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Note to Peter Cunningham: Read Ravitch’s Death and Life

February 3, 2015

On January 20, 2015, education historian Diane Ravitch wrote an open letter to Senator Lamar Alexander regarding the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the most recent revision of which is No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In her letter, Ravitch refers to her time as Alexander’s assistant secretary of education (research) from 1991 to 1993.

Alexander is drafting the Senate’s next version of ESEA.

At its heart, Ravitch’s letter is an appeal for Alexander to abandon the federal mandate for standardized testing in grades 3 through 8.

When I initially read Ravitch’s appeal, two thoughts occurred to me. The first was that Ravitch and Alexander have known one another for decades, with Alexander choosing Ravitch as assistant secretary of education despite his being a Republican and her being a Democrat– which means she must have impressed him enough to set aside issues of political party. The second thought was that Alexander is surely aware of Ravitch’s dramatic change of perspective regarding the value of standardized testing in the American classroom from the time of her 1990s appointment to present day, 2015.

The richness of Ravitch’s communication with Alexander regarding ESEA reauthorization rests in the background with her well-documented change of perspective on standardized-test-driven reform. Her views on accountability and choice were once aligned with Alexander’s, and now, several years, two books, and 17 million Ravitch-blog page views following her realization that she could no longer endorse test-driven education reform, here she is, offering her conscience-wrestled perspective to a man who thought enough of the soundness of her advice to pen the words, “Read anything Diane Ravitch writes about education,” in his own personal book of advice.

And remarkably, in this era of the corporate and philanthropic purchasing of education reform voices and bodies, Ravitch has not accepted a dime from anyone to foster her change of perspective. It was all her, borne of an increasingly-evidence-based conviction that the education reforms she so valued and for which she fiercely advocated from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s simply would not work.

Those whose education reform voices have been purchased try to portray Ravitch as duplicitous for now denying the value of a corporate model of education reform, a model dependent upon standardized test scores to damn traditional schools and teachers and hand districts over to under-regulated, miracle-lacking “choice.” (For a fresh example of the state-run, charter-promoting failure, see this post on New Orleans Recovery School District {RSD} 2014 ACT scores.)

Today, I read of such a targeted mischaracterizing of Ravitch, written on February 2, 2015, by former Arne Duncan staffer Peter Cunningham, who started a pro-corporate-reform blog with $12 million in reformer cash. Cunningham decided that he would come several years late to the party and point out to the American public that Ravitch has changed her views on test-driven reforms.

News flash, Cunningham: We already know.

Our knowing is why Ravitch is “at the very top of a list of the 200 most influential scholars in America,” as you point out in the opening of your post. We know what she stands for, and it is the community school.

Not good enough for Cunningham, who writes in the comments section of his own post, “I have certainly changed my mind at times and I do not fault Professor Ravitch for changing her mind. But on everything?”

When “everything” is the entire education folio that bankrupts public school systems in favor of a largely unaccountable, under-regulated education business, then yes, “everything.”

Cunningham, who supports Arne Duncan and accepts millions in corporate-reform-promoting philanthropic cash, is reluctant to acknowledge as much. Therefore, in his February 2, 2015, post, he decides to create what he calls the “other” letter Ravitch supposedly wrote to Alexander, one in which Cunningham cuts and pastes excerpts of Ravitch’s writings in ransom-note fashion. In his closing, Cunningham notes, he wants Ravitch to alter her views to meet in some “middle” of his choosing.

If only Ravitch would become more of what Cunningham is paid to write that she should be, then she might… what, exactly?

Be a powerful, internationally-respected voice in education?


Cunningham thinks he has Ravitch, but all that did was paint a picture of well-funded ignorance.

In his foolishness, Cunningham misses Ravitch’s careful account of her change of perspective as recorded in her 2010 book, Death and Life of the Great American School System

He chops up her writings in an effort to publicly chastise Ravitch into submission to a “middle” of his determination, and in doing so, he blinds himself to the “middle” she records of her own transition from what he calls “today’s Diane Ravitch” and “yesterday’s Diane Ravitch.”

Though the book is over four years old, Death and Life ranks in the top four percent of paperbacks sold on Others are apparently just discovering it. Time for Cunningham to do so, as well.

Below is an excerpt much more informative on Ravitch’s exit from corporate-sanctioned education reform than Cunningham’s belched-up post.  Herein lie the threads of an answer that Cunningham criticizes but cannot seem to find:

In the fall of 2007, I reluctantly decided to have my office repainted. … At the very time that I was packing up my books and belongings, I was going through an intellectual crisis. I was aware that I had undergone a wrenching transformation in my perspective on school reform. Where I once had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas. I was trying to sort through the evidence about what was working and what was not. I was trying to understand why I was increasingly skeptical about these reforms, reforms that I had supported enthusiastically. I was trying to see my way through the blinding assumptions of ideology and politics, including my own.

I kept asking myself why I was losing confidence in these reforms. My answer: I have a right to change my mind. Fair enough. But why. I kept wondering, why had I changed my mind? What was the compelling evidence that prompted me to reevaluate the policies I had endorsed many times over in the previous decade? Why did I now doubt ideas I once had advocated?

The short answer is that my views changed as I saw how these ideas were working out in reality. The long answer is what will follow in the rest of this book.

In another excerpt:

As I flipped through the yellowing pages in my scrapbooks, I started to understand the recent redirection of my thinking, my growing doubt regarding popular proposals for choice and accountability. Once again, I realized, I was turning skeptical in response to panaceas and miracle cures. The only difference was that in this case, I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures; I too had drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems. I too had jumped aboard a bandwagon, one festooned with banners celebrating the power of accountability, incentives, and markets. I too was captivated by these ideas. They promised to end bureaucracy, to ensure that poor children were not neglected, to empower poor parents, to enable poor children to escape failing schools, and to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. Testing would shine a spotlight on low-performing schools, and choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for better schools. All of this seemed to make sense, but there was little empirical evidence, just promise and hope. I wanted to share the promise and the hope. I wanted to believe that choice and accountability would produce great results. But over time, I was persuaded by accumulating evidence that the latest reforms were not likely to live up to their promise. The more I saw, the more I lost the faith.

And one last excerpt regarding federally mandated testing, which was the focus of Ravitch’s open letter to Alexander:

Testing, I realized with dismay, had become a central preoccupation in the schools and was not just a measure but an end in itself. I came to believe that accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strived to meet unrealistic targets.

The chapter that follows is entitled, “Hijacked! How the Standards Movement Turned Into the Testing Movement.”

And so it has.

Ravitch realized this years ago and has actively written and spoken against it since.

Her conversion is no secret, and I would be hard pressed to believe Alexander to be surprised to receive a 2015 request from Ravitch to kill the mandated testing in ESEA.

Those of us without purchased corporate reform platforms and Arne love are not surprised.

Cunningham, it’s one thing to splice dozens of quotes together.

It’s quite another to write an informed post.

Strive for the latter.

Begin here:

death and life


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

  1. Peter permalink

    Cunningham and his Education Post folks are trolling hard. Nobody will come out and play with them, so they are trying hard to stir up some sort of argument so they can draw some hits and build their profile.

  2. Laura chapman permalink

    Correct.. A Fox News strategy.

  3. cmzirkelbach permalink

    When you start out with a plan or strategy and implement it, and the results are not what you expected and things go horribly wrong, you are supposed to change your mind about it. It is called critical thinking.

  4. Reblogged this on Crazy Normal – the Classroom Exposé and commented:
    The $12 million dollar botched corporate reform attempt to launch a blog and discredit Diane Ravitch by cherry picking passages and quotes.

  5. Mercedes, the links do not lead to Cunningham’s post.

  6. I assume you took Ravitch to task for her sexism in attacking Campbell Brown while celebrating Matt Damon? And I assume you took Ravitch to task for pushing Joel Klein to give a specific job to her partner, doing so by email, repeatedly lying about it when exposed, and then going silent when the incriminating emails became public? Further, I assume you took her to task for the hypocrisy in promoting her family’s personal interests while attacking her opponents for being self-interested?

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