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MARCH 2006

Women Shaping History:
Diane Ravitch:
Educator, Writer, Great American Thinker

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Diane Ravitch is not afraid to say what she thinks. And why not? As one of the leading scholars in the field of education today, in the parlance of the erstwhile T.V. ad for E.F. Hutton, when Diane Ravitch talks, people listen. Her list of credentials is legendary and spans work in government, academia, think tanks, boards and task forces too numerous to detail. From 1991-1993, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, where she led the federal effort to promote the creation of state and national standards. She is currently Research Professor of Education at New York University (NYU) and a Brookings and Hoover Scholar, but don’t let those titles deceive you. Ravitch’s frenetic pace of authorship (dozens of titles fall on her list of “Selected Publications”) and literally hundreds of op eds in the nation’s top newspapers, lectures and talk show appearances garnered her the “most quoted individual” status in a LexisNexis search for a three month sweep in 2005-2006.

“I do whatever I can to raise consciousness,” explains Diane Ravitch when Education Update caught up with her by phone on a snowy day in early March, her boots on, ready to face the enveloping blizzard on foot. “Our biggest challenge that we face as educators is that we’re not improving fast enough. Other countries are improving their educational systems faster, and in some instances, copying ours and moving beyond us…There’s a long list of countries that now have a greater percentage of students graduating high school than we do,” explains Ravitch. To counteract the erosion of American education, Ravitch recommends a relatively simple solution, “an education that is rich in the humanities – not just reading and math and science, but also history and literature and the arts.” In Ravitch’s opinion, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has created a teach-to-the test mentality in many districts, which are subsequently ignoring subjects that don’t fall under federal testing requirements. And we’re “neglecting the need to challenge the students who should be high performing.” The key question, according to Ravitch, is “how can we have high expectations—high standards—and really bring out the best in children at all levels?” 
Ravitch is not one just to spout theory, however, preferring to roll up her sleeves and get the job done the way she believes it should be. In the eighties, she was one of the authors of California’s K-12 history curriculum, which has proved to be a model for many other states, and which bolstered students’ knowledge of their world by building on the elementary grades’ study of biographies and expanding secondary school world history to a three year sequence. Concerned with the dearth of a strong literature program in schools, Ravitch has written a series of books that prescribe meaningful resources for students. Her most recent book, The Language Police, includes a list of recommended readings that are classics for children from kindergarten through middle school, “and it identifies best books that children should read at each of these ages.” While researching her book, Ravitch bought a lot of the most popular young adult literature now used in schools, and was shocked to find that “some of it is just plain junk…Someone has decided that these grown-ups who write books for children have to put themselves into the voices of the most alienated, angry, desperate, lonely children, and that this is what kids should be reading!”
In 1990, Ravitch came out with The American Reader, an anthology of the best poetry, speeches and songs from American history, all chronologically arranged. “In most schools, I think it’s fair to say, the content is not classic, is not written by recognized authors,” adds Ravitch, who is following up with The English Reader in the fall of 2006, a compilation of must-read classic British literature that she is co-editing with her son, Michael.
How would Ravitch, a public school girl from Houston who came north in 1960 to attend college at Wellesley and ultimately attained her Ph.D. from Columbia University, advise young people to get ahead today? “Get the best education you can—that’s your human capital, your investment in yourself…And make yourself well-informed about the world…Read, read, read!” exhorts Ravitch emphatically.

To wit, Ravitch – the very model of a lifelong learner – is writing a new book that is a glossary of “ed speak” (educational jargon), designed to be partly tongue-in-cheek and partly a serious guide for parents and teachers who are negotiating the system. And she’d like to do a book about what’s been happening in New York City (“we’ve given complete power to the mayor’s office with no checks and balances…we’ve gone from total decentralization to total centralization…this won’t survive into the future!”) And, almost as an afterthought, Diane Ravitch adds, “I want to write a memoir, also.” It may take a while for Ravitch to clear her calendar, but it will be worth the wait!#



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