Diane Ravitch: A Prophet Without Honor

by Robert Pondiscio
February 26th, 2010

Last summer I had the great privilege of reading Diane Ravitch’s new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System in draft form.  It’s a splendid book and a must-read for anyone who cares about our schools and our education policy.  I have been eagerly anticipating the release of this book and the reaction to it. 

At Washington Monthly, Rick Kahlenberg frames his review as Ravitch’s return to her liberal roots, noting she has become “one of the nation’s leading critics not only of conservative educational policies like vouchers but of more centrist ideas too, like charter schools, testing, and merit pay for teachers.”

The new Ravitch exhibits an interesting mix of support for public education and the rights of teachers to bargain collectively with a tough-mindedness that some on the pedagogical left lack; she supports a strong core curriculum and a no-nonsense approach on discipline, while casting a skeptical eye on efforts to artificially prop up student self-esteem….Ironically, Ravitch’s return to the left comes precisely as centrist ideas are consolidating their hold on Washington. Even left-of-center thinking—at the Obama administration’s Education Department, leading foundations and think tanks, and the editorial pages of the New York Times—has galvanized around greater emphasis on charter schools and performance pay for teachers based on test score gains.

At the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Valerie Strauss urges readers to pick up the book and focuses on its most important takeway: Ravitch’s strenuous pushback against data-driven, business-minded reformers who ”imagine that it is easy to create a successful school.”

“They imagine that the lessons of a successful school are obvious and can be easily transferred to other schools, just as one might take an industrial process or a new piece of machinery and install it in a new plant without error. But a school is successful for many reasons, including the personalities of its leader and teachers; the social interactions among them; the culture of the school; the students and their families; the way the school implements policies and programs dictated by the district, the state and the federal government; the quality of the school’s curriculum and instruction; the resources of the school and the community; and many other factors. When a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors.”

“Amen,” Strauss chimes in.  “The U.S. public school system would not be as troubled as it is if most of the reformers of the past few decades really understood this.”

Amen, indeed.  It has been dispiriting to see some in the ed reform community, including some I otherwise respect, dismiss Ravitch in the past several years  (no links; you know who you are) accusing her of anything from apostasy to idiocy.  Being right is the best revenge, however, and I suspect when some future Diane Ravitch writes the history of this era in education, he or she will wonder why more attention wasn’t paid to our best and clearest educational historian.  Too often a prophet without honor, she has spent the last several years of her career acting as a one-woman counterweight to the worst excesses of the ascendant, 0ften-wrong-but-never-in-doubt brand of ed reform.  The Death and Life of the Great American School System is her clearest and most powerful statement to date.


  1. Historians, after all, have perspectives others lack. They know that reform ideas come and go. They know that some of the SAME reform ideas reappear, in slightly different guise, decade after decade. And they know the dangers of hubris.

    Comment by Claus — February 26, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  2. Who, I wonder, on the “other side” has as much intimate knowledge of the schools and their history as Diane Ravitch? In my eyes at least, Diane Ravitch has authority that many reform advocates lack.

    Comment by Anonymous — February 26, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

  3. The book is a classic in its own time. But I disagree with your premise. Among a considerable and fast growing group of educators,advocates, and parents, Diane is highly esteemed and recognized as the most honorable of Prophets.

    Bravo, Diane!

    Comment by leonie haimson — February 26, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

  4. Has anyone else noticed how politicians and elected officials on both sides of the aisle use words like “replicate the model” to an annoying extent? I completely resonate with the quote from Ravitch’s book about how each school is a success or failure based on mutliple factors that cannot be measured simply and surely cannot be copied and pasted into any other school. It surprises me that she stands against charter schools because they hold promise of fighting against this misguided idea, with more local control.

    Comment by Sarah Hayden — February 26, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

  5. The phrase “a prophet without honor” is Biblical in origin (Matthew 13:57 or Mark 6:4) and refers to a prophet not recognized in his/her own land, or one for whom those closest to him/her do not like or want to hear what he or she says. To the extent that senior Buah and Obama administration officials are not hearing or don’t like what Ms. Ravitch has to say, she is indeed a prophet(ess) who is not being honored. In a more modern sense of similar phrasing, Ms. Ravitch deserves honor for taking a position, reflecting intelligently and thoughtfully on it, looking at evidence of the results, and adjusting her views based on principled reasoning. Would that at least a few of our present-day political class from Washington to Albany to City Hall and Tweed had both the courage and the honor to do likewise. Unlike the rest of this cowardly, dogmatized herd, Ms. Ravitch has the wisdom to analyze her own views and the courage to admit that she might have been wrong, or at least that her views have changed based on new evidence. This type of honor is is such sadly short supply among American elected officials today, the lack of it is doing potentially irreversible harm to our nation. Recognized or not, Diane Ravitch is a prophet to be honored.

    Comment by Steve Koss — February 27, 2010 @ 11:52 am

  6. Agree that the factors in a school’s success are varied and complex.

    The problem I have is that many who talk about this complexity inexplicably argue against allowing different kinds of public schools to exist.

    They fight to maintain a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education at the same time that they are highlighting the complexities of the situation.

    The factors in a school’s success (or lack thereof) are definitely many….so why not allow schools the opportunity to have flexibility in how they go about it??

    Comment by MBW — March 3, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

  7. I just finished reading Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. This is the first book by Ms. Ravitch that I have read and I thought it was a good book. She is unafraid to take on seemingly sacred institutions like the Gates Foundation and Teach for America. Her comments on these institutions are not scathing but rather thoughtful and reasoned. Of course any school administrator would like to have extra money from a philanthropic organization but after reading her chapter on philanthropy and education it’s clear that Gates and other philanthropic groups have a thing or two to learn about education. Concerning Teach for America Ms. Ravitch points out that a teacher is least effective in his or her first two or three years of teaching – the very years that a young person would be involved in Teach for America. There are many good things to say about Teach for America and Ms. Ravitch acknowledges this but I think that it’s proper that she points out this weakness as well. I do have a question for Ms. Ravitch concerning the mandated testing required by programs like No Child Left Behind. Given the bureaucratic overload and the narrowing of focus (to reading and math) of such programs why not use sampling, i.e. randomly pick schools and grades for testing? Statisticians tell us that we can get better results for less money using random sampling.

    Comment by Ray Sepeta — July 15, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

  8. Bravo Diane! I will make every effort to read her new book. I met Diane at a Japanese International Conference held at Chiba University in 1985. At that time she was with a delegation of ultraconservative educators representing the United States. I was there as a Monbusho Fellow trying to help my Japanese colleagues better understand what the USA group was saying. I told them these ideas were not the ideas of teachers. Diane now says she was wrong! Obama is now wrong! How can teachers convince the public that these test-centered schools are dead wrong?

    Comment by Dr. Walter Kreider, Jr — July 29, 2010 @ 10:13 am

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