By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; A07
For those who believe that performance pay and charter schools pose a threat to public education and that a cult of testing and accountability has hijacked school reform, an unlikely national spokeswoman has emerged.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian, now renounces many of the market-oriented policies she promoted as a former federal education official with close ties to Democrats and Republicans. In large part because of her change of heart, Ravitch's critique of the reform ideas that prevail in government, philanthropies and think tanks is reverberating in the world of education.
"In choosing his education agenda, President Obama sided with the economists and the corporate-style reformers," Ravitch writes in her book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," circulating in advance of its general release Tuesday.
She stoutly defends teachers unions, questions the value of standardized test data and calls the president's affinity for independently operated charter schools "puzzling."
"Is Arne Duncan really Margaret Spellings in drag?" Ravitch asked in a February 2009 blog item, suggesting that the education secretary's policies are not much different from those espoused by Spellings, who held the office under President George W. Bush.
Many analysts, educators and policymakers have challenged Ravitch's views. Obama and his education officials say they are collaborating with unions even as they challenge them to rethink the status quo. Still, it is a mark of Ravitch's influence that she landed a meeting with Duncan in his office in October, at his invitation.
"I have great respect for her," Duncan said Thursday. "She's a really smart lady. She cares passionately. We have some differences of opinion."
Duncan said he had heard about Ravitch's book but had not read it.
What gives Ravitch unusual standing is her background.
The New York University scholar, who lives in Brooklyn, was an assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, pushing unsuccessfully for national academic standards, and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board in the Clinton and second Bush administrations, helping to oversee testing policy. She initially backed No Child Left Behind, the law that mandated an expansion of testing and sanctions for schools with poor results.
Chester E. Finn Jr., an education analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and longtime friend, recalled sitting next to Ravitch in the East Room of the White House when the second President Bush proposed the law in January 2001. "We were both applauding," Finn said. "It seemed to make sense at the time."
In her book, Ravitch writes: "I wanted to believe that choice and accountability would produce great results. But over time, I was persuaded by accumulating evidence that the latest reforms were not likely to live up to their promise. The more I saw, the more I lost the faith."
Ravitch resolved to write the book in 2007 to overcome what she called an "intellectual crisis." Its title echoes the classic 1961 critique of urban planning by Jane Jacobs, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."
Finn, who held a senior education post in the Reagan administration, said he shares Ravitch's pessimism about the record of education reform. "We agree it's not very encouraging," he said, "and then we come to opposite views of the way forward."
Ravitch, he said, wants to "re-empower" the public school system. "The same evidence has turned me into a radical who wants to blow up the system," he added.
No Child Left Behind is an easy target because it lost political luster years ago. Ravitch also attacks the constellation of forces driving reform today. She says major education philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, rely too much on business principles to improve schools.
Duncan's biggest idea is market-oriented: He seeks to provide incentives for reform, offering billions of dollars to states and school systems willing to take risks to solve problems that have vexed generations of educators. Among his goals are expanding high-quality charter schools, tying teacher evaluation to student achievement data and turning around failing schools -- all in the name of raising graduation rates, he said, to give students a chance to reach their academic and social potential.
Ravitch, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told the trade publication Education Week that she gives Duncan "an A for being effective and a D-minus for bad ideas."
Ravitch urges the adoption of "a substantive national curriculum that declares our intention to educate all children in the full range of liberal arts and sciences, as well as physical education."
That is more expansive than a state-led movement underway for common math and English language arts standards. She also advocates "a short reading list" of up to 10 "indispensable literary classics" for each grade and, in general, more respect for the challenges teachers face in classrooms with students who come from widely divergent social and economic backgrounds.
Susan Ohanian, a blogger, former teacher and opponent of the testing and accountability movement, said she admires Ravitch's shift on No Child Left Behind but disagrees with her about national standards. She follows Ravitch through her Twitter profile, DianeRav.
"Those tweets get passed around everywhere," she said. "I'm always interested in what she has to say. I don't think she's a knee-jerk responder."