Ever since her fierce polemic against the school reform movement, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” which came out last year, Diane Ravitch has become a ubiquitous voice in the raging education debate. It is not only because her writing is so cogent and ostensibly fact-driven, but also because her striking transformation—from one-time school reform champion, to sudden critic—that she has turned many heads.
The last heads to turn are those at The New Republic. In what amounts to a scathing take-down, the magazine tries to get to the bottom of Ravitch’s transformation. Officially, Ravitch says that her turn against school reform—in particular, more standardized tests and more charter schools—is driven by facts.
She points to a recent Stanford study, one of the most comprehensive ever done, which showed that 37 percent of charters did worse than comparable public schools. Meanwhile, only 17 percent did better and the rest performed about the same. Hardly inspiring numbers.
Ravitch basically says that all the hype around charter schools, which she fervently supported until the early-aughts, has sustained itself by the not so invisible hand of big money: major non-profits like the Gates Foundation, and dozens more do-good finance types, have thrown their money behind charter schools as viable alternatives to what she freely admits are dismally performing traditional public schools. (Poverty, not the schools themselves, are the main culprit, she now argues.)
The New Republic piece, like many others, point out just how selective Ravitch’s data is. The Stanford study may be fine, but another report of theirs show that New York City charter schools—which Ravitch, as a Brooklyn resident and longtime New York University professor, has devoted much ire toward—are actually outperforming the city’s public schools. In math, for instance, 50 percent of New York City charter school students did better than those in public schools.
And when she tries to show that traditional public schools students actually do better than students in other developed nations—despite mounting evidence to the contrary, a point often touted by reformers—she carefully selects her numbers. She only highlights the best performing U.S. public schools, as if the kids at Stuyvesant or Hunter Prep are the norm.
So what is it then? Why the Ravitch switch? The New Republic chalks it up to a personal vendatta: Ravitch’s longtime partner, Mary Butz, a public school principal, was snubbed by Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s pro-reform education chancellor, back in 2003. Klein was creating a new principal-training program and Ravitch suggested he pick Butz to head it, but he didn’t. And according to Freedom of Information Act emails obtained by the magazine, she’s been smarting ever since.
Ravitch has been on the war-path against reformers—and Klein perhaps most stridently—since that little-known spat took place, the article writes. “Ravitch clearly got under Klein’s skin,” it says. “Over dinner with New York magazine’s John Heilemann, Klein said, ‘You got a couple of pundits, like Ravitch, who knows nothing, she’s never educated anyone.’ Ravitch fired off an e-mail to Klein: ‘Your nasty comment about me in the new article in New York magazine was unwarranted. I have never attacked you personally as you now attack me. Shame on you.’”
But what if there’s another explanation? What if Ravitch’s passionate defense of public schools these days has something to do with her being Jewish?
That’s the admittedly superficial idea I’m toying around with at the moment. But it’s been inspired by a nice piece not long ago by the journalist Margorie Ingall, when she noted that Ravitch has, in fact, had a soft-spot for public schools since her own schools days. Growing up in Texas, Ravitch has written she went to public school because a prestigious local private school rejected her—on account, her mother told her, of her being Jewish. She a product of public schools, and, at root, only wants them to be improved. Her sudden switch is really only about the best way to do that.
Then there’s the all the things that Ravitch admires about public schools—perhaps most important, how they should serve as the foundation for strong communities. With charter schools every block, however; with standardized tests increasingly rampant; and charters being so heavily based on individual choice and chance as to who gets to attend them, the school reform movement offers no model for community at all.
As Ingall explains: “As Jews, we dig community. Al tifrosh min hatzibur, we’re told: Do not separate yourself from the community. Our prayers are written overwhelmingly in the first person plural. But standardized testing is the furthest thing from communitarian. Wealthy families buy tutoring. Upper-middle-class kids come into school with the huge advantage of being read to more often at home. Testing enforces existing divisions and even increases them. And being Jewish means you shouldn’t just worry about your kids; you should be concerned about everyone’s kids.”
Maybe then, Ravitch’s switch isn’t much of a change at all. She’s simply expressing the Jewish values that have lain dormant for all those years.