Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 10


March 2, 2010

This morning, before dawn, I was driving to work (6th and 7th grade, a public middle school, teaching history and language arts) when I heard your interview on NPR. My eyes welled up, and I pulled my truck off the road. I wept with joy—literally—upon hearing your thoughtful, sensible, and spot-on comments about the institution within which I serve.

When I left for work this morning, I was on the edge of resigning. Demoralized by attacks upon intellectual freedom and human curiosity, frustrated by poorly conceived top-down programs, micro-managed by administrators with no actual interest in pedagogy (but with a profound obsession for “accountability”), I had all but given up. Then I heard your comments.

Upon arriving at school, I logged onto the internet and ordered a copy of your book. I look forward to reading it, and I look forward to sharing your insights with my demoralized colleagues.

Finally, we have some hope that the worm may have turned. There will be much to do in the days and years ahead, but the hope remains that America may once again have a system of public education to ensure her democratic future.


Steve Hagel


March 4, 2010

It is not unusual for historians, political figures, Supreme Court justices, party faithfuls and true believers of all stripes to change their minds in the middle of their career. It is rare, however, that a public figure with the stature of Diane Ravitch demonstrates the courage and chronicles the gradual mind-changing (and game-changing) process so that it is visible, “out-loud” and accessible to those within earshot and who follow her Bridging Differences dialogue with Deborah Meier. The Death and Life of the Great American School System is her latest in a long line of distinguished books, and I think it is not only an amazing accomplishment but a very important book. It must be read, widely.

I have worked for close to half a century in and with public schools and districts across the country. I have been a friend and colleague of, among many others who are deeply concerned with the quality and direction of American public education, e.g., John Goodlad, Seymour Sarason, Robert Stake, Harold “Doc” Howe and Frank Keppel, David Perkins. My first book, Changing Schools Through the Arts, chronicled in great detail the hope, promise and serious obstacles to school change in a network of six urban U.S. school districts. I am reminded on a daily basis as I work in the schools how difficult it is to initiate, implement and most of all sustain change whether in one school or a large number.

What Diane’s book teaches us, or at least reminds us, is the current notion that non-school people such as mayors, generals and lawyers should not be given the power and responsibility to run school systems in a functioning democracy. The research and results are plentiful about the problems, even when (and usually) none of the researchers agree with each other about the causes and results. But schools are complex, old-fashioned entities, essentially social communities, and no one district, school or classroom is like another. Schools tend to be latest-fad addicted, always hoping for the holy grail to solve whatever the latest problem may be, and in a bureaucracy like a school system that never has enough patience, resources or field-based and grass roots intelligence to figure out how to move forward, there is rarely enough time dedicated to gathering stakeholders and evidence for support. Even then, school change is really tough, and shortcuts, arm-twisting and top-down dictates will ultimately not get the job done. What it does, instead, as we witness today, is to force the disintegration of the tenuous structure of the system.

The beauty of Diane’s book is how she does it, disarmingly. Starting with the first chapter, she tells us how and why all this is ‘true’ while she recognizes her earlier mistakes and assumptions and then, through careful analysis of her and others’ recent research, uncovers, chunk by chunk, what doesn’t work, her opinions why, and the unfinished questions and answers that remain. What is particularly impressive for me is her inside look and take on periods in education history with which I am personally and professionally familiar. The chapters on the Standards Movement, the Transformation of District 2 in New York City, the Lessons from San Diego, all the way through to the brilliant Billionaire Boys’ Club, shine a powerful searchlight on what’s gone dead wrong with American education: Corporate America and the addiction to power, money and international supremacy now drive the schools with the worship of the new gods of data, metrics and literacy and easily adjustable numeracy scores.

In my view, Diane has always been a staunch humanist, a rigorous historian and an arts as education advocate. As I watched her recently, gradually find her new way carefully through the last several years, I got more and more excited and nowadays, I am continually thrilled by her blunt and beautifully written thoughts that hit the page and the reader between the eyes. She has given those of us who believe public education is about creating individualized and informed citizens for a democracy a series of arguments for tossing out the hollow blueprints and returning our schools to a focus on content and teaching and learning.

Now, are there magic and final answers to the tremendous challenge of top-notch education in a democracy as young as ours? No, of course not. But the last chapter, Lessons Learned” offers a number of ideas, suggestions that could keep a seminar on this critical topic going for a long, long time.

Thank you, Diane.

Jane Remer


March 3, 2010

I hope you won’t think this inappropriate, but I’d like to share with you that while many may be publicly critiquing your change of views, I think it represents fully what it means to be a thoughtful and deliberate public intellectual. For me, it shows how when you are deeply engaged you are also deeply affected and, mostly likely, often deeply changed. Honestly, as a young Black scholar, it just gives me a little more hope that we all really can see and do things differently. I believe that your influence is still very strong and that it will continue to shape the direction of educational thinking and policy.

I really do wish you well in the public space which you are now in, and hope that any fairweather friends are few and far between.



June 1, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

Thank you for The Death and Life of the Great American School System. As an educator actively seeking leadership opportunities that do not take me out of the classroom, I found the critical overview of the trends and ideas of the last thirty years to be a valuable framework for understanding the forces that shape my professional life.

As a president of an NEA local, I was particularly interested in the chapter entitled “What would Mrs. Ratliff do?” This chapter covered its subject admirably, but left one important point out.

The traditional teacher salary schedule, combined with the pension system, is a deferred compensation system. In other words, a teacher accepts a lower salary in the early years with the understanding that it will be made up in later years through professional compensation and a pension that guarantees a dignified retirement. This is a social as well as legal contract, with a clear set of rules that give teachers a road map to a middle class existence. Millions of educators have bought into this social contract, and invested their careers and educations with the expectation that the modest rewards of the system would come through playing by the rules.

The important point is that millions of people played by the rules with the expectation that the rules would be followed by decision makers. This has several important policy implications.

First and most important is tenure—a hot-button word in this day and age! Without a robust system for due process in the workplace, the system of deferred compensation becomes a scam. In order to reap the deferred rewards of the system teachers need a reasonable expectation that they can last long enough in that system to receive in later years what they were denied in earlier years. Due process, negotiated by unions and administered through a strong system of grievances and arbitration, speaks to that expectation.

What is unfair about efforts to change teacher compensation is that government has reaped the benefits of the deferred compensation system up front—paying younger, less educated teachers less means decision makers have less revenue to raise. The bulk of school budgets here in Vermont pay for teacher salaries and benefits. The effect is exaggerated by the fact that some 50% of teachers wash out in the first five years.

So when I look at merit pay schemes, conversion of pensions to 403b plans, proposals to end tenure, and complaints about the uselessness of graduate study, I smell decision makers trying to weasel out of the back end costs of a system that has fiscally benefited the public for fifty years.

I suppose I would be less suspicious if I saw any sign that the intent was to pay teachers fairly and proportionally throughout their careers. But I do not believe our leaders have the political spine to raise the revenues necessary to achieve this goal, especially during a painful recession. No, the pain of the recession is turned against educators. Decision makers double down on teachers, combining the pain and fear of crisis-driven layoffs with threats of permanent structural changes to the social contract on which millions have built their lives and careers.

To this end Michelle Rhee got it at least partially right in Washington, DC. Agreeing to offer teachers increases in compensation in exchange for opting out of the traditional system is in fact a morally defensible approach—teachers get paid at the time they do the work instead of having to wait for it. But funding this change with foundation money is both politically gutless and unsustainable. It is politically gutless because it evades the hard decisions about where the revenue to fund a public good is going to come from. It is unsustainable because what happens to this new compensation system when the political and economic winds shift and foundations switch their focus and their cash to other initiatives? I fear that the teachers who opt for the new system will find themselves bereft.

The tradition of salary grids, with its system of steps and columns to reward teachers for longevity and education, has served education tolerably well for a long time. Like any system it has flaws, and some people will game it. We have to understand what we, as a society, will be giving up in making structural changes to the tradition of teacher compensation. Can we really predict the consequences?

The salary schedule is a complex and arcane topic, involving considerable technical understanding as well a good feel for math. In my experience, a large proportion of teachers fail to understand their own compensation (another cost saving for school districts). Due process, too, is complex and arcane, involving an understanding of contract language, past practice, timelines, and a body of case law built up from decades of court decisions and binding arbitration. These two systems are inextricably intertwined. Understanding the whole requires subtlety of thought and broad grasp of a variety of disciplines.

Unfortunately, this type of understanding does not lend itself easily to a world of sound bites and inflammatory rhetoric. On the other hand, representing this whole as a matter of basic fairness speaks to a fundamental middle class American value—playing by the rules. Everyone understands fairness.

Steve Owens


March 11, 2010

I am a retired school superintendent of Hauppauge school district on Long Island. In reference to your article in the Wall Street Journal, I wholeheartedly agree with your findings. Although I retired eighteen years ago, I have had the continuing experience of following the demise of our educational system as my grandchildren proceed through the public schools. The inception of “No Child Left Behind” made me aware, right from the start, that we were eliminating all the educational experiences in most curriculum areas for the sake of test preparation. It goes beyond the “dumbing down of our schools,” since politicians are putting finance behind test grades rather than sound educational programs. It doesn’t take a college education to recognize that our schools can only improve when we establish excellent curriculum programs and testing based on materials covered by teachers. Once we eliminated the educational objectives that could be measured and stopped advocating workshops for teachers to give them a better understanding of the material being taught, we went down the proverbial slippery slope know as the “dumbing down” of the educational process. I believe that the solution to educating our students is to identify the important areas of curriculum in all subjects and then to identify those objectives that should be tested. This concept is simply criterion-referenced testing and not standardized testing. Just as important is the ongoing support for teachers in both educational materials and sound in-service programs.


Conrad J. Knott


June 2, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

Thank you for writing your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. It was heartening to me to read your comments and support for public education. More then ever before, teachers and public education are under an extraordinary attack by the government. As you so aptly point out, this attack is not just from the right, but from the left as well. People with no understanding of education or of children and families are making decisions that we will all live to regret.

I saw in the late 1980s when the business community was outraged that we had students graduating from high schools and universities, who could not work cooperatively with others to problems solve and to develop creative solutions. This was after nearly a decade of “back to basics” where teachers were instructed by the state department of education to avoid the methodologies that addressed those concerns. It was no surprise to teachers these problems arose, but how unfortunate for those students who were denied the education teachers wanted to supply and knew would serve them well.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are a huge disappointment to me. With their stance on public education, I could have voted Republican and gotten the same results. Dismantling public education to me, is analogous to dismantling democracy. This drive toward the use of data as the sole indicator of student and teacher success is on a path to disaster. I have been a teacher since 1973 and I have never seen more irresponsible and arrogant attitudes toward public education as I am now experiencing on both a state and federal level. In the past, as educators, we knew we could wait out the current “reform” movement. We knew politicians or administration would come to their senses. This time, the damage may be too great to repair.

In the state of New Jersey, our Governor, Chris Christie, in his irrational desire to “break” the teachers’ union, is willing to sacrifice our neediest students with his budget cuts and denigration of teachers. His is willing to cut the school breakfast program, literally taking food out of the mouths of our children, to force concessions from teachers. Where has the morality gone in our elected officials? When did it happen that teachers became the enemy of the people instead the problem solvers?

My concern is that leaders who need to read and understand the issues you raise in your book are not doing so. There is a vision, no matter how misguided, that they will persist in achieving. President Obama and Secretary Duncan believe their “business model” will work to improve education. It will not. Bullying and demeaning teachers will not help to forge the personal relationships with students and families which are necessary for a successful school and educational system. Trust is built and sustained over time.

I know in your book, you point out the 1960s and 1970s as a time of “do your own thing” in education. There have been many publications that malign that time as one detrimental to public education in our country. When I look back at the beginning of my career, I see it differently. Out of that time of freedom and experimentation came the roots of reading and writing workshop, literature circles using authentic children’s literature instead of basal readers to engage our students in reading and thinking, the use of manipulatives in teaching mathematics, inquiry-based science, the use of strategies for classroom management now taught through the Northeast Foundation and Responsive Classroom, and the work done by the Johnsons in the cooperative learning model. When teachers are given support and freedom to solve problems, it can happen. It is not just the data that helps to inform instruction. For many years we had little data, but our students thrived.

Do we have problems in public education in our country? Definitely. Can continuous and meaningful professional development for teachers in which they have investment and choice help? Yes. Can support for students and parent help? Yes. No one wants to address the issue of poverty in our nation. Living in poverty, with poor prenatal and early childhood health care makes a difference. Having urban children exposed to much greater amounts of lead makes a difference in their cognitive abilities and physical health needs. Absenteeism is a problem, violence is a problem. Blaming teachers and thinking data collection will solve the problems is missing the point completely. I am so happy you have pointed this out in your book.

Consistent, coherent, sustained and rigorous curricula, with a common set of national standards, are necessary for success. This can be achieved through thoughtful and informed leadership, effective tools for evaluation, and teacher support. We need to make changes to our educational system. It is clear we are not achieving at the level we would all like. Is the answer a national curriculum? I’m not sure that is possible, but to continue along the present path is also unacceptable.

All our students need to be educated to the best of their abilities, but I do not believe all need to attend college. I am always grateful to the technicians who service my appliance, the mechanics who fix my car, the grocery clerks, the trash collectors and every person in my community who serves an important role through his or her work. The problem as I see it, is the lack of respect for the people who do those jobs. They need to be honored and valued and not seen as failures of the system because they chose not to attend college. Unrealistic goals for schools hurt all students. More technical schools are needed, but I never hear anything about funding for them. In New Jersey, there are waiting lists to get into them.

Clear goals in education are important. Equally important is the teacher’s role to guide, stimulate, and excite students about learning. Teaching our students to know themselves and others, to value their own strengths, and appreciate those of others, and to become citizens who can think and solve problems are often those intangibles that don’t show up on “the test.”

Please continue to be the voice of reason in what feels like a great void of clear and rational thinking in regard to the direction we need to take to save public schools in our country.


Jere Tannenbaum


May 2, 2010

Dr. Ravitch,

I am a Denver Public Schools teacher and saw a clip of your speech in Denver. Thank you very much for speaking out against this bill and for speaking in support of teachers. I think many teachers do not have an issue with the idea of restructuring the evaluation system, I think the problem is how the government is approaching this topic. How can they hold teachers accountable for a test that is meaningless to students? Or that many students do not take? There has been no conversation regarding those issues. It is sad that the conversation is solely based around what teachers aren’t doing and no one is considering what teachers are doing. Thank you for mentioning the demoralization and undercutting. I see what skills my students need and in spite of standardized tests, endless assessments required by the district, and a curriculum with so many holes I could drive through them, I try very hard to find ways to engage and give them the big things. How to read, how to write and how to think.

Again, thank you for your support. I hope that someone of your stature and influence can help direct our state in a more positive direction.



April 27, 2010

Diane Ravitch,

I am a California teacher. I am frustrated; feel powerless; angry; impassioned. What can I do to halt this political onslaught on our profession? Your input is greatly appreciated. I feel NO ONE is listening and I want to be heard. Help.

Thanks for your time,



March 2, 2010

Dr. Ravitch:

Thank you for making my drive to school today somewhat tolerable.

I teach in a school of 73% free/reduced lunch kids. NCLB is a lie, a political bill of goods sold to the American people. It was so obviously written by people (politicians) who have no sense of a classroom that I can’t believe that it’s still on the books.

Your interview today on public radio got me into the door (once again) and gave me hope. We’re not ‘there’ yet (however one defines ‘there’), but at least there is a voice, pointing out that the emperor truly has no clothes.

It doesn’t sound like the Obama Administration, (with some pretty harsh rules for ‘Race to the Top’ funds, and support for the mistreatment of the teachers at Rhode Island’s Central Falls) yet ‘gets it.’ I fear it might get worse, if/before it gets better.

grateful for your voice,

John Schmidt


March 17, 2010

Dear Diane Ravitch,

I have just finished reading your vitally important, thorough examination and critique of what’s happening in education today, and I was amazed to “hear my echo” as I realized that we came to the same conclusions using different routes, yours as an academic historian and mine as an experienced teacher.

I applaud your outspoken courage in explaining the reasons for your past views as well as your reasons for repudiating them now, in light of evidence and research and studies.

I am a compulsive reader of newspapers, magazines and books, and nowhere do I see any signs of dissent regarding The Race To The Top Incentive and all the other so called reforms in education being “disseminated” widely. Yours is the only voice of dissent, and as I watch the TV news, and see interviews with Mr Duncan and others of his ilk who have jumped on the bandwagon (and know not what they do), I am appalled that the reporters do not ask any probing questions as to what evidence they have that these new reforms will work. Where are the journalists who investigate the easily obtained data and evidence that shows that the new reforms are more of the same failed iniatives of NCLB? Watching the channel 13 News Hour tonight, I was so pleased to see you and watch you do a fine rebuttal and make your point that these new reforms won’t work. To use Mayor Koch’s favorite saying, yours was the voice of reason and it needs to be heard loud and clear and often. I hope you have plans for further media attention.

Why aren’t more people coming forward to question the efficacy of the latest reforms? Do you think that the Billionaires Boys’ Club prevents the truth from being promulgated?

Your book is a powerful indictment of the current Obama educational initiatives and those of us who have made education our life’s work, applaud you for setting the record straight! CONGRATULATIONS!


Janet Mayer


April 20, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch:

The other day I heard you discussing your new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I could not believe what I was hearing: someone espousing the same concerns about public education that I have. I ran out and purchased a copy immediately. I just finished reading it and you are right on target. You have hit the nail on the head. I agree with you wholeheartedly! Are we the only ones that feel this way about public education?

I am a former educator in North Carolina (35 years) and South Carolina (10 years). I was not a politician, not a reformer, nothing more than just an educator wanting the best for students and teachers. I can’t say that my time (10 years) in South Carolina was positive or filled with fun. Matter of fact, it was downright frustrating.

I loved working with students and teachers and I wanted to make a positive impact. I wanted to make a difference, to enhance to public school system, but I ran into opposition at every turn. Opposition from politicians, from various publics and parents, from Superintendents, from other entities; all opposed to change, to adhering to law or policy, and/or to changing the “Status Quo,” at any cost. Everyone seems to want only their agenda to be addressed.

All of these things that you have pointed out in your book impacted everything that I was directed to do in my school. It became unbearable and very stressful. Many times I was left out on the proverbial tree limb by myself. I, like you, began to see the death of the public school system.

As well as agreeing with your concerns, I also have my Issues from an Administrator’s point of view:

No Support from Boards and Superintendents and other upper-level administration: All groups are not on the same page. School level administrators and teachers are working in the trenches without adequate support. They are in constant contact and conflict with unruly students and parents on a day-to-day basis. They are the only people being held accountable for the productivity of their students. The “Students,” the one thing teachers really don’t have control over, are not being held accountable by their parents and/or community.

Accountability: It seems that only Administrators and Teachers are held accountable. Students need to be forced to accept responsibility for our own education, to be held accountable, to put forth effort and work, to exhibit perfection, to follow rules , and to follow the reasonable directions of administers and teachers. Students should be taught the characteristics and qualities of a responsible adult i.e.

School Attendance: No one wants to hold students to the state attendance laws. Attendance does not seem to be an expectation. How can you teach students what they need to know if they are not in school?

Behavior: Student behavior is on a downhill spiral. Student behavior has taken on a “Life of its Own.” No one wants to establish rules and regulations for all to follow. School districts seem to develop procedures and consequences for misbehavior that go on like the half-life of uranium. There is no stopping point...no end. Students are allowed to misbehave over and over without any serious consequence. OBDURATE Students who stubbornly persist in wrongdoing take away the rights of teachers to teach and the rights of other students to learn. The incidents of Insolent students verbally abusing educators at all levels continues to rise.

Charter School Law: The Charter School Law does exactly what you point out. It allows existing public schools to become Charters by taking votes of administrators, faculty and parents. It provides money per student that is equal to the highest per-pupil expenditure in the state, thereby taking money away from existing public schools controlled by the school district. It demands that the district give them everything that is given to public schools, i.e., buildings, grounds, transportation, etc. They don’t have to spend down their budget and therefore can carry over money into special interest-bearing accounts. Extra money for each charter school has to come from the moneys that would have normally gone to the non-charter schools. One charter school I know had a 2 million dollar surplus and continued to get more money than the other schools in the district. This is the same problem as with vouchers where it takes millions of dollars from the state’s public schools and gives those resources to private charter schools with no accountability and no guarantee of accessibility to all students.

Please continue working to get your ideas and facts before the American Public. You are doing a great job.

Dr. Jan Roberts