Should we absolve Diane Ravitch of her earlier decisions?

[I’m going to state up front that I’m just thinking out loud here. Some of you are not going to like that I even dared to ask this.]

RavitchDiane Ravitch: eminent educational historian, former United States Assistant Secretary of Education, New York University professor, and policy-influencer.

Diane Ravitch: author of The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, by far the sharpest analysis of P-12 textbooks and curricula that I’ve ever read.

Diane Ravitch: former proponent of the No Child Left Behind Act, standardized testing, charter schools, and market-based school reform.

Diane Ravitch: current critic of the No Child Left Behind Act, standardized testing, charter schools, and market-based school reform (in her most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education).


With publication of her new book, many are hailing Dr. Ravitch as one of public education’s great heroes and advocates. I confess that I’m struggling with this. She’s done nearly a complete 180, reversing her position on numerous policy fronts. What she now condemns are issues for which she not only advocated but helped implement during her tenure at the United States Department of Education. And now she thinks they’re all bad.

Should she get a free pass? Should past critics absolve her of her earlier decision-making?

After all, many believe that, thanks to her and others, the negative impacts on students and schools have been substantial, resulting in significant long-term harm to our educational system and society.

After all, it wasn’t like the reasons that she cites now for her reversal weren’t raised as red flags back then. Take a look at the past writings of Alfie Kohn, Susan Ohanian, and others. All of the criticisms that she raises now were cited long ago, at the time of her decision-making.

And so I ask…

What should we do with Diane Ravitch? Welcome her back into the fold of public education advocates? Do we just say, “Oh, hey, glad you now see the light. Thanks for joining us!” Or do we continue to condemn her for past actions, believing that current contrition is not enough?

Your thoughts on this?

27 Responses to “Should we absolve Diane Ravitch of her earlier decisions?”

  1. Would you instead have her stick to her guns despite having learned and grown and changed her mind? A public reversal this drastic can’t have been easy but I think it speaks to her intellectual integrity. Would that more had the courage.

  2. I think your questions point out that we always need to have a healthy skepticism toward anyone who suddenly reverses their beliefs about public education. However, her voice is welcome in helping to keep the debate about horrible overemphasis on testing in this country, and the subtle agenda of these billion-dollar foundations who are seeking to privatize education. Educators need all the extra voices we can get right now because obviously the current administration and Department of Education say they hear us, but then do what they want to us any way.

  3. It is interesting that you use words and phrases, such as “absolve” and “see the light,” which remind me of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. The key point was Paul’s actions after his conversion…

    The question also is whether or not anything Diane Ravitch says from now on will be believed or given weight because of or despite her apparent 180-degree shift.

    The old saying “Actions speak louder than words” tends to be my measure.

  4. I come from a philosophy “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now” (Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young) meaning I believe human beings are capable of change.

    When someone makes such a drastic change, I ask the following questions:

    1) What is her motivation for changing her perspective?

    2) Will there be personal gains and rewards based on making the 180? (thinking of the flip-flopping politicians who do so to increase contributions and followers).

    2) Is she basing her change on logical evidence rather than emotions?

    4) Does she engage in continual reflective practice?

    I do not know the answers to these questions in regards to Diane Ravitch. My point is that I want to based my own judgments about a person after careful analysis of questions such as these.

  5. Dear Scott,

    We can forgive, but absolve, to clear Ms. Ravitch of blame? Of course not.

    And I bet she’d agree–unless we’re her clergy.

    Absolution implies a washing away of the past. She got it wrong, horribly wrong, and we’re paying the price. To her credit, she knows this, and has been fighting the good fight since.

    That she has gained much personally from her reversal should not be held against her. If she is sorry, and I trust that she is, forgiveness is possible.

    (My sister was killed a few years ago–I’m still working on forgiveness, I’m not so good at these things. but absolution requires a higher power. He did what he did.)

  6. I tend to think we should focus on present/future & not past. So
    I welcome her input. However, perhaps we should wonder about her motives. What kind of book is going to sell in this climate? Pro testing or anti testing? Most likely ant-testing as that is the trendy (but still minority) view.

  7. We should be thankful that she’s providing us the opportunity to absolve her.

    I love the tone of the first comment made here: “Would you rather she stick to her guns and dig in stubbornly with her old and foolish ideas?”

    Diane Ravitch was at one time an enemy of public education (unbeknown to her at the time), but she is an ally now that we must embrace.

  8. Better late than never.

    It seems important to us, from a distance, that a prominent supporter of such draconian and counter-productive reforms publishes a comprehensive re-evaluation.


  9. The question I find more relevant is what value does her voice have in this discussion and how can it be best leveraged.

    She is a part of education and her voice will be heard whether “advocates” accept her back in or not. The support she receives will be based upon action and advocacy on her part. If her voice reigns as strong as it did when she took education down a path we will be recovering from for generations, I want that voice heard.

    Personally, voices grow, mature, and learn. Diane Ravitch has openly discussed her change in all three and I appreciate that – others would continue to fight because their ego would not allow admission of failure. To her credit, she is not hiding or “retiring” as she could easily do.

    With all that said, I will look with a critical eye on her opinions and ideas even more than usual.

    As Szasz said, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.”

  10. It isn’t so much that you shouldn’t ask the question. What does the answer to the question mean you will do?

    Does refusing to “absolve” her mean you won’t read her book? Will it mean that when she spoke to us at the NEA last month, I shouldn’t have applauded her speech? Should I not reprint her arguments on my blog? Should I not defend her against attacks by her former allies?

    In other words, what are the practical implications of your question?

  11. Where is this “fold” of public education defenders and who made you (us) the guardian(s) of the fold? Maybe we should keep you from entering the fold.

  12. Sometimes the strongest advocate for a position is someone who formerly held the opposing viewpoint, but was convinced to change (someone in the thread already mentioned Saul/Paul, whose conversion simply steered his religious zeal in a different direction). It does a disservice to thinking individuals to hold against them positions which they formerly held.

  13. Once Saul fell off his horse …. he then found his home.

  14. We keep moving forward. If we can view Diane as an ally with a deep understanding of what is wrong with the system, and as someone who has the authority, expertise and apparent passion to make it right, then yes, we take her into to fold. It takes courage and commitment to admit to the nation that she was wrong and now tries to make that wrong right.

    If she can change her position, can’t we also hope that others will follow? As educators, isn’t our life’s work trying to get learners (of all ages) to turn the corner and experience that aha! moment of enlightenment?

  15. We all grow and change. Diane must have come to see a different view of reality. She’ll probably change again. We need to keep lines of communication open. Less stress of ideological purity and more on open communication with inherent disagreement. Disagreement without animus creates good dialogue.

  16. I just wish she had some solutions instead of just critiques

  17. Thank heavens she had the insight and courage to change and to publish it clearly. Would that some of our politicians would do likewise! I agree with the comments about change, forgiveness and moving forward.

  18. Deciding that testing and assessment is having a negative impact and that we should have a better curriculum is not a 180 degree turn. Curriculum and assessment are two edges of the same sword. What she is advocating for now is just as harmful as what she advocated for before with NCLB, it is just packaged differently.

    I wrote about this in greater detail a couple of months ago on my blog:

    • Carl, I’m responding to the first video in your blog. It creates a straw man either/or between incredibly boring & discovery learning. But a little rigor might have been helpful to your creative videographer, who uses “there learning” TWICE in under 2 minutes. Constructivism and discovery learning are good things but they don’t obviate us from the responsibility to teach such skills as writing and math. I really believe a skilled teacher can create excitement and engagement and still ground kids in the skills of THEIR discipline. It’s just a lot more work.

      • And to respond to Scott’s question– Like others here, I’m not sure I have, or should have, the power of absolution. But should I take Ms Ravitch at her word? Well, right now she’s generating a ton of attention on the beauties of not testing to death, which is a good thing. (I mean, come on, she even got on the Daily Show!) So I welcome that voice, & I welcome her apparent honesty. Now let’s see what she does when the book money stops pouring in. After all, my tradition does believe in absolution, but reversal of sin requires penance & I don’t think you get to pull in the big bucks while doing penance.

  19. Who is this “we” of whom you speak?

    Is someone going to kick her out of the fold again after her views on “21st Century Skills” become more widely known? Because that’s a pretty us vs. them fold, that one.

    What qualifies one for membership in the fold? A lot of people in public education vote for people who would dismantle the thing overnight, and yet there they are, in the fold.

    There really isn’t a fold.

    Ravitch’s book is pretty good, though. It’s at least interrupted the long, national narrative coming out of Secretary Duncan’s office. And when Florida general assembly tried to destroy public education earlier this year, the opposition was reading from her book right on the floor of the Senate.

    So, if there’s a fold, I move that the fold welcome her. Can I get a second?

  20. I think that “we” should invite [expect? require?] her to roll up her sleeves and join us in trying to RIGHT the wrongs done to our educational system.

    It is always easier to be the armchair critic than the constructive problem solver, isn’t it?

  21. In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch calls herself out for her own errors in judgment.

    I have never understood our society’s issues with people who change their stance on a previously held value or belief. I applaud Ravitch for seeing that she was wrong and what has become of educators who hold their ground when our kids are suffering.

    Sometimes, it’s more admirable to admit you were wrong and move on to make things right, isn’t it?

  22. John Billingslea Reply July 28, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Read the book, saw her speak, and I welcome her back. I once read that if you want to figure out how something really works than change it, she did, she broke it (or at least didn’t help it) and now in reflection sees that wasn’t the way, and that wasn’t the way, and that certainly isn’t the way. I just wish she could convince Mr. Duncan that he’s on the wrong train and the wrong track, the O’Bama-Bush express, and that he’s probably not the best conductor.

  23. Have you considered that maybe she is a politician more than an educator.

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