Diane Ravitch and the Corleone Rule

People in office have thin skin when it comes to being criticized by former office holders

Obama Education Department veteran Peter Cunningham has publicly ripped into Diane Ravitch. Cunningham blames the bad relationship between Ravitch and the Department on her personal and intellectual style, but Daniel Luzer argues that the fireworks stem from a deep, substantive policy disagreement about how to improve educational outcomes.

All Administrations have critics, including harsh critics, but they don’t usually let them get under their skin the way Ravitch apparently has. I don’t know the dramatis personae and take no position on the substance of the policy debate at issue. But my knowledge of Washington makes me suspect that at least part of the bad feeling within the Education Department derives from a principle well-articulated by Michael Corleone:

Let me tell you a true Washington story from a prior administration.

A new appointee — let’s call him Assistant Secretary Newguy for privacy’s sake — arrived in Washington intent on making a difference. One of his first meetings was with someone from the prior administration who had held a very similar position (Let’s call him Deputy Assistant Secretary Oldguy). Newguy was excited to meet someone who knew the ropes of his position and the lay of the Washington land. He looked forward to the meeting.

To his surprise, Oldguy did not come in alone. He brought three leading advocates in to berate Newguy for a long-standing policy of the agency Newguy now headed. After the advocates had completed their verbal barrage, Oldguy challenged Newguy “Are you going to fix this problem, or just give us some Washington song-and-dance about why it’s politically impossible?!”.

Stung and flustered, Newguy paused for a moment. He then said to the advocates “Thank you for telling me about this issue. I have never heard of it before and as a new arrival I can’t really tell you why the problem hasn’t been fixed. Fortunately though, we don’t have to rely on me, because Oldguy here had the power to fix it for many years and never did, so he’s the perfect person to help us understand why nothing has been done”.

This story of Oldguy getting vaporized in this fashion was told with delight around the agency over and over because it so perfectly captured how current appointees feel when someone who used to sit in their chair attacks them for doing things they themselves did not do while in office. Whether it is reasonable or not, the most common reaction is to feel betrayed and to seek vengeance. Even if Ravitch is 100% correct substantively and makes her public criticisms of Obama education policy in the most civil way possible, some people on the inside are going to go ballistic because she served in the Education Department in a prior administration. Informed criticism over drinks at the Cosmos Club or during a one-on-one meeting at the office are fine with, indeed even welcomed by, current insiders. But once a former insider publicly “takes sides against the family” the Tommy guns come out.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

22 thoughts on “Diane Ravitch and the Corleone Rule”

  1. In Ravitch’s defense, my understanding is that she sincerely believed in standardized testing when she was in the administration, and she converted after leaving. Hence, her taking sides apparently against the family.

    For the record, I am almost always for more data and more measurement. But this is not a physical science. Even in healthcare, where I work, the data quality are uneven. Not all things are measured properly or consistently, e.g. if 100 patients with Alzheimer’s disease go to 100 different doctors, way less than 100 patients’ claim forms will reflect a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The quality of the data in education are lower than in healthcare and lower than the audited financial statements in business. And yet the financiers who are pouring money into reform based on standardized tests think of the education numbers as definite and high quality. We need to step back and let the testing situation mature.

    1. @Weiwen: Just to be clear, I don’t think she has to defend herself — she can criticize whomever she wishes in whatever way she wishes, as far as I am concerned. My post is to explain why it is of all the people who criticize the administration, this particular person so irritates the people currently in charge.

      1. Since the day he announced his Presidential candidacy has Barack Obama ever admitted to being wrong about any significant policy position or decision?


          1. This is just how the game is played– every politician says that they’ve made mistakes in general, but no mistakes in particular. That way they are seen as a regular person, but do not have to undercut any of their policy choices.

            Well, maybe Newt Gingrich says he never makes mistakes (maybe), but he’s the despised exception that highlights the rule.

      2. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

        I took it as the opposite (that she didn’t have the moral right).

  2. Education is Obama’s weak link. I take this personally because every time he or Arne Duncan wants to use a school as a prop they come to schools in my kids’ district, where Duncan has in own kids in school, coming to my kids’ high school at least twice. We don’t have a charter school in sight. Not one. I find it just unfathomable that they are so full of praise for districts like mine but then pursue policies that are diametrically opposite to what my district actually does.

    1. “Education is Obama’s weak link.”
      I was thinking this when in his speech at the memorial yesterday he said:

      “Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country, in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence.”

      I would agree with all of it. But whenever the issue of “bad schools” is raised I cringe, because of how much confusion lies in the how we conceive of the role of schools in poor neighborhoods. In the neo-liberal conception, bad schools are the product of lazy teachers, intransigent unions at their best, and low-expectations and active racism at their worst. Bad schools are where the worst teachers and administrators wind up, and go about delivering substandard instruction. The reality is that like crime, like disrepair, like lack of quality businesses, etc., bad schools are a function of a poor neighborhood, a function of what the the students and families they serve bring into them.

      The confusion lies, I think, in a deep aversion to “blaming” the poor. Yet acknowledging structural realities in society that disenfranchise the lower class is the opposite of blaming them. When parents in poor communities are suffering the worst of social illnesses, working the worst jobs, and receiving the least support, how is it “their fault” when their children come to school unprepared, develop poor attitudes and habits, and in large numbers reject academic institutions as a piece of a larger implicit and explicit, self-destructive protest against a system they witness as corrupt?

      The irony is that the real blame lies at the feet of a larger society that would ignore the real difficulties these communities face, difficulties that any sane person would recognize as requiring of extra resources and attention to adequately address. Instead, these communities are imagined to need only that which more advantaged communities enjoy: good schools, i.e. good teachers and administrators. The real blame for our continued failure to close the achievement gap lies precisely in this naive vision.

      1. To put it in perspective: in the Arlington high schools, a lot of teachers worked in the District for part of their careers, sometimes just a few years, but in some cases for quite a long time. Doris Jackson, the former principal of Wakefield HS in south Arlington, where Obama spoke on the first day of school in 2009, worked for many years in D.C. schools as a teacher and then an administrator. Teachers don’t miraculously become more effective by crossing the Potomac.

        It makes me crazy.

  3. As usual, I find myself asking, in what way does working for this administration’s DoE in any way qualify someone to take up my reading time? People need to earn their spot on that list. Time is short.

    I think the larger point of the post is interesting though. We humans will be human.

  4. I’m afraid the anecdote that Keith vouches for does not ring right to me. Do officials ever behave this way? “Oldguys” have two ways to play the handover. They can do it straight, with a reasonably honest briefing on their achievements, failures and unfinished business. Or they can put on a show of self-justification; everything that went right was their idea, everything that went wrong was somebody else’s fault. Why should they attack their successors for their own failures, when there are always many handier scapegoats?
    Unless Keith was there, I’ll find it much more probable that the story is self-aggrandising embroidery by a cocksure “Newguy”.

    1. James, I wouldn’t be surprised if it does indeed occasionally work that way; I’d expect the common situation being the Old Guy encountering the New Guy at a reception, and murmuring ‘doesn’t look so easy now, does it?’.

    2. I do know multiple people who were in that meeting (on each side), but subsequent embroidery is entirely possible. That would make the point even further in showing how much people inside feel hostile to former insiders who criticize them.

      1. “…how much people inside feel hostile to former insiders who criticize them.”

        I do believe that that’s commonplace. The new people can reasonably ask the old people why they didn’t fix the problem when they were in power.

        1. The default outcome in public policy is failure. Problems of collective action and conflicts over resources, values and identity are intractable: Palestine, Northern Ireland, US health care, climate change, Afghanistan, drug abuse, and – for conservatives – the growth of entitlements. (My list includes two examples when a measure of success was finally achived, at the nth attempt; but the odds were always against.) Oldguys therefore warn Newguys they are likely to fail too. They don´t like to hear this. Question to Keith: did the Newguy in your story succeed on the issue discussed? I´d bet not.

  5. Working in the industrial environment I’ve seen people’s lives (most male) put at immediate risk due to the social unwillingness to ask an uncomfortable question. Public policy can put lives at risk on a much grander scale, but if the big dogs (again, mostly male) are “irritated” when uncomfortable questions are raised about the basis of their policies – and Barack Obama has fit into this category from the last day he tried to answer questions on a progressive blog in 2008 – then disaster is just as likely to occur as it is in the fertilizer factory. Again on a much larger scale. The two are intertwined; it isn’t really possible to say ‘this discussion is only about interpersonal relationships, not policy’. Cf Social Security, Fed Chairman nomination, and education policy.


  6. The one cue card Ronnie Reagan ever read that I agreed with was closing the federal Dept of Education. We would be SO much better off if we had a National Academy for Education, like the National Institute of Health and the National Academy of Science instead of a budget-sucking bureaucracy like Ed. Same with Vet Affairs. Both of these redheaded stepchildren have done far more damage to their causes than good, and what good they’ve done was being done before they became cabinet post departments, and basically these departments were offered as sops to advocates to silence them, and they’ve worked all too well in that respect. Kudos to Ravitch for refusing to toe the bipartisan Billionaire Boys Club line.

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