Diane Ravitch’s Credibility in Dispute

Historians in the News

Jay P. Greene is the 21st-century professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute located at Southern Methodist University.

For some reason, when a prominent policy expert completely changes her position on an issue, her views are thought to have extra credibility. So when Diane Ravitch, an education historian who served as an assistant secretary of education during the first Bush administration, reversed herself on school choice and accountability testing and became a champion of teachers’ unions, a large number of people who had previously dismissed her opinions began to hang on her every word. Her willingness to switch sides and her reputation as a historian somehow make her a trusted authority in many people’s minds, and that has given her considerable influence in policy debates.

But Ravitch’s credibility has come into question. On her Education Week blog, Ravitch accused a public official, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist of Rhode Island, of gross misbehavior during a meeting they recently had with Gov. Lincoln Chafee and some aides. She wrote:

Gist is clearly a very smart, articulate woman. But she dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time. Whenever I raised an issue, she would interrupt to say, “That isn’t happening here.” She came to talk, not to listen. It became so difficult for me to complete a sentence that at one point, I said, “Hey, guys, you live here all the time, I’m only here for a few hours. Please let me speak.” But Gist continued to cut me off. In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology....

These allegations, coming from a prominent expert, are the sort of thing that could cost an education commissioner her job, or at least severely compromise her effectiveness. But fortunately for Gist, there are serious doubts about the accuracy of Ravitch’s account. Gist immediately denied the charges, and it turns out that a documentary filmmaker recorded the exchange. The filmmaker has agreed to release the video if those who were present give their permission. Gist has asked for the release of the video, but Ravitch has so far refused to give her consent.

We have good reason to suspect that the video would contradict Ravitch’s account, and not just because Gist’s willingness to release it was met with Ravitch’s refusal. Other people were present at the meeting. In particular, Governor Chafee, who has never been described as a wild-eyed education reformer, backed Gist’s account of the conversation....

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