Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 6


June 25, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch:

I am Mrs. Ratliff. I am being forced to retire.

I’ve taught English at Wilson High School, in Washington, DC, for fifteen years. For my AP students, my classes, according to the students, are the hardest but most rewarding classes they’ve taken. I assign thirty 500-word essays for my juniors, fifteen 1,000-word essays for my seniors. I read and comment on all of ‘em. We read nine novels, many short stories, articles from the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Students take seven essay tests, all of which I read and grade.

I also teach grade-level students in a course where there is constant reading and writing. At our large urban high school, there’s a huge gap between AP students and grade-level students. I try to bridge this as best I can. Students in those classes seem to appreciate my respect for them and my efforts to provide all students with decent education.

Three years ago, I helped students revive our dormant school newspaper. We’ve published monthly issues for the past three years. For the past dozen years, I’ve been faculty advisor for the six theater productions we do each year, building sets, settling disputes, keeping the drama on the stage, and not off of it.

Two years ago Chancellor Michelle Rhee hired a new principal. He enforced a level of discipline and conformity in the classroom, using the new system-wide evaluation IMPACT program. Over the years, I’ve never received very high numbers on any of these evaluation instruments. I’ve depended on the principal understanding that there were many ways to be an effective teacher. Not any more. If I don’t retire next week, I face being terminated for low IMPACT scores. This would mean loss of pension and health insurance. For a 62-year old cancer survivor, and my 61 year old wife, we’ve got to avoid that prospect.

There’s been a letter-writing campaign by parents and students, seeking to assert my value as a teacher and contributor to the school community, to no avail. Our school newspaper did publish articles this year, critical of the principal and some of his policies. My hunch is that this is what is driving the effort to place low classroom evaluation numbers on me.

I was taking this assault rather personally. I thought I was the only one getting creamed. Thanks for writing your recent The Death and Life of the Great American School System. It is some comfort to realize I’m caught in a tsunami. I wanted to let you know, too, how all this misbegotten ideology drives away a hard-working, dedicated, passionate high school English teacher.

If you’re curious, I could go on, both with levels of details, and documentation of what I’ve said here. But from reading your book, I imagine you know this sad story quite well. This is a consolation, that someone does understand.

Joe Riener


April 19, 2010

Dear Diane,

I not only learned a whole lot from your book, but the writing itself is superb and it was enjoyable reading. Part of that enjoyment was in seeing you nail down all the problems with the direction in which we have been tending.

The situation is worse than I thought, in that I did not know a lot about the three big foundations working together with similar agendas, or the extent of their support of advocacy groups and think tanks. I had noticed some cool receptions when asked for reviews of my publications from people in places that I have known and respected for decades. This is all very scary, as we move toward a partnership between foundations and the Department of Education, with a lot the critical eyes we have counted perhaps half closing them. You are right that it is test misuse and not testing itself that has gone astray. We know how to make good tests in NAEP, for example, or for AP.

I was on the standards-based reform wagon from the NCTM standards through about the 1994 ESEA amendments, which is about where the “hijacking” began, with publications with titles like Too Much Testing of the Wrong Kind, and Too Little of the Right Kind (about 2000), and Staying on Course in Standards Based Reform (about 2001)...where I was trying to document where it was going off course.

I hope your book marks some turning point in understanding what has been happening and the harm it is causing, but we seem to be digging the hole deeper.

I have a point of disagreement, concerning what was happening before the Nation At Risk report, but will leave it until sometime later. This email is an unqualified congratulations on a job well done.


Paul E. Barton


March 2, 2010

The Death and Life of the Great American School System is a well-researched, compelling call for a much different kind of education reform than No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. The standards-testing-sanctioning-shutdown approach to school change has been criticized before, but seldom so articulately and never by such a renowned movement proponent, radically transformed. (By data; imagine that!) Diane Ravitch’s new book may well become a game-changer in our national conversation about what works—and what does not—in American education.

Max McConkey


March 28, 2010

Hello Diane:

I recently saw your interview on C-Span2 Book Notes. Your critical analyses of “No Child Left Behind” and the 100% utopian proficiency goals were both accurate and sad.

Back in the late 1980s, I was a proposal reviewer for federal alcohol and drug abuse agencies, one of which had the slogan “A drug free society by the year 2000.” Talk about utopian. That kind of slogan could only have been developed by someone who knew nothing about the history of alcohol and drug use in the United States.

That schools are expected to achieve 100% “proficiency” strikes me as absurd, if for no other reason that intelligence levels vary considerably among students (and superintendents). Didn’t any of these folks ever see (or understand) the normal distribution of IQ scores?

Here in Minneapolis, the public school system’s slogan is “Every child college ready.” That’s equally absurd, and I wonder what it does to the kids who aren’t college ready.

I wonder how the school district defines “college ready” and measures educational “success.” Maybe high school dropouts aren’t part of their equation. And how does being “college ready” fit with all the remedial courses first-year college students have to take because they weren’t “college ready?”

Thanks for your insights.

Mark Hochhauser


March 9, 2010

Ms. Ravitch,

Your article [WSJ, 3/9/10] is exactly the plight of the schools. The boy I mentor tells me things like, “I don’t have to know THAT for the CRCT test.” Then I tell him, “It’s important to know.”

I think school children can get much more out of school if they have a mentor. There are lots of service organizations that could be encouraged to become long term mentors. Mentoring should become a national program.

I am a 59-year-old white woman and a college graduate. Due to factors beyond my control, I have been living in a lower-income black neighborhood. I took one of the kids named Alex under my wing since he was 6, and he is now 14. He has parents that have good jobs, take care of their 3 kids, but have had no higher education.

Alex and I have gone to the museums, botanical gardens, book signings, hockey games, etc. together. Before I started helping him with his term papers, his grades were mainly C’s and at least one D. Once I started helping with his social studies and English term papers he received high grades on the papers. The idea that he could get good grades and the knowledge on how to continue getting good grades gave him the incentive to try harder in all his classes. Now he has a 3.5 GPA. He wants to be a pilot, so I told him he needs short-term and long-term goals to succeed.

Ms. Ravitch, we need well rounded or college graduate adults to become mentors to children. Alex told me I care more about his grades than his parents. That’s because I know he needs to go to college to become an airline pilot and we have the HOPE Scholarship here in Georgia that he can receive if he gets good grades.

I wish I would have had a mentor when I was in high school. Neither of my parents had been to college and didn’t want it for the girls in our family. It took me many years before I graduated.

You are in the national spotlight. Maybe you could make the case for a national push for mentoring.

Vicki Van Der Hoek
("Alex" is a pseudonym)


March 15, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

What an absolute disaster these last 10 years have been in public education!! As a mother of a 21-year-old college student, a 16-year-old sophomore, and a 10-year-old 5th grader, I have witnessed the gauntlet of the accountability trend first hand. When my oldest was in elementary school, the focus of education in the Sunshine State began to shift to the high-stakes FCAT long before the current NCLB was enacted under George Bush. As the gears shifted and FCAT took over our classrooms, my oldest daughter and her peers were treated to an education that focused only on reading and math while virtually ignoring the important core subjects of science and social studies until the last two months of school, after FCATs had been administered. Then, NCLB was introduced and a bad situation became worse.

Today we are watching as this first group of high-stakes tested students enter college and we are hearing that our kids are not competitive in either math or science while often being relegated to remedial coursework in reading. A fact which I do not find surprising, given that their elementary education in science in particular was nearly absent and the focus of their education thereafter was indeed FCAT. Instead of looking at these facts as rational people and concluding that the problem is not with the children but with the education that we gave them, we continue to blame our students. We are reaping what we have sown, and our kids are suffering the dry harvest. Yet we do not learn and continue to seek the path of formulary education—rote, dry and disengaging instruction centered on benchmarks, pace, scope and sequence while advocating more standardized testing and consistently placing bureaucracy in front of the needs of our students.

As an avid proponent of public education and student advocate, I breathe the thought that education is a right and not a privilege. I believe this because I believe that the robust education of the common people like myself has been the mortar of this democracy since inception. Now that education has become a politically controlled issue, guided by men and women who are far removed from the actualities of the classroom, our students are suffering from our own shortsightedness and being treated to a Walmart-style education—low priced, questionable quality and mass marketed. It seems we are now spending more time and money on the overhead of accountability testing preparation than we are on the quality of the item we produce. We have the equation exactly backwards. Put quality in as we build, and our students will perform when we test them. Who knows? They may even regain the American competitive edge once again.

All I know is that it is a disgrace to us all that our generation has not seen fit to value the next and provide for their prosperity through quality education.


Dena Wiggins


April 20, 2010

Dr. Ravitch,

I am a native Houstonian and a product of both public and private schools here. I attended University of Houston for my undergraduate in education and received a master’s degree in elementary science at U of H. I love being a teacher and the meaningful feeling of having an impact on children. I am in my 28th year teaching in the HISD. My years have been spent primarily teaching minority and poverty children. I would love to teach for several more years...if I can outlast the fear and mean spirit which is being promoted.

The program coordinator of our new math program (Reasoning Mind) recommended your book to me last week after I had a discussion about the TAKS test and all of the implications of value-added. I was complaining about all of the intangible variables and the variables that a teacher does not have control over that are overlooked with our new EVASS (value-added) system. This was introduced by the previous superintendent as a way to offer merit pay. However, this new superintendent has made it clear that he intends on using value-added as a means to fire teachers. His name is Terry Grier and he is from San Diego.

When I began reading your book this weekend, I could not put it down! I have never read a book that so precisely describes the types of changes that have been proposed in HISD and how eloquently you put into words what I felt so strongly was wrong with all of the rash implementations. Teaching to the TAKS is taking all of the creativity and fun out of my days with the kids.

Unfortunately, Houston does not have a strong union to fight what we are being led into. I am so worried about what the future holds for this school district. I wish every school board member would have to read your book so they could gain a sense of history about what they are affirming and maybe think about better solutions for our students.

I have recommended this book to so many people already and have ordered three more copies to give to others.

I would love to know when you might be speaking in our area. Where can I find your speaking calendar?

I am so grateful that you have brought to the public’s attention the errors in value-added “hard” data.

Thanks so much for your book!

Shirley Corte


June 29, 2010

Ms. Ravitch,

I just completed reading your book The Death and Life of the Great American School System and wanted to simply say thank you. In the fall, I will be entering my 19th year of teaching in a public urban setting. I have been very active with the Toledo Federation of Teachers, home of the teacher peer review system, that you mentioned in your book. Also, two of our comprehensive high schools were converted to small school several years ago through Knowledge Works. Sadly, one closed this year due to low enrollment.

It is refreshing to read an author who admits to a complete change in philosophy and backs it up with data. Your entire book hit home for me as though it pertained directly to Toledo Public Schools and the trials we face on a daily basis. Your summation of the importance of curriculum justifies what educators already knew.

On behalf of my fellow peers, thank you for standing up to the billionaires and reformists who continue to wave their magic wand.


Robyn Hage


March 11, 2010

Hi Diane,

Cyndy Chase here from Keene State College in NH. I am happy to tell you what I think of your book. I finished it yesterday and I think it is just fantastic. In fact, I am planning to make it required reading in my Education 200 class called Educational Environments, a sophomore-level class that the kids take before going into an intense methods program as juniors. Diane, I have been waiting for this book for 10 years! I have addressed some of the issues, but you have pulled it all together in a readable and organized way. I read it on my Kindle but will be purchasing a hard copy so I can highlight and write margin notes and such.

As we hear more and more about national standards, I was drawn to your observations about curriculum. Now, I have taught for 44 years (hard to believe!) so I understand what curriculum means, but your chapter on the need for a quality curriculum from which to plan for education really hit home with me. I am far more interested in some sort of plan that says what needs to be taught than I am in some political group writing standards for things they know little or nothing about. I guess maybe I could not see the forest for the trees, but I had never thought of curriculum as broadly as the way you presented it. It makes so much sense, and it will be discussed in my classrooms as long as KSC will have me (I am a small-time adjunct). I also liked your observations on all the foundations throwing money at schools. I particularly liked your question regarding who elected Bill Gates????

Call me old if you will but I am passionate about public schools! Without them we will continue to grow apart by race and by social class. As the rich get richer and the numbers of the poor grow, we are setting ourselves up for a classic confrontation that could turn both bloody and violent. I once heard Ira Magaziner say that “we are growing a third world country inside our own borders.” Without access to the means for social mobility for everyone, we are digging our own grave. The best solution, and maybe the cheapest in the long run, is quality public schools for all. Our children deserve no less. I love the bumper sticker that says “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” I have spent most of my career teaching in schools impacted by poverty in one way or another. I know how urban schools can hurt kids. I went to urban schools. After retiring from public school teaching in RI, (don’t get me started about Central Falls!) I taught for nearly 7 years at Community Prep in South Providence, which is an independent school (for grades 3 through 8) that takes promising students from failing urban schools and prepares them for high-quality high schools and colleges.

I come from a long line of teachers. My son is the choral conductor at Wellington High School outside of West Palm Beach. When I told him about your book he emailed back that it was already on his Kindle. My daughter is a social worker at Cooke Academy (a special needs high school) on MacDougal St. in Manhattan. She had not heard of the book before I told her she absolutely had to read it; because at our next family get together it was going to be topic number one for discussion, and she did not want to get “beat out” by her brother. My dad was a teacher, principal and superintendent. My grandmother was a teacher, and her mother before her! My own children grew up discussing educational issues around the dining room table as did I. All of us are products of various public school in Rhode Island.

I could go on and on about the inequalities in urban schools and some of the mistakes we made and continue to make, but you don’t have all day and neither do I. Thanks for asking for my feedback. I hope it is helpful. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line if I can help you get the word out in any way. I sure like all the waves your book is making.

Cyndy Chase


April 8, 2010

Once again, thank you for your outstanding scholarship!

Three years ago, I had to return to the high school classroom when my husband and I moved home to be closer to my ailing father. I quickly learned that the state tests dominated every facet of instruction and that the “slowest” children were expected to pass every test. I was judged by the extent to which I could take those who had previously failed the tests and “carry” them into the passing column. As you note in your book, teachers’ efforts are moved exclusively to the lowest common denominator. Students who already “get it” are ignored.

Again, thank you!!

Hilve Firek


April 6, 2010

I am inspired by your eloquent description of the pitfalls in NCLB. Thank you so much for speaking up and describing so well the realities of what we do day to day. I’ve been a teacher for 25 years. I love children. I’ve always felt proud to be a part of our great Public School System.

However, since NCLB it’s a different story. The measurement tools are inaccurate, to say the least. Yet we base all program design on these scores. We’ve neglected many of the important aspects of nurturing our students toward adulthood in the name of hurdling over a mountain of narrow test items. I’ve become ashamed of what we do.

The worst part is that our blinders prevent us from seeing the miracles happening everyday. The child who finally becomes engaged after traumatic events made it nearly impossible to do so. The child who made leaps in their scholastic ability, though still not up to the arbitrary bar. The child who suddenly sees reading as a delightful activity.

I will be following your every word. Thank you so so much.


Kim Kunkel