Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 12


August 19, 2010

Dear Diane Ravitch,

I watched you on CNN on the old TV in my classroom one afternoon after Left Back was published. I purchased that book and The Language Police and now your latest. Education needs your hand and the country must listen to you.

When Left Back was published, Barstow Unified (CA) was just beginning to dumb down a high school English curriculum that I and several young, energetic teachers created in 1964. Our English program was seventeen semester courses covering the gamut of English topics and allowed for freshman entry anywhere along the sequence if an entrance exam demonstrated their expertise. Our curriculum labored through the years as parts of it were hacked away and then it was replaced by “read and do” not long after Left Back. When the district decided that test scores were too poor and raising them demanded programmed presentation of subject matter (the superintendent copied San Diego’s Blueprint), I retired because I would no longer be allowed to teach. That was 2009.

My wife (who also taught English and history in Barstow) and I have feared the demise of education from the time business was given the power to determine what should be taught. Neither of us is sure the country can back away from the brink. Perhaps your latest book can begin weaving a safety net and your voice will encourage others to speak.

My life was education, 24/7/365. Everything I saw, read, did, and wondered about made it into my English classes. (I was hired to teach Latin and did until 1978, with another two-year stint from 1989–1991.) The problems of education are many, and you have discussed nearly everything my wife and I bemoan. May I be so bold as to add:

*Liberal Arts must be the course of study for all teachers. Real teachers NEED summer vacation. Year round school desiccates them.

*Prospective teachers must realize teaching is not a six-hour job with free weekends and long vacations. They must be aware that their profession demands altruism in a world that is increasingly selfish. Preparation, lessons, correcting extend the day into the night. Nor have I forgotten that teachers must bolster their learning with other subjects than what they teach by reading and taking classes.

*Colleges should teach educational history, philosophy, psychology, methods (of teaching subjects), class management, how to prepare lessons and assignments, and perhaps a course on morality/ethics—students are not friends. Currently colleges bleed students and young teachers dry with all the money-pit courses they keep adding. The time from college to the classroom is too long (at least in California where to be a fully credentialed teacher takes longer than to be a surgeon). Masters’ degrees are nice to generate a better salary, but little of what occurs in a postgrad program is applicable even to high school.

*The public must be disavowed of general belief that teachers are high-priced babysitters and that “anyone” can teach.

*Teachers are not paid enough. They never will be. I thought I was worth three times my salary; Mrs. Ratliff was. The poor salary did not curtail our output.

*All school administrators (even superintendents) should be required to teach a course daily throughout the school year. Administrators should have at least 10–15 years successful teaching experience. Those who taught eight different levels in eight years have not taught.

*Those who can’t teach should probably not be administrators; having gone to school does not provide one with an understanding of education. But then the question arises, why would Mrs. Ratliff ever want to be an administrator? I certainly wouldn’t.

*Maybe experienced (at least 30 years), retired teachers should be the ones to oversee the educational climate.

*Any "innovative" educational technique suggested by those in charge of education should have to be piloted by the innovator (not an aide, or close friend, or protege) in a real classroom for one year to assess its viability.

I repeat that unless our nation rejects the business paradigm immediately, we will lose the ideals the country was founded on and become the broken democracy that was predicted in the ’60s as I'm sure you remember.

If you have gotten this far, thank you for your time. There are still educators around, many fewer than there used to be. If the climate were different, my wife and I might even return to the classroom.

Don Braden


August 19, 2010


I recently read your book and immediately bought a copy for our superintendent of schools. I am starting my 45th year of teaching math this fall and still love my job very much. Even before I read your book, I was preaching to others how the testing of our children is ruining our educational system. I feel that there is a job to be done! I have reread Chapter 11 several times. YOU HAVE HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD! I am an advocate of your suggestions. We (all educators) must get rid of this ridiculous testing. Thank you for your enlightening thoughts.

Michael Lepak


August 17, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

Having admired your work over the years, I was excited to read your new book on the American school system. This is one of the best books that I’ve read on schooling and deserves a prominent place on every educator’s bookshelf.

As a former fellow with Dr. John Goodlad, I am particularly interested in teaching for democratic practice. You mentioned many times, in the course of the book, the importance that schools play in maintaining (and moving forward in) a healthy democracy. I thank you for that. I also thank you for your tireless work in presenting a comprehensive portrait of testing, accountability, and schools of choice. Your historical and objective perspective on these issues was invaluable in terms of establishing the roots and progression of these issues in American schools.

I must say that, many times, I felt very discouraged as I read about how we have undermined our educational system. This discouragement, I believe, is actually a good thing as it points to the direction that we must take to build excellent schools.

Again, thank you for writing this book. It will remain in the forefront of my personal library on books about schooling, teaching, and learning.

Lisa DeLorenzo, Ed.D.


August 16, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I know you are very busy, but I just heard your interview from April on a rebroadcast on NPR radio (I was on my way home from my ninth softball game of the week...because I have no life) and I can’t get your words out of my mind, what mind I have left (retired 2 years).

I am a 30+ year career teacher (public schools) who has finished coursework for a Ph.D. in curriculum development at the University of Oklahoma. My dissertation research is complete, “Journaling Across the Curriculum.” I am sharing this information only so you will have a very small profile of who I am, educationally.

I have always been considered an outstanding educator. I know this because my parents and students and principals have told me so. Also, because I know who I am, and I am a great teacher.

I am no longer in the classroom because of the reasons you cited in your interview. I was not ready to retire, and I long every day to be back in the classroom with my beloved students. It is especially difficult now, as it is “back-to-school time.” When I left, I had parents calling me and begging and cajoling, and offering bribes for me to reconsider. I could no longer deal with the poor administration procedures, which included everything you addressed in your interview. Eight of the best of the fourth-grade faculty left that year. No administrator asked why.

I have a slogan that I put on my business cards: “It's all about the kids.”

Obviously, I don’t get it....

I don’t know if you will get to read this email, but I feel better having written it and knowing that there is in fact someone out there that actually knows what is going on.

Diane McGowen


August 12, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I feel very fortunate that I was able to see a video of your speech at the NEA’s summer meeting. I have attended eight of the last ten NEA RA’s. I was unable to attend the meeting this year because I am working on my Master’s degree in education. I have taught kindergarten, third grade, and fourth grade. After 20 years, my administration has seen fit to tell me to teach eighth grade this year.

What you said in your speech is exactly what I have heard from many veteran teachers. I have posted your speech on Facebook and emailed it to friends. In my eyes and in the eyes of many educators you are a gigantic HERO.

Thank you for advocating for students and teachers. Mr. Duncan, President Obama and all those who have been in the White House and Congress need to know that the business model is not a correct model for education. I wish I could say I had time to read your books. I will buy them. I will be working 6 a.m.–4 p.m. every day until we “officially” start, and I officially start to get paid again in two weeks. Then I will normally work til 6 p.m., but often later, and take work home with me. Graduate school starts August 30.

If you’d ever like to hear what is going on in education from a 20-year veteran elementary and now junior high school teacher, I will take the time to answer any questions that you have. At present Illinois can not decide if they will continue to use their “frameworks” or the national core standards which Illinois has adopted. Different administrators give me different answers.

Thank you very much for what you do. If there is anything I can do for you, please do not hesitate to ask.



August 12, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I recently finished reading your new book. I want to thank you for so eloquently stating what I have only been able to say through gritted teeth: current education policy is killing public education.

I have been teaching in a well-run Title I public school in Brooklyn for over ten years. I have always had my head and my heart firmly ensconced in my work as a teacher. I haven’t been very active in the union. I pay my dues and go to a rally from time to time. Recently, after removing my head from my lesson plans and my students’ needs for a few minutes, I’ve come to realize that much of the general public thinks my colleagues and I are lazy and selfish. We are bringing down the economy with our desire for our own retirement funds. We fail America’s children. How dare we not want to be fired for teaching struggling students? Why would I not want to get less pay for choosing to work with children who are not rich, not white, and not born into families who speak English? Apparently, I am the root of America’s ills.

Naturally, this makes me upset. Then I read an article you wrote in the AFT magazine. I started telling anyone who would listen, that only educators should write education policy. I read your blog. I read your book. And now, I have a very strong urge to do something about it. Your book has pointed out the naked emperor. I would like to be involved in crafting him a fine suit.

I am just not sure what to do next. I am interested in applying to Harvard’s new Doctor of Education Leadership Program. Mostly because it is free and because it is Harvard, so I’m sure I could get an influential job once I get my degree. People might listen to me. After looking at their list of professors and partner groups, it seems that if they were to accept me, I would probably be the black sheep of the program. Maybe they need a black sheep. I don’t know. I could also apply to for the doctoral program in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center. I’m a little limited in what I’m able to spend and where I’m able to go. But I want to help. I want to change things. I’m not a very pushy or persuasive person, so I don’t even know if policy would be the right arena for me. I do two things well. I can teach and I can write. I’m also a pretty good student. Do you have any suggestions for me? What should I do with myself? I need to do something.

Thank you for writing the book. Thank you, also, for reading this.



August 10, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

First of all, it is an honor to e-mail you. You are the first author I have ever been moved to contact. However, I feel compelled to do so today, largely due to how you have affected one of my struggles as an aspiring educational leader.

My name is Steven Lin. Not only am I a fifth grade teacher in Chesapeake, Virginia, but I am also a doctoral student of educational policy at the George Washington University. I grew up in union-heavy Pennsylvania and attended Penn State’s College of Education, where professors staunchly defended strong instruction and pedagogy. Interestingly, my training was indeed heavily constructivist. You are right that Mrs. Ratliff wouldn’t have stood a chance, nor would some of my great former teachers, such as Dr. Lechnar and Mrs. Wyngaard. I bought into these undergraduate instructional viewpoints, but struggled years later in “right-to-work” Virginia to reconcile those ideals (of strong and nurturing instruction) with a GWU master’s program in school administration that preached the decisiveness and efficiency of the business world. I found my master’s program to be extremely valuable, but I sensed and could not yet pinpoint a disconnect between the governance ideologies I had been fed, and the instructional ideals in which I had been trained.

I am not necessarily a die-hard defender of teacher unions, but I have continued to wonder why so many of their ideas (of Shanker's professional or Chase's new unionism), or the instructional research of Darling-Hammond, have never gained substantial media attention. The monopoly of business reform models has truly silenced alternate views. Like you, I eventually became swept up in the ideologies of reform movements, and soon I began to lose touch with the idealism and reality of true instruction. This reckless embrace of free-market reform models was short-lived, thankfully, as your book helped to reaffirm my original devotion to the seemingly impossible vision of quality education for all. It is a worthy vision that cannot be met with any one “silver bullet.”

Upon finishing your book for a class taught by Dr. Mary Futrell (former NEA president), I quickly wrote a personal letter to myself, reflective of my thoughts at that fleeting moment. As an author, I thought that you might have received many critical reviews for your book. However, the four images I have attached (for the 4 pages of handwriting) is an example of how you’ve motivated at least one obscure and faceless teacher in the American public education system.

Thank you!

Steven Lin


August 7, 2010

Hello Dr. Ravitch,

I am a middle school teacher in Pittsburg (PA) Public Schools.

I have just read Death and Life. I write partly to thank you for the work you have done to give us this strong tool in our work to save public education, and to make it work for our children.

I could write pages here with specific comments about how true your words are, and how they resonate for me, my colleagues, our children, etc., etc. I will save those words for others as I continue to encourage them to read, and discuss, what you have written. I assume you see plenty of such messages—at least I hope so as I know such reactions are widespread.

My second, and more important message, has to do with “what next.” As you know, we who are out here “in the trenches” have to deal daily with the current realities and challenges our schools face. Your book helps us all to realize we are far from alone, and lets us see the forest when we have been buried in analyzing and trying to fix the sick trees in our own cities. I believe your work will help foster the kind of national sharing of information and ideas that we so desperately need among the troops, the actual teachers in the schools. I hope that you will be interested in, and perhaps want to learn more about, the ways individual locals of teachers’ unions are trying to maneuver through the challenges.

It is not news to you that many, if not most, of our school districts are struggling for money. There seems to be plenty out there for killing young people in wars, but for teaching them...I still find it hard to believe that school districts have to compete against one another for federal monies. I suppose it should not be surprising in this era of business practices, but how abhorrent to think that “my schools” get money at the expense of someone else’s. In this disgraceful situation, school districts and teachers’ organizations that might otherwise be able to resist the pressures you so aptly describe to move away from good practices, find that to keep our heads above water, and to keep our children in actual buildings with actual teachers, we have to make compromises we could not have foreseen.

In this light, I think you might find the work of the Pittsburgh Federation of Schools to be of interest. As you know, we are one of the school districts which has received a grant from the Gates Foundation, with the usual strings attached. I believe our local leadership is doing an exemplary job trying to make things work for our children, and for our teachers, under extraordinarily challenging circumstances. This means meeting the demands of the Gates funders but every step along the way, fighting (with some important successes) to resist the negatives. This is neither easy nor mapped out for us by any strong, successful examples. Therefore, I believe, the Pittsburgh teachers are among the trailblazers whose work will have implications for our colleagues and children in other places.

I am confident you are following the work of teachers’ unions in other hotspots. I am trying to stay more abreast of the work my colleagues are doing so that we can share experiences more quickly, help one another avoid pitfalls and gain from our successes. Your book has lit this fire under me in a way I cannot ignore (its worth the heat!).

I am just a teacher—and a parent of public school daughters and a member of our society which, as you so aptly describe, desperately needs our children to have access to real education. While I am a member of the executive board of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, I write this to you only in my individual capacity. In that mode, again please accept my gratitude, and my collegial handshake in this ongoing battle we share.

Kipp Dawson


August 5, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

Thank you for the informative summer read, especially the extensive “Notes” addendum. As a proud classroom teacher with four generations of the like, dating back to the 1880s, I find it most important to remain current of the education debate and your book was very enlightening. It has become increasingly difficult to stay positive about our public schools over my many years with the barrage of negative attacks coming from so many sides. My dear, departed father, who taught through the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, would often counsel me on fighting the good fight and would end by saying, “It sounds as if nothing much has changed from my time, son, and yet, look how far we've come.”

When entering the education debate, I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Robert Frost, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper.”

So Professor, keep up the “good fight” and continue keeping us informed in your balanced way. Our public schools are worth the effort.

Richard Andrews


August 4, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I recently read your speech to the 2010 NEA Representative Assembly, and I wanted to write and thank you for standing up for teachers. I just came from a local union meeting. We have not had a raise since 2007 and we are currently at an impasse on our contract and headed to mediation. The biggest sticking point is incremental pay increases. Our administration wants us to “suspend” them temporarily. This, as I'm sure you realize, looks like a very slippery slope right into merit pay.

I have been a teacher for over 25 years. I have experienced the ebbing and flowing of the professional atmosphere many times. I don't think I've ever seen a lower ebb. I'm tired of picking up the newspaper and reading about how greedy we teachers are and how we should be glad we have jobs. That's why your speech struck such a chord with me. I was so happy to find someone who will speak out for us. Again, many thanks from a grateful teacher.



August 3, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I am writing to you as a great admirer of your work, as an educator, and as a parent concerned about my daughters’ futures. Thank you for your continued efforts to promote a rational discussion on public education, reform, and great public schools. I’ve read your last two books and your recently published article in NEA Today. It seems as though all of your research and rational thought on school reform gets shoved aside when it is easier for elected officials to politicize education reform and for media outlets to score ratings by blaming public school teachers, unions, and reducing student achievement to a single test score. I am a long-time educator in the state of New Jersey where the relentless attacks by the Governor and the Commissioner of Education have really hurt teacher morale. As you are well aware, New Jersey has many of the top public schools in the country and I am very proud to be part of one such district. I’ve invested nearly my entire career as an educator in the West Morris Regional High School District in Long Valley, NJ. The pushes for charter schools and vouchers, the elimination of tenure, and Race to the Top merit-based pay incentives are not the answers to the state’s budgetary woes. Since the Governor is more interested in the national attention that a media war with the NJEA brings him, it seems the ability for the two sides to sit down and have a rational discussion is futile.

At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m not the rare type of teacher that politicians love to highlight as the reason for failing schools. In addition to teaching students of every ability level and mentoring new teachers, I’ve authored numerous published articles, lesson plans, and book reviews. I’ve served as a board member and the treasurer for the New Jersey Council for History Education—the nation’s largest state history council. I present to teachers all over the country on effective history teaching strategies through my work with organizations such as the National Council for History Education and Gilder-Lehrman. I was the recipient of the first Paul Gagnon Prize in History—a national award given to a history teacher demonstrating outstanding historical scholarship. Yet, it seems as though my numerous letters and e-mails to NJ’s politicians have been relegated to the trash bin or “spam” folder. They seem more concerned with riding the tide of bashing educators in order to get re-elected. It’s led me, for the first time in my life, to question my career choice.

As a parent (incidentally, I live in Pennsylvania and teach in New Jersey), I have written to my hometown school board and I have had personal conversations with both board members and PA state legislators about their attacks on teachers, easy “fix-all” plans, and draconian budget cuts. It seems that no matter where I turn, teachers become scapegoats for the state’s financial and political woes. Unfortunately, it seems that the only experience with schools that policymakers have is that they once went. Unfortunately, it’s the students who suffer. I hope that these problems and attacks are effects of the economic downturn, but I fear that it will be tougher to undo the damage that’s already been done. I would encourage you to continue your phenomenal research and writing on education. It’s nice to know that there are those with your credentials and status who may have the ear of policymakers. I hope your efforts yield positive results and some of these politicians see the light. If there is any way I can help, please feel free to contact me.

Mr. Philip Nicolosi


July 30, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

I just finished reading your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I am a public high school history teacher—about to enter my 36th year of doing what I love: teaching world history to high school students. Thank you so much for your great book. My wife, a retired teacher, said I could have written it, because it expresses in so many ways my beliefs and ideas about public education in our country. I am so frustrated by the present trends and fads (as I call them) taking over our education system. I believe in what I (we—teachers) do so strongly, to the depth of my soul. I love teaching and can’t image either retiring or having it be ruined by the so-called reforms being forced on us. I am writing for two reasons—to thank you for your book, and to ask what we can do.

I also attended the NEA RA in New Orleans this July, and heard you speak. I intend to share both your book and speech with my superintendent and principal, as well as the members of our board of education. I am an active union member, one of the ones being constantly bashed by seemingly everyone. I became active in the union over 30 years ago because I believed it was the only way to attract and retain the highest-quality teachers, by providing them with the best working conditions. I still believe that.

As you perceptively point out, the entire debate about improving our schools, something I am certainly always in favor of, must start with a difficult but necessary discussion about what it is we want our students to learn. On my list would be not only specific factual content of every course, but also such more complex concepts as engendering a love of learning and of history, curiosity, appreciation of music and the arts, sense of community service, creativity and thinking-outside the-box, and the ability to question sources and authority. How can we discuss measuring student performance when we haven’t clearly established what it is we want them to learn? As you point out, it shouldn’t be just math and language arts skills!!

My school, a suburban school of about 2,000 students, just hired a new principal. He is young, ambitious, data-driven, test-driven and “on his way up,” whatever that means. We already have been told we must standardize all exams and instruction, which, to me, in teaching world history, is dangerous. A current event happens, and it is not in the curriculum, and I can’t talk about it, encourage my students to debate it? Our state, in a failed attempt to qualify for Obama’s Race to the Top money, passed a litany of “reforms,” such as creating data banks to track every student and teacher by test results, and finding ways to more closely attach teacher evaluation (and, I assume, eventually pay) to student test scores. All of this troubles me. I wear a shirt that says “A child is more than a test score.” Many parents in the public stop and compliment me, Sadly, the people in charge don’t.

Interestingly, I supported and even worked for the election of Barack Obama. I still like and support him—he is intelligent and courageous in his willingness to attack big problems. But I am slowly losing my enthusiasm for him because of his positions on education. He may find his re-election more difficult than he thinks if he loses the support of teachers, who were huge supporters of his in his first election. I am sending him a letter after finishing this one, expressing much of what I am telling you. Sadly, I am not optimistic my letter will have an impact. I believe he is a good man, but is wrong on this issue.

Let me share some of my thoughts about where we should go from here. As a strong union member, as well as a strong advocate for teachers and teaching our students as well as we can, I believe we do need some real reform. Our union and teachers can’t simply say no to every new idea. Yes, we must embrace accountability, but only that which starts with what we want students to learn, and then measures that in a complex, varied way. We do need to get rid of ineffective teachers, and there are some. We need to find ways to attract and retain the best teachers, and what that means is complex. We need to strengthen our public schools, because they are the only ones that seek to educate everyone. I cringe when I hear that our schools are failing. They are not. We try to teach everyone, no matter what their disability, and that makes us better than schools in many countries that don’t do that. To me, the failure that has caused all this ruckus is inner-city schools with high dropout rates and very low test results. I do believe the roots of those failures are socio-economic, and that we don’t fix those schools without socio-economic change. We need to convince inner-city families that education is important, the key to a better life. My daughter, bless her, is in her fourth year of teaching special education in a middle school in the Bronx, a school that is listed as very dangerous and seems to have several indications of failure. She is very frustrated, by the school administration, the union, the violence in her school, the troubles of her students, and the resistance other teachers have to teaching kids better. She may not last much longer there—her mental health is at issue!

Sooo—what can we do? What do we do? Many of my colleagues suggest I retire. I don’t want to—it would be easy to walk away and say “who cares.” But I do care. I want to fight. Fight not against change, but fight for effective change, against all the bad ideas out there. Schools aren’t businesses, and my students aren’t nuts and bolts on an assembly line. My students learn to love history as much as I do. Getting people to read your book certainly would be a step in the right direction. I believe we (teachers), through our union (our only avenue) need to propose positive, effective, thoughtful reforms. We need to be part of the decision making. Sadly, many of the younger teachers aren’t even interested in that—they are afraid to fight or are apathetic about it. Can WE create a think tank and get funding from some wealthy source? How can we get frustrated, beaten-down teachers to unite and fight back? I suppose our union is our best chance—and I DO have faith that enough of our union leaders and members not only really care, but are open-minded enough to create effective change and then work for it.

Let me close before I babble too much. Thank you again for your wonderful book—I will share it with as many people as I can. If you have suggestions for me, I would welcome them. I care, and always will, about teaching our young people in the best ways possible. Let’s get to it now.



All letters have been reprinted with the permission of the writers.


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