The national debate over how to fix our schools descends too often into well-phrased but acidic name-calling, like you hear at college department meetings. That may be why the prime subject of, as well as frequent participant in, the latest education policy spats is America’s most prominent educational historian, Diane Ravitch, a veteran of Columbia and New York universities.
I like Ravitch. She favored me years ago with her personal e-mail address and has helped with many stories and columns. She has long been one of the clearest and most interesting education writers. I envy her energy and productivity at age 73.
This puts me at odds with her many detractors, often people who like me support more charter schools, test accountability, changes in the recruitment, training and compensation of teachers and alterations in the size and structure of public schools. Ravitch was once on our side, but turned against us. She is particularly hard on wealthy reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad. I think they are a force for good, but she calls them “The Billionaire Boys Club.”
The Ravitch controversy has come to a boil with the publication of “The Dissenter,” a long piece in The New Republic by Kevin Carey, an accomplished national analyst at the Education Sector think tank. It is balanced and deep, the best piece I have ever read about Ravitch. But her sworn enemies see it as a stunning expose of what they consider her inconsistencies, favor-trading and cruelty.
Some unnamed sources told Carey they saw e-mails Ravitch wrote to then-New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein asking that he give a contract to a veteran New York school principal, Mary Butz, Ravitch’s partner. Klein’s 2003 decision to deny Butz the contract was followed by mounting attacks on Klein and his school reforms by Ravitch.
Carey got the school system to release the e-mails, but too much was redacted to confirm the account. Ravitch told Carey — and me in a separate e-mail — that she didn’t ask Klein to give Butz the contract, but just to use her expertise. Ravitch’s conversion from advocate of test-driven school accountability to chief critic of the No Child Left Behind law took several years of thought and writing, she says. She did admit to Carey, however, that she was incensed to learn a Klein staffer was attending her increasingly critical public speeches and recording them.
Carey cites several instances of Ravitch excoriating education policies she once supported, without disclosing herself as a former villain. He says her use of evidence to support her new positions is “often dubious, selective and inconsistent.”
Ravitch told me Carey’s article was “scurrilous and a hit piece.”
Journalists like me believe writers should try to present both sides of an argument. But it is important to note that Ravitch is not a journalist. Her aggressive writing style pleased me when she was on our side, and I think is still an asset for her friends and foes.
Carey reveals how she developed her command of the persuasive essay. As a mother and the wife of a rising real estate executive, she got a job — initially working for free — in the 1960s at The New Leader. That journal of the anti-communist Left prized muscular prose and gave its enemies no bouquets. This was a contrast to her genial personality, a difference friends notice even now. She wrote her scholarly books the same way, winning her popularity and a post in the George H.W. Bush administration that has given her great credibility.
So keep at it, Diane. I think you are often wrong, but if I am arguing, I prefer it be with someone who has your clarity and intelligence. If you can’t find a convincing way to make a case, then nobody can, and we have identified a weak spot.