THE BLOG
05/04/2011 05:26 pm ET Updated Jul 04, 2011

How Diane Ravitch Became My Intellectual Hero

Before I started teaching, I could explain, chapter and verse, why Diane Ravitch was wrong. Although Ravitch's scholarship was impeccable, she caused nothing but headaches for us true believers in educational progressivism. My complaints about Ravitch's demands for a content-rich curriculum disappeared after my first semester in the classroom. I quickly learned Ravitch was right, and that we can not build the bricks of conceptual understanding without the straw of knowledge.

A decade later, I was uneasy about Ravitch's, and my, support for NCLB. My better judgment said that the increased standardized testing would do more harm than good, but I was preoccupied with building bridges with the business community so I supported my union's willingness to give the new law a chance. At the time, I was frustrated with the professors emeriti who used the lessons of history to confidently (and it turns out, correctly) predict the failure of NCLB.

Then in 2007, I was reintroduced to Ravitch through the column, "Bridging Differences," which she shared with another educational hero, Deborah Meier. Nowadays, "reformers" complain that Ravitch and Meier just have a love fest, agreeing with each other, but their debates were rigorous. According to one of Meier's early scorecards, they agreed on six major issues and disagreed on five. When Ravitch and Meier debated national standards, I switched sides after each post, agreeing with whoever made the last argument.

The turning point for "Bridging Differences" seemed to be related to the mendacity of Joel Klein's claims of success in New York City. Ravitch had served for seven years on the board of the NAEP assessment, which was the closest thing to the gold standard for educational tests, so she knew where the "reformers'" bodies of lies were buried. Ravitch and Meier also built on a shared commitment to democracy and skepticism of power. For instance, when Eli Broad hosted Ravitch in his Central Park penthouse, she was not awed. On the contrary, she wrote that Broad,"told me that what was needed to fix the schools was not all that complicated: A tough manager surrounded by smart graduates of business schools and law schools. Accountability. Tight controls. Results."

The timing of Ravitch's warnings was perfect for me. Our district was approaching a disastrous six month reign of a superintendent from the Broad Superintendent's Academy. I thus saw the devastating, unintended effects on my students of the policies of the "billionaires boy's club."

Then, The Death and Life of the Great American School System was published. It was a privilege to read the educational cousin of Jane Jacob's masterpiece in explaining why we should embrace the messy facts of the human comedy, while rejecting technocracy. To be honest, however, I was reluctant to cite her historical analysis. Ravitch (like Linda Darling Hammond) made a great case for traditional school reforms. She showed that real progress had been made by the old-fashioned methods of improving schools. For instance, from the early 1970s to 1996, gains occurred in math, reading, and science for nine-and thirteen-year-old students, and in math and reading for seventeen-year-old students. During the same time period, substantial gains occurred for both Hispanic and black students and for lower-scoring students

Privately, I was proud of these great educational historians but I was still trying to work collaboratively with market-oriented reformers. The last thing that they wanted to hear was a revisionist explanation of why the "status quo" had accomplished more than the accountability hawks. Along with my union, I sought compromises with non-educators who were in no mood to hear how incremental improvements in teacher preparation, professional development, curriculum, and the other nuts and bolts of the system had once brought real improvements and how they could do so again. But evidence can be a stubborn thing.

So, last week as I listened to Ravitch on NPR's Fresh Air, I reveled in her ability to change the educational conversation to reality-based solutions. At the same time, the former historian in me was proud of her display of our profession's skills. And sure enough, NPR provided a link to Ravitch's own explanation of her intellectual journey. Here is my favorite passage:

"In the fall of 2007, I reluctantly decided to have my office repainted ...(and) I began unpacking twenty years of papers and books ...

"The task of sorting my articles gave me the opportunity to review what I had written at different times, beginning in the mid-1960s. As I flipped from article to article, I kept asking myself, how far had I strayed from where I started? Was it like me to shuffle off ideas like an ill-fitting coat? As I read and skimmed and remembered, I began to see two themes at the center of what I have been writing for more than four decades. One constant has been my skepticism about ill-considered fads, enthusiasms, movements, and theories. The other has been a deep belief in the value of a rich, coherent school curriculum, especially in history and literature, both of which are so frequently ignored, trivialized, or politicized."

By the way, when rereading Ravitch's work, I realized how much I had inadvertently borrowed from her when writing this for the Huffington Post.