Education historian Diane Ravitch is a controversial figure. As assistant secretary of Education during the administration of George H.W. Bush, she was responsible for promoting education competition, standards-based assessments, and more sanctions for teachers. And then she changed her mind. She’s spent the last decade or so writing books and article denouncing such polices.
But she’s very prominent. And so she’s frequently present in education discussions with the Obama administration. Or at least she was, until the Obama Department of Education decided it didn’t want to hear from her anymore. The question is: Why?
In an oddly direct piece in the Huffington Post, former Obama Department of Education official Peter Cunningham gives his reason why the Obama Administration decided to ignore Ravitch. It’s a little misleading. Cunningham:
Over the years, her criticism of the administration became more and more strident. It was increasingly clear that she was not interested in a genuine conversation with us but rather was interested in driving her anti-administration message, even if it meant resorting to tactics that are beneath someone of her stature: ad hominem attacks on the secretary, cherry-picking data, setting up straw man arguments, taking language out of context and distorting its meaning, and ignoring sound evidence that conflicts with her point of view. At a certain point, I made the decision that, rather than engage with her, we would ignore her and, for the most part, we did.
She totally does those things, of course. There are ad hominem attacks. There’s data cherry picking. Straw man arguments show up for sure. She certainly takes language out of context sometimes. And she ignores evidence that conflicts with her point of view.
But then, she always did that. Such things are errors and signs of bad writing and argument, but not at all uncommon in policy discussions. Barack Obama does such things. So does Education Secretary Arne Duncan. So, frankly, do I, at least occasionally. All writers and advocates do that.
That’s not why Arne Duncan’s staff stopped talking to her.
Cunningham then gives us this information, which is perhaps more important to explaining why he they started screening the Ravitch calls:
What she will not do is offer a realistic alternative that will ensure that poor and low-income children receive a high quality education. She will say that a big part of the problem is poverty — which no one disagrees with. She will call on America to invest more in fighting poverty, as if we have not spent tens of trillions of dollars fighting poverty since the New Deal and the Great Society and will spend tens of trillions more. She will even attack a president who started his career as a community organizer fighting poverty in low-income Chicago neighborhoods and whose core beliefs stem from his faith in education to provide a pathway out of poverty.
“As if we have not spent tens of trillions of dollars fighting poverty since the New Deal and the Great Society” is an interesting rhetorical flourish. It makes it sound as if we’ve made some steady progress toward poverty alleviation and wealth redistribution and yet, somehow, education achievement hasn’t improved. In fact policymakers have spent the last 30 years reversing the gains of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Diane Ravitch says that poverty is basically the whole problem. And she’s got a point. Countries with high education performance have many different education governance structures. What they have in common is robust social welfare polices such that there are virtually no poor children. Low poverty is the common characteristic of educationally high performing nations.
There is no nation on earth with America’s level of poverty and economic disparity and high education performance.
I’m sure Diane Ravitch is incredibly hard to work with. I’m sure she’s really negative and unproductive in discussions about education reforms. There is no reason that the Department of Education’s policymakers should continue to try to talk with someone who is basically opposed to all of their ideas.
But she’s not some crazy unhinged academic. She objects to the Obama administration’s education policies because they promote competition and control in ways that punish teachers and disrupt schools. But because we haven’t made progress in addressing poverty in America, none of these polices will be that effective in improving education achievement.
Feel free not to bring such a figure into policy discussions. It’s quite understandable why you want to cut her out. But if you’re going to write a piece all about what’s wrong with her, acknowledge what she actually believes: your policies are just plain wrong.