Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

In the month of April, Diane Ravitch, the 72-year-old preeminent historian of American education, sent 1,747 tweets, an average of about 58 messages per day, many between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.

On May 20 alone, Ravitch tweeted 99 times to her 13,000 followers. Linking to the news of a D.C. Public Schools investigation into test tampering under former chancellor Michelle Rhee, she asked: “How can teachers be evaluated by student test scores, when the scores are so often manipulated and inaccurate?” Throughout the day, she mused on the shortcomings of standardized tests, whose ubiquity in American schools she has compared—with characteristic hyperbole—to “the Chinese cultural revolution.”

“Life’s problems do not translate into four possible answer[s],” she tweeted. Minutes later, she added: “Just think: 12 years of picking the right answer, never taking a risk with a different approach to problems. Ugh.” And then: “Those who can’t teach, pass laws about how to evaluate teachers.”

Ravitch went on to note that President Obama, whose education policies she opposes, is given more time to prove himself—four years—than the average teacher, who usually gets two or three years to win tenure. By afternoon, she was on to scorning Wall Street types, writing that “teachers can do more [good] than many who collect millions for betting on stocks or hog bellies or gold.”

Ravitch was producing scholarly monographs well before anyone ever imagined microblogging. But like her books, Ravitch’s 140-character missives are serious stuff. In the past year, they’ve become a major front in her war against what advocates call “school reform” and opponents like Ravitch sometimes label “school privatization.” In the process, the Brooklynite has become a relevant figure in Washington’s local debate: Somewhat improbably, this former education official from the first Bush administration has emerged as the most media-savvy progressive critic of the reform campaign embraced by everyone from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates—a campaign that, in the public mind, is perhaps most associated with Rhee.

Chester Finn, once Ravitch’s education-reform ally, savaged his old friend’s book.(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Last March, Ravitch capped a long career with the publication of her 13th book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Though she says it was rejected by 15 publishers, Death and Life (its title an homage to Jane Jacobs, the great defender of urban spaces) became a bestseller. It also proclaimed a sea change in Ravitch’s worldview.

Once a vocal proponent of No Child Left Behind, charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay for teachers, Ravitch decided sometime around 2006 that there was actually no evidence that any of those policies improved American education. She now believes that the “corporatist agenda” of school choice, teacher layoffs, and standardized testing has undermined public respect for one of the nation’s most vital institutions, the neighborhood school, and for one of society’s most crucial professions: teaching.

The best way to improve American education, the post-epiphany Ravitch argues, is to fight child poverty with health care, jobs, child care, and affordable housing.

The apostasy turned Ravitch into a sort of rock star—much like Rhee, but with a different audience. The crowds at the 100-plus speeches Ravitch has given since publishing Death and Life are heavy on unionized teachers. Last year, she won the “Friend of Education” award from their largest union, the National Education Association; delegates at the group’s annual convention greeted her with cheering, whooping glee. Death and Life has been translated into Korean and Japanese, and in the coming months, Ravitch will speak in Germany and Finland.

In November, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter dubbed Ravitch the “Whittaker Chambers of school reform,” declaring her Gates’ “biggest adversary” for speaking out against the Microsoft founder’s efforts to bring corporate efficiency standards to public schools. In December, the American Academy of Political and Social Science awarded Ravitch the 2011 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, for public intellectuals who have used social-science research to improve public policy. And in April, she addressed an overflow crowd at the annual summit of the American Education Researchers’ Association. She’s likely the first headliner at the staid confab to have also appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

“She got two standing ovations,” says Brad Olsen, a professor of education at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who attended the conference. “There were folks clamoring with their cellphones trying to get pictures of her. She seemed universally adored by the audience, many of whom were very young, quite frankly. They are graduate students, and they don’t know about the Diane Ravitch from before.”

If her late emergence as a liberal hero strikes progressives as ironic, it infuriates the Rhee fans who dominate both the Obama administration and the GOP. Critics call Ravitch a self-promoter, an opportunist, and a scholar who picks evidence to support her conclusions, rather than vice versa—in other words, a lot of the same things Rhee’s critics say about her.

“The problem with ‘I was wrong about everything’ as the prelude to an argument is that it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the repudiator’s judgment,” Kevin Carey of the think tank Education Sector complained in The New Republic. “[Ravitch] simply trades one pre-defined agenda for another: the collected talking points of the reactionary education establishment. It is a philosophy of resentment and futility, grounded in the conviction that public schools—and the adults within them—can’t really be expected to do better than they currently are.”

That’s a relatively respectful version of it. But the school-reform debate now has enough star power that there’s plenty of lower-brow criticism, too. If the idea of an education-policy historian popping up on Jon Stewart’s show is weird, the idea of a parody Twitter feed to caricature said education-policy historian may be even weirder.

But a review of Ravitch’s career, which actually began on the left, suggests a more complex narrative. A lifelong political liberal who has always wrestled with a sort of innate personal conservatism, Ravitch—like Jane Jacobs, the urbanist whose book she referenced—has been constant in her deep attraction to institutions that have survived the test of time, and her aversion to intellectual fads. “It’s the fierce urgency of no,” Ravitch says of her worldview. “I like institutions, in part because I like to rebel against them, but also because I think society needs them and needs to continually reshape them, not blow them up.”

Diane Silvers was born into a middle-class family in Houston in 1938, the third of eight children. Her parents owned a small chain of liquor stores. A bookworm, she also found time for adolescent thrills: At San Jacinto High School, she was a tomboy and an ardent drag racer. She’d been in three car accidents by age 16.

The Houston of Ravitch’s adolescence was embroiled in McCarthyism. Hailing from an FDR-loving, Democratic family, Ravitch was horrified by a campaign against her ninth-grade history teacher launched by the Minute Women of the U.S.A. The teacher, Nelda Davis, subscribed to a liberal internationalist worldview; she was eventually forced out. Another formative political experience came during Ravitch’s senior year, when she discovered a cache of books on the Soviet Union stashed under the school library’s circulation desk. They had been censored. She devoured them.

At the suggestion of her family rabbi’s wife, Ravitch went off to Wellesley College, in Massachusetts. Her goal was to become a reporter, so she interned one summer at The Washington Post. The experience put her off newspapering: She says most of the women in the newsroom were “gal Fridays,” making copies and fetching coffee, which seemed boring. But in D.C. she met her future husband, Richard Ravitch, who was working for a Democratic congressman from California. The couple married two weeks after Diane’s 1960 graduation, settling in Manhattan.

Ravitch set out to find a job to match her writerly ambitions. Because she didn’t want “women’s work,” it was a slog. “The only jobs available for someone with my inexperience were secretarial, typing,” she says. “It was a big turnoff.” Then, in January 1961, she came across a New York Times editorial about the death of Sol Levitas, the Russian exile who had run the small democratic socialist magazine The New Leader. The Times called The New Leader “one of the most stimulating and valuable magazines of our day,” filled with “every variety of democratic opinion.”

Ravitch looked up The New Leader’s phone number and called the office. A flustered secretary invited her for an interview. By the close of business, she had landed a $10 per week editorial assistant job. For three years Ravitch worked there on and off, gaining an introduction to the New York anti-Communist left. She remained a part of that world for decades. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, became a friend; in the late 1980s, he sent Ravitch to Eastern Europe to speak to newly organized teachers’ unions.

But Ravitch was never purely a creature of the left. As the counterculture took root in the mid-1960s, she was busy with two all-consuming projects—motherhood (her sons were born in 1962, 1964, and 1967) and research on what would become her celebrated 1974 history of the New York City public schools, The Great School Wars. She was attracted to the topic because she was fascinated by the era’s battles between community-control advocates, teachers, administrators, and the United Federation of Teachers. It was black vs. Jew, organized labor vs. New Left. And, in Ravitch’s view, the era also involved too many misguided philanthropists “playing God in the ghetto” by supporting new-fangled identity-politics curricula at the expense of traditional liberal arts.

Ravitch’s criticisms of that phenomenon yoked her to the conservative establishment, where right-leaning outfits like the Hoover Institution, the Olin Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute supported her work. She went on to spend 18 months in the first Bush administration and to produce another decade’s worth of policy writing in favor of introducing “competition” to education.

Ravitch’s move away from the left also came as she was dealing with an overwhelming personal loss. In 1966, her two-year old son died of leukemia. She was still mourning “as the flower children were running around in Central Park barefoot and setting firebombs in the flower beds,” Ravitch says. “I was not a fan of the counterculture, in part because it was such a tragic time in my own life, and, educationally, I disliked the contempt for knowledge, professionalism, and institutions.”

She still does. And while Ravitch located those trends on the left back then, she sees them today in the bipartisan consensus around market-based education reforms. In her book, Ravitch claims she was swayed by peer pressure from the Washington free-market types she worked alongside at the Department of Education and then the Brookings Institution. “Having been immersed in a world of true believers, I was influenced by their ideas,” she writes in Death and Life. “I became persuaded.”

Now that she’s been unpersuaded, Ravitch spends the greatest chunk of her energy arguing against what she sees as a war on teachers, defending their unions, tenure protections, and pensions. In fact, it’s a point she made during her time on the other side, too. In 1983 she wrote a New Republic essay called “Scapegoating the Teachers” in which she noted that “it is comforting to blame teachers for the low state of education, because it relieves so many others of their own responsibility for years of educational neglect.”

Almost 30 years later, Ravitch says she’s particularly offended by the suggestion—implicit in the media’s celebration of Teach for America, the organization that launched Rhee’s career—that perhaps teaching should not be a lifelong profession at all, but a bleeding-heart diversion for elite 20-somethings.

“To me, it’s like saying that we’re going to build up the Peace Corps so at some point we can replace the senior diplomats,” she says. “That’s ridiculous.” Ravitch—who says she’d probably apply for TFA if she were leaving college today—nonetheless thinks that instead of letting the much-publicized program suck up all the “psychic energy,” there should be college loan forgiveness for people who become teachers. “Then you would have so many people applying to join this field that you could select the top 10 or 15 percent,” she says.

In her new pose, Ravitch’s policy ideas sometimes seem politically irrelevant in a budget-cutting, public sector-baiting season. No GOP-run Congress would approve a national college loan forgiveness program for public school teachers. But, especially in the year of the Wisconsin labor showdown, the argument about honoring professional teachers has struck a cord.

“When I was in Florida the other day a guy came up to me, and he was literally crying,” she says. “He said, ‘I was about to quit teaching and I read your book and I decided to stay.’ So I feel almost a sense of mission.”

Ravitch may have a knack for self-promotion, but her emergence as the leading voice of education-reform dissent also owes a lot to serendipity—with an assist from D.C. voters.

Though Ravitch spent years sparring with New York schools chief Joel Klein, Rhee’s story last year became a truly national one. For much of her tenure, the high-profile chancellor benefited from the fact that nearly all of her critics could be caricatured as local yokels with no ability to focus on the big picture. That caricature reached its apotheosis after last year’s mayoral election, which much of the media characterized as a revolt by down-market ignoramuses who couldn’t understand the importance of school reform. Officially crowned a martyr, Rhee embraced a second career as a national education activist.

With a significant media profile of her own, Ravitch became a go-to critic for anyone looking for a contrary opinion. The former DCPS chancellor made things pretty easy, giving Ravitch an opening to blast her for advising far-right governors like Rick Scott of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey. “Rhee maintains being bipartisan while being closely affiliated with the Tea Party governors,” Ravitch says. “The bipartisan agenda has become what used to be the GOP platform. I wonder if the Democratic Party will ever regain its sense about the importance of public education and equity.”

Ravitch was in Argentina in March when USA Today broke the news that half of all D.C. schools had likely corrected students’ mistakes on standardized tests. Nevertheless, she dashed off a column for The Daily Beast (where I am also a contributing writer). Rhee’s policy of tying pay to test scores, Ravitch wrote, had resulted in “cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum…This formula, which will be a tragedy for our nation and for an entire generation of children, is now immensely popular in the states and the Congress. Most governors embrace it. The big foundations endorse it. The think tanks of D.C., right-wing and left-wing, support it. Rhee helped to make it fashionable. If she doesn’t pause to consider the damage she is doing, shame on her.”

Hari Sevugan, a Rhee spokesman who used to work for the Democratic National Committee, says, “Ms. Ravitch may be satisfied that our students are placing at the bottom or middle of the pack in international assessments, but we aren’t. In order to increase our competitiveness with rising powers in China and India, we can no longer accept the status quo—as Ms. Ravitch is doing.”

Sevugan also points out that StudentsFirst, Rhee’s advocacy organization, has worked in Michigan, Nevada, and Maine to pass school reform laws that attracted bipartisan support. “I’m a proud Democrat, but I know that reform cannot be achieved by one party alone,” Sevugan says.

In May, Ravitch picked a high-profile fight with another reform-minded former D.C. education official, Deborah Gist, now Rhode Island’s education commissioner. In an Education Week blog post, Ravitch claimed that at a meeting that also included Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and state teachers’ union leaders, Gist “dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time… In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology.”

In response, Chafee said Gist had “comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times.” A documentary filmmaker who’d been at the meeting then offered to release footage if all parties agreed; Ravitch said she wanted to see it first. On May 24, she took to her blog to apologize: “I wrote harsh words about state Commissioner Deborah Gist. On reflection, I concluded that I had written in anger and that I was unkind. For that, I am deeply sorry. Like every other human being, I have my frailties; I am far from perfect. I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse.”

The apology for meanness did not address the charge that she had misrepresented Gist’s behavior. The footage has not been released.

In a separate contretemps, an anonymous Twitter feed called “OldDianeRavitch,” opened in April, featuring a steady stream of hyperlinked free-market school reform arguments Ravitch once made, but now disclaims, such as: “NYC schools chancellor should have the power to close schools that consistently fail or engage in corrupt practices” (from a 1995 Times op-ed) and, “Without testing, there is no consistent way to measure success or failure” (spoken at a 2001 panel discussion at City College).

The account was clearly a parody. But Ravitch pushed Twitter to shut it down as a violation of its anti-impersonation policy. The feed soon relaunched with the handle “NOTDianeRavitch.” In an email, its author sneered that “the old Diane Ravitch cherry-picked the evidence that supported her policy views at the time, and the new Diane Ravitch does the same, just for a different set of views.” Of course, the parodist insisted on sniping from behind the veil of anonymity: In an email interview, the writer would only say that he or she holds a Ph.D in one of the social sciences and was doing the Twitter mockery anonymously because, “I thought that I might be pigeonholed” politically for tweaking someone now considered a liberal icon.

Several of Ravitch’s former allies declined to be interviewed for this story. Off the record, some questioned whether there’s something strange or even disturbing about the way she seems to go out looking for a fight, then responds in a hurt way when she herself is attacked. That view is most bluntly articulated by Jay Greene, a conservative University of Arkansas professor who blogs on school reform. “She is behaving like a classic bully,” Greene wrote about Ravitch’s behavior toward Gist. “She hurls insults and allegations against others on a continual basis, but as soon as she is challenged she tries to shut-down the opposition, punish her critics, and deplores the meanness of public discourse.” It’s the same case many of Rhee’s critics made.

Asked for her take on these recent tempests, Ravitch emailed, “Why are conservatives so afraid of me? Why invest so much energy attacking a 73-year-old (as of July 1) historian who has been writing about education for 45 years? What’s their problem?”

But the after-effects of Ravitch’s switching sides are not always venomous. The same day she issued her apology to Gist, Ravitch traveled to a D.C. meeting about one of the most controversial strategies in reformers’ playbook: shuttering low-performing schools. In D.C., Rhee closed 20 of them. Focus groups organized by the meeting’s sponsor found that District parents would have rather seen their children’s schools flooded with resources than closed down.

It’s the argument Ravitch has been making for a year. “They’re not shoe stores that you can close and move to a different mall,” she said during a panel debate afterwards. “We don’t close the firehouse if there are more fires in the neighborhood. We don’t close the police station if there is more crime in the neighborhood.” Instead, singing from the liberal hymnal, she argued for policies to address the poverty-related “root causes” of academic failure.

Facing off against her in the debate was Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice and where Ravitch once sat on the board. Finn argued that school closings are a rational response to tightened budgets and shrinking enrollment. Ravitch listened with her hands clasped under her chin, staring out into the distance.

It was a poignant moment. The pair were once close: They co-founded an education-reform research clearinghouse in 1981; they profess to adore each other’s families. In an anguished review of Death and Life, Finn cited their 30-year friendship before declaring that Ravitch’s “prescription for the future is guided by wishful thinking, nostalgia and unwarranted faith in an antiquated institutional arrangement.” He took particular issue with Ravitch’s defense of teachers’ unions, which he, like many reformers, sees as a primary obstacle.

Disagreeing so stridently has made the relationship “difficult,” Ravitch said quietly during the coffee break before she and Finn spoke. Are they still friends? “Not the way we used to be.”

Diane and Richard Ravitch divorced in 1986. Today, she lives in a gracious brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, one of the borough’s poshest neighborhoods. Her longtime companion is Mary Butz, a former New York City public school principal who ran a progressive principal-training program that was shut down by former schools chancellor Klein in 2005.

Sporting an electric-blue turtleneck, leggings, and neat silver bowl-cut as she knocks around a living room lined with bookshelves and decorated in eagles, roosters, and red, white, and blue Americana, Ravitch says she enjoys the education-policy pugilism, Twitter fights and all. “If I’m on Twitter it means I’m not writing. But you know, I think fast, and when I see somebody say, ‘this is right, this is wrong,’ then I want to get into an exchange!” But she says her speaking schedule is so exhausting that she plans to make more of her future appearances via video-conferencing.

A grandmother of three, Ravitch is also excited about her youngest grandson enrolling, this September, at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, one of New York’s most coveted neighborhood schools. Some 65 percent of the kids are white; 80 percent meet or exceed state standards in math, English, science, and social studies. The PTA fundraises, via PayPal and employer matching, to support supplemental programs. At P.S. 167 in Crown Heights, less than three miles away, 99 percent of students are black and Hispanic; fewer than half perform at grade-level in math and reading. There is a PTA, but it doesn’t have a PayPal-enabled website.

And that, to Ravitch, is the problem. P.S. 167 needs more funding and support to improve curriculum and instruction—not blame for being in a tough neighborhood, where it must work with disadvantaged kids whose parents are less able to get involved at school. “All children should get the kind of education I want for my own grandchildren,” Ravitch said. “I still think it’s valuable to know grammar and spelling, even in a computer age. I still think that history should be taught chronologically. Children should know two languages, and one of them should be English.”

So while it’s true that Ravitch has changed her mind, she’s also pretty constant on some basic questions. And, like the disillusioned liberal she was during the 1960s, she’s still profoundly pessimistic about the contemporary scene. Just like 40 years ago, Ravitch fears, the small-c conservatives are losing the argument.

“It’s a very bad time,” she says, dramatically. “These are dark days.”