Earlier this year, Dropout Nation took note of the fracas between once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch and Class Warfare author Steven Brill over whether she collected more than $200,000 in speaking fees from appearances before the National Education Association and other forums for education traditionalists. As you may remember, Ravitch sicced her lawyers on Brill and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, claiming that Brill’s estimate was “defamatory”, “fictitious” and “highly damaging”. Why? Because Brill noted that she didn’t reveal that she took money from her teachers’ union fellow-travelers during media appearances arguing against school reformers. (Others felt that Ravitch had essentially become a paid spokesman for unions.) Ravitch demanded the excise of that estimate from future printings of the book, and an “errata sheet” on existing versions. Simon & Schuster responded by basically noting that Brill’s estimate was, well, an estimate, and stated as such. The publisher also stated that Ravitch was given “the opportunity to comment on the issue”.
Certainly, Dropout Nation doesn’t think that there is anything wrong with Ravitch collecting speaking fees and not disclosing them. Getting paid by groups with which one has like-minded views does not make one a shill. At the same time, in raising her complaint, Ravitch also left herself open to questions about exactly how much she has collected from NEA and AFT affiliates, along with groups allied with them. And the running count so far, based on filings with the U.S. Department of Labor, is around $24,885 for 2010-2011.
This includes a $10,361 check Ravitch received from the NEA’s Florida affiliate during its 2010-2011 fiscal year, according to the union’s filing, along with $8,869 from the union’s Michigan chapter. As Dropout Nation reported in September, Ravitch also collected $5,655 from the American Federation of Teachers during its 2010-2011 fiscal year.
Given that NEA and AFT affiliates are finally filing their reports this year — and that many NEA affiliates, including the California Teachers Association, don’t even file reports with the federal agency — it is hard to know how much Ravitch has made so far. But Brill may be closer to the mark than Ravitch may be willing to ever admit.
Another aspect of the complaint Ravitch lodged against Brill has to do with whether she was represented by big-named speaker’s bureau Leading Authorities. Ravitch claimed that Leading Authorities never represented her. This runs counter to a recently-found link to her biography located on the speaker’s bureau’s own site. (Google offers up a cached version while Dropout Nation also has it available along with a screenshot of the Google search.)
Whether or not these revelations, along with those from Education Sector scholar Kevin Carey in his profile of her, once again raises questions about how her financial and personal matters shape her arguments against reform is an open question. Ravitch has already proclaimed to Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews that Carey’s profile was “scurrilous and a hit piece” without actually addressing the question. The questions raised by Carey and by Brill’s reporting are journalistically and intellectually legitimate, no matter your views on — or even relationship with — Ravitch; as a public intellectual, the forces that may shape her views has to be considered as part of the record (even if your editor doesn’t necessarily think digging through all of it is necessary).
(Others have raised questions about whether the critiques of Ravitch are somehow sexist. My response: Would such a line of argument be considered legitimate by Ravitch’s defenders if we were discussing Michelle Rhee? I’d say not at all. It would never come up. So let’s toss that red herring argument to the trash where it belongs.)
From where Dropout Nation sits, the questions don’t matter. For one, as I’ve already said, collecting money from fellow-travelers does not compromise one’s views. If you have those views, even if you can’t back them adequately through evidence, then you have them. Another thing: There’s nothing wrong with one’s personal life shaping their intellectual activity; after all, to paraphrase the old saw, the personal is often the political and the intellectual. After all, your editor has argued that we should all take reforming American public education personally and see every parent and child as if they were our kin.
Most importantly, none of it matters because Ravitch’s storied career as a public intellectual has always been based more on her being an enfant terrible who changes her mind whenever it suits her fancy, than a rigorous, thoughtful thinker and education historian. And these days, her very arguments prove this point with a vengeance.
As both your editor and Carey have pointed out in the past couple of weeks, Ravitch’s Camille Paglia-Jane Jacobs act these days is little more than tossing out straw-men arguments, cherry-picking studies in order to supposedly debunk school reform solutions, and screedy rants on Twitter. More importantly, she can’t offer a cogent argument. Her latest Bridging Differences piece, in which she decries the idea of the private sector in running schools fails to consider the reality that companies are already intimately involved in all aspects of education — from supplying books to providing the desks in front of which kids sit — and that she, like all of us, is dependent on the wares of the private sector and the economic marketplace for their very sustenance (you know, since companies and entrepreneurial philanthropists are also those guys who provide such items as computers and soap, along with paying those things called taxes, which support schools, and donations that pay for Ravitch’s salary).
Then there is the rest of the recent record. She couldn’t even get education history right in her Wall Street Journal piece last year exhorting congressional Republicans to embrace a history of opposing an expansive federal role in education policy that was never so. She conveniently failed to mention Dwight David Eisenhower’s role in fostering the first mass use of specialized testing (courtesy of the National Defense Education Act of 1958), the efforts of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush in supporting the modern school reform movement, and the work of Republican governors such as Carroll Campbell in South Carolina in fostering the standards and accountability movement (including the Common Core State Standards in reading and math being enacted in most states).
Last year, in the New York Review of Books, she trashed Waiting for “Superman”, arguing that the film glossed over the fact that there are still too few high-quality charters. As anyone who watched the film could attest, if they are being honest, Waiting actually made clear that clear, in fact, citing the 2009 CREDO study, the same source for Ravitch’s own declaration in her piece. The fact that the CREDO study, a generally good and empirical report, is really a review of the strength and weaknesses of charter school laws in the states studied, and has been criticized for measuring the achievement of charter school students against the average results of groups of students in traditional schools, is conveniently not mentioned by Ravitch in her piece.
Meanwhile, as proven by Stuart Buck, her recent tome, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is merely a volume of shoddy thinking and straw-men arguments that’s not worthy of being read.
All and all, Ravitch doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.