Diane Ravitch: Teachers' Hero or Education Hypocrite?

[Adam Ozimek]

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.

As might be expected of one making such a drastic change positions, Ravitch last year penned a lengthy book explaining how she got from one perspective to another. As I've said, it's a stark contrast to Diane of old. I understand fully how one can change their mind about the empirical realities of school choice, accountability, or other education policies. But there are so many changes in tone, emphasis, values, ideologies, and definitions that the mind whirls as paragraph after paragraph of old Diane is a convincing and direct rebuttal to new Diane, and you ask yourself "what facts changed here to change her mind?"

For instance, consider the change in what can be expected of schools. Today's Diane writes that family conditions and socioeconomic status are the primary determinant of educational outcomes, and that it is unfair to expect schools to overcome that. Yesterday's Ravitch wrote:

"We need two forms of accountability for schools. We need value-added assessment so that we can be sure that kids are gaining from the instruction. We also need to have absolute standards that hold for all students and that cannot be qualified by variables such as class or race."

When I read this I want to ask Diane, "what changed here?" The about face on value-added assessment is understandable, and provides a useful contrast to her change of heart on absolute standards. Diane has discussed some of the important empirical work that has been done on value-added, including work by Jesse Rothstein, showing that the measures we have today are not very reliable. Even if one disagrees with her read of it and its implications, one can concede that the evidence today is different than the evidence back then, and thus there is a basis upon which someone's mind could change. But what empirical reality has changed the fact that schools should be subject to absolute standards? How do you go from the position of embracing absolute standards to one where, as Dana Goldstein summarizes:

"The best way to improve American education...is to fight child poverty with health care, jobs, child care, and affordable housing."

Perhaps Diane has seen and been persuaded by new evidence of what schools can and can't accomplish. She has quite an oeuvre so maybe I've missed it, but as far as I know she has not elaborated on how her belief in what schools can achieve has been downgraded. More likely I think that one way of looking the issue simply fits with the new narrative, and one doesn't.

There are other inexplicable transitions that are difficult to justify with empiricism, like her belief today that school choice by definition constitutes a damning cream-skimming, which I discuss here (what has changed to make this so?). Or her new fixation with neighborhood democratic institutions versus her old claim that choice to attend schools outside of the neighborhood simply gives poor people the option that rich people currently have (what has changed to make this no longer so?).

The Hayekian Continuity

Given all this, it's easy to understand why critics become frustrated with Ravitch, as they struggle to reconcile old with new. But while much has changed, an underlying influence of Hayekian thinking has remained throughout. For sure, old Diane was much more forthright about the libertarian economist's influence. This you can see in her City Journal article from 1999, where she wrote skeptically of centralized thinking and mentioned the man by name:

"Friedrich A. Hayek explained long ago that centralized "command-and-control" regulation seldom is efficient, because the people at headquarters always have a crucial deficit in information; they never know as much as the many thousands of people who are out in the field. Hayek's analysis applies perfectly to a major problem in education today, where inefficient centralized systems, created a century ago at a time of high enthusiasm for the rule of experts, make uniform rules for every imaginable situation and hire layer upon layer of supervisors, draining initiative and resources away from the principals and teachers who actually deal with the problems of individual children. To the central administration should go responsibility for setting standards and auditing performance; to the schools must go the freedom to be flexible, imaginative, responsive, and responsible."

The Diane of today still praises decentralization and her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System is still filled with Hayekian wisdom. It's just that she no longer calls it by name: neither "Hayek" nor "Hayekian" appear anywhere in the books 296 pages. But she is critical of "tightly centralized, hierarchical, top-down-control" with decisions made by central authorities and "strict supervision of every classroom to make sure the orders flowing from headquarters were precisely implemented". And she is skeptical of the federal government and appreciates local knowledge, arguing that "the proper role of the federal government is to supply valid information and leave the remedies and sanctions to those who are closest to the unique problems of individual schools". Things ideas motivate her criticisms of NCLB, test based accountability, and Mayoral control.

Ravitch also understands, as Hayek did, the "extent and significance of our ignorance", arguing that "[w]hen a school is successful, it is hard to know which factor was most important or if it was a combination of factors. Even the principal and teachers may not know for sure."

However, the solution to the problem of local knowledge and the difficulty of centralized planning is where old Diane, new Diane, and Hayek diverge. Whereas Hayek drew on the price system as a solution to the problem of local knowledge, and old Diane drew on choice and accountability, new Diane sees local collectivism and democracy as the solution.

I think one can criticize Ravitch for failing to follow her remaining Hayekian wisdom and criticisms through to their natural conclusion, or for applying them unevenly. For instance, she criticizes the Gates and other foundations for being a powerful centralized force that overrides the autonomy of local forces, calling them "bastions of unaccountable power" who are not "subject to public oversight or review", and "have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state". But she fails to apply the same criticisms to the powerful teachers unions, about whom all of the above could be said, and who lobby state governments for centralized rules that favor their members.

So take her for what you will: hero, heretic, or Hayekian. For me, seeing the continuities that tie old Diane Ravitch to new Diane Ravitch make her a little more understandable, a little less frustrating, but she nevertheless remains a reform critic who leaves much to be desired, and who we should be very skeptical of. Yet whatever one makes of her overall, the writing of both old and new Diane contain important and useful Hayekian insights that critics and fans (again, both old and new) who care about education would do well to consider.