I am not a doctor but I play one in my office, and I have detected a new, possibly infectious syndrome. I will refer to it (when I alert the Centers for Disease Control) as “Ravitch Rage.”
Here, as best I can tell from the available evidence, are the syndrome’s cause, symptoms and possible treatment.
The cause appears to be exposure to a 73-year-old grandmother named Diane Ravitch who has spent decades in the unsexy academic arena of education history and who suddenly become a folk hero to public school teachers. Ravitch travels the country arguing that all public school teachers aren’t bad at their jobs and speaking ill of modern school reformers, now led in the Obama administration by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and outside it by Michelle Rhee.
Ravitch writes columns and articles about how standardized test-based reform is harming public education, and she tweets way more than a lot. She is very tough on the principals of the education reform movement — and has angered some of them by, for example, lumping a group of wealthy reformers as part of the “Billionaire Boys Club” — and even wrote: “There is a word for this kind of anti-democratic collaboration between business and government, but we haven't used it much since the 1940s: fascism.”
But she spends most of her time warning against the ill effects of test-driven reform, using her own research or the research of others to point out that what constitutes reform today has not been shown in any important research to be useful to student learning, and may be harmful.
Ravitch used to support No Child Left Behind and business-style reforms in public education, and served as assistant secretary of education in the administration of president George H.W. Bush. But she came to oppose this reform approach when facts got in the way of the pro-reform argument. She has of late won some awards for her research, been on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and seen her latest book become a best-seller — all unprecedented for an education historian.
People who have come down with the syndrome suddenly feel what appears to be a compulsive need to attack her in public — and they often do so in groups (several people will publicly come out against her within the same week), suggesting that there are infection clusters.
They adopt the same terminology (perhaps caused by chemical changes, induced by fury, in their brain’s Broca’s area, and/or the frontal lobe) as they accuse her of being a research study “cherry picker,” a shameless user of “the strawman” to make her points, and an unacceptable “defender of the status quo.”
Some question her motives for changing her position on school reform, and those seriously afflicted have been known, inexplicably, to call her the education equivalent of “Whittaker Chambers” (who formally renounced communism in 1938 and spoke out against it).
A new symptom that has suddenly emerged is an incessant need to call her a stooge of the unions, which she is not, and an urge to fabricate tales that she has allegedly made large sums of money by speaking to unions and trying to spread her heresies through e-mail and books.
After attacking Ravitch verbally and in print, the afflicted proceed to cherry-pick their own research studies and pull out their own strawmen, making arguments in support of test-driven and corporate-style school reforms (which, again, have not been borne out as useful to student learning).
It appears that the syndrome is contracted not only by personal exposure to Ravitch but also to others already afflicted (see cluster infections, above), suggesting it is infectious.
There is no pharmaceutical treatment for the syndrome at this time, but medical colleagues with whom I have consulted agree that the best way for patients to rid themselves of the syndrome is simply to stick to actual issues, stop name-calling and quit pretending that people can’t change their minds about something important based on a new reading of facts.
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This post has been updated since it was first published.