In early 2012, Diane Silvers Ravitch ’60 was riding in the back of a car with New Yorker staff writer David Denby, who was writing a 7,000-word profile of her for the magazine. Diane’s career up to that point had been prolific and remarkable by all accounts—she was an eminent historian of education and an educational policy analyst, served as assistant secretary of education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to ’93, and had authored 11 books and edited 14 more. She also received Wellesley’s Alumnae Achievement Award in 1989. But Denby had been corresponding with her critics, and he told her they didn’t believe she had any positive ideas.
“You know I have lots of positive ideas,” she replied.
“But your critics haven’t heard those,” he said. “You have to write another book.” Diane agreed with him, and began writing Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. The book was published in April 2013, and in it, she argues against those who claim the American school system is broken and beyond repair. The book was well-received, but after her conversation with Denby, she realized she wanted to try a new approach—not in the interest of proving her critics wrong, but in the interest of activism. So she started a blog.
She launched dianeravitch.net, the tagline of which reads simply: “A site to discuss better education for all.” The blog recently passed 22 million page views, with over 300,000 comments. Her readers—primarily teachers, parents, and administrators in public schools—write to her constantly to tell her the blog keeps them sane. “This is the one place I can go and hear a different point of view that makes me feel my work is worthwhile,” she says many teachers tell her.
“Most of what I do is let other people have a voice,” Diane says, and she often publishes her readers’ comments. “I feel like I’m orchestrating something—I’m orchestrating resistance to bad policy.”
What Diane considers bad policy has changed significantly over the last decade. In 2010, she very publicly changed her mind about testing and choice with the publication of her best-selling book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education. Diane says people have asked her why she “really” changed her mind, insinuating that she did so because someone paid her. She said she tells her questioners, “Because I was wrong and if you’re wrong, you have to change your mind.”
Diane began studying what makes schools work best when she wrote about the politics of Houston public schools, which she’d grown up attending, in her first paper at Wellesley. In addition to studying political science, Diane was editor of the Wellesley College News, and worked with Nora Ephron ’62, Ali MacGraw ’60, and Emily Cohen MacFarquhar ’59. “I loved Wellesley,” Diane wrote on her blog last June after attending her 55th reunion. “I loved that it was a women’s college, and I could speak up without risking being ‘too smart’ for a girl.”
Diane’s desire to affect the future of public education involves raising the volume of Wellesley’s voice in the conversation. She is creating the “Ravitch Fund for Public Education,” which will provide students with internships and research grants, and is funding an annual lecture series in the education department. Diane herself gave the inaugural lecture—“How to Ruin or Revive Public Education”—on Oct. 22 at the College. As she also wrote on her blog last June, “This is my way of thanking Wellesley for changing my life.”
Photo by Lisa Wolfe