Ravitch is Wrong Week, Day #5

[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.).

3 Responses to Ravitch is Wrong Week, Day #5

  1. […] Engaging in a double standard, such as holding a disfavored position to a high burden of proof while…. Riff Sharing: […]

  2. […] Buck presents Ravitch is Wrong Week on Jay P. Greene’s Blog. He accuses the education historian’s new book, The Death and Life […]

  3. […] you guessed Diane Ravitch, you are correct! Yes, that Diane Ravitch… and that one, too. Maybe she could go on Sesame Street to do a few segments with Big Bird and Elmo. Then again, maybe […]

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