Commentary Magazine


Topic: Campbell Brown

Diane Ravitch’s Sexist and Tendentious Attack on an Education Reformer

In the past I’ve had my differences with Jonathan Chait, but he does a splendid job of eviscerating Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has become among the most prominent defenders of teacher unions.

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In the past I’ve had my differences with Jonathan Chait, but he does a splendid job of eviscerating Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has become among the most prominent defenders of teacher unions.

Ms. Ravitch has undergone a radical change in her views. She was once a vocal advocate for reforms; she’s now among the fiercest public critics of reform. More on that in a moment, but let me begin by setting the context.

The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi did a profile of Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor turned education-reform activist. One of Ms. Brown’s concerns is teacher tenure, which she (rightly) believes protects terrible teachers from accountability and creates the wrong metric by which to judge teachers. Apparently this was too much for Ms. Ravitch, who said this:

“I have trouble with this issue because it’s so totally illogical,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian. “It’s hard to understand why anyone thinks taking away teachers’ due-process rights will lead to great teachers in every classroom.”

As for Brown, Ravitch is dismissive: “She is a good media figure because of her looks, but she doesn’t seem to know or understand anything about teaching and why tenure matters. . . . I know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense.”

To which Chait responds, “Why, yes, that does sound rather sexist.” He goes on to explain why the elimination of our current system of teacher tenure would help attract better teachers, including pointing out that last-in, first-out hiring rules lead to teachers being let go regardless of quality. “The basic problem is that some proportion of American teachers is terrible at their job and immune to improvement, yet removing them is a practical impossibility,” Chait writes. (He supplies an overview of the research here.)

“In most fields,” Chait adds, “your pay is based on your perceived value rather than on the number of years you have spent on the job.” He goes on to say of various reforms, “nearly all of them work better than paying people on the basis of how long they’ve held a job and making it functionally impossible to fire them for being terrible at their job.”

Some final thoughts, the first of which is that it’s a shame that Ravitch has become such an angry and embittered critic of those arguing for many of the reforms she once favored. In a devastating COMMENTARY magazine review of Ravitch’s book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Liam Julian of the Hoover Institution wrote her book was “nothing less than an act of emotional and ideological capitulation to those who fought her tooth and nail all along the way.” Changing one’s mind is not in principle wrong, of course, but in Ms. Ravitch’s case her complete shift on education reminds me of the words of Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons: “Listen, Roper. Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you’re a passionate — Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head’s finished turning, your face is to the front again.”

In the course of her volte-face, Ms. Ravitch hasn’t simply shifted her views; she’s gone from being a serious scholar to an intemperate polemicist. (See Sol Stern’s Autumn 2013 essay in City Journal, “The Closing of Diane Ravitch’s Mind,” for more.) Her sexist attack on Campbell Brown, while ludicrous, was entirely in keeping with her corrosive and dyspeptic rhetoric these days.

As for Ms. Brown, she put things rather well in the profile by Farhi:

I’m a mom, and my view of public education begins and ends with the fundamental question: Is this good for children? In a situation where it’s the child or the adult, I’m going with the child…. Tenure is permanent lifetime employment. There’s no reason why anyone’s job should become untouchable for the rest of their life.

To be an advocate for the education and wellbeing of children is a rather high calling, even if the advocate happens to be attractive as well.

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Specter Did Specter In

Margaret Carlson has two smart observations about the political demise of Arlen Specter. First, on top of his general toxicity to Democratic candidates, Obama helped do in Specter by nominating Elena Kagan, “which reminded people of that long-ago performance by Specter as he slammed Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Not too long ago, before Specter pledged Democrats his troth, Specter voted against the White House nomination of Kagan for solicitor general. Not surprisingly, he had a hard time finding takers for his reasons why she wasn’t qualified for that job — but should be confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court.”

In this we saw vintage Obama as well as classic Specter. Obama didn’t have a care in the world that his Kagan selection (which has gone over like a lead balloon with his base) would highlight Specter’s lack of core convictions. And Specter was at his typical squishiness in trying to disguise his true motives in these confirmation battles: ensuring his own re-election.

And then, unlike Campbell Brown, Snarlin’ Arlen went out in true form: “Specter did not go quietly into that good night, conceding in the shortest of speeches with no kind words for Sestak. He could have gone out gracefully but so few do — because losing is a little like dying for some.” It was one more reminder that Specter lacks both principles and class.

Politicians don’t often get their just desserts. The crooked ones often avoid prosecution. The ones who go back on campaign promises are rarely held accountable. In sleazy backroom deals, while supposedly representing “the people,” all too many secure comfy jobs on K Street that can benefit their own financial future at the expense of the taxpayers. But once in a while, a clarifying and fully satisfying moment comes along. This is one of them. And on this there is bipartisan agreement: Specter’s forced retirement is good for the Senate and good for the country.

Margaret Carlson has two smart observations about the political demise of Arlen Specter. First, on top of his general toxicity to Democratic candidates, Obama helped do in Specter by nominating Elena Kagan, “which reminded people of that long-ago performance by Specter as he slammed Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Not too long ago, before Specter pledged Democrats his troth, Specter voted against the White House nomination of Kagan for solicitor general. Not surprisingly, he had a hard time finding takers for his reasons why she wasn’t qualified for that job — but should be confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court.”

In this we saw vintage Obama as well as classic Specter. Obama didn’t have a care in the world that his Kagan selection (which has gone over like a lead balloon with his base) would highlight Specter’s lack of core convictions. And Specter was at his typical squishiness in trying to disguise his true motives in these confirmation battles: ensuring his own re-election.

And then, unlike Campbell Brown, Snarlin’ Arlen went out in true form: “Specter did not go quietly into that good night, conceding in the shortest of speeches with no kind words for Sestak. He could have gone out gracefully but so few do — because losing is a little like dying for some.” It was one more reminder that Specter lacks both principles and class.

Politicians don’t often get their just desserts. The crooked ones often avoid prosecution. The ones who go back on campaign promises are rarely held accountable. In sleazy backroom deals, while supposedly representing “the people,” all too many secure comfy jobs on K Street that can benefit their own financial future at the expense of the taxpayers. But once in a while, a clarifying and fully satisfying moment comes along. This is one of them. And on this there is bipartisan agreement: Specter’s forced retirement is good for the Senate and good for the country.

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Campbell Cans the Spin

In announcing her decision to leave CNN, Campbell Brown put out this statement, which included this:

I’m pretty sure the last time any anchor could honestly ignore ratings was well before I was born. Of course I pay attention to ratings. And simply put, the ratings for my program are not where I would like them to be. It is largely for this reason that I am stepping down as anchor of CNN’s “Campbell Brown.”

To be clear: this is my decision, and one that I have been thinking about for some time. As for why, I could have said, that I am stepping down to spend more time with my children (which I truly want to do). Or that I am leaving to pursue other opportunities (which I also truly want to do). But I have never had much tolerance for others’ spin, so I can’t imagine trying to stomach my own. The simple fact is that not enough people want to watch my program, and I owe it to myself and to CNN to get out of the way so that CNN can try something else.

The entire statement is honest, unvarnished, devoid of spin, and gracious — and therefore quite impressive. The problems she faced rested more with her network than with her. But in exiting CNN, Ms. Brown set a standard others in the media, and in politics, should strive for.

In announcing her decision to leave CNN, Campbell Brown put out this statement, which included this:

I’m pretty sure the last time any anchor could honestly ignore ratings was well before I was born. Of course I pay attention to ratings. And simply put, the ratings for my program are not where I would like them to be. It is largely for this reason that I am stepping down as anchor of CNN’s “Campbell Brown.”

To be clear: this is my decision, and one that I have been thinking about for some time. As for why, I could have said, that I am stepping down to spend more time with my children (which I truly want to do). Or that I am leaving to pursue other opportunities (which I also truly want to do). But I have never had much tolerance for others’ spin, so I can’t imagine trying to stomach my own. The simple fact is that not enough people want to watch my program, and I owe it to myself and to CNN to get out of the way so that CNN can try something else.

The entire statement is honest, unvarnished, devoid of spin, and gracious — and therefore quite impressive. The problems she faced rested more with her network than with her. But in exiting CNN, Ms. Brown set a standard others in the media, and in politics, should strive for.

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