Ravitch’s move away from the left also came as she was dealing with an overwhelming personal loss. In 1966, her two-year old son died of leukemia. She was still mourning “as the flower children were running around in Central Park barefoot and setting firebombs in the flower beds,” Ravitch says. “I was not a fan of the counterculture, in part because it was such a tragic time in my own life, and, educationally, I disliked the contempt for knowledge, professionalism, and institutions.”
She still does. And while Ravitch located those trends on the left back then, she sees them today in the bipartisan consensus around market-based education reforms. In her book, Ravitch claims she was swayed by peer pressure from the Washington free-market types she worked alongside at the Department of Education and then the Brookings Institution. “Having been immersed in a world of true believers, I was influenced by their ideas,” she writes in Death and Life. “I became persuaded.”
Now that she’s been unpersuaded, Ravitch spends the greatest chunk of her energy arguing against what she sees as a war on teachers, defending their unions, tenure protections, and pensions. In fact, it’s a point she made during her time on the other side, too. In 1983 she wrote a New Republic essay called “Scapegoating the Teachers” in which she noted that “it is comforting to blame teachers for the low state of education, because it relieves so many others of their own responsibility for years of educational neglect.”
Almost 30 years later, Ravitch says she’s particularly offended by the suggestion—implicit in the media’s celebration of Teach for America, the organization that launched Rhee’s career—that perhaps teaching should not be a lifelong profession at all, but a bleeding-heart diversion for elite 20-somethings.
“To me, it’s like saying that we’re going to build up the Peace Corps so at some point we can replace the senior diplomats,” she says. “That’s ridiculous.” Ravitch—who says she’d probably apply for TFA if she were leaving college today—nonetheless thinks that instead of letting the much-publicized program suck up all the “psychic energy,” there should be college loan forgiveness for people who become teachers. “Then you would have so many people applying to join this field that you could select the top 10 or 15 percent,” she says.
In her new pose, Ravitch’s policy ideas sometimes seem politically irrelevant in a budget-cutting, public sector-baiting season. No GOP-run Congress would approve a national college loan forgiveness program for public school teachers. But, especially in the year of the Wisconsin labor showdown, the argument about honoring professional teachers has struck a cord.
“When I was in Florida the other day a guy came up to me, and he was literally crying,” she says. “He said, ‘I was about to quit teaching and I read your book and I decided to stay.’ So I feel almost a sense of mission.”
Ravitch may have a knack for self-promotion, but her emergence as the leading voice of education-reform dissent also owes a lot to serendipity—with an assist from D.C. voters.
Though Ravitch spent years sparring with New York schools chief Joel Klein, Rhee’s story last year became a truly national one. For much of her tenure, the high-profile chancellor benefited from the fact that nearly all of her critics could be caricatured as local yokels with no ability to focus on the big picture. That caricature reached its apotheosis after last year’s mayoral election, which much of the media characterized as a revolt by down-market ignoramuses who couldn’t understand the importance of school reform. Officially crowned a martyr, Rhee embraced a second career as a national education activist.
With a significant media profile of her own, Ravitch became a go-to critic for anyone looking for a contrary opinion. The former DCPS chancellor made things pretty easy, giving Ravitch an opening to blast her for advising far-right governors like Rick Scott of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey. “Rhee maintains being bipartisan while being closely affiliated with the Tea Party governors,” Ravitch says. “The bipartisan agenda has become what used to be the GOP platform. I wonder if the Democratic Party will ever regain its sense about the importance of public education and equity.”
Ravitch was in Argentina in March when USA Today broke the news that half of all D.C. schools had likely corrected students’ mistakes on standardized tests. Nevertheless, she dashed off a column for The Daily Beast (where I am also a contributing writer). Rhee’s policy of tying pay to test scores, Ravitch wrote, had resulted in “cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum…This formula, which will be a tragedy for our nation and for an entire generation of children, is now immensely popular in the states and the Congress. Most governors embrace it. The big foundations endorse it. The think tanks of D.C., right-wing and left-wing, support it. Rhee helped to make it fashionable. If she doesn’t pause to consider the damage she is doing, shame on her.”