Events: Ravitch Appearing On "Daily Show"

Picture 107Later on today, education historian Diane Ravitch is going to head out from her Brooklyn Heights home and make her way into the city to be a guest on tonight’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” for the first time since May 2003 (pictured). Perhaps they’ll send a town car for her. There will be a green room of some sort, probably some water bottles and snacks.  It will be a happy moment, too, for all of the educators and parents who have welcomed Ravitch into their arms.  For me, however, Ravitch’s appearance will be another moment to reflect on the nagging unease I have with what she’s saying – and in particular the absolute certainty with which she is saying it. What about you?

Perhaps they’ll send a town car for her. There will be a green room of some sort, probably some water bottles and snacks.  A makeup artist will offer to touch her up.  If there’s time between rehearsing bits and script rewrites, the host will come in and say hi and tell her how happy he is to have her on the show.  Until the headsetted staffer comes to get her, Ravitch will likely sit quietly in her chair as she does before most of her speeches.The Comedy Central appearance will be a tremendous victory for Ravitch, who has been pushing to get on one of the two shows in the 11 pm time slot for almost a year now.  

Ravitch is correct that the reforms of the last two decades — charters, alternative certification, standards and accountability — have all proved insufficient thus far.  She obviously has the right to change her mind — I’m a big fan of those who are brave enough to reflect, admit doubt, and take action.  

In fact, Ravitch isn’t the only reformer to have major concerns or want to try something new — Bill Gates has stopped funding charter expansion efforts and George Miller wants to revamp the NCLB teacher quality rules he co-authored. Nor is Ravitch the only major education figure to change views after a long career. Later in life, union leader Al Shanker questioned some of the value of the trade union approach that he brought to education.

But I’m just not sure that, given the circumstances, Ravitch has the right to so much damn certainty about either her critique or her new/old prescriptions for improvement. In her book and in person Ravitch dismisses questions surrounding her change of heart in a couple of sentences, invokes the value of self-reflection and adjustment, and then seems completely without doubt (or remorse).  She is absolutely certain that she was wrong before, and absolutely sure that she is right now.  It’s that hardened certainty that I find so troubling, even after all these months and despite agreeing with her and admiring her on so many levels. It’s also not so certain to me that there’s no hope in standards and accountability, or that there’s any viable path for a return to a rich common curriculum and respect for classroom teachers.  

Certainty, like confidence, is appealing (to a point).  And conversion stories are inherently compelling, whether they be political, religious, or educational.  But they’re not enough for people like me who can’t help but think that if Ravitch was wrong before, then why not again now?  Someone who admits that she was so profoundly swayed by 18 months in the Bush administration that she spent the next 25 years expounding market based reforms doesn’t inspire confidence or certainty.  For me, Ravitch is the unreliable narrator, the witness caught contradicting herself on the stand, the girlfriend who’s been caught cheating once but says she won’t ever do that again (and wants your trust to be fully restored a week later).  I just don’t trust her.

That being said, I have major trust issues. There aren’t many people or ideas that I really believe in; convinction is just not something I’m comfortable with. I admit to liking things better when Ravitch was using her considerable powers of skepticism to debunk fads, panaceas, and fairy tales — even if she was failing to monitor her own beliefs carefully enough.  If her book was simply a takedown of charters, choice, and accountability, a giant mea culpa for the past 25 years or so, that would probably satisfy me immensely, intellectually and emotionally. So you might dismiss my concerns as unwarranted or even mildly disturbing. 

I also know that maintaining skeptical distance is intellectually and psychologically exhausting. We all want to believe in something, to have hope, and to be welcomed by colleagues.  Living in constant doubt is a umcofortable.  There are pressures, internal and otherwise, to say what you’re for. You don’t get invited to speak on panels, or keynote conferences, or (apparently) get onto The Daily Show if you don’t have a simple, clear story to tell and certainty in what you’re saying.

Here’s Ravitch’s 2003 appearance:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Diane Ravitch
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  • Frankly, I find your comment that there may be no viable path to a rich common curriculum and respect for classroom teachers more troubling than Ravitch's certainty. Why would high quality teachers work in a profession that is without respect? What kind of education are we going to have for our children if we can't have a rich common curriculum? A poor fragmented one? It seems to me that your vision is of a republic in deepening decline.

  • "It's perfectly legitimate and necessary to
    struggle with many of Ravitch's views--old and new, as progressives
    like Deb Meier and others (including myself) have done over the years. But Russo's jabs are petty." -- Mike Klonsky

  • I'm currently a third grade teacher, but I'm also the Executive Director of Excelencia School of Chicago, an elementary charter school that hopes to open its doors in August, 2012.

    We have never believed at Excelencia that our job is to test our students, or that we can succeed without a simpler, coherent curriculum that allows teachers flexibility, creativity, and the professional trust to practice their craft well.

    My teaching experience has been in a variety of settings, ranging from extremely high-needs schools to very successful ones (with many of the same children that no one would've expected to succeed). I've been fortunate that I've always felt privileged and called to be leading a classroom, and I founded Excelencia as a way of expanding the joy of teaching school-wide.

    When we talk to parents in Humboldt Park, some want to improve their neighborhood schools, but most want a choice. Ravitch's Daily Show appearance appealed to my teacher's heart in that I don't enjoy my teachers being blamed for all that is wrong with education, but I also felt called to challenge Ravitch's assertion that those of us working hard to create an outstanding opportunity for Chicago's children are somehow harming education in our city.

  • Gwen, ironically, the neighborhood schools in Humboldt Park and other areas won't be outstanding until parents of means dig in and get involved and send their own advantaged kids to the schools, and parents who don't have means, will at least make sure their children behave, do their work, read at night instead of running the streets and start volunteering at schools.
    Schools that are outstanding are outstanding for a reason. The parents whose children attend those schools are ruthless about getting a good education and ruthless about making sure their kids are prepared to succeed and achieve. You could switch the teaching staff at any underperforming, low income schools with a high performing, advantaged schools and the results would be exactly the same. As long as middle class families avoid their neighborhood schools like the plague (and believe me, we don't send our own kids to our local school, so no blame here, just stating the obvious reasons)
    And yes, all the dollars that corporations and tax dollars need to fund small class sizes and great support staff.

  • I meant to say, as long as middle class families avoid their local schools, they will not improve. At a certain point, you can have the best teaching staff around, and if you don't attract better performing kids, scores will not go up, and achievement and success can't happen.

  • Gwen, one giant misconception about charters is that they are not neighborhood schools. The vast majority of students at charter schools come from their local neighborhoods. Charters are simply another choice in the neighborhood, and Excelencia School of Chicago is happy to be building partnerships with families and community organizations in Humboldt Park to provide that choice.

    And I certainly agree with you that schools that are providing better options for families certainly deserve more funding than schools that have had resources for ages and yet failed to improve any outcomes at all. Perhaps we could work together to advocate for equitable funding for charters?

    However, as I recall my teaching experience in primarily minority and primarily low-income schools, I've never met a parent who didn't want what was best for their child. Even some of my grouchiest parents came to my extended day tutoring sessions to find out what we were doing in math, called me at home when they were concerned about homework, or asked when I was sending home the spelling words for next week.

    Truthfully, some of my middle class parents could learn from a single mom of three of one of my former students who, because she didn't have an email, wrote me a note in a notebook telling me to send her daily notes about her child's progress. This mom drilled spelling words and math facts every night, and expected her boy to read for twice as long as I had assigned, since he had twice as far that he needed to grow.

    If I thought I could fix the basic fundamental issues of education in all the world, I might be working on a different project. But it's only in my power to create an engaging, safe, challenging, nurturing environment for children with the resources I do have, and charters are likely going to be at least a small part of the solution.

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