The Education of Diane Ravitch
Should public schools fear billionaires? Is Finland a poster nation? An interview with the nation's leading education historian.
When I called education historian Diane Ravitch last week to ask her MoJo readers' questions, she was on the other line with producers from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Stewart, whose mother worked for years as a teacher, was about to do a segment on Wisconsin and "the greed" of public school teachers; the show needed a guest who could add context to Fox News pundit clips in which financial sector workers earning $250,000 a year could barely pay their mortgages, but teachers earning $50,000 a year with benefits were overpaid. Ravitch—a surprising, prominent, conservative voice in the education debate—didn't disappoint. Between Stewart and Ravitch, the resulting Daily Show segment delivers a stinging rebuke to those who'd strip public school teachers of their collective bargaining rights.
Ravitch, who served as Assistant Secretary of Education in George H.W. Bush's administration, came by her fiercely pro-teachers union views the hard way. An early and ardent supporter of No Child Left Behind, she backed charter schools, merit pay, and school vouchers. Then, sometime around 2004 when the effects started to become apparent, she changed her mind. Ravitch now opposes aggressive Michelle-Rhee-style education reforms, and her work provides important "fact-checking" on proposals that overstate their capacity for solutions (like charters or using student test scores to evaluate teachers). This matters when reformers like Rhee sometimes receive untempered adoration in media and policy circles.
Ravitch's most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education, critiques No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the punitive uses of testing to fire teachers and close schools. She spends a chapter on the growing power of a few foundations—like Gates, Broad, and Walton—that she argues are reforming schools at an unprecedented degree without adequate local input. Critics of Ravitch say that—calls for better curriculum, child health care, and increased funding for early childhood education notwithstanding—she doesn't offer alternative solutions for education policy makers.
Mother Jones spoke with Ravitch about teacher tenure, No Child Left Behind, and for-profit charter schools.