The apostate of education, Diane Ravitch
By FRANK T. POOL
March 14, 2010 at 1:23 p.m.
When I was in seventh grade, I learned what an apostate was. The nun who was my teacher explained in religion class the difference between heretics and apostates. A heretic is one who deviates from religious orthodoxy. An apostate, on the other hand, is someone who denounces a faith he has once practiced.
Diane Ravitch currently seems to be an apostate to current educational orthodoxy. In a new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," she recants her former support of such things as charter schools, high-stakes testing, billionaire philanthropists and the federal No Child Left Behind law. Formerly a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Ravitch, a historian of education, found she was increasingly at odds with her colleagues. They asked her to stay to debate them, and she did for a while, but she has cut herself loose from the main current of educational reform.
Ravitch has been an educational adviser working with presidents. A prolific writer, she wrote "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms" in which she came down against progressive education from the end of the 19th century to the present, and "The Language Police," which traces the influences of politics and constituencies on the language used in textbooks. A critic of "progressive" reform, she has become skeptical of "conservative" reform and also opposes the Obama administration's policies.
Her most recent book is a very readable account of several contemporary trends, and it condenses the recent history of educational reform with particular emphasis on the 21st century. In a generally liberal profession, Ravitch has found herself cast as a conservative; and so she is, but she is no movement conservative. One of her great heroes (and one of mine as well) is Albert Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, who had a clear-eyed commitment to the civic value of the public schools in producing citizens with the knowledge and character to preserve our republic.
Asked why she has changed her mind, Ravitch says when the facts do not bear out one's opinions, the honest thing to do is to change her opinions. She believes in democratic accountability, and has become highly suspicious of top-down management modeled after the business world, charter schools that siphon away the most motivated students, testing that narrows the curriculum, and the punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind.
A native of Houston, she has fond memories of some great teachers in the public schools there. She thinks teachers should not be evaluated on the basis of their students' test scores, because there are so many factors outside the control of any one teacher. Besides, she says, the important things are not measured on fill-in-the-bubble tests. She remembers her favorite teacher, who did not care about students' self-esteem, who demanded high-quality thought and good English from her students, and who, Ravitch insists, might well not have been accounted a good teacher by current accountability standards.
Describing the reasons for her apostasy, Ravitch says she let hope lead her to endorse reforms that, sadly, do not work. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, she says, "On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it."
The book is important and worth reading. Agree with her or not, her arguments are cogent and important, and are simultaneously both liberal and conservative, in the best senses of both words.
Frank Thomas Pool is a poet and English teacher working in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in South Longview and graduated from Longview High School. E-mail: <a href= "mailto:FrankT.Pool@gmail.com">FrankT.Pool@gmail.com</a>.