Diane Ravitch and the Angry Rebellion against Common Core

Wielding her influential blog as a weapon, this 75-year-old activist has created a powerful network united by revulsion against top-down, elite policymaking.
by | December 16, 2013
 

Since the Common Core State Standards for education were first proposed in 2009, 45 states have adopted them. As major public-policy initiatives go, this has been a hurtling train, backed by powerful people and institutions, that has been roaring down the track a breakneck speed.

Now, however, comes the backlash. In at least 17 states there is some kind of serious movement against the Common Core standards. The media have largely portrayed the push to scrap them as the product of a Republican repudiation of any and all things related to a federal government headed by Barack Obama. This is not true. The antipathy to Common Core is part of a much larger rejection of the dominant education-reform paradigm, supported by leaders of both political parties, that embraces charter schools, vouchers, more testing of students, increased accountability for teachers and hostility to teachers' unions.

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The movement against Common Core is an angry rebellion that shares with the Occupy and Tea Party movements a revulsion toward top-down policy-making emanating from the nation's elite. At the center of the rebellion, and its animating force, is a 75-year-old grandmother named Diane Ravitch who once supported many of the elements of education reform that she now despises. Whether you agree with her or not, it is clear that Ravitch is an incredible political phenomenon, the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. As much as anyone I have ever seen, she has taken up the tools of social media and wielded them powerfully to try to change the course of American history. And she has managed to do it without staff or funding.

It's worth considering how she has done this.

First, it should be noted that she is a formidable person who herself has been near the levers of establishment power most of her adult life. She was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution until she went rogue. She has a Ph.D. from Columbia University and is a research professor of education at New York University. She was an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the National Assessment Governing Board. She has published 10 books, the most recent being this fall's Reign of Error: the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. It made the New York Times best-seller list within days of its release, fueled I'm sure by the buildup for it among the readers of her blog.

The blog is a phenomenon unto itself. Ravitch blogs between five and 20 times a day, usually with links to local-media articles or pieces written by others within her network. In November, 18 months after she launched it, the blog recorded more than 8 million page views. She sometimes has others post on her blog. She says one of those, a post entitled "I Quit" written by a fed-up North Carolina schoolteacher, is the most popular ever to appear on her blog, garnering 66,000 page views the day it went up in October 2012 and more than 250,000 as of this month.

Her readership has evolved into a national network with bloggers and correspondents in virtually every state and every major city who use her site to link with and support each other's efforts. At least two national organizations have sprung up from the interactions of her readers: the Badass Teacher Association, co-founded by Mark Naisson, a historian and proudly radical professor at Fordham University, and the Network for Public Education, which actively engages in school-board fights around the country, advocating and raising money for candidates who share Ravitch's views. Ravitch herself keeps up a grueling schedule of public appearances, often speaking to large crowds and sometimes debating advocates of the reform paradigm such as former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Ravitch is a relentless and focused policy entrepreneur who has said that she goes at it so hard because it is important -- she believes that public education is essential to democracy and faces an existential threat from the reformers -- and because she doesn't have much time, an apparent allusion to her age.

The fact that she is willing to wage such an intense fight to change the course of a major public-policy initiative evidences deep faith and confidence in the American system of governance. Others who want major policy changes should also embrace that faith and take some lessons from how Diane Ravitch operates.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com

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