Leftist Educator Diane Ravitch Meets Her Match: An Important Critique by Sol Stern

Do you know who Diane Ravitch is? If not, you should. No other educator has been acclaimed in so many places as the woman who can lead American education into the future. Her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, had a first printing of 75,000 copies and quickly made the New York Times non-fiction best seller list.


Recently, the leading magazine for left-liberal intellectuals, The New York Review of Books, featured a cover story about Ravitch by Andrew Delbanco. He compares the approaches of the educator most despised by the Left, Michelle Rhee, with Ravitch. He calls Ravitch “our leading historian of primary and secondary education.” Having established that, he goes on to note Ravitch’s condemnation of Rhee, which he says “borders on contempt.” Delbanco also dislikes Rhee. He does not agree with what he calls her “determination to remake public institutions on the model of private corporations.” Rhee is pro-corporate, a woman who wants “to introduce private competition (in police, military, and postal services, for example) where government was once the only provider.” In other words, Rhee stands with the enemies of the Left who want school choice for poor children, vouchers, charter schools, and competition, rather than more pay for teachers, smaller classes, and working with and through the teachers’ unions.

To Delbanco, people who hold such reviews are retrograde, “true believers” in “the promise of privatization.” To the journal’s readers, these code words are enough to know that Rhee is someone to oppose, and if Ravitch is on the other side, she is someone to support. Indeed, if they didn’t get the message, Delbanco adds that one lobbying group that favors charter schools is — horrors — funded by the Koch brothers, and the group also supports “stand your ground” laws.

Now his readers definitely know that Rhee is evil, and that Ravitch is good. He writes:

Through Ravitch’s eyes we see what Rhee refuses to see: the limits of what even the most skilled teacher can do in the face of such realities. “Poverty,” she says bluntly, “is the most important factor contributing to low academic achievement.” And so “we must work both to improve schools and to reduce poverty, not to prioritize one over the other or say that schools come first, poverty later.” This is an incontestably true statement — but not the kind of call to arms that gets you on the cover of Time magazine.


But, it definitely is the point you will see in the NYRB or The Nation, over and over and again and again.

So here are their differences, according to Delbanco:

Ravitch wants a return to broad-scale attack on social and economic inequities — to incremental, long-range strategies that do not promise quick results. Rhee, essentially, wants shock therapy for the schools.

In a nutshell, good teaching depends on a radical political program, one that pushes our nation to the Left and that will result in answering the problems of education. Thus Rhee does not like the teachers’ unions, which she accuses of being “a thuggish interest group that stands in the way of reform and holds the Democratic Party in thrall. She sees its overriding purpose as protecting weak or burned-out teachers who block opportunities for younger teachers who have better prospects of instructing and inspiring children.” Ravitch, on the other hand, makes her case for teachers’ unions “with more nuance and depth,” which means Delbanco agrees with the unions. So of course Ravitch is right. “She sees it as ‘the strongest voice in each state to advocate for public education and to fight crippling budget cuts.’” Of course, unions often stand against any reforms that would interfere with the power of bad teachers to keep their jobs at the students’ expense, because they have seniority and vote for the Democratic lawmakers who continually give them more benefits at the time of contract renewal.

There is much in Delbanco’s review that leaves out what Diane Ravitch really stands for. To learn this, one must turn to the very important article by Sol Stern that challenges and tears apart Ravitch’s views, and seeks to explain why and how Ravitch changed — she was once a major advocate for school reform who worked in the administration of George H. W. Bush, where she supported national standards and school choice. She gradually broke ranks and moved to the side of leftist political ideology as well as opponents of any school reforms.


With Sol Stern’s important critique, Diane Ravitch has met her match. Stern’s must-read article appears in City Journal and is titled “The Closing of Diane Ravitch’s Mind.” He writes:

She reinvented herself as a vehement political activist. Once one of the conservative school-reform movement’s most visible faces, Ravitch became the inspirational leader of a radical countermovement that is rising from the grass roots to oppose the corporate villains. Evoking the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Ravitch proclaims that the only answer to the corporate school-reform agenda is to “build a political movement so united and clear in its purpose that it would be heard in every state Capitol and even in Washington, D.C.” The problem is that Ravitch’s civil rights analogy is misplaced; her new ideological allies have proved themselves utterly incapable of raising the educational achievement of poor minority kids.

Ravitch was a registered Democrat, albeit a centrist one in the tradition of the late Henry “Scoop” Jackson. As Stern documents, after leaving the Bush administration Ravitch became involved in a debate over the issues with the democratic socialist educator Deborah Meier, and soon she decided Meier was right and she had been wrong all along. As Stern puts it:

Not only had Ravitch changed her mind about school choice and testing; she had closed her mind to the possibility of any successful reforms, including national standards, curriculum, and classroom instruction. And anyone who persisted in supporting such “de-forms,” she maintained, must either be a reactionary or (like [Secretary of Education Arnie] Duncan, presumably) a dupe of the reactionary corporate-reform movement.


Now, Diane Ravitch presides over a blog that Stern calls “a propaganda hub for the national anti-corporate reform coalition.” It has, he writes, “all the subtlety of an Occupy Wall Street poster.” His analogy is apt as Stern goes on to point out that among her most ardent comrades in the movement she leads are … Bill Ayers and the once-Maoist 1960s leader Mike Klonsky, who had formed his own so-called “Revolutionary Communist Party” that pledged fealty to Mao-tse Tung during the Cultural Revolution.

Ravitch does not favor the “Common Core” standards.  She also is opposed to the kind of programs advocated by E.D. Hirsch, who advocates the need for “cultural literacy.” Hirsch believes that students need to develop background knowledge systematically, and favors a detailed sequence of grade-by-grade topics, so that they develop specific content systematically over the years. He believes that with such a program, all students, especially the poor, would benefit and have a leg up in being able to advance by learning what is essential in order to move on in the future and progress to reading and learning more on the same level of middle-class students.  With such knowledge, Hirsch argues, students would have the key to being ready for college. Now Ravitch opposes such measures. She asks:

[Why do its advocates] think that adoption of the Common Core standards or the privatization of public schools will heal the deep economic and social problems caused by the outsourcing of our manufacturing base and deep income inequality?

Once she believed that students should learn about the “great deeds of significant men and women,” and also “study distant civilizations.” Now she has abandoned that as a reactionary endeavor, one that forces “academic learning” onto young minds who should roam free and enjoy themselves. This, Stern says, is “educational romanticism” that the poor cannot afford, since if their children are to advance, they need to learn specific things without which they will be stuck on the bottom rung forever.


Some honest liberals did not agree with her new stance. New York Times columnist and former Executive Editor Bill Keller, a bona fide left/liberal since the 1960s, endorsed the Common Core idea in a column. Ravitch saw this as a betrayal. She responded not by criticizing Keller’s arguments, but by endorsing and posting a rant on her website from a far leftist educator, who wrote that Keller had endorsed the invasion of Iraq and that his father was chief executive of the Chevron Corporation. Stern rightfully calls this “the classic ad-hominem style of radical-left political discourse.”

So it is hardly surprising that Ayers and Klonsky, along with Deborah Meier, are now her close comrades in the anti-corporate educational reform movement. As we know, Ayers and Klonsky both favor using education as a mechanism to create socialist activists in the future. Remember Ayers’ appearance in the early years of the late Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where he stood beside the totalitarian destroyer of that country and endorsed his educational program as one that should be adopted in the United States?

In three short years, Ravitch moved from an educator who firmly believed that students needed a knowledge-rich curriculum to one who does not even mention once the Core Curriculum she once supported, and who believes it is a “hoax” perpetrated by the privatizers on the American people. Now she favors, as Stern points out, “the same prohibitively expensive, pie-in-the-sky programs that the education Left has advocated for decades: smaller class sizes, universal prekindergarten, after-school programs, and comprehensive health and nutrition services.”


As with most leftists, the costs are immaterial. The money supposedly exists for the taking, although Stern notes what she favors would cost many billions. Ravitch does not ask where the money would come from. If one speculates, her answer would more than likely be from the defense budget, the one answer always presented by the Left for where the money can be found.

How, one wonders, would Ravitch respond to his critique? The answer came today, when on her Twitter feed she wrote the following:

Urban Ed ‏@nycUrbanEd15h

This is filled falsehoods and an obvious personal grudge against .@DianeRavitch Stern lies throughout this piece. http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_4_diane-ravitch.html …


5:10 PM – 2 Oct 13 · Details

2.    Diane Ravitch ‏@DianeRavitch2h

@nycUrbanEd Sad. Sol was a friend but paid by rightwing belief tank to attack me. I ignore mudslinging, take a shower.

So this is it. A noted educator responds in the usual leftist ad hominem style, claiming that Stern’s critique is a lie and comes from “an obvious personal grudge,” and she adds the old canard that he was “paid” to do it by a “rightwing belief tank.” With that reply, it is clear she cannot deal with anyone who criticizes her methodology and arguments. Instead, she subscribes to the Bill Ayers-Mike Klonsky style of retort, one used all the time in the totalitarian movements of which they are a part.

Read Stern’s devastating critique of Ravitch. Kudos for being the first to effectively challenge Diane Ravitch’s shining-star status as America’s best educator.


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