Just read the New Yorker profile ($) on Diane Ravitch (who I’ve known for more than a decade). The article is easy to caricature . It’s set against a Detroit backdrop, a place where parents are running for the exits - and few New Yorker readers would send their own kids. But a few thoughts on the article, some issues it raises, and my basic question about Ravitch.
First, the good. The writer, David Denby, a film critic for The New Yorker, provides some context that I think gets lost in all the back and forth about Ravitch. I don’t, for instance, think she’s wrong that the hysteria about international test scores is overblown (though Ravitch at one time flamed that herself). And whether traveling with the right or the left she’s long been an important champion for a content rich education and a view of education that goes beyond purely private, utilitarian, or vocational purposes. You can find some of what she’s saying now objectionable, inconsistent, or ridiculous but there are some common, and serious, threads that run through her work over the years. The idea that she’s done a 180 on everything overstates what’s happening here.
The big winner in the profile? New York finance whiz Whitney Tilson! I know Whitney, too, and he’s done great work for KIPP and is a passionate and tireless (literally tireless as best I can tell) advocate for better schools. But when Denby writes that reform has been championed by a “variety of entrepreneurs and fund managers including, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Whitney Tilson,” well, that is quite a promotion for Whitney! It’s also sort of a weird trio to choose, too, and one that sounds more talking point oriented than analytical. Whitney doesn’t have $100 million to donate, at least as far as I know, but he’s more involved in education reform than Zuckerberg, who is still finding his way into philanthropy in general and education philanthropy in particular. And there are others, California education reform advocate and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings comes immediately to mind, with more history on this issue than Tilson and more activism than Zuckerberg. There is Julian Roberston, too, of course. Or the Fishers. On charter schools the Walton’s, especially the late John Walton. The point here: The Zuckerberg-Gates-Tilson axis is a superficial way to look at what is not a recent phenomenon – rather two decades plus – and a more complicated one than the article lets on.
The absence of nuance like that – Denby clearly went for the greatest hits version of all this rather than the original albums – is out of character for the magazine and undermines the piece for all but the casual reader. But why mince words: A film critic? Denby wrote an interesting book on the Western canon but he’s not a policy writer or an education writer. You’re left wondering, there wasn’t an actual, you know, education writer with some content knowledge available, anywhere? Lemann, Ripley, Tough, McWhorter, even Bueller? Ravitch’s work is no longer historical, she’s a policy advocate and some understanding of policy is key to evaluating all this. (I know, alas, if only someone with some policy, education, and writing chops had time to really do their homework and look at these questions…)
The result is shallow. The analysis of the research on charter schools is superficial and the same tired canards about unions in Southern states (they have a lot of political power there) are repeated uncritically. Denby notes that Common Core requires teachers to teach Macbeth and Grapes of Wrath. Well, actually it doesn’t. Those texts are mentioned only in the standards as suggestive illustrative examples. Ironically, part of the debate about the Common Core English/Language Arts standards right now hinges on whether they are too non-fiction based. And many educators are worried that the standards – which are not a curriculum – will be implemented without sufficient curricular support for teachers. You know who knows a lot about those issues? Diane Ravitch! Denby flirts with this briefly mentioning that Ravitch is “cautious” about the standards, but readers probably aren’t going to come away with the idea (warning nuance ahead) that both national teachers unions support them and are working to help support teachers implementing them. This [standards] is a cornerstone issue of her career. He notes that she’s more for revolt these days, OK, but that’s not a policy position. What is she for? Spoiler alert: You won’t find out here.
Denby also mischaracterizes the No Child law – both in terms of its support in the reform community (hardly universal in 2001 or now) and also what the law actually requires. The article repeats the point that no nation has ever tried for 100 percent student proficiency. True, yes, and you can include the United States among those that haven’t tried because it’s not what the law actually requires. More like 92 percent proficiency on tests over a decade-plus timetable on tests most observers agree are not especially demanding. Details, yes, but details matter in policy.
Finally, the elephant in the room. Whether or not you think that Ravitch’s personal life played a role in her change of heart on education (I think it’s irrelevant to examining the quality of the arguments she makes these days) it’s nonetheless surprising that The New Yorker publishes a piece about Ravitch and features her opposition to former New York schools chancellor and current News Corp education executive Joel Klein, suggests that Klein’s work in New York informs her thinking and doesn’t mention that Klein’s team did fire Ravitch’s partner from a job in the New York City schools. Forget her overall take on public policy, and forget that education reform is much larger than Joel Klein, seems relevant history in this context.
So the lingering Ravitch question I’m still left with, after reading this and other profiles, is when Ravitch ever parted ways with her fellow travelers at some point in time? When she was with the conservatives she did not take issue with their excess – she stood with people not just criticizing public schools but denigrating the entire enterprise. Now that she’s on the educational left I have yet to see her denounce the outrageous things that come from that side – on the contrary she feverishly retweets them on Twitter while going ad hominem on those with opposing views. Meanwhile, the comment section on her blog often lapses into the noxious. This summer the Anti Defamation League sent a note to her about the use of the term “Nazi” – to describe education reformers, natch – by her blog commenters. Denby merely writes glowingly about her website stats – which aren’t unusually impressive anyway. Echo chamber anyone?
In the article, Ravitch demurs when asked about teacher pension reform by Denby. And that’s an issue that even union leaders (privately) acknowledge is a fiscal problem. You can disagree about the remedies and even the causes but as our political leaders like to say, when it comes to the problem it’s “math.” It’s illustrative. Sidestepping what upsets one’s base is not well-considered reticence and it’s not the mark of a public intellectual. It’s what the politician does. And it’s indicative of tribalism. Whether you think our schools need dramatic improvements or incremental change or whatever your views on various issues are it should be clear that the last thing education needs more of right now is tribalism, or easy celebration of its tribalists.