DIANE RAVITCH : life of Author

My career got off to a late start. I married a few weeks after graduating college in 1960, had children, and tried to write freelance articles when I found time. One of my children died of acute leukemia in 1966, and I began thinking about finding a profession to match my interests. In 1968, I became fascinated with the history of the New York City public schools, which were in the midst of an unprecedented two-month-long teachers’ strike. I tried to find a magazine interested in publishing an article I had written, but none was interested.

But the more I read about the history of the schools, the most fascinated I became. I called on the nation’s leading historian of education in the nation, Lawrence Cremin at Teachers College, Columbia University, and he encouraged me by giving me a reading list. I spent months in the library when my children were in school, and I began writing. By 1974, my book about the history of public schools in New York City was published (The Great School Wars), and in 1975, it was accepted as my doctoral dissertation. That year, I received my Ph.D. in history of American education, and my career as an academic began.

I continued for years to teach (as an adjunct) at Teachers College, to write articles for the mainstream press, and to write books.

I taught at Teachers College until 1991, when I was invited by Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to join the George H.W. Bush administration as Assistant Secretary of Education in charge of Research. I agreed, and served in that position for 19 months. After my term in office ended, I was invited to become a Senior  Fellow at the Brookings Institution in  Washington, D.C., where I wrote a book about standards and served from 1995-2012.

In 1994, I joined the faculty at New York University, where I was a Research Professor until 2020. I taught classes, wrote articles and books, and traveled widely to lecture about current issues in education.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton appointed me to serve on the national testing board, which is called the National Assessment Governing Board, where I served for seven years and learned a lot about standardized testing, its uses and flaws.

After leaving the Bush administration, I was well-known as a proponent of standards, testing, accountability, competition, and school choice. I belonged to three conservative think tanks, most notably, the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force, which consisted of the nation’s most eminent conservative education scholars.

However, about 2007, I began to rethink my views and to publish articles that questioned positions that I had previously advocated. In 2009, I quit my position on the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in D.C., telling my colleagues that I no longer believed in the conservative agenda of standards, testing, accountability, competition, and school choice.

In 2010, I published a book recanting my conservative views. It was called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books). The book became a national bestseller, and I became somewhat notorious as someone who had publicly changed her mind. I became an outspoken critic of school privatization and standardized testing, and I had an arsenal of facts and experience to back up my conclusions. I became convinced that the basic reason for low test scores is not “bad teachers” or “bad schools” but poverty. Until we as a society address root causes, nothing will change.

  • Let us know about the major achievements, accolades and recognitions that you have earned in your entire career so far.

Among my major achievements, the one I treasure most is the Daniel Patrick Moynihan award from the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences in 2011 for The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Theaward was created to recognize those “social scientists, public officials, and civic leaders who champion the use of informed judgment to advance the public good.” This represented recognition by some of the nation’s leading scholars, and it meant a lot to me.

  • How do you describe yourself in one-word?

One word: Principled.

  • In short, tell us about your organization, its distinct academic solutions, achievements, and mission, vision and USP.

In 2013, I co-founded the Network for Public Education and have since served as its president. It is a voluntary organization with about 350,000 allies—educators, parents, concerned citizens—who work to protect and improve public schools, to resist privatization and the misuse of standardized tests. We have used social media and publications to inform the public about threats to their public schools by profiteer and entrepreneurs. NPE has grown from an idea to a large and recognized national organization, due to the hard work of its large number of supporters. We consult with legislators and members of Congress. We connect activists with others who share their goals, in different parts of the same state and in other states.

  • What were the major challenges that you have faced in your career and what are the difficulties you have faced while establishing the organization?

The major challenges that I faced in my career was the penalty I paid for changing sides and admitting I was wrong. When I changed sides, I abandoned the sizable income associated with being on the conservative side and gained the enmity of people who were once my good friends. I have never regretted the decision I made.

The difficulties I had in starting a new organization was that my co-partner (Anthony Cody, a brilliant middle school science teacher in Oakland, California) and I had no money. The people on “the other side” of our issues were led by billionaires with endless money. We wanted to start a PAC to help people we admired, but that turned out to be legally and financially very difficult. We eventually recruited a strong board, hired a retired but very active high school principal as our CEO, and we created a viable organization that is now on firm financial footing and extremely active in reaching out to the public with solid information.

  • Being a prominent thought leader, what are the most significant contributions you have made for the development of institutions?

My most significant contributions to the development of the organization I lead: first, I use my public platform to call attention to the organization and its good works. My personal blog has surpassed 38 million page views, and everyone who reads my daily blog is well informed about the Network for Public Education. Second, I remain very active in the work of NPE, proofreading our reports (written by our wonderful CEO Carol Burris), I share ideas with her and the board, and I host an irregular Zoom where I interview authors whose work illuminates education issues we care about. Third, I use my article and my public appearances at lectures to call attention to the work of NPE and encourage people to join.

  • How do you keep yourself motivated?

How do I stay motivated? I get angry when billionaires complain about teachers’ salaries and pensions. I get angry when I see millions of children too poor to live decent lives, too poor to get regular medical check-ups, too poor to be well-housed, well-fed, and protected from life’s vicissitudes. The vast inequality in our society is unacceptable to me. I am fortunate; my children and grandchildren are fortunate. But I cannot rest when others are suffering needlessly while we have a growing number of billionaires.

  • What message would you address to the people of the nation and the rest of the world?

The previous comment would be my message to the people of the nation and the world: Reduce inequality and assure that all people have a decent standard of living.

  • How do you see yourself and your organization in the future ahead?

I am 82. I don’t have a lot of years left. I will use the time I have left on this earth to try to repair the damage that has harmed so many lives by a selfish and individualistic society. My tools are few: I write and I speak. I do what I can. I believe that NPE will continue no matter what happens to me because it speaks on behalf of the 50 million plus children in public schools. It speaks to a future where we must put the common good above selfish consumerism or lose our ideals.