Hall Center For The Humanities

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Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch
Education historian & policy analyst

"Will School Reform Improve the Schools?"
Humanities Lecture Series

Tue., Oct. 18, 2011, 7:30pm - 9:00pm
Supported by the Sosland Foundation of Kansas City. Co-sponsored by Kansas Public Radio.
Location: Woodruff Auditorium, Kansas Union

Diane Ravitch is a policy analyst and historian of education whose highly respected work in education policy at the federal level endured through the presidencies of George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.  Today, Ravitch is one of our most vocal supporters of public education, launching trenchant critiques of the fallout from No Child Left Behind and Obama's Race to the Top program. Her most recent publication, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (2010) advocates strongly for supporting teachers, rather than penalizing them for being unable to achieve "draconian" testing standards.

Ravitch is deeply suspicious of school reform movements in general.  She finds the concept of "teacher accountability" contentious, noting that when it is tied exclusively to test results, teachers are forced to prepare students for testing, rather than critical thinking.  Neither are charter schools the panacea that everyone imagines them to be, she argues.  Their success rests, at least in part, on their ability to siphon off the most motivated students, leaving public schools to carry the burden of the most challenging cases. Perhaps most provocatively, Ravitch critiques the rise of philanthropic capital in education reform, questioning why we allow these organizations, which embrace a market-model of education and are accountable to no one, to drive the agenda for public schools.

Ravitch is currently Research Professor at New York University and a nonresident senior at the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit policy organization in Washington, DC. Before entering government work, Ravitch received a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, focusing on the history of education.  She has published several books, both historical conceptions of American education, such as The Great School Wars, (1974), and analyses of contemporaneous theories of education, including The Schools We Deserve (1985) and What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know (1987).  In 1991, she was selected by George Bush, Sr. to serve as Assistant Secretary of Education. Since then, she has published five more books, including Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (2000) and The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (2003).  She has also reached a wide audience of teachers, parents, and education reformers with hundreds of articles and essays one the ramifications of political and legal action on school policy.  Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Review of Books, and the Virginia Journal of Education.

In particular, Ravitch has been recognized for her level-headed, nonpartisan assessment of public education for over 30 years, demonstrating consistency in a topic that has become almost unavoidably politicized.  She has received numerous awards and distinctions for her engagement, including the Outstanding Friend of Education Award from the Horace Mann League and the Leadership Award of the New York City Council of Supervisors and Administrators.  In 2010, the National Education Association selected her as its "Friend of Education" for the year.

But it was The Death and Life of the Great American School System that placed Ravitch at the heart of one of America's most contentious policy issues. While earning accolades from institutions such as the American Association of School Administrators, she has also garnered vocal criticism from proponents of charter schools, standardized testing, and "teacher accountability," including, notoriously, Bill Gates. Yet even those who disagree with Ravitch respect her experience and historical perspective. She shares a blog, "Bridging Differences," with Deborah Meier, who disagrees often with Ravitch's assertions but recognizes the importance of her contribution to the topic.

After the publication of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch also became a figurehead for teachers' rights, receiving an outpouring of correspondence from those touched by her writing. One teacher from Tennessee wrote, "I am so excited that someone finally 'gets it.'  It is as though you are in our heads and saying the things that teachers all around me are saying." A common narrative of Ravitch's writing is that educators, not politicians, should be consulted about how to educate effectively, and that teachers should be encouraged to explore to uncover what works in their classroom, not demonized by politicians intent on disbanding the public school system.

During her lecture at the Hall Center, "Will School Reform Improve the Schools?," Ravitch will discuss the current state of school reform in the United States, reviewing the evidence for these reforms and examine their likely effects.  The Hall Center will also host a more informal question and answer session, "A Conversation with Diane Ravitch." Both events are free and open to the public.

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