Diane Ravitch, a well-known education historian and analyst, is getting more attention now than ever before, since pulling a "180" on almost everything she used to stand for.

I had the pleasure of working with Diane in the late 1990's (together we wrote "Fulfilling the Promise of Head Start" for one), and it is an understatement to say I am now gravely disappointed. It appears that Diane has given up on the low-income, minority kids and families she wanted to change the world for, and jumped on a bandwagon where she can enjoy unfettered attention and popularity by people who want to keep our education system just as it is: a place where teachers aren't held accountable for working hard, where unions (but not teachers) enjoy a truly incomparable amount of power (and blithely abuse it), and where massive segments of the population are stuck in schools that treat them like second-class citizens. 

Having worked in this arena for twenty years now, I know it can be hard to continually say and support things that are unpopular with the many adults who benefit from the status quo. The teachers unions are super organized, loud, active and very powerful (especially in their hold on my, the Democratic, party). 

Lots of well-meaning people blindly support teacher union policies because they believe unions are inherently good, and teachers are inherently good, so how could teachers' unions be anything but? But teachers are college graduates who impact children's lives, they are not low-skill-level factory workers making products for huge for-profit corporations. They are not the underdogs in this equation (like low-skilled factory and farm workers are in theirs): children without power to escape dysfunctional schools and classrooms are the ones who need special protections they aren't getting. Unfortunately, these kids and families have little money or power to give away, no awards to confer, etc., and the heavy unionization of teaching has had a negative impact on their lives.  In the education situation, unions have evolved into the money-hungriest, most powerful and impersonal "corporation" you can imagine.

I honestly don't know how Diane rationalizes her current behavior and inaccurate characterizations. In this Washington Post story, Valerie Strauss summarized Ravitch's recent remarks at a KIPP charter school event, in which Diane complained that not all charter schools are KIPP-quality and also that, in her opinion, Teach for America shouldn't claim to be able to close the achievement gap. As someone who has seen children's lives transformed by charter schools and who most likely wouldn't be dedicating my life to education equality if I hadn't joined TFA my first year out of college, I can no longer stay silent on my disappointment with the "new" Diane Ravitch.

Because, first of all, where once Diane understood that charter schools could help break the status quo stranglehold on today's system, provide immediate new and better options for inner-city kids in particular, and help bring accountability to the system, this complaint that not all charter schools are fantastic (many perform the same as traditional public schools) is disingenuous. Diane, as a historian, knows better than anyone why this is so (it has a lot to do with who is in charge of authorizing and ensuring the quality of charter schools, which is too often-- thanks to teachers' unions and others who didn't want charter schools in the first place, Al Shanker notwithstanding-- the very people who were in charge of the failing schools charters were meant to replace!). The laws and programs could and should be improved so that all charter schools live up to their mandate. 

As for the TFA comment, it's simply ridiculous. Teach for America's GOAL is to eliminate inequity in the education system. It shares that goal with many other wonderful organizations and people. I've never heard someone from TFA claim that it alone will eliminate inequity. And I love when Ravitch et al complain that not all TFA'ers stay in the classroom beyond their two-year commitment. That is like complaining that not all Peace Corps volunteers (the program on which TFA was modeled) continue to work at the local level to improve a community's water supply or farming practices (or, the more obvious comparison- to teach!). Some Peace Corps alum take their experience of building wells and improving agriculture (or teaching) and go on to figure out how to bring what they learned about what works to scale. A lot of TFAers, like me, would LOVE to teach again, but I was so frustrated and outraged by what I saw in my South Central school, that for now I will keep fighting for bringing commonsense and equity to the system at large. When we get there, I will teach again (I really want to teach high school writing/literature and multimedia). 

Meanwhile, in Diane's remarks, she talks about teachers as if they are all equal and the same. She says they are all "demoralized" today because they are all under attack by education reformers. Of course she knows that "teachers" constitute a massive group that represents myriad levels of ability and effectiveness.  And I know plenty of teachers--so I assume she does too-- who agree with today's focus on removing ineffective teachers from the classroom: they understand that bad/abusive teachers are a HUGE problem, and that the impact they have on children and schools is devastating. They make the jobs of the vast majority of teachers who do so deserve our support much harder.

Listening to Diane's speech in this video, I am incredulous. Point by point, I know SHE knows what she's saying is inaccurate or disingenuous. She's simply too smart and knowledgeable not to know: again, I can't pretend to understand how she is rationalizing her current behavior, maybe she is looking more broadly at trying to keep power in the teachers unions and therefore in support of the Democratic party? As in, maybe it's a fear that the Democrats can't stay in power without this massive flow of money that is taken out of teachers' pockets and eventually funneled to them? Honestly, I don't get it.

Re: No Child Left Behind: every time Diane says, "they" (those who wrote it), shout at your screen "we." Because Diane was right there putting that legislation together, and the 2014 fantasy deadline (where 100% of students would be proficient?) - yeah, it's ridiculous. We all watched Congress play a stupid political game where no one was willing to back down from the "100%" idea. But there is so much right with that bill because it FINALLY brought to light that black and Hispanic kids are clearly still not getting the same educational experience as white students, even within the same schools, and it works to hold schools accountable for it. There are problems with the bill, sure -- that means we need to improve it. Not say the entire thing was destructive; she KNOWS this is not true.

Re: Tenure: she KNOWS teachers getting tenure is virtually automatic. And when it is given to people after just two or three years, and principals (because of contract rules) only get to evaluate those people once or twice a year, and only when the teachers have been told weeks in advance of exactly when it will happen (again, because of union contract rules), it's a JOKE to say the problem is that principals are giving out tenure too easily. She KNOWS that there are huge disincentives for principals to give any bad evaluations of teachers (again, contract rules turns that process into one that is heavily weighed against principals).

Re: Finland: Maybe she doesn't know much about Scandanavian socialism. I'm not an expert either, but I know enough to know that GETTING and KEEPING a teaching job is incredibly difficult in Finland and other places from which my ancestors came (ha). Yes it is a heavily unionized profession there -- almost everything is heavily unionized there-- but the unions don't get away with protecting any and all teachers no matter what they do in the classroom. Teaching is considered an elite job and it receives the reverence it deserves. This is not because it is unionized; it's because unionization is not allowed to siphon commonsense out of the profession. Part of this might be because Finland is almost entirely one ethnicity and without the massive disparities in wealth that we accept here; in America, the aspects of the teaching profession that hurt children mostly hurt those who are minorities and/or low-income.

If Diane was providing alternative ways to IMPROVE the situation and bring equality to kids, I wouldn't be so harsh on her. But she's not doing that -- it's all just an attack on those trying to reform the system and fight for the kids and families who are getting the rawest deal. It is very easy to be a critic, and it is very appealing to be popular with powerful people. But what a sad cop-out.

In her KIPP speech, Diane dares to wonder what will be on Teach for America's "epitaph." Out of what remaining respect I have left for Diane, I will hold my tongue on what I think might go on hers one day.

Posted on November 24, 2010 .