"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Diane Ravitch Is More than a Writer of Books

On Diane Ravitch: A Brief Essay
Jim Horn

On September 18,  Joe Bowers listed 33 reviews of Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.  Since then, many other reviews have appeared, including a very substantial one by George Schmidt at Substance News.  Please see Joe’s list for some very good play-by-play reviews.  That is not what I am offering here.

In 2007 when Diane Ravitch descended from her 20,000-foot view of the education reform landscape to examine what was going on at ground level, she did not like what she saw: children suffering nose-bleeds and vomiting from test anxiety, school personnel and parents humiliated by test results designed to satisfy the failure quotas imposed by cynical and self-serving corporate privateers and political ideologues; educators being blamed for the effects of poverty that no amount of good teaching could fix alone; untrained beginners replacing education professionals in schools that needed the most caring and experienced teachers; schools that had functioned as community centers of identity and activity being closed; a pathological fixation of quantifiable data that had displaced attention to the human needs of growing children; an educational governance structure increasingly controlled by autocratic and arrogant billionaires; and an incredibly shrinking and brittle collection of desiccated facts having replaced the curriculum for the lower caste of segregated untouchable children incarcerated in more and more urban corporate reform schools. 

Seeing all this, Ravitch did what was unthinkable among the delusional and arrogant group of efficiency-worshipping zealots with whom she had spent much time during the prior twenty years: she admitted the entire antiquated system of back to basics on steroids 1) was not improving teaching and learning, 2) was not closing the achievement gaps, 3) was not making public schools stronger, and 4) was not being held accountable for the previous decades of more of the same failed policies built upon the same racist and classist standardized testing foundation, made harder still with each subsequent repackaged iteration.

What makes Diane Ravitch even more unique and admirable is that she did not sit behind a screen to offer her insider testimony on these issues to the court of public opinion and then go into an educational witness protection program but, rather, she made the continuing public condemnation of the Billionaire Boys Club her raison d’être, even as the plutocrats’ high-testosterone testocrats have challenged her unassailable facts and as the academic mercenaries from the corporate think tanks have resorted to pretzel logic in attempts to refute her wisdom.  Since 2010 when she published Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch has been on a non-stop one-woman road show, crisscrossing the country, speaking to the growing and rumbling army of educators of the nation’s PS Hope. 

Somehow she has found time between her face-to-face engagements and her online presence as both tweeter and blogger, to write a new book with a cover title in two inch orange Day-Glo letters: Reign of Error…  Unlike with Death and Life…, which Ravitch shopped to numerous publishers before landing with Basic Books, this time New York’s premier publishing house, Knopf, was eager to snap up Reign or Error…, along with generous provisions for promotion, advertising, and touring. 

The new book picks up where the last one left off, this time mixing sharp punctures of the CorpEd gas bags with lists of positive strategies that are sure to rankle the proto-fascist sensibilities of the corporate Borg’s swarm of propagandists (see, for example, the Wall Street Journal's joint review of Ravitch's new book and the one by Rand-ie, Ron Paul).  In this new work, Reign or Error, Ravitch has brought a megaphone to the long-ignored message that resistance, indeed, is not futile but, rather, resistance is demanded and that resistance will prevail.  Her logic to reaching that conclusion is as simple and clear as her deliberate prose, and the directness of her indignant optimism bespeaks an historian who is enjoying her moment and looking forward to a future that she is determined to make livable and learnable for her grandchildren, and ours.

The first half of Reign of Error… takes up for discussion a series of reformist claims that are repeated so often by the post-partisan CorpEd think tanks that they would have to be accurate if repetition were sole criterion for establishing truth.  Reformist bromides are refuted with clear statements from evidence-based reality that are accompanied with enough documented examples to send any self-serving edupreneur scrambling back to his corporate teaching manual in hopes of salvaging some semblance of pedagogical respectability.

The second half of the book is comprised of Ravitch’s Top Ten educational policy interventions that may, once taken seriously by Washington, again restore sanity to an education policy world gone wild with what Harold Rugg called an “orgy of tabulation,” whose corrupting and abusive practices have spread into kindergarten and pre-K.  Each point is discussed with clarity, determination, and evidence that Ravitch has been listening to the most important professionals not included in policy discussions—teachers.

It took a long time for Dr. Ravitch to break clear of the corporatist influence that has controlled the increasingly antiquarian version of education reform since the coming of Ronald Reagan in 1980.  Whether her conversion in 2007 resulted from the gentle persuasion of researchers like Richard Rothstein or from the fierce prodding of researcher-advocates like Gerald Bracey and Susan Ohanian, Diane has made up for lost time since regaining her sight after being struck blind on the road out of DC.  Whatever happens over the next ten or twenty years in education policy, her place is secure, just after six years of battle, as the single individual who most influenced the eventual outcome if parents and teachers and students continue to heed the call for the restoration and renewal of public schools free of high stakes tests for all children who choose a high quality and free education.  Ravitch has brought the word—now it is time to act.


  1. I am more than gratified and honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as Gerald Bracey. With educator ecstasy over Ravitch's book almost taken for granted, I'm watching how the 'regular' reviewers play it. Here's my take on The New York Review of Books, Oct. 10, 2013.

    No matter how often I read it, I admit to being shocked and deeply offended by the loft-quoted lines from A Nation at Risk. And it burns in my soul that Diane Ravitch called it "the most important education reform document of the 20th century"--and she pretty much low-balls it in the book. I'm almost as uncomfortable with her current permutation that "The public schools are working very well for most students." Schools need radical transformation--for everybody-- but since the Obama/Duncan/Business Roundtable DEform is so wretched, we find ourselves defending schools as they are.

    Regrettable in the extreme.

    That said, it is a colossal disservice to Ravitch's new book to pair it with Rhee's for review.

    This attempt at Fair and Balanced just doesn't cut it. Delbanco has done his homework on Rhee, but, ohmygosh, Rhee is hardly in Ravitch's league. Nowhere near. For starters, Ravitch has a much much longer history in education, a history I respect even when I disagree: she's smarter; she knows more. Period. Her dramatic reversal in opinion deserves serious consideration--absent all the Rhee-ness.

    There is no excuse for letting a review of Ravitch's book be dominated by her opinion of Rhee--when that is far from a major topic in the book. Something like 20 mentions in a nearly 400-page book.

    Delbanco exceeds all limits in trying to be "fair." Why bother?

    We needed a review of the serious issues Diane Ravitch addresses, and we didn't get it. What we got was a soft approach toward Rhee's self-congratulation and. . . sparse treatment of the essential issues Ravitch raises.

    I've subscribed to The New York Review of Books since their inception. I don't know when I've been more disappointed in a review.

  2. You certainly can't call the Wall Street Journal a "regular reviewer," but they, nonetheless, have Ravitch paired with Ron Paul. You know, two extremists who ignore all the empty seats available to them on the post-partisan corporate jet. Now that I think of it, I would find Paul a much preferred review mate than to be paired with the Queen of Venom.