(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)
I’ve generally avoided engaging with Diane Ravitch over the last several years as her writing and followers often seem more like a form of primal-scream therapy than substantive discourse. However, her recent smear of Robert Pondiscio and Eva Moskowitz demands rebuttal.
For those who don’t know Pondiscio, he’s one of the most decent men you could meet. Many moons ago, he left a prestigious and lucrative career in media (TIME, BusinessWeek) to teach fifth grade at a public school in the South Bronx serving a very low-income population, mostly people of color. Since then, he has dedicated his life to improving the lot of the less fortunate by advocating for reforms he believes will improve the quality of education and expand opportunities. He still splits his time between his think tank work (he’s a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) and teaching high school civics at Democracy Prep, a charter school network based in Harlem.
Recently, Pondiscio wrote a book, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, for which he embedded himself in Success Academy, a charter network run by Eva Moskowitz that has not only closed the racial achievement gap, it has reversed it. As Thomas Sowell notes in today’s Wall Street Journal, Success Academy’s “predominantly black and Hispanic students already pass tests in mathematics and English at a higher rate than any school district in the entire state, [including the] predominantly white and Asian school districts where parental income is some multiple of what it is among Success Academy students.”
Success’s successes have rankled defenders of the traditional district school system, which looks pretty terrible by comparison. They’ve leveled a host of critiques of varying merit, and Pondiscio himself was not shy about illuminating Success Academy’s warts in his very thoughtful and nuanced book. (You can listen to interviews Pondiscio gave about the book here and here.)
Thoughtfulness and nuance, however, are not Ravitch’s jam. Piling on a recent controversy in which Moskowitz was accused of racism for merely Tweeting about the “horrific, senseless deaths of innocent black men and women” like “George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others who have died for no other reason than the color of their skin” using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter rather than issuing a press release, Ravitch decided to crank the unhinged libel up a notch on her blog:
The exchange between Moskowitz and a first-year teacher set off a debate about institutional racism in Success Academy and its harsh no-excuses methods. Those draconian disciplinary methods were defended by Robert Pondiscio of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who is white, and by Moskowitz, who is also white. Black children need harsh discipline, they argued. [emphasis added]
Pondiscio, naturally, took umbrage at this blatant mischaracterization of his views:
In response, Ravitch pointed to a Chalkbeat article in which Pondiscio said the following:
But Moskowitz has vigorously defended her network’s strict approach arguing that exacting behavior expectations that are consistently enforced provide a necessary condition for student learning. And network leaders argue it works: Success’ students, the vast majority of whom are Black or Latino, typically outperform much whiter and more affluent districts on state tests. Parents of color continue flocking to Success, and network leaders are honest about what will be expected of them and their children.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there is a significant appetite among low-income parents for exactly the flavor of education that Eva Moskowitz offers,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the conservative-learning Fordham Institute who spent a year observing a Success elementary school in the South Bronx and wrote a book about it. “It just does violence to reality to pretend that this is some kind of pedagogy that’s being imposed on families of color.”
If you’re puzzled as to how anything in that quote can be construed as arguing that “black children need harsh discipline,” that’s because you don’t have access to the Ravitch’O’Matic Meaning Translator™. Fortunately, I have an older model that still works which I have dusted off. I’ve entered the quoted text above and we’re off the races!
- “the flavor of education that Eva Moskowitz offers” = “harsh discipline”
- “a significant appetite among low-income parents” = “black children are in need of”
If you’re still confused, that’s because you’re sane.
Whether the disciplinary practices at Success Academy and other “No Excuses”-style charter schools are “harsh discipline” or not is a matter of debate, but Ravitch only operates within an ideological echo chamber so she cannot fathom that there are people (like, for example, Pondiscio and most of the families who choose those schools) who disagree with that characterization. But even if the characterization is fair, it’s not fair to portray it as though it were Pondiscio’s characterization. It is not.
Even more inflammatory and unfair is the second of Ravitch’s rhetorical leaps. “Some parents of color choose X” simply cannot be translated as “all children of color must be subject to X” under any sane understanding of the rules of language. This charge is simply insane.
Daniel Willingham tried to gently and patiently explain this to Ravitch in the comments section, but she replied with circular and obtuse nonsense: “I relied on the words in the Chalkbeat article” and whined that Pondiscio took to Twitter to defend himself against her public calumny instead of emailing her. She continued:
I am unsure what Robert objects to. He has my personal email. Why doesn’t he write and tell me what he finds objectionable? Does he oppose “no-excuses” disciplinary policy? Does he think it is not “harsh”? Did he object to my describing it as harsh? I am totally confused about what he wants me to change.
Is she really that obtuse?
Perhaps. She even doubled down with a subsequent blog post. Senior scholars are generally owed some amount of deference and respect, but Ravitch is sacrificing any claims to such deference by her abhorrent behavior. There are at least three possible explanations for her mischaracterization of Pondiscio’s views:
- She lacks the basic faculty of language comprehension. If we take her at her word, she honestly cannot decipher statements in plain English and is left absolutely befuddled when people try to explain it to her using small words. Indeed, as has been documented extensively at this blog, her recent “scholarship” ranges from sloppy to shoddy, she is prone to make outlandish and self-aggrandizing statements, and she has even engaged in conspiracy theorizing that’s downright hillbilly nuts. If so, then people shouldn’t take her seriously.
- She knows what’s she’s doing and she’s mendacious. If she does actually possess the mental faculties to comprehend basic English, then she is intentionally twisting Pondiscio’s words in a particularly mendacious way. She knows how damaging a charge of “racism” (merited or not) is, especially in this climate, and has no compunction smearing someone simply because they hold different policy views (or, perhaps, because he criticized her book). If so, then people shouldn’t take her seriously.
- She is a racist and she is projecting. Pondiscio spends his time trying to empower black families with the ability to choose a high-quality education for their children. Ravitch spends her time, like George Wallace, standing in the schoolhouse door trying to block black families from accessing the schools they want to choose. To deflect attention from her own racism, she points at someone else who holds different policy views and hopes no one will notice. If so, then people shouldn’t take her seriously — and, indeed, she should be run out of polite society.
Ravitch might reasonably object that these three characterizations of her motives are unfair, but all three are infinitely more fair and supported by evidence than Diane’s Ravitchian reading of Pondiscio’s views.
She owes him an apology.