VISIONS OF THE PISA: From both sides now!


Part 2—Ravitch reacts: Reading Diane Ravitch can be a frustrating task.

Consider the start of her new book, Reign of Error. At the start of her Introduction, Ravitch lays out the book’s purpose.

Quite literally, these are the very first words of the book. This quickly, we meet contradiction:
RAVITCH (page xi): The purpose of this book is to answer four questions.

First, is American education in crisis?

Second, is American education failing and declining?

Third, what is the evidence for the reforms now being promoted by the federal government and adopted by many states?

Fourth, what should we do to improve our schools and the lives of children?

In this book, I show that the schools are in crisis because of persistent, orchestrated attacks on them and their teachers and principals, and attacks on the very principle of public responsibility for public education. These attacks create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.
Those are all perfectly decent questions. (The first and second questions are a bit hard to distinguish.) But as soon as Ravitch moves to address her questions, she seems to contradict herself.

Is American education in crisis? In the first real paragraph of her book, Ravitch seems to say that the schools are in crisis. She then seems to say that they aren’t in crisis—that we have a false sense of crisis.

You’re right—this doesn’t exactly matter. Ravitch goes on to spend more than 300 pages examining a series of significant topics involving the public schools. It doesn’t exactly matter that the first real paragraph of her book seems to be poorly thought out and expressed.

That said, Ravitch’s work is often frustrating. Her reasoning and exposition can often be jumbled, as we see in the book’s opening paragraphs. Often, this seems to reflect the highly partisan turn of mind Ravitch brings to issues of reform, whether she is overstating in favor of “reform,” as she once did, or overstating against it.

Much of Ravitch’s book is worthwhile. Much of her book is quite worthwhile, but she does tend to overstate.

With that in mind, consider her reactions to those 2012 PISA scores.

Last week, the new PISA scores were released. From the mainstream and the elites which fund them, predictable wailing ensued.

This got Ravitch’s dander up. At her web site, she posted a 1400-word analysis, “My View of the PISA Scores.”

This is the puzzling way Ravitch began her post:
RAVITCH (12/3/13): The news reports say that the test scores of American students on the latest PISA test are “stagnant,” “lagging,” “flat,” etc.

The U.S. Department of Education would have us believe–yet again–that we are in an unprecedented crisis and that we must double down on the test-and-punish strategies of the past dozen years.

The myth persists that once our nation led the world on international tests, but we have fallen from that exalted position in recent years.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.
“Wrong, wrong, wrong?” Why would Ravitch say that?

It’s true—the United States has never led the world on international tests.

For ourselves, we haven’t seen anyone making that claim in the wake of the new PISA scores. But if people have been saying that, those people have been wrong.

Beyond that, many people think it would be a bad idea to “double down on the test-and-punish strategies of the past dozen years.”

Does the Department of Education want to do that? If so, it isn’t hard to argue that such an approach would be wrong.

But how about Ravitch’s very first point? What about her reference to news reports which “say that the test scores of American students on the latest PISA test are ‘stagnant,’ ‘lagging,’ ‘flat,’ etc.”

Would such statements be wrong? That’s what Ravitch seems to say at the start of this influential post.

Partisan dander to the side, why would Ravitch say that?

The word “stagnant” is an evocative term. “Lagging” can mean several things depending on context.

(We can’t find fault with the way this term was used in upper-end reporting last week. See below).

But it’s plain that American scores really were “flat” on the 2012 PISA. And yet, right at the start of this fiery post, Ravitch seems to say that such a claim is wrong.

In fact, American scores on the PISA went down a bit on the 2012 PISA, in all subjects tested, at least before you disaggregate. Often, American scores went down even after disaggregation. (Compared to 2009, scores by white students went down in all three subjects—science, reading and math.)

We’re not necessarily saying that those score changes are significant. Frankly, we’re less than fully confident in the work of crusading PISA establishment.

But why does Ravitch seem to deny an obvious fact—the fact that American scores were basically flat on the new PISA? Why did Ravitch say that?

We have no idea. But this is part of what you get with Ravitch. Often, this is what you get right at the start of her work.

We focus on Ravitch for a reason. For years, Ravitch was a leading advocate of standard education “reform”—a leading advocate of higher standards, testing and accountability.

Within the last decade, she flipped. Today, she has become the liberal world’s leading voice against that “reform” regime.

For that reason, her reactions to the PISA scores have spread far and wide in the liberal world. This makes her work very important.

For the rest of the week, we’re going to look at liberal reaction to last week’s new PISA scores. We’ll focus on Ravitch’s reactions, which are quite influential.

For our money, Ravitch’s reactions have largely been uninstructive, unhelpful. Sometimes, her reactions have simply been wrong. in some ways, they’ve struck us as uncaring.

That said, the world has changed in one major way. We now have standard “liberal” scripts about topics like the new PISA scores. These liberal scripts stand in opposition to their counterparts from the mainstream press corps and reform-minded elites.

Is it helpful when our scripts are misleading, fraught with error and overstatement, in the way the mainstream scripts have been for so many years? Can it be helpful if the confusion comes from both sides now?

Tomorrow: Buying into the cult

The New York Times uses the L-word: Plainly, American scores were flat on the 2012 PISA.

In that sense, American scores can be said to be stagnant, although that word has unpleasant connotations.

What about the word “lagging?” Here’s the way that word was used in Motoko Rich’s news report in the New York Times, headline included:
RICH (12/3/13): American 15-Year-Olds Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests

Fifteen-year-olds in the United States score in the middle of the developed world in reading and science while lagging in math, according to international standardized test results being released on Tuesday.

While the performance of American students who took the exams last year differed little from the performance of those tested in 2009, the last time the exams were administered, several comparable countries—including Ireland and Poland—pulled ahead this time.

As in previous years, the scores of students in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea put those school systems at the top of the rankings for math, science and reading. Finland, a darling of educators, slid in all subjects but continued to outperform the averages, and the United States.


Some scholars warned that the lagging performance of American students would eventually lead to economic torpor. ''Our economy has still been strong because we have a very good economic system that is able to overcome the deficiencies of our education system,'' said Eric A. Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University. ''But increasingly, we have to rely on the skills of our work force, and if we don't improve that, we're going to be slipping.''
In our view, there was a lot of fuzz and confusion in Rich’s report. Beyond that, the headline doesn’t quite match the text.

That said, we see little to argue with in Rich’s use of the term “lagging.” She said we scored in the middle in reading and science while lagging in math.

Dander up, Ravitch seemed to say such claims were “wrong.” Why would Ravitch say that?


  1. Hanushek is a right-wing propagandist and advocate posing as an economist. There is nothing and has never been anything to back up his claims our mid-position international test scores are a threat to our economy.

    Low wages, high unemployment, lack of a social safety net, and widening inequities are a threat to our economy, as are attacks on teachers.

    Hanushek actually believes and repeatedly testifies in court that adequate funding will do nothing to improve educational outcomes. Rather, he prescribes more austerity in the name of "efficiency".

    According to him we should be firing more teachers, and, since “we do not fully understand what characteristics are associated with effective classroom teaching”. Instead of "costly professional training and certification" he recommends that “schools could apply some minimum entry standards and then evaluate actual classroom performance”, Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth, "Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America's Public Schools' (Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 81.

  2. To me it beggars belief that Eric Hanushek's arguments, which patently border on the insane (if they are not actually insane), have been swallowed whole by so many influential and wealthy people, including the president of the United States, the World Bank, the editorial staff of the New York Times and Washington Post, and the leadership of the Democratic party. Why isn't anyone talking about this? It is as though they had all become flat earthers -- oh, wait ....

  3. Dr. Hanushek, the most influential public policy expert in the United States has no background whatsoever in child development, education, not to mention liberal arts (including history and or philosophy, including ethics). Children and parents are to him the equivalent of widgets, and he is on record as saying that the most cost efficient (and therefore best) way to train teachers would be to throw them into the classroom without any preparation and then decide on at the end of a year if they are good teacgers by giving the pupils a test. (The of such a method cost to the children of our country is of not the slightest concern to him). Yet the Supreme Court listens to this maniac and cites his words of wisdom in their opinions.

  4. The cost of such a method to the children ... I meant to say