The Wrong Stuff

Diane Ravitch on Being Wrong

“We are in the grips of a kind of national madness,” Diane Ravitch told me, “closing schools, firing teachers, shutting down public education.” What makes this statement interesting is that, for many years, Ravitch was a powerful voice within the national education reform movement she now rejects as faddish, empirically unfounded, and bad for America’s kids. 

As assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, Ravitch became an outspoken supporter of educational testing, school choice, charter schools, and No Child Left Behind . Later, she championed those positions as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board (the entity that oversees education testing in the United States) and through her involvement with two prominent conservative think tanks, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Koret Task Force.

Today, Ravitch refers to the reforms she once championed as “deforms.” Her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System , documents her own reversal and the impact of current education policy on communities, schools, families, teachers, and students. When I spoke with her, she was frank and thoughtful about the experience of coming to reject what were once some of her most deeply held beliefs. “For years,” she told me, “people would say to me, ‘Well, I don’t agree with everything you write,’ and I would think, Thanks a lot, that’s some compliment.’ But now I say, ‘Well, I don’t agree with everything I write, so why should you?’ ”

Thanks for agreeing to meet with me. Not everyone relishes talking about their mistakes.

This is something that I haven’t really put into words, so I don’t know if I’m going to get it right.  But when you’re engaged in the political realm, you say, “This set of ideas is right and that set of ideas is wrong” right, wrong, right, wrong. And I sometimes wonder whether you might be attracted to the things that you say are wrong if you’re kind of guarding yourself against something that secretly appeals to you. It’s like people who are vehement, militant atheists; I think they could easily become religious crusaders, because they’re almost religious in their atheism. You have to be careful what you choose to engage yourself with, because the thing you’re fighting could be the very thing you want.

Fascinating. That’s what the psychologist Carl Jung thought, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest that they’ve actually undergone that experience.

Oh, Jung thought that? I didn’t know that.

Yeah. He argued that when we passionately defend a conviction, it’s mainly against our own subconscious doubts, and that if we keep squelching them, they’ll eventually surge into consciousness and completely shift our perspective. Which I guess is kind of what happened to you. Were you aware at the time of any kind of subterranean uncertainty?

No, I don’t think so. But occasionally something will get dredged up in my memory and I’ll think, “Yeah, that’s something else that really annoyed me.”

Can you describe the process by which you changed your mind about education reform? Was it more of a sudden epiphany the canonic conversion experience, like Paul being blinded by the light on the road to Damascus or just a gradual change of heart?

It was gradual. I think what happens is that over time you get to know all the arguments all the arguments on your side, all the arguments on the other side and you just say “Nah, they’re wrong.” And then at some point you think, Well, are they really wrong? What about this? Or Well , they’re right about that . Or Maybe this thing I’ve been advocating for is wrong in this one situation . You start feeling the certainty begin to dissipate. I guess I started to see things that created a lot of chinks in my own intellectual defenses. I tend to be skeptical of things, and I found my skepticism turning toward the people that I was a part of and turning toward myself.

Was there a moment where you first thought: “Uh-oh”?

There were a number of moments, really, scenes of doubt. But one of them came about because of research I’d been asked to do about higher-education standards in Pakistan. What I discovered was that higher education wasn’t the issue. The issue was that they have virtually no public-education system. So that gave me pause, because here I was running with people that were saying that public education is the problem.

Do you think there was something about looking at familiar issues in a foreign context that freed you up to see things differently?

Maybe. You know, here is a country that has a completely inadequate public-school system: So many of the kids that do go to school are in madrasas, and girls are not going to school at all. It made me think about the origins of American public education. I’d written about the history of the New York public schools and read lots of other histories of schooling, and it used to be that there was this hodgepodge of options private tutors and church schools and so forth. Those who had some resources could take care of their kids, and those who had none—well, their kids didn’t get an education. So there was something that resonated for me. The more we turn kids over to the private sector and erode public education, the more we’re going back to pre-public-school times, and those were not good times for education in this nation.

What other experiences nudged you along in your transformation?

Seeing the results of testing, for one. There was a long period of time where I thought, what’s wrong with testing? We test people all the time; you go to the doctor, you have tests. But as I saw the consequences begin to kick in, I realized, this isn’t just testing. People are being punished because of test scores. We’ve created a system where Mrs. Smith is going to teach nothing but what’s tested. The arts aren’t tested and the sciences aren’t tested, and the conservative response to that is, “Well, test everything.” But the problem is and this is another thing I found myself recoiling from then you’ll do nothing but test. People tend to scoff at anything that’s subjective, but it’s the essays and the projects that make it fun for kids and give them an opportunity to show comprehension.

So that made me stop and think. And then, too, I became very outspoken in my criticism of Bloomberg, which created this tremendous tension between me and almost everyone else on the conservative side of the spectrum.

What was the hardest part of changing your mind on these issues?

I think the hardest thing is just to say you’ve made a mistake. If you can reach that juncture, which is very hard, then you can begin to understand how you got there. I’m not sure that I myself understand how I got there. I attribute it to having been in the [first] Bush administration. I didn’t really have a strong position on choice and accountability when I started there, and I can see now how I was really shaped just by interchange with people. It’s the social consensus; you’re surrounded by people with the same ideas. You develop over the years a whole set of relationships with people who agree with you and you read the things on your side that say you’re right, and you look at the things written on the other side and you say, “Oh, gosh, it’s too bad they haven’t seen the light.”

Nowadays you don’t seem to have any trouble saying you made a mistake.

Well, I have to; I wrote a book about it! Maybe I should feel ashamed that I was wrong, but if you’re ashamed it’s stigmatizing, and then you can’t say it. It’s like people with a mental illness who can’t bring themselves to say they have a problem.

I agree, but it’s rare for public officials or even former public officials to openly acknowledge that they were wrong.

I know. I’ve occasionally done talk shows where people call in and say “I’m sick and tired of Bush officials saying they made a mistake, and now they’re cashing in on it!” And I say, “Really? I can’t think of anyone else who’s said that.”

So what do you think it was about your personality or life experiences that made you able to change your mind? Plenty of other people who were exposed to the same body of evidence remained unmoved.

In some sense I’m a contrarian, so that was part of it. Another part was realizing how much money was arrayed against something as simple as public education. There’s this notion that because these people are so wealthy, they can make decisions that change other people’s lives, without thinking of those lives. It’s kind of an anti-human approach that says, I’m rich, I’m smart, and you’re just an ordinary person, therefore I have power over you. And I guess I have a kind of bedrock populism in me that just rejects that.

We have a stereotype that older people can become very set in their ways, but I wonder whether being older made it easier to change your mind?

Oh, yes. Absolutely. Because I didn’t want anything. I wasn’t thinking about getting a foundation grant or getting a job. I have no ambitions. I’m too old to be secretary of education, I’m too old to be chancellor of the New York City schools. All I want is to try to die with a clear conscience. I want to feel that I’ve set the record straight in terms of what I believe and where I erred.

How do you feel about your former colleagues now that they’ve become your ideological adversaries?

If you read the book, you know I don’t criticize them. I never ever say anything ad hominem against them. I think they’re brilliant. We disagree, and I’m trying to maintain a kind of respect for disagreement. And I try to credit their motives and intentions. I suppose most of us think that what we’re doing is morally right. We hardly ever do something knowing that it’s morally wrong.

Are they returning the favor?

[Laughs.] I suppose that some are and some aren’t. I don’t really know. Periodically someone will say, “Have you read all the attacks on you?” and I say no. I don’t do attacks, and I don’t read people attacking me. I made a very conscious decision about this. There were others time in my life when I said, “I don’t let an attack go unanswered.” Now I’m like: forget the attack. I have only so much energy to spend, and if I spend it on the guys back there shooting at me, I have less energy for moving forward.

What about the people you used to disagree with? Have they welcomed your change of mind?

There are probably people on the left who’ve said, “We don’t want you, go back where you came from,” but they’re very few. Mostly people have said, “We’re glad you see things differently, we’re glad to welcome you to our side.”

Have you gotten a lot of “I told you so”s?

Some. Recently I spoke at Harvard, and the great testing expert Dan Koretz said, “I’ve been saying this for years, why didn’t you listen?” I said, “Because I’m not as smart as you.”

It sounds like many of these people would have been strange bedfellows for you not terribly long ago. Do you find that part odd?

[Laughs.] It makes me laugh. The people who get what I’m saying tend to be way on the left. People who previously would not have even shaken my hand are saying, “You’re telling it like it is!” Pacifica [radio station], which is about as far left as you can get, loved the book. After I gave a talk in Chicago, this very handsome young black man came up to me and said, “I’m Jonathan Jackson.” I said, “Very nice to meet you, Jonathan.” He said, “I wonder if you’d be willing to have dinner with my father.” I said, “Well, who’s your father?” He said, “Jesse Jackson.” So the next day after I finished my lecture, I had dinner with Jesse Jackson. I said to my sons, “I can’t believe this!”

Have your children been supportive?

Oh, yes. My youngest son said to me, “You know, your book is really a conservative critique of capitalism.”

One of the strange things about being a convert to a cause is that you are often perceived as more credible than people who’ve been saying the same things all along. Has that been your experience?

Oh, definitely. I’m not sure if I should be [seen that way], but I am. People say to me, “You have more credibility because you were on the other side,” when others who have been saying the same thing for many years just get discounted. Union people in particular get dismissed with, “Well, you’re speaking for your self-interest” whereas I have no perceived self-interest in this.

You mentioned the social consensus earlier, and although you’ve described your change of mind as an intellectual crisis, it must have produced a massive social crisis for you, too. You spent decades of your life moving in largely conservative circles.

There are people I was friendly with both socially and ideologically with whom I have a strained relationship now. So that was not easy. I was on a lot of boards at one point, I was associated with a lot of think tanks, and I maintain only a couple of those connections now. I broke ties with several places.

But, you know, by the time you get to be my age, you have friends who are still your friends no matter what you do. The people who were real friends are still real friends. And I’ve been too busy to think about not getting invited to parties.

It must have been painful in the moment, though.

What was painful was to feel like I’d reached a point of being so out of sorts with everybody. It just got to be so unrewarding to come to meetings and to say no to everything, and know that everybody else was going to be on the other side. I’d go to meetings at the Fordham Foundation and block project after project. At the Koret task force, which has I think the most brilliant people on this issue on the conservative side of the spectrum, I began to be in the minority. The last big discussion we had was about the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which I had become really disenchanted with. My recommendation was “Let’s just kill it, it’s not working.” And everyone said, “Well, you know, you can’t throw out accountability, accountability is really important. We can improve it, we can tinker with it.” I said, “No, you can’t tinker with something that’s this defective.” So we had a vote and it was nine to one and I said, “Well, can we print my dissent?” And they said no.

I offered my resignation at both organizations and they both said “No, stay, stay,” and for a while I did, because I liked the people. I still like the people.

It does sound difficult to be the lone voice of dissent for so many years.

You know, I’ve always had a concern for the one person with the dissenting voice, so it was OK with me to discover that I was that one person. I’ve written and thought a lot about civic education, and many years ago I went to Eastern Europe this was right after the fall of the wall and in a presentation there I talked about the importance of dissent, about being wary of crowds and open to the possibility that the loner is right. I’ve always been intrigued by books like Brave New World and 1984 and [Eugene Zamiatin’s] We that whole genre of books about the lonely individual in a totalitarian society, about what happens to you when everyone agrees and you’re the one who says the whole thing is a facade.

One thing that’s hard about such situations is that the crowd consensus effectively becomes reality. So if you’re voicing a dissenting opinion, people don’t just think you’re wrong. They think you’re crazy.

That’s why the Soviet Union dissenters got sent to psychiatric institutions: because everybody else was so strongly part of the consensus. When I go out lecturing now, I talk about how there is this dominant consensus that’s funded by big foundations with tons of money, and they fund the think tanks, and the think tanks churn out advocacy materials that go to editorial boards, and then the corporate people say we’re onboard with this, the Bush administration was onboard, the Obama administration is onboard. To me it’s almost self-evident that No Child Left Behind is a failure, but people will say, “Well, Congress doesn’t think so.” It’s like everybody agrees except for the teachers, who are the ones who have to do it.

Have you gone back and looked at the initial criticisms of No Child Left Behind from 2001, the year that it passed?

No. I’m sure there were people who predicted everything that would happen. But you know, as I often say, I was wrong, but I was in good company. Almost 90 of Congress voted for it, including more Democrats than Republicans. Ted Kennedy never, ever backed off from his strong support. He said it was underfunded, but that wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t underfunded. It was the wrong idea.

Now I think, “Well, if Teddy Kennedy didn’t know, why should I have known?” Everybody thought it was a good idea. The difference between me and its supporters at the time is that I’ve decided it’s wrong and they’re still defending it. I’m trying to repair the damage and they’re trying to keep it alive.

Do you remember how you felt about those criticisms at the time?

Yeah, I thought, you know, “These are just a lot of people who are afraid of tests.”

Has the experience of changing your mind on this one belief caused you to question any other beliefs?

I’m trying to think. I can’t say that I have deep passionate beliefs about other things where I would need to reconsider. I don’t have any strong religious commitments. Politically I’ve been independent for years. Being a skeptic to start with, I don’t have a whole lot that I have to re-examine. I’m always re-examining.

What do you think about the role of wrongness in education? It seems to me that making mistakes is crucial to learning, yet by and large mistakes are discouraged and punished in our schools.

We have reshaped the education system largely through federal legislation to an approach of “right answers, right answers, right answers.” But life’s not like that. We’re putting a tremendous amount of value on being able to pick the right one out of four little bubbles. But this turns out not to be a very valuable skill. You can’t take this skill out into the workplace and get paid for it.

My research assistant did a blog for the Washington Post about this mantra of “Failure Is Not an Option.” Her point was, you can’t learn anything unless you fail. Failure has to be an option. What does success mean if there’s no failure? It just means that you’ve dropped the bar so low that everyone can walk over it.

If you could hear someone else interviewed about wrongness, who would it be?

That’s a hard one. Donald Rumsfeld said he was wrong, but I don’t even want to hear from him. [Former Treasury Secretary, former Goldman Sachs Co-Chair, and former Citigroup Chair] Bob Rubin would be interesting, but he’ll never admit he was wrong. Right now what’s coming to mind are people who have never admitted that they’re wrong about anything.

Like who?

Like basically everybody I’ve been associated with for the last 20 years.


Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  To read the previous interview, with Alan Dershowitz, click here .