, a great scholar who won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1981 for the second volume of his 3-volume history of American education, a truly unique achievement, that even in her best moments Ravitch could never possibly match. Over the years, however, as a result of books like "The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980," "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms," and, more recently, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education," Ravitch has become the only historian of education who is even occasionally read by the general public. She was also, far more infamously, a leading member of the Federal Department of Education during the "No Child Left Behind" years of President George W. Bush. You'd never know, given how contemptuous she is of this law now, that she helped to spearhead its passage back in 2001.

At any rate, her column today entitled "Waiting for a School Miracle," draws on a series of examples from places like Denver, Chicago and Florida to show that claims of dramatic school improvement are invariably exaggerated by school officials. She concludes with this lesson: be skeptical of all claims of educational transformation. Such transformations are virtually impossible given the achievement gap that already exists between children from high income and low income families even before they actually enter school. She then meekly calls for better parental education and has the temerity to end with this: "If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved."

Such a statement from one of the architects of "No Child Left Behind," a law which assumed from the beginning that the achievement gap could be overcome through educational reform alone, without doing anything to alter the socio-economic status of poor children, utterly takes my breath away. My fury is hard to contain when I read something like this. Where has Diane Ravitch been? How dare she make such an obvious yet absurd observation that if every child came from a stable home with a steady income, that the achievement gap could be closed. The entire history of recent education reform has pitted those who claim that great educational progress can be brought about without resorting to other social and economic reforms against those who argue that full-scale educational change is impossible without attacking poverty directly. How she can sashay onto the op-ed page of the New York Times to spew her half-truths about reform is beyond me. Just because she says so doesn't mean that dramatic educational transformation is impossible. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming (and is far more complex than 3 superficially explained anecdotes) that when the conditions are right such transformations do occur. But, even worse, not to concede she was dead wrong about her support of No Child Left Behind and is responsible for subverting efforts to foster educational change paired with vigorous efforts to promote greater economic equity, is intellectually dishonest at best.

It is time for her step out of these debates altogether. The confusion she has engendered with her constantly shifting opinions and the ways in which she has undermined genuine educational reform makes her a problematic figure to all sides of this debate. Step aside, Ms. Ravitch, so that others can take the lead unhampered by your poorly thought out and inconsistent recommendations. Your time has past. We are done waiting for your next unsupported and uncorroborated pronouncement about what educators should do next to usher in authentic reform.

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