Ravitch: No U-Turn

by Guest Blogger
March 4th, 2010

by Diana Senechal

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, as in her previous work, Diane Ravitch takes apart many education fads and clichés, and explains the changes in her views on testing, choice, and accountability. Now a cliche has arisen in the media about Ravitch herself: the assertion that she has made an “about-face,” a “U-turn,” or a “180-degree turn.” Reviewers, reporters, and bloggers have latched onto these phrases as though they were established truths.

As Ravitch’s research assistant, I had the great honor of reading her book many times prior to its publication and assisting with documentation and editing. In addition, I have read all the books she has written and some of those she has edited. In the spirit of her work, I will challenge the “about-face” bromide.

She has changed some views and retained others, and the change has not always been 180 degrees (sometimes more like 45, 90, or 115 degrees). Or perhaps, like many of us, she has several concentric circles, some staying still, others rotating. She has always been critical of rushed reforms and educational fads. She has always supported a strong, rich curriculum and warned about the pitfalls of standardized tests. And she has a profound understanding of the challenges that teachers have faced over the past century.

In chapters 18-20 of her first book, The Great School Wars (1974), Ravitch described how policymakers rushed to expand a reform model without adequate thought and planning. In the spring of 1914, NYC Mayor John Purroy Mitchel visited Gary, Indiana, to see the reorganized schools, where students spent the day in workshops in large spaces rather than classrooms. He liked what he saw and approved a pilot plan at a school in the Bronx, based on the Gary model. Soon afterward, a Brooklyn school was added.

Despite the skepticism (and, later, the scathing report) of Superintendent William Henry Maxwell, despite parent concerns about the weak curriculum, despite growing protests in the community, Mayor Mitchel insisted on expanding the plan throughout the city. “Why the haste to install the Gary plan?” Ravitch asks. “The Mitchel administration had decided that it was the answer to the problem of overcrowded schools and had stopped the school-construction program.” The expansion was both rushed and academically unsound—two recurring characteristics of reforms that Ravitch criticizes in her new book.

Throughout her career, Ravitch has repeatedly criticized the tendency of reformers to latch onto the newest educational idea without regard for the substance of a curriculum. In The Troubled Crusade (1983), and later, in Left Back (2000), she describes the curriculum revision movement of the early decades of the twentieth century: it typically began with an administrator learning that “his own school’s program, no matter how successful it might seem, was outmoded.” The efforts to bring the school in line with the times invariably destroyed the academic curriculum. In her latest book, too, she shows the futility of reforms that ignore the substance of learning.

Many assume that Ravitch was previously an ardent supporter of accountability and testing and has switched her views completely. But she has warned over the decades that standardized tests could narrow the curriculum. In her 1984 essay “The Uses and Misuses of Tests” (included in The Schools We Deserve), she observes:

Overreliance on standardized testing may be dangerous to the health of education. It is certainly dangerous to the integrity of the high school curriculum. The introduction of the SAT, which (in its verbal component) is curriculum free, left many high schools without a good argument for requiring students to take history, literature, science, or anything not specifically demanded by the college of their choice.

A decade later, after serving as assistant secretary of education, she wrote in National Standards in American Education (1995):

The SAT tested linguistic and mathematical power and had no connection to any particular curriculum, which left secondary schools free to require whatever they chose. The literature curriculum, which had been anchored by the college entrance examinations for many years, was completely abandoned by the SAT, allowing secondary schools to teach whatever books they wished and even to drop the traditional classics altogether.

Ravitch’s work shows compassion for teachers and understanding of their extraordinary responsibilities. In “Scapegoating the Teachers” (1983, in The Schools We Deserve) she points out that “the most common response to the current crisis in education has been to assail public school teachers.” This is unfair, she argues, because there are “many guilty parties still at large”; moreover, “as teaching conditions worsen, it is teachers who suffer the consequences.” In Left Back, she describes the overwhelming demands on teachers over the past century, as one drastic movement replaced another. These themes recur in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Yes, Ravitch has undergone a significant transformation. For those who insist on reducing her views to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” her change may resemble a 180-degree turn. She herself describes the change as wrenching; in the first chapter of her new book, she recalls her own bewilderment: “But why, I kept wondering, why had I changed my mind? What was the compelling evidence that prompted me to reevaluate the policies I had endorsed many times over the previous decade?” She freely admits: “I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures; I too had drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems.” This is not to be taken lightly. But there is much more to her views than a flip or a turn. There is wisdom, scholarship, and a sense of the complexity of education. If her changes can be reduced to a U-turn, then the earth does not orbit, nor does a room have shape.


Diana Senechal taught for four years in the New York City public schools and has stepped back to write a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture. Her writing has appeared in Education Week, GothamSchools, the Core Knowledge Blog, Joanne Jacobs, the Answer Sheet, and Common Core.



  1. “The expansion was both rushed and academically unsound—two recurring characteristics of reforms that Ravitch criticizes in her new book.”

    Doesn’t that sound like what we are hearing about these new Common Core standards?

    How do we escape bad reform ideas that are national in scope? You could move out of Gary, Indiana more easily than emigrating from the US.

    In an era of increasingly finite and fought over public dollars, how will we repurchase better instructional materials when states and local districts realize “academic success for all” is a futile and very expensive hoax?

    Comment by Student of History — March 4, 2010 @ 9:17 am

  2. Last week in a response to an article in the Washington Post I stated that Diane Ravitch is to educational history what Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss are to presidential history. They are all remarkable scholars in their respective fields.

    Diane’s new book is nothing short of exemplary. It is courageous, bold, and accurate. One has come to expect nothing less from this extraordinary individual.

    If you’re at all interested in the intricacies of our public schools and twenty-first century education reform, you need to read this book. It will leave you with an infinite array of thoughts and queries. It is so thought provoking, I had difficulty sleeping for three nights after I finished it.

    Read it. You’ll be depriving yourself of a few hours of true scholarship if you don’t.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 4, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  3. I don’t see what’s wrong with a thinker changing their point of view at all, by any amount. If a thinker has true humility, he/she should be willing to adapt and adjust his/her point of view to the most current information and findings in the field.

    Comment by Glenn H — March 4, 2010 @ 10:31 am

  4. Glenn H.,

    You make a very good point. Of course it is not wrong to change one’s view by any amount, and it can be a sign of humility, as you say. But it is rarely that simple.

    We need to have certain principles that guide us as we change our mind–not just the latest evidence, which should be important, but a way of sorting out the evidence, of deciding what is important.

    Some of those principles may change, but many are likely to remain constant. In fact a deep and drastic change may be propelled by a still deeper constancy.

    The people who talk of “U-Turns” sometimes hint that Diane Ravitch has switched teams. But she isn’t on a team. She thinks for herself and always has. And as I see it, some of her ideas have changed a great deal, others not.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 4, 2010 @ 10:41 am

  5. I’m not sure if I’d describe it as an about face as I would call it a surprising change of emphasis. I haven’t read the book yet, but from what I can tell in reading her blog and other recent essays, Ravitch has become much more of a policy critic than academic historian; a carper about process more so than a champion of content. Her about-faces, for instance, center on Mayoral control, testing, and charter schools. This has been troubling to me not only because she is much less authoritative or convincing on these subjects — and some of her attacks on Michael Bloomberg have the ring of personal vendetta — but she undermines the work of many good people trying to bring the principles of core knowledge to charters and low performing traditional public schools by seeming to be the latest champion of status quo ante, powerful, change-resistant unions and all.

    Comment by Peter Meyer — March 5, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

  6. I bought the book and read the first 100 pages and the last chapter. I am more impressed with the book than I am with many of her critics. There is one thing that I can agree wholeheartedly so far: a demanding curriculum is one of the central features of any successful school reform. The only major quibble I would have on this issue is that exactly what the curriculum contains is not as beneficial to education outcomes as the rigor of the curriculum.

    As in other of her writings, she has some obvious biases. I would be far more critical of the current institutions that train teachers as well as those that hire them. She is overly critical of business. You can rest assured that most business types are far more critical of their own efforts than any educator can ever be. Glimpses of her views on Economics filter through now and again. Her comment that Adam Smith’s invisible hand is a mystery or something to that effect is simply wrong. It has been extensively described and studied.

    More when I finish the book.

    Comment by Tom Linehan — March 5, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  7. Peter,

    I recommend reading the book. Her writing on Bridging Differences gives some previews, but in the book she lays out her arguments in detail. Her first book, The Great School Wars, deals with the issues of centralization and decentralization extensively. Only a small part of the new book is about mayoral control, but it is informed by her historical perspective as well as by recent events.


    I look forward to more of your thoughts on the book.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 6, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

  8. Diana, Thanks for a great piece–a thoughtful conclusion to the three-blog series–with a very personal perspective on Ravitch’s work.

    What I have found discouraging in the past two weeks is the intense focus whether Ravitch is a turncoat, has gone soft–or is a closet apologist for teacher unions and ed schools. The Cult of Personality and political posturing around the author are driving me crazy. What matters are the ideas in the book–that’s what we should be talking, writing and thinking about.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 7, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  9. Nancy,

    Thank you for the lovely comment. You are absolutely right. All that stuff is a distraction. As you say, what matters are the ideas in the book.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 7, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

  10. Diana,

    Thanks for posting this wonderful defense of Diane’s deepest convictions. I belong to an online community of thousands of educators, and most of the chatter has been about how “that conservative” Ravitch has had a “change of heart.” It is difficult to get people to understand how important specific curriculum standards are. Until we can start the “reform” conversation at that level, we are all destined to be frustrated by whatever system the anti-knowledge forces come up with.

    Comment by Bill Maniotis — March 8, 2010 @ 9:02 am

  11. What makes me wonder whether the book is worth reading is that Ravitch is writing far outside her area of expertise — she’s an historian, whereas she’s writing about current social science quite a lot. But judging from past blogging (e.g., http://www.edexcellence.net/flypaper/index.php/2009/05/the-massachusetts-miracle-and-teachers-unions-the-debate-continues/), she doesn’t pay attention to the most basic principles of social science.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 15, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

  12. Nancy — judging from her blogging and dozens of articles about the book, she’s not putting any forth any new “ideas” on testing and choice that haven’t been said hundreds of times before, often by people more well versed in social science than Ravitch is. The main selling point, it seems to me, is precisely the personal odyssey that Ravitch describes.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 17, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

  13. Stuart, by your own admission you have not read the book; you have read about the book. Why you choose to comment on the book without having read it, I can’t say. But I can say with confidence that your comments will be much more informed if you read the book (from start to finish).

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 17, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

  14. I’m sure my comments would be more informed too, but it’s a question of whether the book is worth my time and money. On the plus side, I’ve liked Ravitch’s previous books, and I’m sure I’d still find her views on curricula and standards compatible with my own.

    On the other hand, Ravitch’s blogging and articles of late are ignorant of the most elementary principles of social science (her latest blog post is still hawking the discredited argument about Massachusetts and Finland, and a recent blog post made the claim that charter schools nationwide are underperforming because of a snapshot of NAEP scores). Moreover, I’ve seen her make claims about other issues (e.g., merit pay) where she doesn’t seem to be aware of the scholarly literature.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 17, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

  15. I’d also note my point is about whether Ravitch’s own writings in recent years give me any reason to think that the book is worth reading, and I’m more than well-informed enough on that point to comment.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 17, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  16. What’s most interesting is what Diane omits…

    Such as:

    American students are performing so poorly compared to foreign (ex. India and China ) students.

    Private schools save the taxpayer funds

    waste in the public schools is the grease which oils the cogs of the machine. The name of the game is called the zero-sum option, and this is what has led to closing of so many private schools (people cannot afford HIGH property taxes and tuition at the same time.)

    50 years ago, when public schools WERE accountable, when waste and overspending were not the norm, there were a plethora of private schools and this forced the public schools to BE COMPETATIVE.

    Comment by Erwin Rysz — August 28, 2010 @ 1:17 am

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