Diane Ravitch: The Dissenter

Historians in the News

Kevin Carey works for Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C. This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.

On July 30, 2011, thousands of public school teachers rallied on the southwest corner of the Ellipse, near the White House. Union members mingled with the occasional communist pamphleteer, and, on a temporary stage, a series of activists, students, scholars, and teachers put forward variations on a theme: Standardized tests and corporate interests are ruining public education.

Late in the program, the actor Matt Damon showed up and began chatting amiably with an older, gray-haired woman sitting next to him on the stage. It turned out he wasn’t the only star in attendance. The next speaker “is the torchbearer, the champion for children,” an organizer announced. “Like Britney and Cher and Gaga, in the education world, all you need to say is ‘Diane.’ ”

The gray-haired woman walked to the microphone as the crowd chanted, “Diane! Diane!” “This is a historic day. I’m a historian,” she told them. She spoke for only eight minutes, in short, punchy sentences. “Carrots and sticks are for donkeys.” “Education is a right, not a race.” “Our problem is poverty, not our schools.” When she finished, the crowd began chanting again: “Thank you! Thank you!” 

It was, historically speaking, a strange place for Diane Ravitch to be. There was no indication that, until recently, she had championed many of the policies that were denounced at the rally as tools of racism and oppression. That she had spent years in the inner circle of conservative education policy, advocating for school vouchers, firing incompetent teachers, and shutting down failing schools. Ravitch once assured the public, “Vouchers and charters will not destroy public education. This is an incredible and fantastical fear.” Now she says things like, “Vouchers are a con, intended to destroy public education.”

Improbably, at the end of a four-decade-long career as the nation’s most prominent education historian and a vocal advocate for education reform, Ravitch has emerged as reform’s fiercest critic. Her about-face has made her more famous and influential than she has ever been. Now, pundits, scholars, philanthropists, and education leaders are all asking the same question: What happened to Diane Ravitch? 

“WRITING,” RAVITCH TOLD ME when we met near her Brooklyn home, “is what I’ve always done.” Born in 1938, she was raised in Houston, along with seven brothers and sisters. Although neither of her parents went to college, she made her way to Wellesley and, two weeks after graduating, married Richard Ravitch. Her husband joined his family’s thriving real estate business in Manhattan (he would eventually become lieutenant governor of New York), while she stayed home and raised their three sons. The second, Steven, died of leukemia at age two.

In January 1961, Ravitch showed up at the offices of The New Leader, a small but influential publication of the anti-communist left, and asked for a job. When the editor, Myron Kolatch, said he couldn’t afford to hire her, Ravitch offered to work for free. 

The New Leader was where Ravitch received her true education. The small staff was crammed into one room on the fourth floor of an old building. Then and future luminaries like Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer would drop by to turn in their latest essays; strong argument was prized. “This is where she learned how to write,” says Kolatch. Ravitch worked intermittently for The New Leader until 1967, when she took a part-time assignment from the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation to report on the city’s school system. 

In the late 1960s, New York City public education was a battleground. After years of failed desegregation efforts, black and Puerto Rican groups were demanding control of their children’s education. A handful of local groups were given limited authority over their schools. One, a militant board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, promptly fired 19 mostly white,  Jewish teachers and administrators. Racial and religious tensions escalated and spilled onto the streets. To protest the firings, Al Shanker, the head of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), called for a series of citywide teacher strikes, shutting down the million-student school system for much of the fall of 1968. City officials were terrified the situation would erupt into full-blown riots. The resulting compromise decentralized education in New York City and left scars that lasted decades.

Curious about the origins of this clash, Ravitch looked for a comprehensive history of the New York City school system and discovered that none existed. She contacted Lawrence Cremin, the esteemed education historian at Teachers College, Columbia University, and floated the idea of writing one herself. A book-length history was way beyond her capacity, he counseled—better to start with a few essays instead.

Ravitch ignored his advice and spent the next five years researching her book, usually writing after she’d put the children to bed. During this time, she applied to the doctoral program in Columbia’s history department, only to be turned away, she says, on the grounds of being old (she was 34), female, and interested in the unimportant subject of education. She obtained her Ph.D. through the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and Teachers College instead. Although her book was a work of popular history and not an academic one, the college allowed her to use it for her dissertation. 

The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools was published in 1974 and exceeded all expectations. It argued that four successive waves of immigration to the city had ignited four “school wars” over the promise of public education to lift up the poor and newly arrived; and, as a result, the city had oscillated between central and local control of its schools....

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