Originally published Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 4:05 PM

Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Diane Ravitch: putting education reform to the test

Education historian Diane Ravitch has amassed a devoted following, and impressive book sales, with searing polemics about the horrors of education reform. Wade beneath the rhetoric and Ravitch is still a reformer at heart.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

quotes I don't know whether Ms. Ravitch has the right answers regarding education, but I know... Read more
quotes Ms Varner, I congratulate you on your strength of character for continuing to write... Read more
quotes "Reality is different here in Washington. Students in grades three through eight... Read more

Education historian Diane Ravitch has amassed a devoted following, and impressive book sales, with searing polemics about billionaires privatizing public schools and students tortured by standardized tests.

Ravitch is visiting Seattle, bringing a long lens on American public education, both as a former assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush and early leader of the education-reform movement and now as a speaker on the crusade to expose education reform efforts as a sham.

Read "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education." You'll be home schooling by Monday.

The problem is that when Ravitch is performing for the anti-reform crowd, she lobs verbal howitzers that, upon reflection, lack nuance.

When I called her at her New York home the other evening, she began with this: "Schools have taken the fun out of learning with endless standardized tests. Some schools are testing monthly, even weekly. It's terrible."

Reality is different here in Washington. Students in grades three through eight take state tests once a year. Tenth-graders are allowed retakes. Some districts do interim testing to more quickly identify struggling students while there's still time in the school year to change course. Testing time has been shortened from two weeks to one.

Imagine what more could be done to improve testing if we progressed from the "to test, or not to test" debate.

Ravitch agrees to a point. Standardized testing is necessary — indeed, it's like taking one's temperature, she says. Test students once or twice a year, conduct less formal classroom assessments as often as necessary.

Unhelpful rhetoric soon returns. Charter schools are nothing more than boot camps where students can forget laughing in the hallways or being dazzled by science. Luckily, I read Ravitch's letter to The New York Times last summer where she said some charters are excellent and noted that "we can learn from them to help regular public schools."

Not if charters don't exist, which is the Faustian bargain charter opponents have struck in Washington state. Voters here have rejected charter-schools legislation three times. Absent a nuanced conversation, we may never get to learn anything from them.

The two sides of education reform aren't that far apart. You just have to get beyond the verbiage to the ideas. When Ravitch told me that Bill Gates has so much power and control in education, "he has become a danger to democracy," I didn't clap like a seal, I asked her what she meant.

"No one should be allowed to become a billionaire,"she sniffed. "Who can spend all of that money"? Again, what do you mean?

Later in the conversation, a more reasoned Ravitch explains that gargantuan sums of money, like that provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is driving education research and reform efforts.

Ravitch is right. The battle to improve education and outcomes for all children has been largely taken out of the hands of ordinary people. But don't blame Gates. The well-resourced and powerful teachers union is a formidable counterweight. Don't believe me? Ask the school board members in Seattle and Bellevue unseated by the union in the recent election.

Ravitch takes the expected swipe at Teach for America, the Peace Corps-like organization that recruits top college students into teaching. But since those teachers only represent a fraction of teachers, I'm more relieved to hear her call out the biggest preparer of teachers, education colleges, for not being choosy or rigorous enough.

We talk about the pernicious effect of poverty. Ravitch appears to think the solution lies in a final, Iraq-like surge to eradicate poverty. But if we really believe that our circumstances are not our destiny, we should be prepared to take the battle against poverty into the schools. I point to how well the renowned charter, Harlem Children's Zone, does educating students with good teachers and an array of social services.

They spend a lot of money, Ravitch counters. As though we're not already spending billions on public school and aren't poised with every property-tax levy to spend more.

I'm not optimistic that the anti-education-reform crowd will suddenly become interested in having their tightly held notions challenged. Instead, they'll spend this chilly weekend lapping up Ravitch's rhetoric like sweet cream.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is


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