Diane Ravitch Essay

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Diane Ravitch is a historian of education and educational reformer who has written extensively on all aspects of American culture that relate to education.

She was born the third of eight children in Houston, Texas, where she attended public elementary and secondary school. She completed her BA degree at Wellesley College in 1960. After having children and spending time at home as a mother, she completed her Ph.D. degree in history at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1975. Her mentor was educational historian Lawrence Cremin, who later became president of Columbia’s Teachers College.

In 1974, while completing the requirements for her degree, Ravitch published her first book, The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools. The book was accepted in 1975 as her dissertation, the first published work to be accepted as a doctoral dissertation at Teachers College.

Ravitch served as adjunct professor of history and education at Teachers College from 1975 to 1991. She published her second major book, The Revisionists Revised: A Critique of the Radical Attack on the Schools, in 1978. In this work, she criticized 1960s-era historians for their depiction of schools as oppressive institutions that merely reproduced class distinctions. In contrast to this negative interpretation, Ravitch described how schools can and have served as liberating institutions that provide opportunities for students to rise out of their impoverished situations. The book inspired much heated conversation, which helped to raise Ravitch’s name to a nationwide audience.

In 1983, Ravitch published a third book on the history of education, but this time she expanded her topic to cover the entire United States. The result was The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945–1980. During the mid-1980s, Ravitch began to direct her research more toward policy makers and less toward an audience of strictly scholars and historians. Major changes were taking place in American education and politics during this time.

The highly influential A Nation at Risk report was released in 1983, and Ravitch became deeply involved in many of the reform movements that grew out of it. The policy-minded turn in her work is evident in her next book, The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crisis of Our Time, which appeared in 1985. As the subtitle of the book indicates, Ravitch’s ideal was no longer the publication of straightforward history; rather, her goal was to influence education in practical ways by producing scholarship that spoke directly to policy makers and others who have an impact everyday on the teaching of children and youth in America’s schools.

In 1988, Ravitch was the lead writer of the California Framework for History–Social Science Education. As part of this work, she became an outspoken advocate for the revival of history in the school curriculum and was a founder of the National Council for History Education. This work coincided with the publication of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, which she coauthored with Chester Finn, Jr.

Ravitch’s work on educational policy continued to gain national attention, which culminated in her appointment as Assistant Secretary of Education by President George H. W. Bush in 1991. At this point, Ravitch left Teachers College to serve as Assistant Secretary from 1991 to 1993. During this time, she helped to create the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement. As Assistant Secretary, she also spearheaded the federal government’s effort to promote the creation of state and national academic standards.

After the completion of two years as Assistant Secretary, Ravitch accepted an invitation to become a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., where she wrote National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide. In 1994, she returned to New York City, where she joined the faculty at New York University as a Research Professor of Education, a position she continues to hold today. Ravitch remains affiliated with the Brookings Institution as holder of the Brown Chair on Education Studies and a nonresident Visiting Fellow.

During the late 1990s, Ravitch returned her attention to writing on the history of education. In 2000, she published Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, which continues to be discussed widely in both history and education policy circles. She also recently published The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, which describes the distorted world of textbook creation and provides suggestions on how it may be improved. In addition to these and other single authored works, Ravitch has edited fourteen books.

Ravitch has received numerous awards, including membership in societies such as the National Academy of Education (1979), the Society of American Historians (1984), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1985). In 2005, she received the John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education from the United Federation of Teachers. She also has received honorary degrees from eight institutions, including Williams College, Amherst College, and the State University of New York.


  1. Ravitch, D. (1974). The great school wars: A history of the New York City public schools. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. Ravitch, D. (1978). The revisionists revised: A critique of the radical attack on the schools. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Ravitch, D. (1983). The troubled crusade: American education, 1945–1980. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Ravitch, D. (1985). The schools we deserve: Reflections on the educational crisis of our time. New York: Basic Books.
  5. Ravitch, D. (1995). National standards in American education: A citizen’s guide. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
  6. Ravitch, D. (2000). Left back: A century of battles over school reform. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  7. Ravitch, D. (2003). The language police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Knopf.
  8. Ravitch, D., & Finn, C., Jr. (Eds.). (1987). What do our 17-year-olds know? New York: Harper & Row.

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