Last updated May 17, 2020
In Part 3, I probe Diane Ravitch's continuing neglect of the historical origins of NCLB, which was signed into law in 2002. I also provide examples of her persistent soft-pedaling of the roles played by conservative think tank dwellers and education industry consultants with whom Ravitch worked during thirty years as a Republican education policy insider joined, as she was, in an aggressive, well-funded effort to sabotage public education in the United States.
Based on Diane's account from 2010, her support for No Child Left Behind "remained strong" until she attended an AEI conference on November 20, 2006, which Checker Finn and Rick Hess had put together to examine "whether the major remedies prescribed by NCLB — especially choice and after-school tutoring — were effective."
According to Diane, it was only when she left that meeting in 2006 that she had the dawning realization "that the sanctions embedded in NCLB were, in fact, not only ineffective but certain to contribute to the privatization of large chunks of public education."
She follows that recounted flash of insight with this: "I wonder whether the members of Congress intended this outcome. I doubt that they did."
Well, yes, many did intend that outcome, Diane, as has been documented in several books, numerous magazine articles, and ample policy analyses. Congress did know about the NCLB's intended privatization, and to assure that outcome, a majority of legislators 1) approved the requirement that 100 percent of school children would be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014, and 2) included charter school conversion as a central remedy for failing schools.
As George W. Bush's Assistant Secretary of Education, Professor Susan Neuman, told Time Magazine in 2008, NCLB was a "Trojan Horse for the choice agenda — a way to expose the failure of public education and 'blow it up a bit'."
During the months leading up to NCLB passage, a number of hair-on-fire warnings were issued. Did education policy maven, Diane Ravitch, miss the Staiger and Kane op-ed in the New York Times in the late summer of 2001 prior to Congressional passage of NCLB? Doubtful, since Diane edited a volume in 2002, which included this piece that echoed the 2001 op-ed:
Thomas J. Kane and Douglas O Staiger, "Volatility in School Test Scores: Implications for Test-Based Accountability Systems." In Diane Ravitch (Ed.), Brookings Papers on Education 2002. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2002.
Two clips from that Kane and Staiger NYTimes op-ed:
The central flaw is that both versions of this bill place far too much emphasis on year-to-year changes in test scores. Under either, every school in America would have to generate an increase in test scores each and every year or face penalties like having to allow its students to transfer to another public school, being converted into a charter school or being taken over by a private contractor.
Both bills would be particularly harsh on racially diverse schools. Each school would be expected to achieve not only an increase in test scores for the school as a whole, but increases for each and every racial or ethnic group as well. Because each group's scores fluctuate depending upon the particular students being tested each year, it is rare to see every group's performance moving upward in the same year. Black and Latino students are more likely than white students to be enrolled in highly diverse schools, so their schools would be more likely than others to be arbitrarily disrupted by a poorly designed formula.
As we noted not so many years back, academics weren't the only people worried about what was about to unfold in 2001:
As White House staff, congressional aides, and a small contingent of think tank insiders huddled in Washington during the summer of 2001 to compile the final version of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), state policymakers worried about new accountability demands that the legislation was to include. In July, Missouri’s assistant commissioner of education, Stephen Barr, had described the 12-year window for achieving 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math as “an impossible dream,” and in the same article from The New York Times, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, Charles Zogby said, “It’s unrealistic to think that in some places where 90 percent of the children are below basic that we’re going to turn this around in 10 years. And then everybody is going to throw up their hands and say none of this is possible” (para 29).
Elizabeth Debray's (2006) excellent ed policy history notes that two months earlier in April 2001, Dr. Joseph Johnson, who served as compensatory education director for the Bush Administration,
. . . told the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators in April 2001: "People are looking at the data and saying, 'This is going to be catastrophic because there are going to be so many low-performing schools and this isn't going to work'." Though Johnson himself urged a more positive response, by June he had submitted his resignation.
Even with an abundance of proof to the contrary, all of Ravitch's three books written since 2010 have essentially recycled the same gloss on No Child Left Behind, which repeatedly depict NCLB advocates as innocently misguided, strategically shortsighted, and/or naively well-intentioned individuals.
In Slaying Goliath, which represents Diane's latest retelling of the story to save public schools from the onslaught of corporate education reform, she continues to proclaim a weird kind of erroneous innocence for those front-line ideologues in the No Child Left Behind school privatization scheme. In an unfortunate example of self-plagiarism in Slaying Goliath, Diane recycles a paragraph from a letter she wrote to Lamar Alexander, originally published at Huffington Post in 2015:
. . . . I remember a panel discussion in early 2002 at the Willard Hotel soon after NCLB was signed. You were on the panel. I was in the audience, and I stood up and asked you whether you truly believed that 100% of all children in grades 3-8 would be “proficient” by 2014. You answered, “No, Diane, but we think it is good to have goals.” Well, based on goals that you knew were out of reach, teachers and principals have been fired, and many schools — beloved in their communities — have been closed.In the recycled version that ends up (without citation) in Slaying Goliath, Ravitch writes:
At the time, I attended an event in Washington, D.C., at the Willard Hotel, sponsored by the conservative Hoover Institution, where my former boss in the George H. W. Bush administration, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, was on a panel discussing the new law. I stood up in the audience and asked whether he truly expected that 'every student' would be proficient by 2014. He responded, 'No, Diane, we don't expect that, but it's good to have goals.' Little did he know that many school would be closed and many teachers and principals would be fired because they could not accomplish what was patently impossible (p. 20).
Little did he know? Lamar Alexander has long served as providing the "velvet gloves" for handling bare-knuckled policies developed by the likes of Checker Finn, Bill Bennett, the Manhattan Institute, and the Bush family. (As Thomas Toch recounted in 1991, one of Alexander's aides once told a reporter, "Finn's ideas are a lot more palatable in Lamar's velvet gloves.")
There are a couple of things that are striking about Ravitch's recollection of the Willard Hotel incident from 2002. The first is Diane's acknowledgement that she knew in 2002 that NCLB was setting schools up for failure with impossible proficiency targets. The second is that, even though Diane knew this in 2002, she continued to support NCLB until late 2006. And third: Diane is on the record in her 2010 book as saying that she only figured out in 2006 that the sanctions written into NCLB would lead to "privatization of large chunks of public education."
Is that clear? I know--it makes my head hurt, too.
What is clear, however, in the 10 years of publishing since the Ravitch conversion is Diane's repeated attempt to portray the crowd she once ran with as having failed in well-intentioned efforts to improve education. What she ignores are the facts that 1) corporate education reform has not failed, and 2) corporate education reformers' initiatives were never intended to improve public schools but, rather, to make them weaker and more susceptible to the disease of corporate parasitism. Rather than having failed to achieve the good, corporate education has succeeded in achieving the bad.
By continuing to miss this crucial distinction, Diane persists in a charade that has the effect of protecting the purveyors of privatization and, thus, her own complicity in their evil schemes, both past and present. And by whitewashing the past, Diane denies history its purgative power, thus assuring that her salvation remains as incomplete as her heavily-edited confessions.
Meanwhile, Diane's readers are left with bad information and false hopes for illusory victories built upon erroneous impressions.
In Part 4, I will examine the real story behind the suppression of the Sandia Report in 1991, which occurred when Diane was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education, Lamar "Velvet Gloves" Alexander. Diane was at the original briefing when researchers at the Department of Energy shared their findings on the condition of American public schools, which ran contrary to the lies and distortions that Reagan/Bush insiders had manufactured to beat down public schools and open the door to school vouchers and other forms of privatization and monetization. In Slaying Goliath, Diane finally comes as close as she ever has yet to acknowledging the lies and deceit for which she earned the designation as the conservative talk show host of the corporate education reformers.