Ravitch Profile In New Yorker = Didn’t Read The Book, Saw The Movie Instead

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.

13 Replies to “Ravitch Profile In New Yorker = Didn’t Read The Book, Saw The Movie Instead”

  1. Diane Ravitch is FOR the preservation of the great American public school system, which belongs to the American people and not Bill Gates, Joel Stein, Michael Bloomberg or other rich people. And the American people agree with her, as you are now finding out.

  2. Frankly, I think it a wiser course to back away from both the Ravitch’s and Klein’s out there. It’s not tribalism so much as the branding and selling of the punditocracy. Individual names come to stand for politicized policy positions, skewing the perception of those positions and how they get worked out in the real world. Still, there really are camps of opinion and policy promotion, nothing inherently wrong about that.

    What’s being missed is a lot of very good work being done in university research departments. And grand synthesizers such as John Hattie are too few and too ignored.

  3. I enjoyed the article too. It gives us the primary reason for the low achievement of many impoverished children:

    “By the time poor children reach kindergarten, after years of inadequate nutrition, limited reading at home, and little or no preschool experience, they are already at a disadvantage that is difficult to overcome.”

    And it quotes Ravitch who suggests the obvious solution:

    “Some of the learning disabilities would never occur if babies were decently fed… We should also send more children to preschool programs and open a clinic in every primary school…If we don’t invest in prenatal care, we pay for it many times over with hundreds of millions or billions in special education.”

    Ravitch calls on Bill Gates to fund some of these programs that we know will help children. I believe he and his wife are truly sincere in wanting to improve educational achievement for all students. If so, perhaps he could sponsor research-based methods (prenatal care, high quality preschool, clinics) in just one city in the United States. If he chooses to do so, I guarantee he’ll see the results that he seeks.

    Merit pay, for-profit charters and frenzied testing and cheating will not help a single child, but health care and early education will. Thank you, Diane Ravitch, for pointing us in the right direction.

  4. The best Denby ever wrote:
    (for The New Republic):

    “He is a talented, despicable writer who enjoys vicious teasing as a kind of journalistic blood sport,” film critic David Denby wrote in 1983, …

  5. As for Andy and his “she doesn’t denounce the outrageous things that come from that side”, that’s funny from a guy who joined Campbell Brown in accusing teacher unions of covering up and defending child abuse by teachers.

    Asked to name names, Andy fell silent.

    Get out of the glass ivory tower Mr. Hypocrite.

  6. Linda: Good points, as usual. Trying to solve problems on the front end is generally going to be a better solution than trying to fix them on the back end…

  7. Thanks, Attorney.

    While I was playing with my year-old grandchildren today, I was reminded of how much a child learns in his first years. The twins can already choose a favorite book, turn the pages, lift flaps, and of course process language to some extent. I was shocked when I asked, “Could someone get that blue ring over there” and my grandson walked over and retrieved it!

    Anyone who thinks education begins at age five either has no experience with children or pretends that he doesn’t know. The first five years of a child’s life are probably the most important in regard to his education. Any improvements that we make must start at birth (or before) because that’s where the (most pronounced) inequity is.

  8. Some more Miracle Rub from the Professional Education Reform Scam:

    2 much baggage
    UP Academy swept the Globe off her feet with a miraculous backstory: take the exact same kids as a failing union-stifled public school, replace LIFO lifer teachers with Teach 4 America freshness, add high expectations and watch the test scores swell. But like all potential mates who emerge from nowhere with a story that sounds 2 good 2 believe, UP’s tale never quite rang true. For starters, there was the inconvenient detail about the special ed students at the public school UP took over being shunted off to a satellite program IN THE BASEMENT prior to the miracle even starting. And those super high expectations? Well they seemed to go hand in hand with a super high suspension rate, the 4th highest in the state.


  9. The tyranny of the nincompoops continues.

    As soon as the leading science and math universities complete their MOOC the entire edu-reform movement is finished.

    Give it five years. Math and science teachers will become tutors, as well they should. And they will be paid more.

    But for now, the edu-wars will continue, and this entire mess will continue to promote the intellectually weak, the liberal arts do nothings, the sharp tongued but narrow minded journalists, and the burgeoning legions of edu-reformers who earn THREE TIMES THE PAY of a competent math and science teacher.

    What a job! Say you love “da’ kids” and make six figures!

    How do these carpetbaggers live with themselves. Edu-reform is a risible, ineffectual past time for the soft headed, hard hearted, opportunists.

    Want to really DO something. Crack open a physics textbook, explain how a block slides down an incline plane to an intellectually inquisitive young girl and watch the power grow within her.

    We need to stick it to the man. It is time to END the edu-industrial complex. Pray that sequestration does exactly that.

  10. The best idea in the edu-reform movement may well be to impose a ten year moratorium on all education research and punditry.

    That would clear the air, and allow practical solutions to get their consideration.

    What Rhee and her posse do not understand now is that the reform movement is falling on deaf ears. It never reached many people and those it did, are finding an interest in other things.

    The edu-reform movement is much like the the pro-life movement. Two firmly entrenched sides providing high paying careers for their proponents.

    Parents ultimately make the decisions and they are not interested in this debate. It is useless.

    If one has the time, go read the curriculum vitae of your policy experts. Start at Bellwhether. What do you think you will see? NOT ONE SINGLE MATH OR SCIENCE DEGREE. Loads of social science, history, journalism, public policy, education policy, education, education history, and the “education of education”.

    We are allowing this posse of nincompoops to run our education system. A better word would be “hijack”.

    Why waste the time discussing the research? Within 4 weeks there is a new study that arrives at a different conclusion.

    Some of my favorite canards:

    We can improve the teacher pool if we will just fire more of them for the most arbitrary of circumstances.

    Only targeted homework helps students learn.

    My favorite line:

    The UC Berkeley College of Engineering is interested in academically talented, inquisitive, HARD WORKING, candidates.

    Does that mean they do homework?


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