Alter and Duncan demolish Ravitch

June 3, 2011


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jonathan Alter calls out Little Ramona. Money quote from Ed Sec. Arne Duncan:

Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s normally mild-mannered education secretary, has finally had enough. “Diane Ravitch is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day,” he said when I asked about Ravitch this week.



Old Diane Debates Future Self

April 27, 2011

Old Diane Ravitch has now created one of those computer animated videos in which she debates her future self, all done with actual quotes from the once and future Diane Ravitch.  This is the funniest thing to hit the internet since Homestarrunner.

If I were as tech savvy as Current Diane, I’d figure out how to embed the video here.  But since I am a Luddite, just follow this link.

And in case you doubt how tech savvy Current Diane is, consider this:

If it is accurate that Diane Ravitch joined Twitter on July 22, 2009 and if she has “tweeted” 9,403 times since then (as is currently indicated on her Twitter page), then she has tweeted an average 14.62 times per day. That’s once every 57 minutes for every waking hour over the last 643 days.

That sounds normal to me.

[UPDATE:  Old Diane Ravitch helpfully put her debate with Future Self on Youtube.  Now I can embed it in the post.  Thank you, Old Diane.  You are the best (even if you were a blowhard authoritarian and perhaps a lousy scholar back then).

Ravitch Escapes the Dark Side of the Force

April 23, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Awesome news! Diane Ravitch escaped from the clutches of Emperor Weingarten and has disavowed the Dark Side of the Force. At least, that’s the way it looks on Twitter, where someone has taken to posting quotes from the time before Ravitch joined the Sith.

 Better late than never! Welcome back Diane!

Finland Sucks

December 7, 2010

Actually, I don’t really think so.  But if I were Diane Ravitch and looked at the trend in PISA for Finland as she looked at the trend in NAEP for New York City, I would see that Finland has declined in reading, math, and science.  And then I would (wrongly) conclude that Finland sucks and is doing things all wrong.

Table 5.1 Finland’s mean scores on reading, mathematics and science scales in PISA (p. 118)

PISA 2000 PISA 2003 PISA 2006 PISA 2009
Mean score Mean score Mean score Mean score
Reading 546 543 547 536
Mathematics 544 548 541
Science 563 554

Or perhaps if I really wanted to be like Diane Ravitch I would switch from looking at trends to levels of achievement, like when she looks at Massachusetts.  In that case, I would still think Finland is great and doing everything right.

Or maybe I could be like Diane Ravitch and switch to a different test that produced results more to my liking, like when Diane stopped paying attention to NAEP for New York City when it showed significant gains and started focusing instead on problems in the state test measures.

That’s the problem with being a manipulative propagandist.  It’s so hard to keep your story straight from one deception to another.

Klein’s Lessons

December 6, 2010

*** Joel Klein tells us in the pages of the WSJ what he learned as Chancellor of NYC schools.  Here’s a highlight:

First, it is wrong to assert that students’ poverty and family circumstances severely limit their educational potential. It’s now proven that a child who does poorly with one teacher could have done very well with another. Take Harlem Success Academy, a charter school with all minority, mostly high-poverty students admitted by lottery. It performs as well as our gifted and talented schools that admit kids based solely on demanding tests. We also have many new small high schools that replaced large failing ones, and are now getting outsized results for poor children.

Second, traditional proposals for improving education—more money, better curriculum, smaller classes, etc.—aren’t going to get the job done. Public education is a service-delivery challenge, and it must be operated as such.

Klein raises an excellent point.  Diane Ravitch, Sol Stern, and others who claim that they have grown frustrated with choice and other incentive-based reforms because they haven’t yet produced the miracles they expected ought to be 1,000 times more frustrated with the failure of more money, higher teacher certification requirements, curricular and pedagogical reform, etc…  We’ve tried those kinds of reforms more than 1,000 times more on a much grander scale and yet we still wait for the miracles.

To judge the effectiveness of reform strategies we can’t use miraculous improvement as the standard.  And we certainly need more fine-grained analyses than looking at whether cities or states that have tried something have improved.  And finally, we can work on various types of reforms simultaneously, so pitting incentives versus instruction is a false conflict that serves only to inflate the ego-starved reformer rather than the cause of reform.

Is Ravitch Really A Great Historian?

November 30, 2010

Given Diane Ravitch’s clear record of selectively and misleadingly citing the evidence on current education debates, we should wonder whether her much-lauded historical work contains similar distortions.  Someone so willing to pick and choose the evidence to serve her argument about current debates may well have the same proclivity to advance her preferred historical interpretation.

Detecting how Ravitch selectively reads the current evidence is relatively easy because the full scope of current research is knowable without too much effort.  But the full set of historical evidence from which an author chooses is less easily known to a lay reader.  How can anyone beyond the handful of scholars who have reviewed the original documents on a particular subject know whether Diane Ravitch or any other historian is correctly selecting and interpreting historical evidence?

The reality is that we can’t.  Most people tend to think that a historian is good because he or she writes well and makes an argument that is generally preferred by the reader.  It’s even unreliable to fully trust the opinion of other historians when assessing the quality of historical work.  Very few historians are intimately familiar with the same material, especially if the topic is highly specialized — like the history of American education.  And among those few historians their judgment on the quality of another person’s work may be colored by their professional interests in advancing similar interpretations or hindering opposing ones.

In short, it is very hard to know whether someone is really a great historian.  It is certainly harder to know the quality of historical work than empirical social science, especially when data sets are widely available and analyses can be replicated without too much effort.

Given that it is hard to know the quality of historical work and given Diane Ravitch’s distortion of the evidence in current debates, I’m inclined to doubt the quality of her earlier historical work.  Ravitch may have changed her views on some things but I highly doubt she has changed her standards of scholarship.  So, if her scholarship is lousy now, perhaps it was lousy before.

I’d be curious to hear examples that anyone may have of where Ravitch was sloppy or misleading in her historical work.  I bet they are out there even if they are harder to discover than her current sloppy and misleading work.

Ravitch is Wrong Site

November 29, 2010

Why serious people continue to care about what Diane Ravitch says is a mystery to me.  I know why rabid union-members and their allies keep lauding her and citing her as an authority — they like whoever repeats their talking points.  But why do journalists, like Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, continue to act like Diane Ravitch matters?  Why does the Wall Street Journal give her valuable real estate on their editorial page to repeat untrue distortions, like:

To qualify for Race to the Top money, states and districts were expected to evaluate their teachers by using student test scores, even though research consistently warns of the flaws of this method. [Not true, as a Brookings blue ribbon panel just concluded that the research shows value added testing can be a helpful tool for teacher evaluations.] Similarly, the Obama administration is pressing states and districts to replace low-performing regular public schools with privately managed charter schools, even though research demonstrates that charters don’t, on average, get better academic results than regular public schools. [Again, not true.  Ravitch ignores the positive results of high quality random assignment charter evaluations in Boston and New York and instead focuses exclusively on a lower quality evaluation by Macke Raymond)]

Let’s say out loud what many people know but few have publicly said.  Diane Ravitch has undergone a personal, not an intellectual, transformation.  Because of that personal change she has acquired a new set of friends, including AFT boss Randi Weingarten.  Ravitch is basking in the admiration of these new friends for her remarks, but they are not well-thought-out or intellectually honest positions.

We devoted an entire week on JPGB to feature Stuart Buck’s documentation of how Ravitch is not an intellectually serious person anymore.  Now Whitney Tilson has organized an entire web site on his new blog that lists a host of critiques of the personally-transformed Diane Ravitch. It’s an extremely useful resource to which you can refer gullible journalists, like Strauss and the WSJ editors, whenever they start treating Ravitch as if she were a credible authority.

Education and Citizenship on the Left and Right

June 29, 2010


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’m bowled over by the new Claremont Review - Bill McClay’s cover story on the underlying cultural and educational sources of the nation’s current crisis is a real show-stopper. In the shorter items, Charles Murray has a great piece on the ups and downs of Ayn Rand, and my dissertation advisor Steven Smith has a fantastic (not that I’m biased) overview of the issues surrounding Heidegger’s Nazism.

In the education hopper, there’s Terry Moe’s Moore’s [oops!] review of E.D. Hirsch’s new book The Making of Americans. I haven’t seen the book yet; Moe Moore writes that Hirsch, always a man of the Left, makes the lefty case for curriculum reform centered on cultural literacy. To wit, schools paternalistically imposing upon children a homogeneous American culture strongly rooted in a matrix of moral values is the best way to help the poor rise, which is what lefties want.

Moe Moore also casually inserts that in this book Hirsch renews his flat-footed argument against school choice – that empowering parents with choice won’t improve schools because what schools need is better currucula. We’ve been around this merry-go-round with Hirsch before; his argument is like saying that empowering computer users to choose what computers they buy has no impact on the quality of computers; what makes computers better is that the computer companies invest in making them better. Of course, the reason computer companies work so hard to make their computers better, faster and cheaper every year is because they have to serve their customers in a highly competative market.

Moe Moore doesn’t draw the connection between Hirsch’s lefty argument for cultural literacy and his harebrained opposition to school choice, but the connection is there. It’s equally visible in Little Ramona, who – like Hirsch – has been wrongly considered a “conservative” for many years solely because she opposes multiculturalism and supports . . . well, the lefty argument for curriculum reform based on cultural literacy.

This matters because everybody’s all topsy-turvy about what is “progressive” or “conservative” in education, and it will take some effort to get our thinking straight.

Moe Moore picks up Hirsch’s statement that the movement for “progressive curricula,” i.e. the whole Dewey-inspired attack on traditional academic curricula, is really not a movement for a progressive curriculum but a movement against having any sort of “curriculum” properly so called. The point is not to change what’s in the curriculum but to have no substantive curriculum at all when it comes to inculcating a national character or a shared national culture. This is true, and it’s relevant to the question of why lefties who love cultural literacy hate school choice.


Since the late 1960s, the “progressive curriculm” (that is, the “anti-curricular”) movement has dominated the political left by making common cause with the teachers’ unions, who were not congenitally anti-curricular but whose interests were served by promoting the anti-curricular cause. As Moe Moore insightfully points out, the anti-curricular movement is really also an anti-teaching movement; it is therefore a perfect fit for the union agenda of more pay for less work. Thus, anyone who is “pro-curricular” is pigeonholed as being on the political right.

But that is a temporary phenomenon brought about by a unique confluence of political circumstances. In its historical orgins and in the logic of the position, the drive to use schools as engines of cultural homogeneity is a phenomenon of the authoritarian political left.

This goes all the way back to the roots of the system. It’s widely known that one of the major reasons America adopted the government monopoly school system in the first place was hysteria over the cultural foreignness of Catholics. However, there’s another tidbit worth knowing. As Charles Glenn documents in The Myth of the Common School, one of Horace Mann’s motivations for pushing the “common” school system was his vitriolic contempt for evangelical Protestant Christianity. The hicks in the rural Massachusetts countryside with their backward and barbaric adherence to traditional Calvinist theology – which had survived down through the centuries from the Puritan settlers – was repugnant to civilized and enlightened Boston-Brahmin Unitarians like himself.

Someone had to do something to rescue these culturally deprived children from their unenlightened parents! That’s why Mann’s schools had such a heavy emphasis on teaching the Bible – teaching it in a very particular way. Part of the school system’s purpose was cultural genocide against evangelicals, to use the power of the state to indoctrinate their children with unitarianism. And it worked beautifully; how many traditional Calvinists are left in Massachusetts?

[Update: It has been brought to my attention that the Presbyterian Church in America, a traditional Calvinist denomination, has lately been experiencing dramatic growth in New England. So perhaps I should have said "It worked beautifully; after a century of Mann's schools, how many traditional Calvinists were left in Massachusetts?"]

What we have to get clear is that both the anti-Catholic and anti-evangelical hysteria – then as now – were on the political left.

The great crusade in the early 20th century to use the government monopoly school system to forcibly “assimilate” immigrants with “Americanism” was likewise a movement on the political left. On this subject, please do yourself the biggest favor you’ll do yourself all year and read (if you haven’t already) Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. Fanatical patriotism was, until the convulsions of the 1960s, the special hallmark of the left, not the right.

The issues got scrambled after the 1960s by two factors. First and most important was the rise of an aggressive cultural ideology (what we now call “multiculturalism”) seeking to use the government school monopoly to impose its amoral and anti-American value system on the nation’s children. This movement was not only born on the left, but, as noted above, it formed a fruitful partnership with the unions who were also on the left. So naturally, the backlash formed on the right, and the identification of being “anti-multiculturalist” applied to conservatives. However, this was never really the same kind of animal as the left-wing authoritarian drive to use government schools to enlighten the benighted and make them into good Americans. Conservative anti-multiculturalism is negative and defensive in character; it’s not seeking to use government to impose a culture, but to stop the multiculturalists from doing so.

Second, as Goldberg documents, the authoritarianism of 20th century progressivism began to migrate over and infect the right; hence we get absurd specatcles such as a “conservative” president saying such things as “when people are hurting, government has to move.” And, similarly, some conservatives try to use the power of the state to impose right-wing cultural values. But this is really the result of conservatives having drunk from the polluted cultural water of left-wing authoritarianism.

Now let me be perfectly clear. Anxiety about whether young people are picking up 1) moral values and 2) cultural identity as Americans is of course widespread on both sides of the political isle. Believe me, I’m as worried as anyone about whether the nation is successfully passing on its civilization to its children, and whether today’s immigrants will assimilate and self-identify as Americans – not only for the sake of the nation, but for their own sake, since the chief victims of amoralism and multiculturalism are the people who believe in them.

The difference is not in being worried about this problem, but in how we want to solve it. Using the brute power of a government monopoly school system to paternalistically impose a homogenous culture has never been a conservative idea. Go back and look at the great conservative debates over this in the 1990s; whether you’re talking about William Bennett, James Q. Wilson or Charles Murray, you just never find conservative thought leaders talking that way. It’s the lefties like E.D. Hirsch and Little Ramona who dream that their cultural anxieties can be salved with the soothing balm of state power.

And really, it should be obvious why. If you’re the kind of person who thinks the brute force of state power can change culture, well then, you’re probably also a political lefty. If you’re the kind of person who thinks our culture will get along just fine if the state will just stop tinkering with it through social engineering, then you’re probably also a political righty.

It all comes down to how you concieve of the relationship between the government and the nation – which is to say, between power and culture. As Reagan famously asked, are we a nation that has a state, or a state that has a nation? To put the same question another way, does culture drive politics or does politics drive culture? Or, to put it even more bluntly, is the use of power shaped by the conscience of the nation, or do we use power to shape the conscience of the nation?

The conservative approach to schools and American culture is to use school choice to smash state power, thus depriving the multiculturalists of their only serious weapon. Get the state out of the way and let Americans worry about how to pass on American civilization to the next generation.

Oh, and here’s one other way you can tell that this is the conservative approach: the evidence shows it works.

[HT Ben Boychuk for pointing out I misread "Terry Moore" as "Terry Moe" - and apologies to both Terrys!]

Murray Misses the Mark

May 5, 2010

The New York Times features a piece by Charles Murray arguing that choice has failed to improve test scores.  In general, Murray doesn’t think schools can do much to improve test scores.  He says:

This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers — measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.

It should come as no surprise. We’ve known since the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, which was based on a study of more than 570,000 American students, that the measurable differences in schools explain little about differences in test scores. The reason for the perpetual disappointment is simple: Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.

Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.

Murray wants to be clear that he still favors choice, but not to improve test scores.  Instead, he favors choice because it satisfies the diversity of preferences about how schools teach and what they teach.  Standardized test scores impose a uniform concept of higher achievement on students, and so cannot capture the improved satisfaction of the diversity of tastes that choice can more efficiently satisfy.

There is a kernel of truth in Murray’s argument.  We should support school choice simply because it allows us the liberty of providing our children with the kind of education that we prefer.

But Murray is completely mistaken in asserting that choice cannot (and has not) produced improved outcomes on standardized measures.  The only research he references is the recently released, non-random assignment evaluation of the effect of Milwaukee’s voucher program on students receiving vouchers.  This ignores the 10 superior, random research designed studies summarized here.  Importantly, it also ignores the effects of expanding choice and competition on achievement in entire school systems.

Especially with regard to a large and mature voucher program, like the one in Milwaukee, the relevant thing to focus on is systemic effects, not participant effects.  Almost everyone in Milwaukee has access to expanded choice, so everyone is receiving the treatment — school choice.  The difference between voucher participants and non-participants is where they chose to go to school, not the difference between having access to choice or not. And if you look at the systemic effects study in Milwaukee it shows significant gains in student achievement as choice and competition are expanded.

It is irritating to have to repeat this discussion of the evidence each time Charles Murray, Sol Stern, or Diane Ravitch selectively cite (or ignore) the research literature and claim that choice has no effect.  It’s also puzzling why “conservative” activists feel the need to denounce choice and competition in order to promote their pet reform idea.

Murray may well be right that schools face serious constraints in improving student achievement, but you don’t have to trash the gains that have been realized to make that point.  (And I think the constraints are less severe than he suggests).

Stern may well be right that even schools in more competitive markets have to make good decisions with regard to curriculum and pedagogy to produce significant improvement.  But choice and competition facilitate schools making good decisions about curriculum and pedagogy by providing negative consequences for those who choose foolishly (as well as giving schools the freedom to try more effective instructional techniques).  And Ravitch may be right about … well, maybe she isn’t right about very much.

Are conservative activists so starved for attention that they are willing to feed the New York Time’s preferred strategy of promoting conservative in-fighting, just so they can get into the pages of the Grey Lady?

(Edited to add link)

Ravitch is Wrong Week, Day #5

April 9, 2010

[Editor's Note -- This is the fifth and final installment in Stuart Buck's critique of Diane Ravitch’s new book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”  Below is a list (with hyperlinks) of all five posts for our Ravitch is Wrong Week. 

The only conclusion I can draw after reading Stuart's critiques is that Diane Ravitch's new book is not a serious piece of scholarship.  I do not know (and I do not care) why a normally serious education historian would write such a book.  The only thing that matters here is that much of what she has to say is wrong.  Unless and until she or someone on her behalf addresses the issues that Stuart has raised, I think we can dismiss this unserious book and the people who peddle it.]

  1. Ignoring or selectively citing scholarly literature;
  2. Misinterpreting the scholarly literature that she does cite;
  3. Caricaturing her opponents in terms of strawman arguments, rather than taking the best arguments head-on;
  4. Tendering logical fallacies; and
  5. Engaging in a double standard, such as holding a disfavored position to a high burden of proof while blithely accepting more problematic evidence that supports one’s own position (or not looking for evidence at all). ]

(Guest post by Stuart Buck)


The final problem endemic to Ravitch’s book is that she engages in a double standard — holding one side to a high burden of proof while putting forth positions or supposed facts that do not meet a high burden of proof (or that are completely unsubstantiated).

A typical pattern throughout Ravitch’s discussion of vouchers and charter schools is that she demands overwhelming proof of astonishing gains. For example, she sneers that vouchers did not produce “dramatic improvement for the neediest students or the public schools they left behind.” (p. 132).

But as for her own affirmative claims, Ravitch often proceeds with little or no empirical evidence, and many of her own policy prescriptions do not come with any proof of improvement, even of the undramatic sort.

For example, Ravitch claims that “most districts . . . relentlessly engage in test-prep activities.” (p. 159). Most? Relentlessly? Ravitch presents no evidence for these claims.

Ravitch claims that “regular public schools are at a huge disadvantage in competition with charter schools,” in part because “charters often get additional financial resources form their corporate sponsors.” (p. 136). Ravitch has no systematic evidence for any claim that charters are financially better off than public schools. Even in New York, which is home to many of the educational philanthropists that Ravitch seems to despise, charter spending in 2008-09 had a citywide average of $14,456 — including private giving. This compares to $16,678 for students in traditional public schools.

To be sure, these two figures aren’t directly comparable — the charter figure included all expenses for all students but without calculating the benefit of free space provided to certain charter schools, while the traditional public school figure came from a report that excluded large categories, such as special education or fringe benefits, but that did include the value of debt service to pay for facilities.

The point, in any event, is that Ravitch makes unsubstantiated and convenient claims about charter school financing without even attempting the difficult work of piecing through educational finance matters like these. Moreover, Ravitch’s claim is wrong as to the country as a whole. Charter schools nationwide receive an average of 61% of the funding given to traditional public schools, mostly because states usually refuse to let charter schools have funds for facilities.

Ravitch says on page 220, “If we are serious about narrowing and closing the achievement gap, then we will make sure that the schools attended by our neediest students have well-educated teachers, small classes, beautiful facilities, and a curriculum rich in the arts and sciences.” To be sure, having “well educated teachers” or “a curriculum rich in the arts and sciences” is common sense. But Ravitch has zero evidence that “beautiful facilities” would do anything about the achievement gap. Nor does she seem familiar with the Jepsen/Rivkin study finding that California’s initiative to lower class size ended up harming minority children (because their teachers find more job opportunities elsewhere and schools fill the gaps by hiring less qualified and more inexperienced teachers).

For another example, Ravitch says (p. 238) that “every state should establish inspection teams to evaluate the physical and educational condition of its schools.” Ravitch offers no evidence that such inspection teams make any difference whatsoever.

For another example, Ravitch says, “If we are willing to learn from top-performing nations, we should establish a substantive national curriculum that declares our intention to educate all children in the full range of liberal arts and sciences . . . .” (pp. 231-232). This sounds fine and well. But Ravitch has no evidence that pushing for a “national curriculum” would accomplish any of her putative goals, rather than being watered down and misdirected by all of the same interest groups that (a) distort the textbook adoption process (as Ravitch herself has documented) and (b) have prevented any such national curriculum from being established to date.

Another double standard lies in Ravitch’s treatment of the scholarly literature. For example, while Ravitch nitpicks to death any study with a pro-charter finding she dislikes (when she bothers to mention such studies at all), she credulously cites the Lubienskis’ study purporting to find that students in public schools do as well or better than those in private schools. (p. 140). She claims that this study “demonstrated the superiority of regular public schools.” It did no such thing: It was merely a cross-sectional snapshot of students in public and private schools, and the authors admitted that “we cannot and do not make causal claims from cross-sectional studies such as NAEP.”

Finally, Ravitch’s rosy depiction of public schools has no evidentiary support. E.g.: “The neighborhood school is the place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. . . . As we lose neighborhood public schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems . . . . For more than a century, they have been an essential element of our democratic institutions. We abandon them at our peril.” (pp. 220-21).

It’s hard to fathom how a historian could write such lofty rhetoric about the past century of public schools, while not even giving passing mention to the fact that during much of that century schools were officially segregated by race and steeped in anti-Catholic bigotry, and to this day are often unofficially segregated by class and race. (Ravitch seems to have forgotten all of the historical knowledge on display in this article.)

Of course, Ravitch’s words are literally correct: during the past century, public schools “have been an essential element” of society’s democratic attempt to solve the “local problem” of keeping out black people. If that’s not what Ravitch intends to endorse, then she shouldn’t write such unqualified paeans to schools of a century ago.

Moreover, what exactly does it mean to suggest that people “congregate and mobilize to solve local problems” at the school? That surely isn’t a routine function of the vast majority of public schools; when my kids were at the local public school, the only mobilization I saw was all the minivans accelerating after leaving the car line. In fact, the practice of grouping people into a single public school probably causes more “local problems” than it solves (consider the furious debates that arise over curricular issues alone — evolution, sex ed, phonics and math instruction, etc.).


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