U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Diane Ravitch Speaks

I’m excited. Tonight, Diane Ravitch speaks on my campus. She is to give a talk at Braden Auditorium, which seats just under 3,500 people. Based on the fact that ISU has one of the largest colleges of education in the nation, and that Ravitch has become the nation’s staunchest supporter of teachers, my bet is the event is standing-room only. Given Ravitch’s career trajectory, which Tim Lacy first called attention to at this blog over two years ago, this is remarkable.

I first got to know the work of Ravitch in graduate school. I took a class on the history of education reform with Donald Collins, who has been a mentor and friend ever since. Donald assigned authors with various perspectives, including some he disagreed with, namely, Ravitch, who was known at the time to be a fairly conservative historian and education reformer, appointed assistant secretary of education by George H.W. Bush. We read Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. In this book, her magnum opus, Ravitch argued that the progressive education movement took a wrong turn somewhere shortly after Dewey. It had dumbed down the national curriculum, lowered standards, made schooling too vocational, too adherent to this or that trend. Left Behind is carefully researched, which is no surprise given that Ravitch learned the craft of history from Lawrence Cremin, and I learned a lot by reading it. But at the time I thought it was crankily nostalgic for a classic liberal curriculum that was never as liberal as its proponents claimed. I also thought it was too hard on progressive education, though I was certainly critical of some elements of that movement in my book, Education and the Cold War, though from a different vantage point.

But now Ravitch is the most prominent voice against the so-called education reform movement. This is evident in her latest book, the excellent and bestselling The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, which is not only an immaculately researched brief against the education reform movement, but also Ravitch’s mea culpa. She apologizes for getting caught up in the zeitgeist that reigned supreme in policy-making circles: privatization, testing, “choice,” charters, etc. Ravitch’s resistance to the education reform movement is also evident in her being one of the most influential “tweeters” around (@DianeRavitch). Ravitch also now regularly writes essays against the education reform movement at The New York Review of Books. Her latest, which critically reviews Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp’s recent book, aligns with my thinking on Teach for America, which I make clear in my Jacobin article, “Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders.” Again, this is remarkable. I’m excited for tonight.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank God for Ravitch, who is the clearest public voice speaking up for teachers and against Michelle Rhee and the corporate-financed push to privatize public education and strip union rights.

  2. I found Ravitch’s talk to be very good but ultimately not very encouraging. The ever increasing litany of attacks on public education can seems overwhelming, with little hope of abating anytime soon. I hope that many of the future educators in the room were able to absorb her message that they are going to be frontline soldiers in a “war” on public education. But as she pointed out in her speech it seems “evidence doesn’t matter” to either political party.

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