[Editor’s Note — This is the fourth 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.” Earlier this week he documented how Ravitch ignored or selectively cited scholarly literature, misinterpreted the research she did cite, and turned her opponents arguments into strawmen. Today he focuses on how Ravitch’s book contains a series of logical fallacies. Below is a guide to what you can expect (with hyperlinks as they become available) for our entire Ravitch is Wrong Week.
- Ignoring or selectively citing scholarly literature;
- Misinterpreting the scholarly literature that she does cite;
- Caricaturing her opponents in terms of strawman arguments, rather than taking the best arguments head-on;
- Tendering logical fallacies; and
- 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 claims that her “support for NCLB remained strong until November 30, 2006 ,” which is when she attended an AEI conference at which various conservative scholars agreed that NCLB’s choice provisions were “not working.” (p. 100-01). This is because only a small percentage of parents asked to transfer to a different public school — although, as Ravitch herself concedes, this may have been because of the schools’ own failure to let parents know that transfer was an option, the lack of nearby public schools to which to transfer, and/or the pre-existence of generous public school choice programs.
In any event, if one thinks that school choice is generally a good thing — as Ravitch did at one time — it is completely incoherent and illogical to switch to the opposite position based on what Ravitch now claims was her rationale. Based on what Ravitch learned at the 2006 conference, she could logically have concluded that NCLB’s choice provisions were being thwarted by obstreperous school officials, or that NCLB’s choice provisions were not likely to work a revolution in public education. But she could not have logically concluded that choice was actually a bad idea that was undermining education. That belief about choice had to have arisen from other motivations, not the post hoc story that Ravitch puts forth.
The Law of Non-Contradiction
The most pervasive logical fallacy in Ravitch’s book is the self-contradiction. When it comes to curricular issues, Ravitch repeatedly throws out arguments that strongly imply, if not require, support for choice, vouchers, and charter schools — things that Ravitch otherwise tries to paint in a negative light.
For example, Ravitch praises Catholic schools for providing “a better civic education than public schools because of their old-fashioned commitment to American ideals.” As well, she laments the fact that “many Catholic schools have closed,” in part because of “competition from charter schools, which are not only free to families but also subsidized by public and foundation funds.” (p. 221).
So one would think that Ravitch would continue to support voucher programs wholeheartedly, as she so eloquently did in The New Republic once upon a time. Vouchers level the playing field by offering inner city kids the choice of Catholic or other private schools along with charter schools. But Ravitch doesn’t say anything about vouchers other than to credulously report a couple of studies that failed to find test score gains for voucher students while nitpicking over the recent DC voucher study that did find test score gains. Not only does this suspicion of vouchers contradict Ravitch’s claim to support Catholic schools, it more fundamentally contradicts Ravitch’s claim everywhere else that it’s not right to judge policies or schools based on test scores alone.
Another contradiction is in Ravitch’s claim that NCLB’s goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 is a “timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States ,” because “thousands of public schools [are] at risk of being privatized, turned into charters, or closed.” (p. 104). Notably, what little evidence she discusses directly disproves her dire predictions. On page 105, she notes that in a 2007-08 study, more than 3,500 schools were “in the planning or implementation stage of restructuring,” but that “very few schools chose to convert to a charter school or private management,” instead choosing the “ambiguous ‘any-other’ (i.e., ‘do something’) clause in the law.” In other words, thousands of schools are NOT at risk of being privatized or turned into charter schools; as Ravitch’s own meager evidence shows, those thousands of schools will almost all find a way around such a fate.
Another serious contradiction arises from Ravitch’s praise for the Core Knowledge curriculum. She notes that “students who have the benefit of this kind of sequential, knowledge-rich curriculum do very well on the standardized tests that they must take. They do well on tests because they have absorbed the background knowledge to comprehend what they read.” (p. 236). She similarly contends that “ironically, test prep is not always the best preparation for taking tests. Children expand their vocabulary and improve their reading skills when they learn history, science, and literature.” (p. 108).
But this point contradicts more than one of Ravitch’s other arguments. First, if students given a broad and rich curriculum in fact do better on reading and math tests, then it makes no sense to blame accountability (as Ravitch elsewhere does) for supposedly forcing schools to limit the curriculum to just reading and math. If Ravitch is right about Core Knowledge, she should spread the wonderful news that school leaders’ best bet is to adopt a broad and rich curriculum, rather than peddling the misinformation that testing inherently leads to a narrow test-prep curriculum.
Second, Ravitch ignores the fact that charter schools are nearly TWENTY times more like to adopt Core Knowledge as a curriculum than other public schools. (True, the percentage of charter schools that adopt Core Knowledge is still fairly small, but the percentage of public schools that adopt Core Knowledge is barely discernible at all.) Indeed, Ravitch herself previously documented in detail (“The Language Police”), so many entrenched interest groups play tug-of-war over the public schools that textbooks usually end up as the lowest common denominator. Given Ravitch’s previous work here, it’s quite odd for her, of all people, to fall back on the naïve hope that traditional public school systems will suddenly start adopting Core Knowledge or any similarly rigorous curriculum.
In any event, it is incoherent for Ravitch to disdain the one type of school that is most likely to adopt the curriculum she claims to favor. And again, it is an especially bizarre flight of illogic for Ravitch to disdain charter schools based on their test scores, which she elsewhere ridicules as an unfair way to judge the merit of a school.