Diane Ravitch Receives Bialkin/Citigroup Public Service Award
Preeminent education historian and N.Y.U. professor Diane Ravitch added yet another award to her distinguished collection of accolades last month, the coveted Kenneth J. Bialkin/Citigroup Public Service Award for her contribution to education, presented to her by none other than her close friend and colleague, Kenneth Bialkin, Chairman of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). At the award ceremony, co-sponsored by Citigroup and AJHS and overflowing with “the crème de la crème of New York City education,” Bialkin praised Ravitch as “a woman of ideas, judgment and intellect [who has] come to the highest level of recognition in her field.” Bialkin, a leading civic, business and community figure who is currently a partner in the prestigious law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, underscored the importance of deep thinkers like Ravitch in the field of education, noting that “our success as a nation cannot be separated from our ability to educate our children.”
In accepting her award, Ravitch—who served as Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush and is currently a senior fellow at both the Brookings and Hoover Institutions—thanked her inspirational high school English teacher, Jean Ratcliffe, who once gave her a verse of poetry from English poet Lord Byron that read: ‘I stood/Among them, but not of them; in a shroud/Of thoughts which were not their thoughts.’ “I think she recognized that I had gifts,” explained Ravitch simply. Following college at Wellesley, Ravitch went on to author and edit over twenty books and to write more than 400 articles and reviews for scholarly and popular publications in addition to her teaching and administrative responsibilities.
Ravitch and colleagues Randi Weingarten, President of the NYC United Federation of Teachers, and Harold Levy, former NYC School Chancellor and currently Executive Vice President of Kaplan, Inc, a leading educational testing and career services business, proceeded to engage in a lively debate on “The State of Education Today.” Weingarten called for lower class sizes and universal pre-kindergarten “so we can help kids while their minds are most supple….We should be having discussions about how to make this happen for kids,” she exhorted the crowd. Levy urged a careful study of the educational systems in other countries, many of which have surpassed our nation in educating their youth for the rigors of the twenty first century. Levy also deplored the political tradeoff between the needs of the young and the old that’s taking place in the state and federal legislatures. “In the tension between education and health care, education is not winning…We need to adapt that,” cautioned Levy.
In her remarks, Ravitch chose to focus on problems with state and national tests. “Whenever you have a single bar, it will be a low bar,” she said of the one-size-fits-all New York State Regents exams, urging a return to “a system of levels” to avoid what she views as a “dumbing down” of these tests so that more students can pass. “Students need to aspire to something worth reaching…Don’t destroy the honor of passing the Regents exams,” she admonished. Similarly, Ravitch criticized federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing requirements for creating “too much emphasis on test preparation…And the curriculum has been narrowed to reading and math only.” Decrying the new corporate model of accountability, where test scores are driving a pedagogical classroom instruction that is turning into test preparation at the expense of a deep, rich curriculum including social studies, science, literature, music and art, Ravitch prodded decision-makers to “maintain civility of discussions and a commitment to keep talking…We need the broadest possible discussion, we need to learn from the past,” she concluded.
Ravitch further blasted what she called a lack of accountability in New York City’s educational system. With abolishment of the city’s central Board of Education by the State Legislature four years ago, “current boards have no decision-making authority…There is no place for parents to go to question policies,” Ravitch explained, deploring the “politicization” of what she called a top-down management structure controlled by Mayor Bloomberg and advocating public hearings in 2009 when the current law sunsets.
As the session drew to a close, Harold Levy summed up what many adoring fans in the audience had already figured out: “Diane Ravitch is the Jean Ratcliffe for us all.” And to the roaring applause of New York City’s educational movers and shakers, Ravitch left the dais to resume what she does best, advancing the dialogue of how best to educate children in a climate of civility and respect.#