So I wrote a harsh post after reading a harsh article by Kevin Carey in The New Republic about Diane Ravitch. I still standby what I said. Namely, I’m very cautious about trusting Ravitch as a reliable narrator of history because I’m:

  • unfamiliar with good historiography/methodology so it’s hard for me to judge the quality of her work simply from the product itself
  • unaware of a rich discourse around education history in NYC and 20th century America in general that wrestles with, or even corroborates, Ravitch’s account
  • certain that Ravitch’s more recent writings often mischaracterizes the power and meaning behind quantitative research and exhibits selection bias to fit a particular narrative
  • generally distrustful of public academics, particularly when their writing is mainly outside of their primary discipline.

That being said, there have been several well-written critiques of Carey’s piece and I thought it’s only fair that I link to them to present a more complete picture of what many folks, some who agree and some who disagree with Ravitch’s current ideology, think of Ravitch’s work.

Mike Petrilli is certainly no fan of Ravitch’s rebirth as the anti-choice, anti-accountability voice du jour. But his piece in Flypaper in response to Carey is quite clear: the idea that Ravitch’s personal life  had an impact on her criticism of then NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is unfair and wrong. As someone who worked directly with Ravitch and who had, independently, overseen the awarding of a grant to Mary Butz’s leadership program, Petrilli sees a different line of thought. Ravitch, in his view, simply correctly pointed to the flaw in Klein’s “clear the field” approach that tended to cut down successful or promising programs alongside the dead weight.

Dana Goldstein’s response suggests that Kevin Carey ignored the context in which Ravitch wrote. Goldstein suggests that Ravitch had to fight against a sexist academy in a discipline that increasingly had taken on a polemicists tone, as a liberal who did not quite fit the mold of her times. These factors combined to generate the type of histories and writing that Ravitch would produce and are critical in understanding, without undermining, her work.

Finally, Diane Senechal writes in The New Republic today that Ravitch’s history is a far more balanced critique than Carey would have you believe, very well documented, and self-consistent. She does concede that Ravitch writes with a fiery, decidedly non-academic tone that’s intended as a public intellectual. But here, Senechal views this as a strength, “arous[ing] general interest in matters that might otherwise seem out of reach or obscure.” Ultimately, Senechal’s main point is that Ravitch’s work is of very high quality and thorough and that her tone should not overshadow the accomplishment of her scholarship.