Ravitch’s Reign of Error: Yesterday, we saluted The Nation for naming Marc Steiner’s radio program the most valuable program of the year.
Right above Steiner in the list of awards, John Nichols selected the year’s most valuable book of the year. It’s a book we’ve been reading, musing about:
MOST VALUABLE BOOK: Diane Ravitch’s Reign of ErrorWas Reign of Error the year’s most valuable book? Has it been a valuable book at all?
Yes, she really did serve as an assistant education secretary for George H.W. Bush, and yes, she once supported George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” But Ravitch refuses to cling to failed strategies, as she explains in her groundbreaking new book, subtitled The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Driven by experience and data, she demolishes the argument that rigid requirements and punishments will make schools better. Indeed, she argues, these schemes too frequently serve the interests of misguided foundations, ideologically driven billionaires and Wall Street speculators more interested in privatizing public education—with some of them profiting in the process—than in helping children, parents and communities. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis says, “Diane is a fierce warrior against the so-called reformers whose ideology exacerbates the problems of poverty and inequity.”
We’re not sure how to answer those questions. In the past few weeks, we’ve taken to reading Ravitch’s blog. We plan to start discussing aspects of her book next week.
Quite often, we find the book a bit maddening. On the one hand, it lays out a very important list of topics, some of which are treated in informative ways.
On the other hand, Ravitch tends to overstate and misstate to a degree we find striking in a public intellectual. And as we explained not long ago, she doesn’t seem to have any ideas about what should go on inside actual classrooms, aside from a set of generic recommendations anyone could make.
That doesn’t mean her generic recommendations are wrong. (Smaller class size, a “rich curriculum.”) It does define the possible limits to Ravitch’s experience and understanding about what happens in classrooms.
Ravitch’s book has a lot to recommend it, a point we plan to discuss. In what ways does she tend to drive us nuts? For today, two examples:
In this blog post from yesterday, Ravitch discusses Randi Weingarten’s recent flip-flop concerning so-called “value-added models / measures / assessments.”
As it is being applied by state legislatures, VAM is a way to see how much a given teacher’s students have gained or learned from their year with that teacher. Example:
If the kids all start the year scoring on the 30th percentile; and they all finish the year scoring on the 40th percentile; then those kids have gained ten percentile points from their year with that teacher. They're still scoring below the national average, but the teacher has helped them advance.
In theory, this sounds like a reasonable way to assess a teacher. In practice, there are various problems. But this is the way Ravitch starts her post:
RAVITCH (1/6/14): Randi Weingarten has come out in opposition to value-added modeling (VAM), the statistical measure that judges teacher quality based on the test scores of their students. This is great news! As I have often written here, VAM is Junk Science. It also is the centerpiece of Race to the Top, which makes the absurd assumption that good teachers produce higher test scores...Would it really be an “absurd assumption” to think that good teachers produce higher test scores? Not really, no; it wouldn’t be. Nor is that a reasonable account of expert objections to the current practices.
In our view, no one can make objections to “reform” practices sound quite as absurd as Ravitch. It seems to us that this makes her work less valuable than it would otherwise be.
Everyone has his or her flaws, of course. In our view, Ravitch tends to overstate. Over the holidays, we were struck by the peculiar assessments we heard from educational experts and leaders like Weingarten and Linda Darling-Hammond. This included another overstatement we ran across from Ravitch.
On the December 26 Morning Edition, Darling-Hammond sang the praises of mighty Finland, then seemed to paint a rosy portrait of our own low-income schools. (“Our low-income schools and districts...perform extraordinarily well, given the circumstances they have to meet.”)
To us, that assessment seemed a bit rosy. We then encountered what Ravitch had said on the same show in September:
INSKEEP (9/27/13): You seem to think that the major problem with American education is not actually American education, but poverty. Some kids are poor.It’s true! As we’ve been noting for years, “test scores have never been higher than they are today for white children, black children, Hispanic children and Asian children.”
RAVITCH: Well, let me tell you what I think everyone needs to know. American public education is a huge success. Test scores have never been higher than they are today for white children, black children, Hispanic children and Asian children. High school graduation rates have never been higher than they are today—for all of those groups. Our schools are not failing; they’re very successful.
Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty. Now, we cannot—obviously—wipe poverty out overnight. But there are many things we can do to make school a stronger equalizer than it is today. One of those would be to have reduced class sizes in the schools that serve the children of poverty. Another would be to have universal pre-kindergarten. We should have a strong arts program in every one of these schools because children have to have a reason to come to school other than just to be tested.
We think the public should be told about that. We’ve been urging liberals to do so for years. With the exception of Kevin Drum, liberal writers and pundits refuse to do so. There’s no sign that our “leaders” actually care about matters like this.
On the other hand, why would anyone want to say that “American public education is a huge success,” that “our schools are very successful?” If you look at where those scores remain for our black and Hispanic kids (as populations; on average), that strikes us as a very strange type of statement.
Do our low-income schools “perform extraordinarily well, given the circumstances they have to meet?” On balance, we’d have to say no, they don’t, though that isn’t the “fault” of their teachers.
Ravitch’s rosy overstatement topped even that. Her statement struck us as very strange. It seems to us that persistent overstatement tends to dilute the valuable role her new book might otherwise play.
That book includes a lot of stuff the public deserves to be told. It also includes a persistent string of overstatements, misstatements.
Next week, we’ll try to start sorting them out. On liberal cable, at liberal sites, no one will notice or care.
In fairness, Lawrence O’Donnell cares how children do in school. As long as they live in Malawi.