Ravitch is Wrong Week, Day #2

[Editor’s Note — This is the second 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.”  Yesterday he documented how Ravitch ignored or selectively cited scholarly literature.  Today he focuses on how she misinterprets the research she does cite.  Below is a guide to what you can expect (with hyperlinks as they become available) for our entire Ravitch is Wrong Week.

  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)


Another source of bias is that Ravitch’s book is often inaccurate or selective in how it interprets particular scholarly studies. What follows are several examples:

1. Ravitch cites a paper by Cecilia Rouse and Lisa Barrow that supposedly reviewed “all the existing studies of vouchers in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia.” (p. 129). Ravitch’s description is untrue: Rouse/Barrow did not even purport to review “all the existing studies,” instead stating that they would “present a summary of selected findings from publicly-funded voucher programs with formal evaluations.” Sure enough, Rouse and Barrow left out several studies, as this site has previously documented.

2. In describing an evaluation of the Milwaukee voucher program, Ravitch writes, “In the first year of the study, they found that students in the regular public schools and those in the voucher schools had similar scores.” (p. 129). It seems that Ravitch must have read only the newspaper account that she cited, which was so misleading that the study’s co-authors were forced to write a lengthy letter to the Milwaukee newspaper refuting the claim that Ravitch is now repeating:

To start the five-year study, we had to place the voucher and MPS students in our sample on an equal footing, academically. The test scores of the two groups were closely matched to each other, by design.
We have essentially placed the two groups at a common starting point. It would be absurd to determine the winner of a race based on the positions of the competitors at the starting line. Similarly, no one should draw conclusions about the performance of the voucher program based on information from the initial baseline year of a longitudinal study.

3. Ravitch cites a 2007 Center for Education Policy study as having found that “62 percent [of school districts] had increased the time devoted to reading and mathematics in elementary schools, while 44 percent reported that they had reduced the amount of time spent on science, social studies, and the arts.” (p. 108).

What the CEP report actually found was that 44 percent of districts claimed to have cut “time from one or more other subjects or activities (social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch and/or recess) . . . the decreases reported by these districts were relatively large, adding up to a total of 145 minutes per week across all of these subjects, on average, or nearly 30 minutes per day..”

It’s a bit different, isn’t it, to know that out of a 6-7 hour school day, these schools were actually reallocating merely 30 minutes per day away from 4 academic subjects plus physical ed, lunch, and recess? And why is this necessarily so bad anyway? If these schools were failing at the minimal task of teaching kids how to read and do basic math, then why shouldn’t they spend just a little more time on those subjects and a little less time on recess or even “social studies”?

[UPDATE: What I have in mind here are kids who can’t decode but are wasting time in other classes making posterboards and the like.  If the kids actually do know how to decode, then I agree that a substantive curriculum like Core Knowledge would be much better than more hours of “reading” instruction . . . but then again, I’d bet that the schools reallocating time like that aren’t competent enough to have such a curriculum in the first place.]

4. Ravitch discusses Florida’s practice of assigning letter grades (A to F) to schools. She says that she “abhor[s]” the practice, and notes with seeming disapproval that the state “sanctioned F-rated schools by giving vouchers to their students, who could use them to attend a private or better-performing public school.” (p. 164). Notably, she cites the Rouse/Hannaway/Goldhaber/Figlio paper on the Florida voucher program, but without mentioning the crucial fact that Rouse et al. found that “student achievement significantly increased in elementary schools that received an “F” grade by between 6 to 14 percent of a standard deviation in math and between 6 to 10 percent of a standard deviation in reading in the first year. Three years later the impacts persist.”

This finding directly contradicts Ravitch’s arguments against accountability systems, not to mention her skewed and inaccurate claim that vouchers fail to pressure public school systems to improve (pp. 129-132).

5 Responses to Ravitch is Wrong Week, Day #2

  1. […] Misinterpreting the scholarly literature that she does cite; […]

  2. matthewladner says:

    The fact that Ravitch “abhors” the Florida A-F system is evidence of either ignorance or a complete divorce from reality. The Florida system grades half on overall scores, half on student learning gains. The learning gains portion is itself divided in half between 1. overall gains and 2. gains among the lowest 25% of students.

    So, when Florida school administrators work out the game theory, they discover that there is only one group of students that count against all three factors: the lowest 25% of students. Unlike alot of the gamesmanship that goes on with NCLB, the Florida system is elegant: every school has a bottom 25%.

    So, if we are wondering why Hispanic, African American, free and reduced lunch eligible, etc. etc. etc. scores are up so strongly on NAEP, it is because this policy and the other elements of Florida’s policies help the kids with the least the most.

  3. Hammy says:

    In celebration of the theme of the week:

  4. I was initially very pleased to find this web-site.I wanted to thanks for your effort with this amazing study!! I surely enjoying each little bit of this and I have you saved as a favorite to look at latest items you article.

  5. […] Misinterpreting the scholarly literature that she does cite; […]

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