Diane Ravitch

Comments and Letters

Page 9


March 17, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch:

I have been an admirer of yours for several years, from the time about 5 years ago when I decided to move from practicing law to teaching math in urban schools in Los Angeles, where I thought it was needed most. I soon became familiar with your works, and admired (and continue to admire) your incisive analysis of much of the nonsense that passes for the current wisdom in education. I particularly have enjoyed Left Back, which brought into sharp focus for me the truly dark side of the Progressive Movement and how deeply and perniciously it’s embedded itself into the schools of education at American universities. And how can anyone with half a brain can read your demand for a literate and expansive curriculum as “back to basics” is beyond me. But much appears to be beyond me in the modern world.

It’s distressing that you’re having to defend what is at most a mild evolution of your thought based on evidence on charters and accountability tests. Those of us who know and admire you know better. Hang in there, and keep motivating us all!

Best regards,

Joe Hartley


March 3, 2010

I imagine this is one of 10,000 mails in your inbox. I think you may have single-handedly turned the debate completely around. Your intellectual integrity and persistence is deeply appreciated out here in the hinterlands.

Here in New Orleans, with 61% of the students now in privatized schools, it is easy to see how privatization and the conversion of citizens into consumers has profoundly undermined the ideals of civic engagement and a commitment to the common good. There are virtually no parent groups advocating for the disadvantaged as were common before Katrina; instead, the community is a mirror reflection of the market competition of the charter movement. We have devolved into an atomized community of competing individuals driven by self-interest and self-fulfillment. It is ironic that the call for “civic engagement” was combined with an education policy that undermines that collective engagement at every turn.

Lance Hill, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Southern Institute for Education and Research
Tulane University


May 2, 2010

Dr. Ravitch,

I want to thank you for your latest book. I was a high school English teacher for many years and currently work in higher education, preparing teachers for success in the classroom. I was drawn to your book for obvious reasons: former insider changes her view, but as a serious opponent of NCLB from the beginning (I taught in Texas), I felt I would find validation. I did, for the most part, find that validation. I was also apprehensive with the notion that choice or free markets were not the answer (or at least a step in the right direction) to our problems. Based on the title, I found myself 50% on board and 50% in opposition.

I have to tell you that I found the book very enlightening, particularly the second half. Since I agreed with everything in the beginning, I found the second half to serve as a vehicle to challenge my experiences, philosophies, and perceptions. Those challenges made me think hard. You presented a strong case, and I would be less than sincere if I didn’t confess that I now look at the choice and privatization model through a different lens.

Thank you for your sincerity, honesty, and diligence in presenting your case. Thank you for causing me to reflect. And thank you for always treating my beloved profession with honor and dignity.

Michael Radloff, PhD
Chair, Teacher Education Department (A245)
Pima Community College - Community Campus


April 7, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I am currently on the Denver Public School Board, one of the minority who does not believe in the “REFORM” movement as currently defined. I am also in the middle of your book and am reading it very slowly so I can absorb all of your wisdom. You have given me renewed hope to speak out about things I believe are not in the best interests of our kids and our schools. Thank you very much for that! The sad part of the story is what I have been reading from San Diego and New York could easily be what is happening in Denver right now without any long-lasting positive results to date. And the philosophical debate has become fairly rancorous with good guys and bad guys, winners and losers in every situation.

I am so delighted that you are coming to Denver and I will be able to hear you in person. I have postponed a trip to the East Coast to hear you, because you have been a heroine of mine even before your latest book arrived. I have carried one of your quotes with me all during my re-election campaign last year, because your vision of public education is one you and I share.

Again, thank you for your vision, your willingness to admit mistakes in judgment, and your courage to fight for excellent educational opportunities for all public school children. I look very forward to hearing you at Manual on April 30.

Jeannie Kaplan


May 17, 2010


I am the husband of a first-grade teacher as well as a very conservative Republican who has always been puzzled by the conflict of beliefs when it comes to the teaching profession. I knew what the best solutions were, yet I was unable to justify in my free-market philosophy and beliefs—but your scholarly work had brought me to a wonderful place of comfort. I believe Conservatism’s core is reality and validation by demonstration which your work clearly promotes and illuminates. This is what all Conservatives need to realize. The area where I was most ignorant concerned the foundation influences when it comes to school issues, which also explains the media spin. I have a great fear that any educational improvements can be realized as we slide toward demeaning, and punishing, teachers (doctors and all by academics and government workers), charter schools ... but when someone as articulate as you keeps presenting the facts, it encourages many of the masses and as in my case strengthens my understanding and resolve.

Thanks so much!

Tom Sawyer


May 15, 2010

Dear Diane,

I was truly moved by your concluding statements the other day at Lynn University. I almost jumped up and cheered when I heard you specifically address music as being important and then go on to explain why. I am a music teacher in a center school (pre-kindergarten through high school, the lowest one percent of the student population). I have a degree in music, a master’s in special education, gifted endorsement, and an endorsement for students with severe disabilities. There isn’t any good research on high-stakes testing that is valid, reliable, and fair for this population that I know of. Even if I were asked to develop curriculum and the testing for this population, since students with severe disabilities are not a homogeneous group, it would be impossible. They have Individual Education Plans on purpose. It took me four years to teach a student to reach out when asked to do so and strum my guitar as I played the chords. There is no way I know of to keep these students on grade level even with Access Points and measure their achievement in ways that provide quick, cheap, and standardized data collection.

I understand the thrust to not keep students with low IQs perpetual babies. However, to legislate that all students on a certain grade level learn specific things even when a student is on the pre-symbolic level and then hook a teacher’s pay to that student’s achievement of that information is impossible to fathom. So we are a failing school by design.

I sent videos of the lowest students in my school to Tallahassee when SB6 was being debated, because most people have no idea of what the lowest one percent of the student population is like. I have written federal and state legislators frequently about the absurdity of what’s going on. Many of our students have severe health issues that impact their learning. Many factors are beyond a teacher’s control. Sadly the political machine’s agenda seems more important than my students’ lives.

I was disheartened to not see coverage of your talk in the local media. I don’t know what it will take for people to snap to and work together on the education issues.

Deborah Nelson


P.S. (July 12, 2010): In Dan Ariely’s book, The Upside of Irrationality, he quotes Sherlock Holmes, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Dan is a behavioral economist who writes about issues that surround us every day and don’t seem to make sense, like the current education mess.


May 23, 2010


I just purchased 17 copies of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

I purchased your book in such numbers so I could send a copy to each member of my state board of education (North Carolina). I will also send a copy to my state’s governor (Bev Perdue) and two prominent business leaders connected to national school reform efforts. My plan is, for what it is worth, to send your book and a brief letter to explain why I am opposed the RttT. I have spoken publicly against teacher tenure in the past and am not entirely opposed to standardized testing. I cannot, however, support RttT’s apparent emphasis on connecting student test scores to teacher evaluations (even though my students have been assessed to have achieved “high growth” on value-added measures each of the last four years).

I am, basically, utterly disappointed by RttT and am sending copies of your book for policymakers to read because such an effort seems like the most beneficial action I can take right now.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you are ever in North Carolina. I would also greatly appreciate any advice you might provide to help classroom teachers like me. What can we do to get policymakers to take us seriously?!!!

Chris Monte
Milken National Educator (NC, 2003)


March 2, 2010

Hi Diane,

I heard your interview on NPR this morning. After, I went straight to B&N when it opened and bought the first copy sold there. I am/was a public school educator for over fifty years. I will not go into a further introduction of myself as it is in an e-mail that I will send you right after I send this. This book could end up being the greatest positive influence on education in twenty years. I am only into Chapter 3 but cannot disagree with a word you have written. It is simply sensational. The e-mail I will be sending to you I faxed to many Congressmen a week ago when I read that four of them were going to rewrite NCLB. It could have been taken from your book. We have the same problems with the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) as most other states do with theirs. I have been involved in the process for the last ten years. It might be a little better than some states, but it has the same and its own problems.

I believe that by the end of this day I will have in one way or the other been partially responsible for getting your book out there. I have suggested to a dozen superintendents that I know that they should not only read the book but get copies for every administrator in their districts. I have also suggested we flood Congress with this book, and that includes President Obama. As far as I am concerned, there is a bigger problem in our educational system than in our health care system. We could save the country billions of dollars by not sending good money after bad if education were overhauled and NCLB were sent to its resting place.

Thanks for writing the book.

Dick Mackey


March 7, 2010

I read the book twice word for word. My copy is now with highlights on every page. It appears that we both have been in the game of education for about half a century. The only difference is that I was on the firing line with secondary students every day while you were working with those who supposedly knew more than you did but didn’t. You did something I am not capable of but I respect you for it because I would have been totally frustrated. I might also add that my wife of over forty-eight years also agrees with you wholeheartedly, and she spent thirty years of her life teaching first graders. I have taken so many notes from your book that I was going to use to write you that this would be longer than your book so will try to make just a few comments from my fifty years of experience. None are as a result of formal studies I have done but will add that studies about teaching and education in general are about impossible because of all the variables which the so-called experts don’t understand.

I have served in Keene, NH, Laramie, WY, and West Hartford, CT; I retired after serving twenty-five years in Ashburnham-Westminster, MA. My education consists of BA’s and MA’s from colleges in NH and an MA+30 from the U. of Wyoming. Since my retirement in 1993 I have served as an unpaid volunteer giving back thousands of hours in the system from where I retired. We live in Florida four months and in New England for eight. My life has been one of serving kids and parents and I have never lost my love for education. I am not politically involved and consider myself completely independent with a lot of common sense which isn’t so common anymore.

The results of every study that you referred to in your book were of no surprise. I would have predicted the same. Foundations, whether they be Gates, Broad, Robertson, Dell, or whoever would have done a much bigger service to education if they had given the funds to whatever schools they wished and told them to use as they see fit. The more interference from the outside, the more corruption. In fact I would go so far as to say that most, if not all, were a waste of billions of dollars that could have gone to support schools rather than try to interfere with them. There are no magical fixes in education, no easy cures, and they certainly can’t be operated as a business as many try to do. During my career I came up with a few gimmicks that were helpful to kids for a few years, but any gimmicks and miracles, which don’t exist anyway, don’t last long.

Give me good teachers with good kids and they’ll get a good education. Give me good kids with a less than good teacher and I’ll give you kids with a lesser education. Give me excellent teachers with kids who struggle for whatever reason or are from dysfunctional homes and I’ll give you kids with a lesser education. “You can’t put a quart of water in a pint bottle.” (Not politically correct, but honest.) The large majority of public schools do a good job of educating. Interference by the government will only set them back. I do not understand why every student, good or bad, needs to take the same tests under high-stakes testing. It make no sense and only slows down our most talented students as well as being a waste of funds. From all of my experiences in public education and my knowledge of independent schools and charter schools, I would say that public schools do a better overall job educating when all factors are considered. Independent and charter schools only educate whom they want while true public schools have to educate all who get off the bus.

Teachers. Again in my career, of the hundreds I have worked with, no more than five per cent if that high would I consider poor. There are many factors to consider when evaluating teachers. Some of the best have been only “C” students themselves in college but could get the material across and had the classroom control that is needed. The best teachers I have ever met were trained at “Teacher’s Colleges” and/or state universities. The most inept have been from Ivy League Schools. They just could never understand why kids didn’t learn as easily as they did. A few years the State of Massachusetts tried to recruit teachers from business and industry with no educational training and offered them a 20K bonus. I am not sure whether that program is still around, but the few that came to the school I was working at lasted no more than a year. My guess would be that today fewer than twenty per cent of them are still teaching and few lasted more than a year.

With this I will try to close, as I could easily write all day and have 101 other things I’d like to write but want to play a little golf before it gets dark.

May all your travels be happy ones. You deserve it.

Dick Mackey


June 26, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I am quite certain that, growing up in the shadow of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, I am a descendant of one of the revolutionaries of the mid-18th century. I, too, am a professional educator, with over thirty years of diverse experiences as a classroom teacher, building-level instructional leader, and a district-level administrator. My experiences range from the western mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, to literally the streets of San Francisco; with learning experiences in Ohio and urban centers of Florida. Over the past decade, I have helplessly watched our public schools morph into “learning environments” with negative cultures, authoritative leadership styles and what I call administrivia! One can only imagine the consequences I have faced for voicing my difference of opinion. From my perspective, my fellow colleagues could be compared to lemmings, or simply, educators who feared retribution, if they voiced their differing opinions.

Increasingly, frenetic district administrators and school-level instructional leaders have exponentially increased their stinging attitudes/behaviors, their directives, and cumbersome administrivia. My last year as an instructional leader could be characterized as simply rebellious. I knew that our students were capable of learning; yet, I employed a totally opposite strategy to increase students’ learning—a positive school culture with collaborative leadership/teacher empowerment, and I diminished the effects of administrivia. I recall telling our team to concentrate their efforts on teaching the individual student and making the all-important connection with each student. Furthermore, I stated that if our attention was on the individual, our students would achieve at a maximal level. Within one year, the students at our school (highest reduced/free meal percentage in the district) scored an average of 26 point increase on Virginia’s Standards of Learning End-of-Year Assessments!

Upon the publication of your book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I immediately obtained a copy and read it cover-to-cover! With a sigh of relief, your words served as evidence that I was not living in the Twilight Zone or simply having a nightmare about the state-of-affairs of our public schools! Sadly, your book is singing to the choir. Only those who have the power to make meaningful and progressive reform of our public schools are the true stakeholders—PARENTS and others who are immune or resistant to a subtle form of brainwashing!

One sentence in your book was quite provocative, “Without knowledge and understanding, one tends to become a passive spectator rather than an active participant in the great decisions of our time.” That statement serves as a catalyst for those who have the strength and the convictions to inspire the true stakeholders out of their sense of complacency and unwarranted trust of today’s policymakers for the good of our children and their futures!

A great decision of our time is quickly approaching in four years; yet, the American populace remains unaware of the dire consequences. Those with the knowledge and understanding are obligated to convey to all stakeholders the issues involved, and the resulting consequences. I certainly would appreciate your thoughts about achieving such a goal. I, do, have some of my own. Thank you for your attention to my concerns!


Barry R. Mahanes


March 4, 2010

Dear Dr. Ravitch,

I applaud your courageous rethinking about our core public education format.

Retired now, I taught in public school for 25 yrs. in large city & small town schools in four states—New Orleans, LA; Atlanta, GA; Lawrence, KS; and Barrington, RI, my home now. In addition, I taught in part-time grant programs for 10 years in numerous RI public schools.

Our current problem in RI, which the New York Times noticed, is the crisis in Central Falls, where the entire staff of their one high school was threatened with being fired by misguided “hardball” tactics of the superintendent.

CF is close to my heart, as I taught part-time in grant funded programs there. Without hesitation, I would rank CF teachers among the finest I have ever worked with, anywhere, at any time.

RI’s smallest inner-city, Central Falls, is a crucible of poverty, a veritable poster-child of urban woes—chronically depressed, with large numbers of students whose English is a second or third language, a very high rate of student turnover, with many newly arrived families, hard-working but often with only borderline literacy in English. CF high school teachers have minimal resources, yet are excoriated for “low scores, unacceptable graduation rates.”

As you can see, it’s a dismal Dickensian story. Yet, if No Child could redirect its focus on testing, reshape its goals to include flexible levels of measurement, and embrace truly comprehensive school programs, there really is hope for meaningful change.

Is there some way for me to help? Meanwhile, I encourage you to continue your vital efforts in educational policy. Your voice matters.


JoAnn Putnam-Scholes


March 22, 2010

I am a teacher who is totally dismayed at what I see in the classrooms at my school.

My school was an early America’s Choice school and implemented the design with success. After a leadership change, the school was unable to sustain the improvements. Thinking that I could impact learning and teaching in some other way, I left my school to teach at a charter school. While I enjoyed my class at the charter school, I was unhappy with the top-down management style. I was then recruited to became an administrator at a restructuring high school. The challenges at the high school were many. The principal was removed and I decided that I wasn’t willing to continue in that environment. My love is teaching and curriculum, not politics or bureaucracy.

After my three-year walkabout, I returned to my school as a Literacy Coach. In the time I was gone, the school had embraced teaching to quarterly benchmarks and test prep. Previously, the school was well known for quality writing instruction; the focus on testing and the constructed response has totally eclipsed other genres of writing instruction. We were on the way to implementing a constructivist math program. Now math teachers are busy looking at quarterly benchmarks and looking for activities/worksheets to support student achievement on quarterly benchmark tests. I do believe that standards which reflect quality student performance or product are a great help to teachers; the danger is in using narrow assessments that can’t capture what we really need to see when learning is happening.

In the interview you gave Democracy Now, you spoke about the poor education that is being delivered in our current NCLB state. I see it daily. Don’t get me wrong, there are teachers doing great things in their individual classrooms; but there are also classrooms where little learning of importance happens. As Literacy Coach, I am charged with helping teachers implement the school’s curriculum. This seems that it would be relatively straightforward. It’s not. Because of all the emphasis on testing, teachers seem unclear about what they should be teaching and what students should learn beyond the things that are explicit on the state multiple-choice tests. Your comments capture much of my feeling as a practitioner at the school level. Your insights are a bit frightening because I fully understand that true success for our teachers and students cannot be reflected in the multiple-choice test and we seem to be on the no off-ramp ride to test prep land. It is also a bit scary to see the federal government controlling federal funds as a way to force change that will be detrimental rather than positive. Common Core Standards are a good step; proliferation of for-profit charter schools is not. It takes more thought to make positive, sustainable change.

I agree that individually our voices are small and that any true influence will be collective. I’m just not sure how.


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


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