Ravitch is Wrong Week, Day #3

[Editor’s Note — This is the third 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.” Over the last two days he documented how Ravitch ignored or selectively cited scholarly literature and then often misinterpreted the evidence she did cite. Today he focuses on how Ravitch frequently attacks straw man arguments rather than seriously addressing opposing views. 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)


Ravitch’s book often caricatures her opponents’ arguments. For example, she writes (p. 229): “There are no grounds for the claim made in the past decade that accountability all by itself is a silver bullet, nor for the oft-asserted argument that choice by itself is a panacea.” She claims that choice and accountability were sold as “panaceas and miracle cures,” as an “elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems.” (p. 3).

Apart from one line that two authors (Chubb and Moe) wrote some 20 years ago, Ravitch does not identify anyone who has ever claimed that “choice by itself is a panacea.” Describing this claim as “oft-asserted” is simply untrue. Nor does Ravitch identify anyone who has ever claimed that “accountability all by itself is a silver bullet.” (I wonder if anyone has ever claimed that anything was a “silver bullet” — it’s a phrase that seems to be universally used only in denial.)

Another example: Ravitch writes that “reformers imagine that it is easy to create a successful school, but it is not.” (p. 137). She identifies no one who thinks that such a task is easy.

Another example: “Testing is not a substitute for curriculum and instruction.” (p. 111). Who ever said it was? And why can’t we have both?

Ravitch also claims that NCLB “assumed that higher test scores on standardized tests of basic skills are synonymous with good education.” (p. 111). Ravitch doesn’t cite anyone who has argued that test scores are literally “synonymous” with good education. The point of testing is that even though it’s not synonymous with good education, it can be a useful proxy that gives a quick determination of whether children have received any education at all. For example, if 8th graders can’t decipher a few written paragraphs and can’t solve straightforward math problems, then it’s a pretty good bet that they haven’t learned any higher skills either. And if schools couldn’t even teach simple math and reading skills — despite, according to Ravitch, focusing like a laser beam on those skills for several years now — can those schools really be trusted to teach the broad and rich curriculum that Ravitch wants?

Ravitch claims that “unionization per se does not cause high student achievement, nor does it cause low achievement.” (p. 175). Opponents of teacher unions do not argue that unionization “per se” causes some absolute value of low or high achievement, but that unions — by protecting the jobs of bad teachers or by opposing the high academic standards that Ravitch herself favors– can depress academic achievement from what it otherwise would have been. What’s worse, Ravitch supports her claim by noting that “ Massachusetts , the state with the highest academic performance, has long had strong teacher unions.” But as Ravitch well knows, the very academic improvement that she admires in Massachusetts was won only over tenacious union opposition. As Robert Costrell says, even if unions failed to prevent academic achievement in Massachusetts , “it was certainly not for lack of trying.” (By the way, we have here yet another example of Ravitch ignoring contrary scholarly literature even when it was specifically brought to her attention nearly a year ago.)

2 Responses to Ravitch is Wrong Week, Day #3

  1. […] Caricaturing her opponents in terms of strawman arguments, rather than taking the best arguments hea… […]

  2. matthewladner says:

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