Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 7


March 7, 2010

I read your newest book this weekend and have to say it left me pleasantly speechless—I don’t think there is anything left to say on the topic of how off-course we have gone in recent years, and why. I certainly found my own experience in the field confirming virtually everything you said, especially the inapplicability of the marketplace model to this most public of public goods. And the final chapter is simply inspiring in laying out an approach to education that should be common-sensical but sadly now reads as quite radical. Every policymaker in the field should read it, and you should do all you can to spread its reach. Congratulations.

Someday, I think there is an even broader book to be written, since some of the same dynamics are at work in health care and in the privatization of other essentially public functions. The problem for the US is that we seem unable to accept any other model for the allocation of goods than the marketplace approach, even when it is clearly ineffective and perhaps even downright dangerous. The corrosive effect of the “creative destruction” that is the marketplace on our national culture—whether in the popular media or the classroom—is also something we should worry about.

All of us who care about public education—and the country more generally—owe you a great debt of thanks for your scholarship, and most of all, for your commitment to the truth. Mrs. Ratliff was right: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” still describes you pretty well.



June 20, 2010

Dear Diane,

Recently I have felt compelled to do things that I would never have done before. Last year I spoke at 5 school board meetings, carefully writing my 3 minute speeches to express my mounting feelings of discontent. I caught your interview on C-Span during Spring break and immediately went out and bought your book. I read it in 2 days. It was so exciting to read your words because they spoke my thoughts and feelings so clearly. I had a teacher in the 7th grade named Mr. James Herndon (he’ll always be Mr. Herndon to me). It was a contained class for labeled “immature” students (I am mentioned twice in his chapter “The Stream of Life” in How To Survive in Your Native Land). He remains today the single most influential teacher I have ever known. While rereading his book Notes From A School-Teacher I noticed your comment on the back cover. Yes indeed the world of the policymaker is light years away from the world of the schoolteacher, these truths have not changed in over 35 years, or if you count back to when I was in 7th grade, well let’s just say ...since 1967?

My school has decided with its new Principal/Superintendent on board that buying into “programs” is the answer to all of our discipline and low performance problems. So we now have Bridges to Kindergarten, Pathways to a Positive Future, Steps to Respect, Turn Around/No Excuses University, and Race to the Top...all this “walking” is exhausting...where is the teaching? where is the content? I feel like a hamster on a wheel moving, working, yeah, getting tired but getting nowhere really.

Thanks for your words.

Janet L. Plant


March 3, 2010

I am impressed with your ability and willingness to publicly change your mind about issues that you have been deeply committed to. At this point I don’t know what I think is the right thing to do re education reform, although I have always been convinced that the publicness of schools must be preserved—but we don’t have enough people willing to really follow the evidence where they think it takes them.

Jennifer L. Hochschild


April 8, 2010

I wrote to you about a month ago after hearing about your book on NPR. In that email, I said that I was looking forward to reading the book. I found the book to be excellent and, especially, liked the chapter about the billionaire boys’ club. That chapter has implications for Race to the Top, which put NCLB on steroids. I attended a Michigan legislative hearing regarding my state and its response to Race to the Top. The initiatives proposed by the legislators of Michigan were not school reform initiatives, but closing public school initiatives. I found their discourse to be quite sad.

By the way, I called the public school superintendents in this area and recommended the book.

Michelle A. Johnston


June 1, 2010

Hi, Dr. Ravitch,

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your fantastic new book. I’m a public school math teacher in Naperville, IL, just finishing my third year in the classroom and I felt like I didn’t know much about educational policy—but your book has helped quite a bit with that.

I know you get emails like this pretty often, but I teach in a very affluent community, in a school known for its quality education. I love my job, and I feel like I’m very good at it, but I wonder if I’m really helping the students who need the most help. That’s clearly not the case. When I think about what it would take to pull me from my current job and put me into an inner city school (say, in the Chicago Public School system), the list of incentives would have to be pretty long... I think that’s what’s so frustrating as an educator. From what I’ve seen, so many of the teachers who have excellent educations themselves and are *real* teachers in every sense of the word (kind of like your Mrs. Ratliff) have no desire to work in those schools and do everything they can to get into schools like mine—including young teachers who are graduating from their certification programs. I don’t see the city schools doing enough to persuade that group to teach there. But I hope that can be fixed in time.

Anyway, thanks for reading this email. I am certainly paying more attention to stories about this topic after having read it.

Hemant Mehta


March 3, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I am in my second year of Teach for America. I recently heard your interview on NPR and I admire your new opinions of the education system. I am a huge advocate of public education, and don’t want to see it become completely privatized! All around me, my fellow Teach for America corps members are leaning towards leaving their public school placements for charter schools.

I currently teach in a middle school that has abominably low test scores, no accountability, and an outrageous lack of student responsibility. However, the school is truly a microcosm of the streets outside its walls. If students were siphoned away for testing reasons, the beautiful and natural diversity of this community would be gone. The school needs a major management overhaul, but I really believe the students should stay put.

I cherish my public education and every single experience I had in Berkeley Public Schools. I look forward to reading your book.



May 8, 2010

Dear Ms. Ravitch,

Thank you for a great book. It answered so many questions about the current state of education in America and it did make me feel that my district (Albuquerque, New Mexico) is not unique in the problems that it is facing. But unfortunately, it is getting worse and I see no light at the end of the tunnel. For the past 9 years I was the librarian at a public middle school with an increasingly small enrollment (578 down from 800 nine years ago). I loved being the librarian and just this year I obtained my national board status in Library/Media. Next year, due to deep district-wide budget cuts, I will be teaching 2 classes and my time in the library will drop to about half. The list of “things” that my public school can no longer offer to students increases with each passing year. Our school has no art, no home economics, no choir, no drama, no shop, no newspaper class, no foreign language, and next year no student council and only a half open library. The year after (2011/2012) there is a rumor that there will be no music and I can only assume that the library will be closed full-time. I know you do not support the charter school movement, but from what I have seen in my district, the charter schools are the only schools that can offer students anything beyond 4 walls and a teacher. A short 5 minute walk from my school is a well-established performing arts charter school housed in portables that sings with music, the sound of dance classes, student painted signs, colorful student planted flowerbeds and a spirit of joy that my school does not have. I am beginning to think that all schools should be charter schools, and then maybe district expenses would be trimmed and maybe my 60-year-old neighborhood school could once again “sing” with some of the things that its old classrooms were designed for such as art, music and chorus, shop and home economics. Oh, by the way, here is some data to back up my belief that school libraries are important. I checked out over 7,000 books out of a collection of a little more than 14,000 books this year.


Rachel Horwitz
(And I did make your book required reading for all staff over the summer.)


April 25, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

Ditto all the teachers thanking you for speaking the truth about current education reforms, and boy, do you nail that truth in your book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

I just want to ask one question: what can a teacher/ordinary citizen do to help spread the word about how public education is under attack?

A little background on myself: I am a teacher at an urban high school in Stockton, California. When I attended high school in the ’90s, I was a stellar student, but our school had a bad reputation because it was located in a poor community and was plagued with problems related to gangs and poverty. However, I enjoyed the “underdog” status of my school and scoffed at kids from private schools who were scared to come to our campus. After I graduated, I attended UCLA and volunteered to tutor in an area notoriously known as “South Central.” Motivated by knowing the difference I could make in students’ lives, I applied to UCLA’s credential/master’s program and got a job teaching English at an LAUSD middle school in 2004. That’s when the disillusionment began.

What follows in this letter may seem like a rant, but it is a testimony that underscores the arguments made in your book.

When I started teaching, the realization that teaching was difficult was no big deal. It was just an awakening that my journey as an educator had begun. I was even excited gaining more experience and feeling like I was becoming a better teacher. What was a big deal was the feeling that the school environment could not let me grow as an educator, although I wanted to stay there and help the kids. Teaching was all about compliance because the school had to impose interventions to show that they were “improving” under NCLB law. I was assigned to teach a scripted reading program, but at English department meetings, our “literacy coach” demonstrated new ideas that were contradictory to the program the school had bought for me to teach. The program emphasized phonics and sounds, but the literacy coach suggested whole language strategies. When I pointed out this contradiction, the literacy coach agreed with me but did not know what to do about it. For her job was to deliver strategies, and mine was to deliver the script; all in an effort to show “improvement.” This was not real collaboration.

There were numerous trainings for this reading program, involving going to hotels and being fed a fancy lunch, and the “trainers” constantly asked for our feedback. For each concern about the possibility that this program did not work, the trainers suggested a new strategy, or suggested that perhaps we were not following the script faithfully enough. When I look back, what was I thinking addressing my concerns? These trainers are paid by the program to promote it! They even discouraged, no, condemned, the idea of supplementing the program with reading a class novel, or reading anything for that matter, outside of the script.

Then there was discipline. Some students were too unruly for me to handle, but I was made to feel inadequate for not being able reach defiant students. One administrator told me to “get tough,” and another told me to “make learning fun.” The bottom line was that the counselors and administrators were too busy to handle many students flooding into the office for disciplinary problems, and too many suspensions looked bad on the school’s record. My memory of “bad kids” throughout my schooling years was that if they were disruptive, they were sent out for good. Or, if they returned, they had to improve their behavior to stay in the classroom. I even have memories of very caring teachers reaching out to troubled students and turning them around. But at the school where I taught, students sent out with a referral were sometimes “spit back” to the classroom because the assistant principal did not think the infraction was worthy of his or her attention. I cannot imagine being a kid and having to learn in such an environment, or seeing the teacher’s authority undermined in such a way.

Notice how I said the “assistant principal” dealt with the referral because the principal did not believe it was her job to deal with discipline. After my second year at the school, she even called me into her office to address the number of referrals I had sent and to ask what is wrong. It was meant to be a non-evaluative and warm conversation, and it was, but after that experience, I had an “Oh, I should have said that!” moment. This is what I wanted to say: “My kids are misbehaving, but I am in the principal’s office. What is wrong with this picture?”

Shortly before my second year of teaching at that school ended, I called one of my favorite high school teachers to talk about my challenges. She said, “Come back home to Stockton, you will be hired in heartbeat!” So I did.

Teaching at my former high school, I felt on top of the world knowing that as many of my best teachers had retired, I, as a former student, was carrying on the legacy. Many of my colleagues are also former students who take great pride in the school and have made my work environment feel like home. The students are overall more cooperative than my students in LA, but I may partly feel that way because I have more experience in managing a class.

Yet, we serve a needy population, we are in program improvement under NCLB, and in my 4th year teaching at my former high school, I am seeing the problems I faced in LAUSD creep into our school dynamic. For one, our principal is telling us teachers that it is the “quality of instruction” that will influence our students’ attendance and behavior. Before, when he was an assistant principal (our school has had 3 princiapls in my 4 years), he vehemently backed up teachers having to deal with discipline problems, and I believe he continues to try to do so, but it seems there is growing pressure on him to get the issue out of his hair, out of any discussion on improving our school, and solely into the hands of the teachers.

English teachers are compelled to give out periodic “formative assessments” that are written by people in the district office and that fly above the heads of many of our students who lack reading proficiency. Instead of meeting the kids at the level where they are, we are compelled to show evidence of “data driven instruction,” even though it does not take data to notice that many of our students have come to high school lacking basic skills. Instead of planning novel-based lessons that our kids might enjoy or planning much-needed grammar instruction, English department meetings involve looking at what questions students missed on the assessment and pointing out what standards we should emphasize more. Meanwhile, adminstrators hover around our meetings to make sure we are productive. Their ominous pressence stifles honest conversation.

Teachers are offered trainings in teaching strategies from a company that specializes in instructional data. Honestly, these trainings can be helpful, but what is bothersome is that they preach the idea that if these instructional strategies are mastered, students, ALL students, can be taught at grade level. Perhaps this faith in instructional strategies helps to justify the rigorous pacing guides and formative assessments given for English, and it makes me feel I am being injust if I feel some of my some of my students need to go back to basics.

When teaching a class of varied English ability, common sense tells me to take time to brush up students’ grammar or get them in the habit of writing. To understand figures of speech such as metaphors or personification, it is appropriate for students to delve into a text in depth and learn by the context. But every two weeks, an assessment comes in, and that puts pressure on me to just deliver “mini lessons” to students or review the rote definitions of literary terms so I can be sure they get the answer right. I wonder, am I bad teacher for doing this? My students may get certain questions right, so the data may show that I am a good teacher. But I wonder if certain terms on which they were tested have imprinted in their memory, or does their next English teacher have to review this information again? I feel most disappointed in myself when I know I have checked off everything from our pacing guide, used every strategy I learned in training, and probably helped students on the assessments, yet see that my students are not better readers and writers than they were before.

With Title 1 money, our school also purchased a “non-scripted” literacy program that all freshman and sophomores must take along with their English class. The program and its trainers claim to be “non-scripted,” and the visits from the program’s creators claim to be “non-evaluative.” The trainings are not as fancy as the literacy trainings in LAUSD, so I thought our district was wiser with money, but again, concerns about the program’s effectiveness during the program’s trainings lead to more suggestions of strategies. When I talk with our department chair about weaknesses in the program’s lesson plans, she suggests I email the creators. When I boldly ask her if we teachers have to take on this program, her response is, “But the district bought it. This is for our program improvement.”

After all that has been said, I want to stress that I personally like and appreciate my colleagues in higher positions, and I believe they are doing the best they can. But it seems that systemically, they are not put in positions to work with us teachers in the interest of our students. I am deeply disturbed by students’ low reading and critical thinking skills, but it seems it is the job of administrators to only be disturbed by the numbers. I have been personally praised by some administrators as an “excellent teacher,” but in formal settings, the adminstration also tells me, tells me more often, in fact, that I better push the kids harder because we are a few points away from being labelled a “persistently low performing school” under Race to the Top. The staff and administration try to invoke pride and promote excellence in hopes that we can be labelled a “blue ribbon” school, but this “spirit” masks the ongoing threat that our kids are not making the mark, and it will be all our fault if they do not. Administrators have the task of somehow balancing enthusiasm and encouragement with reality and threat. Even the most caring teacher will wonder: is it worth the effort when the apathetic students, or even the students who just need a little encouragement, but accept mediocre performance, get away scott free?

This is what spirit looked like when I, my older cousins, and sister attended the high school. Teachers were motivated by excellence, not testing. I overheard that in the English department, egos clashed on what novels to teach. These disagreements seem like a luxury now, and many of my former teachers, like Ms. Ratliff, do not know what they would do in this current environment. Some disheartened veteran teachers at our school accept what is going on because retirement is just a few years away. Those who already retired echo a sentiment of getting out at the right time. At a national level, many teachers are retirement ready, but who is going to take their place now if teaching has become test preparation and scrutiny of the student’s performance as a reflection of none other than the teacher?

Today, I no longer enjoy the “underdog” status of my school. The need of many of our students was once the impetus for me to serve as a teacher, but I feel that teaching in an urban school is entering a trap where the challenges of our population make it easy for anyone to look like a bad teacher. I am not using the challenges of our community as an excuse for low performance, but I believe teachers should be able to openly discuss how these challenges affect the classroom and school environment without being brushed off as ineffective. They should also have greater say in appropriate intervention programs for the students with whom they interact daily. But rather than looking into comprehensive efforts to help struggling students and parents, or turning down an intervention package created by a company, it’s easier, and perhaps cheaper, to say that it was the teacher who failed.

Recently, five of our high school feeder schools have been labelled “persistently low performing” (PLP) and are compelled to undergo one of 4 draconian measures imposed by Race to the Top: close down, convert to a charter, fire at least half the staff, or undergo several changes that comply with RtTT. On Monday, April 19, an editorial in our local paper commented on the low performing schools. The editorial said that it is not certain these reforms “will work,” but low performance is “unacceptable,” and that this is a “civil rights issue.” I wrote a letter to the editor reiterating the editorial’s very point that there is no evidence that the reforms will work, but there is plenty of evidence (and I quoted your book for that one) that top-down reforms DO NOT work.

But what can I do? I really believe that public education is the cornerstone of our democracy, and what I was taught in public school has inspired me to serve this country and be an informed citizen. I thank you for exposing how the current reform climate is imposed in an undemocratic way, and I want to do everything I can to share my experience and your findings with as many people as possible who will listen. Where is the best place to start?

And again, for your work, and for reaching the bottom of this letter, I thank you!



March 30, 2010

Hello Mrs. Ravitch,

My name is Brandy Alexander. I am currently reading your new book and felt compelled to write you. I am from a family of teachers. I have taught 1st grade in South Central Los Angeles for the last 14 years, and I teach teachers part time at Cal State University Los Angeles. I care deeply about public education, and have for some years had these very worries about the state of public education. I am working on a book at this moment which is my story of teaching during NCLB in a profession that I love, and yet I see it moving dangerously into a service position much like an assembly line worker. I am also very worried about the inner-city children that will be the biggest losers in what I see as a move back to a segregated school system, just under a different cloak. I LOVE teaching but have to tell you that the pressure to have students perform at high testing levels, with charters and private businesses taking over public schools, has made me think I need to leave teaching as soon as possible. If I can, I may. Like I said, I care deeply about public education and the children, but fear the worst is not yet here. I am saddened by President Obama and his step in the same direction of NCLB and its supporters; I thought for sure he would see the dangers of deregulating schools and opening the charter flood gates. I hate that Obama is in support of merit pay. I have long been against all of these movements. I work hard at my school, put in plenty of extra hours, co-wrote 5 books for teachers, and do not feel the need to be paid more than my fellow teachers, knowing the problems it will bring. It would be disastrous, creating competition in a place driven by teamwork. I have overseen several student teachers at the college, and many of them have graduated and found work at the charters here in LA. Many of them write me with a array of stories about their time at charters, many of them not so positive. I still hold on to the belief that public education is the one true thing that levels the playing field for all children no matter the background.

I wanted to thank you for writing this book. Finally I feel someone out there is seeing what many of us public education teachers have been seeing since NCLB became law. I have hope, and I still have hope for Obama, yet I remain very, very worried.


Brandy Alexander


March 4, 2010

I’m an HISD sub teacher, so I go all over.....

I have to add this—standardized testing cuts both ways...there are bad teachers in the Gifted/Talented program, but because the tests are so easy for those students, those teachers have tenure, because they can draw those test scores around them to “prove” their abilities....

In the meantime, very dedicated, hard-working teachers have their careers on the line:


I could go on and on about what I’ve seen....but overall, I have to say, we aren’t building a better society....just an Enron/Bernie Madoff culture where numbers rule and common sense is thrown out the window....



March 2010

I purchased Death and Life last week and have been reading ever since. Went thru 2 highlighters. How can I get this information to the State of Florida which is going crazy testing children?

I hope to pass it on to friends in the legislature. I’m a retired teacher from IL and they did not go as crazy as Florida with testing.

Dianne DeWolfe