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.