Into the Fray : Jonathan Alter and Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch

Sometimes people make it too easy to respond when they attack my opinions or those of others. That happened last week with Jonathan Alter’s diatribe about Diane Ravitch’s comments regarding tests and test results in her Op Ed piece published last Sunday in the New York Times. I have been reading the responses to Alter’s attack and the blog posts, from the eloquence of Jim Horn’s piece in Schools Matter, to the matter-of-fact post by Douglas Massey and Leonie Hamison’s post with the facts and a challenge to Alter and others. Well, just for the fun of it, I decided to throw in my two cents. Mr. Alter needs to understand that there are a lot of people who know a heck of a lot more about public education than he or the other pundits do who take on the subject of education without educating themselves to the reality that is facing our students today.

What I have learned as I started to speak up two years ago about what was happening in Seattle and around the country, is that when I get close to the core of the matter, basically the truth, I begin to receive a barrage of insults regarding my intellectual capabilities, caustic remarks about me as a person or just nasty comments that have no meaning. At that point I know that I am hitting home. I have noticed that particularly with the TFA gang who like to lurk around our blog and pounce whenever we post information about Teach for America or the leader of that enterprise, Wendy Kopp.

Jonathan Alter

What seemed to be an errant attack by Jonathan Alter against Diane Ravitch leads me to several questions. I use the term “errant” because prior to this rambling piece by him, I had not come across any essays, treatises or articles written by the author in the last two years. His name has not come up in my Google searches on education and I have not heard him quoted on the subject of education. This then begs the question of why now and why Diane Ravitch? It is interesting that he is now writing full time for Bloomberg, one of those wealthy billionaire reformers who not too long ago thought it would be a really good idea to appoint Cathie Black as New York City Schools Chancellor. Hmmm.

This is mere conjecture on my part, about Alter’s motives somehow being tied to his employer’s agenda, so I will move on to the facts or lack thereof in Alter’s piece. He is here to tell you that “Education Reform Works” and that’s the long and short of it as far as he’s concerned. I say “Hold on there Kemo Sabe!”, what are you basing this statement on?

Well, first you have to trip over the sports analogy regarding MVP players which in itself is fairly mindless, and oh yeah, some reference to a communist, to try and find the meat of his article.

I love it when the reformists and their shills describe anyone as an “obstructionist”  who; thinks that testing students over their limits is cruel and a waste of time and money; who believes class size really does matter; who understands that we need more funding for our schools, less testing, more critical thinking and less KIPP-style militaristic drilling. You just have to laugh sometimes. So Alter is saying that you are an “obstructionist” if you disagree with the corporate takeover of our schools by way of charter schools and expensive and excessive testing? Because you believe that teachers are still a far better conduit than computers and that tests only reflect a minute portion of a child’s learning? Well then, let me say that I am the first one in the road with Dr. Ravitch and hundreds of other educators, parents and informed citizens, saying there is a better way.

Now if Alter, et al ever start talking about using what has worked and developing that, if they start talking about funding education properly and ensuring that all students have a fair chance in school with the support in place that is required for them to succeed, if they even broach the subject of smaller class sizes, then I would not stand in their way but unfortunately these privateers and their pundits have yet to come up with a solution that works. Alter refers to charter schools, merit pay, and high stakes testing as “important progress”. Hmmm.

And all of this ranting by Alter is in response to Dr. Ravitch’ Op-Ed piece in the  New York Times. In the Op-ed, Dr. Ravitch cautions the reader to the fact that test scores do not tell the entire story or even the truth and she gives as an example what occurred during Bloomberg’s time as mayor when he and others pushed for all things ed reform.

To be sure, the hyping of test-score improvements that prove to be fleeting predated the Obama administration.

In 2005, New York’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, held a news conference at Public School 33 in the Bronx to celebrate an astonishing 49-point jump in the proportion of fourth grade students there who met state standards in reading. In 2004, only 34 percent reached proficiency, but in 2005, 83 percent did.

It seemed too good to be true — and it was. A year later, the proportion of fourth-graders at P.S. 33 who passed the state reading test dropped by 41 points. By 2010, the passing rate was 37 percent, nearly the same as before 2005.

In Dr. Ravitch’ final paragraphs she says:

Families are children’s most important educators. Our society must invest in parental education, prenatal care and preschool. Of course, schools must improve; everyone should have a stable, experienced staff, adequate resources and a balanced curriculum including the arts, foreign languages, history and science.

If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. And that would be a miracle.

What this has to do with communists or MVP players, I’m not sure, but it certainly gets to the heart of what is needed for all children to succeed whether Bloomberg, Alter or anyone else chooses to believe it or not.


Post Script: Diane Ravitch and Jonathan Alter will be debating on air this Wednesday in Colorado. Details to follow.


  1. Kudos. Great piece. It’s now up to each of us—the parents of children in our public schools—to form the Last Line of Defense, to keep our schools free (in every sense of the word) and focused on education.

    If the Privatization Pirates have their way, every last vestige of our society that provides an equal and balanced playing field will be wiped away; maybe for generations.

    Thank goodness for people like you, who are helping us stand together and fight back. Our kids are not “consumers”, nor are they here to be “consumed”.

  2. Excellent summary of this dust up by Alter over Ravitch’s op ed- you connect the dots well to the corporate moguls who see education takeover as the next frontier for private sector money making. As Rupert Murdoch said upon his purchase of Wireless Generation, “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching,” said News Corporation Chairman and CEO, Rupert Murdoch in a statement. He also hired Joel Klein as an advisor, two weeks after his resignation from NYC Schools.

  3. What self-respecting journalist could possibly work at a place where, according to Bloomberg News Editor Matthew Winkler, “… it’s very important that everyone understands that our editorial page is going to be, for sure, consistent with the values and beliefs of the founder – even if he happens to mayor of New York City…I want people to come away from reading The Bloomberg View infused with those beliefs and values?” (NY Magazine, 12/16/10)

    What he failed to say, but we should all remember, is that it’s also there to “infuse” and institutionalize Bloomberg’s interests within the political economy of the city. This is nowhere more true than in the schools, where the explicit goal is to destabilize and fragment the public system, while simultaneously creating private networks of publicly funded schools that will be allowed to grow unchecked.

  4. Thank you Dora you are an inspiration to all of us who are fighting this battle for our children and their children.

    What’s evident about Mr. Alter’s diatribe against Dr. Ravitch is the tenor of the discussion and insults. He characterizes the researcher rather than addressing the facts, yet he himself has no credentials as a researcher, let alone as an educator. To use a term from sports, this is par for the course with these so-called conservative think tanks.

    Alter’s Sport team analogy is also inappropriate because basketball is entertainment and part of a game based on competition not real life situations like eduction and teaching careers. Team owners have total control of teams, and bad decisions have no checks to halt their implementation. He is using hero worship and the superman syndrome to couch his arguments. This is the top down message to the working class that businessmen know the solution.

    There is no documentation or empirical evidence to support the corporate reform movement and he has made a weak effort to do so with a few sentences, but his reasoning is incomplete and does not measure up to the academic rigor he promotes.

    His essay is laced with fear mongering, specifically the references to communism which he associates with teachers unions. In the early 90’s Chester Finn claimed that public education and teacher’s unions were the last bastion of communism and needed to be brought down like the Berlin wall. Alter falls in step with this characterization by using militaristic words such as rear guard actions by Dr. Ravitch and her supporters which are unions, liberals and apparently communists on the left.

    Dr. Ravitch uses test score statistics, which is the criteria touted by the corporate reformers, to show the false data generated by flagship charters. Alter attacks her because she is against using test scores as a determinate in funding, or even the continued existence for schools, with the statement “And since when does Ravitch credit test scores?” What he avoids is the point that test’s and test scores are flawed, not a good measure of student progress, and take valuable time away from teaching which is the point Dr. Ravitch is making with her use of the test score analysis.

    The tests used by the state of Washington are not even recognized as valid by the international testing associations. In Seattle the invalid test used is the “MAPS” which has been outed by teachers as such. This test was introduced by the recently fired superintendent, who was on the board of the testing company and underlines the issue of conflict of interest. Unfortunately it is still supported by the current superintendent who was quick-tracked through the system and lacks any real depth of experience to be qualified for her position as head of the Seattle Public Schools.

    In Seattle, Kindergarten students, who neither read nor write are set down in front of a compute screen with questions and answers to choose from about math. Its the second week of school and this is a MAPS test which is voiced over with a recording so they can pick an answer. This is done three times a year. These children should be developing tactile skills to support their three dimensional development and not have that development stunted with a two dimensional computer screen. This is an abuse of the system that will have long term effects and is supported by developmental psychologist.

    As for classroom malpractice. In Seattle it takes 6 months to remove a teacher. How much faster do you need to remove a bad teacher? The reason there are a few bad teachers is that the principals don’t take responsibility, it’s too much work. You don’t need test scores to know a bad teacher, they stick out like a sore thumb. The union contract only ensures they get due process which protects teachers who speak out and are being politically targeted. Whats wrong with that?

    Alter also plays the excuse/blame game by minimizing the effects of social and economic conditions and accusing anyone mentioning this variable in the education equation as “extinguishing hope” and obstructing a child’s civil right to education by blaming it on poverty. Yet he refuses to address this important issue and speaks out of both sides of his mouth. It is he who is defending the status quo of failure, the failed economic status quo.

    The last line of defense between democracy and fascism is public education and teachers unions, who have been the primary advocates for our children’s rights to an eduction. Who have the teachers unions been fighting against to safe guard a public education for all? The very corporate forces who sponsor the likes of Mr. Alter. This is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing scenario.

    He defends corporate reform educators as having some experience with their quick-track pathways to administrative positions but doesn’t mention the conflict of interest involved in getting there which is usually through the corporate foundations like Broad, Gates, etc.

    With respect to the business involvement in public schools he asks “Would it be better if they ignored them as they did for so long? That went well for this country.” This is not a true statement. The corporate business community has not ignored public education they have actively opposed funding for public education for years. This is an attempt, as advocated by Chester Finn, to destroy public education first in order to justify a takeover that would benefit corporate interests.

    America is being dismembered piece by piece. The offshoring of jobs, wall street bankruptcies, government bailouts, endless warfare, the loss of moral authority in the world, and the attacks against the working middle class is what’s destroying this country. Yet we are told by paid shills like Alter that its the teacher’s fault this is happening because students don’t measure up to corporate standards. It’s time for a new revolution which is the last thing corporate America wants. Sign me up for the march on Washington.

    David Fisher
    retired Seattle teacher

  5. The strategy is crystal clear. When a reasonable question is asked or a criticism is raised, the question/comment is made invisible or attack dogs are released to villify the individual. In Alter’s case, if there were a shred of fact and evidence to refute Ravitch, he failed to present it. Attack dog strategy employed and everyone sees it. Conclusion? The evidence Ravitch presents hits a nerve among education reformers.

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