Diane Ravitch goes off the rails

After more than a decade working in education reform I learned long ago that if I stopped to kick every snapping dog along the pathway, I would never arrive where I needed to go. But every now and then I read something, such as Diane Ravitch’s latest op-ed on CNN.com, and have to take a breath and ask “Really?” One of my earliest resources as I was starting in education reform back around 2000 was her book, “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.” But now it appears she’s utterly abandoned that historical analysis in favor of status quo incrementalism and apologies for failure.

Let’s just think about Dr. Ravitch’s assertions:

The NAEP test scores of American students are at their highest point in history: for black students, white students, Hispanic students, and Asian students.

They are at their highest point in history in fourth grade and in eighth grade, in reading and math.

I tend to agree with Dr. Ravitch that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test is the most valid measure of academic performance. But why is that? Primarily, as my American Center for School Choice colleague, Alan Bonsteel, recently reminded us, it is because most states have catered to their own self-interest, aligning examinations to weak standards to give the appearance of academic achievement rather than actually increasing the amount of learning necessary for student success in this century. So for most of the last 10 years, under No Child Left Behind, we permitted widespread creation of dysfunctional and often meaningless standards aligned to dysfunctional and meaningless tests. Logically, this history does not make for a persuasive indictment of the value of legitimate standards and assessment tools.

But beyond that, let’s look at Dr. Ravitch’s assertion:

The “highest point in history” while true, is relative to what?




With the exception of the Asian/Pacific Islander group, I doubt anyone is throwing a parade for the educational system’s accomplishments over the last 20 years. Are 7-point gains over 20 years for African-Americans and Hispanics and a 9-point gain for white students really the kind of progress we expect after multiple billions of real increased educational spending? Yet this seems to be what Dr. Ravitch finds acceptable performance.

Certainly, some improvement in 4th grade and 8th grade is better than utter stagnation, but the rubber hits the road for our nation in high school and college completion rates. We are still only graduating about 70-75 percent of high school students and the U.S. is the only developed nation where a higher percent of 55- to 64-year-olds than 25- to 34-year-olds have graduated from high school. That’s not a soul-stirring endorsement for educational progress in recent decades. As of 2008, the same percentage of Americans age 25-to-34 and age 55-to-64 were college graduates. Internationally, the U.S. has fallen from first to twelfth in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees in a single generation. Raise your hand if you think the work force is demanding about the same number of college graduates as it did in the 1960s and ‘70s.

So I’m considerably less sanguine than Dr. Ravitch that because our economy succeeded 30-50 years ago, despite an underperforming education system, we will continue to do so in the 21st Century.

On to her next assertion:

Why are our international rankings low? Our test scores are dragged down by poverty.

I have done work in Oakland, Calif. for more than a decade, so I do not at all discount the effects of poverty. It is indeed, as she describes, a harsh fact of life. But it is not the determining factor in whether a child learns. Absolutely, these children need more focused attention, often more regimentation and structure, strong teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and adults who believe in them. When that happens, without any doubt, these children succeed. I have seen it over and over in a variety of schools. The work of Education Trust and others document that hundreds of schools nationwide are successful with low-income children. If we somehow have come to believe we have to wait until we cure their parents of all bad behaviors and make them middle class before we can teach the kids, we are waiting for the Easter Bunny, not Superman.

We know these children by and large can function at a high level. Our challenge is not whether it’s possible, but how do we scale our successes? Given the crucial role quality teaching and school leadership play, enabling these families to choose any school they wish to attend is a critical ingredient to promoting scalability. Just as these children should not have to wait until their parents become middle class, they should not have to wait til the adults figure out how to fix all the dysfunctional schools that populate low-income neighborhoods.

On to her assertions about teachers and teaching:

Merit pay fails because teachers are doing the best they can with or without a bonus. Merit pay destroys teamwork and collaboration in the school.

Teachers need tenure so they have academic freedom to teach controversial issues.

Given what seems to be a universally accepted fact – good teachers are the key to successful schools and our education system – one cannot help but conclude we have significant problems in the teaching profession. We do not have a successful system with thousands of failing or under performing schools. The quality of teaching is not a neutral factor.

Dr. Ravitch’s remarks on teachers cause me to wonder how often she has visited schools, toured classrooms in comprehensive high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. I do this fairly regularly as a public school district board member and a charter school board member. Each time, I see vast differences in the teaching quality. And I have witnessed numerous instances over the years where clearly teachers were not doing the best they could, some in quite egregious ways. More often than not, they were the older and experienced, but unmotivated teachers. But I take the point that the schools of education so poorly prepare teachers and administrators that “mediocre” may indeed be the best that some can do.

Perhaps most disconcerting is that as a distinguished historian knowledgeable about a century of educational failure, Dr. Ravitch now seems to have concluded that since we cannot turn the Titanic on a dime, we should instead embrace icebergs. She sets up a straw man by seeming to say that merit pay can only be tied to standardized test scores when nearly everything I see on improved teacher evaluation utilizes multiple measures. To assert that teachers would not respond well to being rewarded financially and accessing some type of career ladder other than abandoning the classroom for administration is to believe that going to ed school mutates human DNA. Nearly every other profession, including those like research scientists where collaboration on projects is fundamental to their success, has both career ladders and financial recognition for achievement.

Furthermore, her assertion that tenure is necessary to protect teachers who deal with controversial subjects is pure bunk. For example, how much controversy does a kindergarten or music teacher engender? Most teachers never get within a football field’s length of much controversy, let alone one that threatens their jobs. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of curricular controversies I’ve encountered as a board member in the last 10 years and in no case was any demand made that the teacher be fired. That is not to say that it never happens, but the cost in teaching quality of providing lifetime employment after about 15 months of employee observation is too high to protect a few teachers from what might be unjustified administrative actions.

I can testify that a good teacher is in such high demand that a district or school would be crazy to fire one arbitrarily and if they did, that teacher would be picked up by another school fairly quickly. In the meantime, tenure protects not only grossly incompetent, sometimes criminal teachers, but even worse, removes any fulcrum for a lever to improve the mediocre ones, which are much greater in number. Research has clearly demonstrated the value added of a strong teacher and the value subtracted of poor teaching. We can provide due process to teachers, as is done for other civil servants, which at least attempts to balance fair treatment for the teacher with the critical need for all students, but especially those now being so poorly served, to have a skilled, motivated, and high quality teacher.

A truce in the supposed “war on teachers” would be much easier to negotiate if the teachers unions would stop using their intimidation tactics and political muscle to lob bombshells such as this and this at every effort to empower low-income families and fix a clearly broken system. We can improve our schools and our society, as Dr. Ravitch calls for, but not by becoming addicted to the intoxicating drug of gradualism that Dr. King warned us about in the last civil rights battle.

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BY Peter H. Hanley

Peter H. Hanley is director of Discovery Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education, the successor to the American Center for School Choice. The Center remains dedicated to bringing school choice to the center of the political spectrum since Peter led the merger in June 2015. He successfully created the national Commission on Faith-based Schools, which continues at Discovery, to improve the understanding of the important part these schools have in American education and the need for expanding public support for parental choice. In addition, he is the board president of a charter management organization with schools in Oakland and Richmond, California, sits on a Waldorf-inspired charter school board in Oakland, and is in his fourth term as an elected board member in San Mateo, California.


Matthew Ladner

Ravitch likes to pretend that the United States is the only country with poverty, but I have yet to see her attempt to explain why American Black and Hispanic students score at levels near to that of Mexico despite the fact that American schools spend many the amount of resources. Oh, and Mexico has a much larger poverty problem than the United States.

Instead, what we see from Ravitch when she references this data is that children in our very wealthiest districts (10% of less FRL eligible) score above the average in South Korea. Congratulations Beverly Hills- you outscored South Korea, give yourself a gold star.

This of course is meaningless, as it tells us nothing about how our wealthiest students score compared to the wealthiest students in Europe and Asia, only the average students in Europe and Asia.

Thanks for noting that. Although I have no problem focusing education reform efforts on serving low-income students, most people don’t seem to recognize we have a pervasively under performing K-12 system that does not deliver college or career ready students consistently at any income level. For example, the Education Trust West’s data shows that in our nation’s largest education system, California, that white and Asian students under perform their peers nationwide.

The California State University system’s admission criteria is the top third of high school graduates with a minimum GPA of 3.0. In 2012, 57% had to be remediated in either English or math. Nearly 28% had to be remediated in both.


When students have to be remediated, their six year degree completion rate plummets. The lack of solid K-12 preparation is a huge contributing factor to our plunge in the international rankings of those with college degrees.

One of the saving graces of US education has been that anyone can return to school at virtually any point in their lives and obtain a degree, which is different from many of our international competitors. But we are also gutting our community college system in many states with budget cuts that lead to reduced access and increased tuition rates. So part of what Dr. Ravitch referred to when she noted that previous generations had succeeded despite low K-12 test scores is being dramatically reduced for the current generation.

Cosmic Tinker

There is a lot to be said for Diane Ravitch boldly stepping forward with new perspectives, since she is clearly someone with a lot of knowledge of American education who is a lifelong learner whose opinions have changed due to the evidence at hand today.

On the other hand, your use of party line “reform” talking points, in spite of that evidence, conveys your unchanging bias. Research has shown that 37% of charters perform worse than regular public schools, 46% perform the same and only 17% perform better: https://www.educationjustice.org/newsletters/nlej_iss21_art5_detail_CharterSchoolAchievement.htm

Charter schools serve lower numbers of kids with special needs, fewer ELLs, skim more motivated students and have higher attrition rates, so it’s really an apples & oranges comparison with public schools that take everyone.

Privatizing public education and siphoning scarce resources to a two tier system of schooling is no answer to poverty. The people who benefit most from charter schools and other similar notions of “reform” are corporate profiteers. As many parents have discovered, taking their kids to unregulated charter schools, where they have no input whatsoever, is not the choice they thought they were making. That is the Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman: https://vimeo.com/41994760

Neither charter schools nor neighborhood public schools alone are magic bullets for erradicating poverty. Poverty is a socio-economic condition which our government needs to stop passing off onto to teachers to deal with all by themselves.

I’m the first to agree that charter schools and scholarship programs are no panacea to what ails either America’s education system or to poverty. But they make possible steps in the right direction and have inherently self-correcting mechanisms that the traditional public school monopolies do not. Most basically, poor performing charter schools can and should disappear. I’ve been directly involved in closing some in the past. Parents can and do stop enrolling in schools that don’t deliver because they have that choice. We believe all families ought to have that choice and clearly many, especially urban low-income families, do not.

It’s instructive to note that once in place, charter schools and other forms of school choice gain support. Legislation has consistently expanded these programs because parents want more choice.

The CREDO study has a few pluses, but many minuses, particularly in its research methodology and the “virtual student” approach it utilized. Some commentaries on those issues are here, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/a-new-look-at-the-credo-charter-school-study/2011/10/07/gIQAl8r5aL_blog.html, and here, https://www.washingtonpolicy.org/publications/brief/guide-major-charter-school-studies. The latter has a list of numerous charter school studies with high quality research methodology.

But it’s also worth looking at what the CREDO study itself showed, as Nelson Smith of the National Alliance of Charter Schools noted shortly after publication:

“CREDO’s data actually include strongly positive results that contradict the report’s summary and the negative slant of its press coverage.

At the national level, charter students perform lower than non-charter students in reading and math in the first year, but higher in reading and the same in math the second year. By the third year, national results show charter students performing higher than non-charter students in both subjects.

At the state level, charter students perform higher than non-charter students in reading and math in only 3 of 15 states the first year, but higher than non-charter students in 7 of 15 states in reading and 8 of 15 states (and the same in 3 others) in the second year. By the third year, at the state level, charter students out-perform non-charter students in 11 of 12 states in reading and 9 of 12 states in math (and the same in 2 others).”

The charter school universe contains many new schools because demand is so high and new schools are being created each year. Almost without exception, a new school requires 3-4 years to begin to hit on most cylinders, whether its a charter or new traditional public school or even a private school. I just helped to launch a new school last year and it’s a daunting task at times. So these new schools are always going to have some drag on the academic outcomes if they are lumped together with all schools. The effect is somewhat magnified because the charter universe is still relatively small–around 3-4 percent of public schools.

At this point, precious little evidence indicates that school choice is doing any harm to public schools and in fact the outlook is quite promising. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/02/22/21campbell.h31.html?tkn=XRZFPe1bCETYq4lnHz%2BXTFwSPb83THXQHZBL&cmp=clp-edweek The evidence doesn’t support the typical assertions against school choice programs.

Similarly, the idea that charter schools are unregulated is hard to support. I agree we need to strengthen authorizers’ oversight capabilities, but significant laws and regulations apply to charters and the public scrutiny most charters receive far exceeds that of most traditional public schools.

I’d love to find some of these so-called “corporate profiteers” that are getting rich in the charter school movement. Most charters are operated as public benefit 501 c-3 nonprofit corporations with both IRS and state oversight. I’ve been quite active in the charter movement for a decade and I haven’t seen anyone getting wealthy running charter schools. By contrast, I see some quite hefty salaries and overhead expenses in traditional public school administration compared to charter schools.

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