Diane Ravitch, the historian and leading education reform critic, can be hard to understand. Not that her writing is difficult. Quite the opposite actually, it's incredibly lucid and lively, and my favorite thing about her in fact. Rather it's difficult to understand who exactly the person is that could contain both the Diane Ravitch who once wrote so passionately and doggedly in favor of school choice and accountability from the halls of the Hoover Institute, and the Diane Ravitch who now writes reform criticisms with the hyperbole and one-sidedness of a teacher's union spokesperson. But in a new City Paper piece, Dana Goldstein tries to reconcile the two and find the intellectual continuities that have stayed with her on such a seemingly bipolar intellectual journey. As much of a Ravitch critic as I may be, like Goldstein, I believe that there are some coherent ties that bind old and young Diane, and perhaps surprisingly, one of them is Friedrich Hayek.
Old Diane vs New Diane
For those unfamiliar with Ravitch, either old or new, I'll let Goldstein summarize her and her intellectual about-face:
"Once a vocal proponent of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay for teachers, Ravitch decided sometime around 2006 that there was actually no evidence that any of those policies improved American education. She now believes that the "corporatist agenda" of school choice, teacher layoffs, and standardized testing has undermined public respect for one of the nation's most vital institutions, the neighborhood school, and for one of society's most crucial professions: teaching."
It's easy to read new Diane and old Diane and come away exasperated at the starkness of her turn. As a result, it is difficult to see her as a social scientist who has overturned her previously accepted null hypothesis with new data, but rather a historian with a grand narrative that has been reversed, complete with new heroes and villains. She has in fact conceded as much, opening her 2000 address at the Cambridge School Choice conference with the following:
"I should preface my comments by saying that I am a historian, and that means that I do not have the social science background that many of the people in this room have. I have taken this assignment in an effort to put what we have addressed over these last two days into historical perspective."
Understanding her like this, as she asks to be understood, raises some justifiable, and in the end well-deserved, skepticism about her reliability as a synthesizer of empirical work. The "narrative fallacy" exists for a reason.