THE BLOG

Ravitch Redux

08/16/2013 03:40 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2013
  • Peter Cunningham Executive Director, Education Post; Former Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, U.S. Department of Education
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During the Obama administration's first term, I served as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education, where one of my jobs was to monitor criticism of our policies and develop our responses. One of the people I monitored pretty closely was Diane Ravitch. Being a native New Yorker, I am very familiar with her name and reputation and in the interest of finding common ground, I reached out to her and brought her in to sit with the Secretary and share her thoughts. She and I also did a panel discussion together in Florida and I routinely exchanged emails with her.

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.

Now that I have left government, I continue to track the national dialogue on-line. For example, I read the other day that Dr. Ravitch's blog has just received its six millionth page view. I extend my congratulations to her. She clearly has a following and with tens of thousands of tweets and thousands of blog posts behind her, she has earned it. However, I was taken aback to read the following passage in Friday's New York Times in an article about the new assessment in New York aligned with Common Core standards:

Some critics say the new standards are simply unrealistic. "We're using a very inappropriate standard that's way too high," said Diane Ravitch, an education historian who served in President George W. Bush's Education Department but has since become an outspoken critic of many education initiatives. "I think there are a lot of kids who are being told that if they don't go to college that it will ruin their life," she said. "But maybe they don't need to go to college."

When Dr. Ravitch says, "But maybe they don't need to go to college," who exactly is she referring to? It's certainly not rich white kids. It's definitely not the children of middle class parents, who view college for the kids as one of the core pillars of the American Dream. That leaves low-income and minority children. It includes the children of immigrants who come here with an 8th grade education and desperately want their kids to do better than them -- the kind of parents you meet at a graduation who speak little English and can't stop crying for joy.

I fully understand that all young people are not going to college. In fact, only about 42 percent of current 25- to 34-year-olds earn a two-year or four-year degree. But for Dr. Ravitch to suggest that we should keep standards down and reduce expectations for a big segment of these young people is beyond belief. It's even more remarkable when you consider that in her role as an Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration, her most notable effort -- albeit unsuccessful -- was to establish national history standards.

I know she has repudiated many of her earlier views on reform and I respect her right to change her mind. But openly and unrepentantly calling for low standards and implying that whole segments of the student population are not college material is indefensible.

I understand that Dr. Ravitch is about to publish another book attacking education reform. She will go after my good friend Arne Duncan. She will attack alternative educational approaches such as charter schools -- even if they are successful. She will attack well-meaning and hard-working organizations like Teach for America. She will attack foundations and organizations she disagrees with, regardless of the benefits they provide to educators. She will lump them all together as one big corporate conspiracy aimed at privatizing public education.

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. Can't remember the last president with a similar background. Worst of all, she will use poverty as an excuse to avoid any responsibility on the part of the federal government, states, districts, schools and educators -- collectively -- to somehow do a better job of educating poor kids.

Change is hard. Raising standards is hard. Evaluating ourselves and our schools is hard. Facing the truth about the quality of education we provide is hard. But denying and distorting the truth only makes it worse for children. America is at a crossroads with Common Core and with other education reforms underway. If some of these efforts are moving too fast for some and are off-base for others, we can discuss it like adults with intellectual rigor and mutual respect and adjust accordingly. But we can never, ever retreat.