Rain of Errors

By 10/18/2013

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Claim: Rolling back education reform will improve outcomes for students, especially poor students.

Reality: There is no evidence for this claim.

The most frustrating thing about Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, isn’t the way she twists the evidence on school choice or testing, or her condescending tone toward leaders trying to improve educational outcomes, or her clever but disingenuous rhetorical arguments. No, what’s most frustrating is that we education reformers have left ourselves exposed and vulnerable to her attacks by overselling, and underthinking, our own ideas.

Truth be told, there are parts of the school-reform agenda today that are easy pickings for our opponents. Chief among these is the move to create prescriptive, top-down, statewide teacher-evaluation systems based largely on classroom-level test-score gains. Akin to Obamacare, it’s an idea that seems appealing at first blush (let’s recognize our best teachers and fire our worst!) but quickly devolves into a Rube Goldberg nightmare, with state officials trying (for example) to figure out how to link gym teachers’ performance to reading scores.

Fixing schools, especially from afar, is difficult, treacherous work, yet those of us in the reform community have tried to turn it into a morality play between good and evil. “We know what works, we just need the political will to do it,” goes the common refrain. Balderdash. We know that some things work better than others, and we also know that powerful interest groups (especially the unions) are wedded to the status quo. But anyone with half a brain or more than five minutes of experience also knows that people are complicated, schools are even more complicated, and education is a people-and-schools business. There are no easy answers.

Into these waters wades Ravitch, the repentant reformer, the double agent. She knows the weaknesses in our arguments because she was once one of us. And she exploits them piece by piece.

Which is not to say that she’s fair-minded or even-handed. She’s neither. For instance, she turns the overwhelming evidence that school vouchers generally benefit a great many recipients (while harming none) into a statement that students failed to experience “dramatic” gains. Guess what: No interventions in education (or the rest of social policy) would meet that daunting standard.

But her book is not a complete disaster for reformers. Far from it, in fact, for Ravitch walks into a trap of her own devising. She acknowledges in the introduction that her last effort, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, failed to offer a positive plan for improving student outcomes. So she sets about to offer one in Reign of Error. In describing it, however, Ravitch commits the exact same errors for which she lambastes reformers. She oversells the evidence; she fails to consider likely unintended consequences; she doesn’t think through implementation challenges. The skeptical, hard-nosed (if biased and data-slanting) Ravitch of the first half of her book turns into a pie-in-the-sky dreamer in the second half.

Consider her “solutions”:

1. Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.

2. Make high-quality early-childhood education available to all children.

3. Make sure every school has a “full, balanced, and rich curriculum.”

4. Reduce class sizes.

5. Provide medical and social services to the poor.

6. Devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.

(She lists five other “solutions” that simply amount to rolling back reforms: Ban for-profit charters and charter chains; eliminate high-stakes standardized testing; don’t allow “non-educators” to be teachers, principals, or superintendents; don’t allow mayoral control of the schools; don’t view education as a “consumer good.”)

So what would a hard-nosed, data-honest Ravitch say about these six ideas?

Claim: Reducing pre-term births (via better prenatal care) would improve the life chances of half a million children in the United States every year.

Reality: The government already provides prenatal care to poor women through Medicaid and other programs. One reason the United States has an unusually high number of pre-term births is that it has an unusually high proportion of babies born to young, unwed, uneducated mothers who are less likely to take advantage of quality prenatal care. Solving that problem requires changing a culture that shrugs at 14- or 16- or 18-year-olds’ getting pregnant (often not for the first time). Ravitch says not a word about those complexities (or anything else about family-structure woes).

Claim: Early-childhood programs have abundant research to support them.

Reality: Most of the evidence for pre-school comes from a few boutique programs that were unusually effective and expensive. They served a handful of exceptionally needy young children. High-quality evaluations of Head Start show few gains, or gains that fade out after a few years. Evaluations of newer large-scale programs (like those in New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas) suffer from “selection bias” problems — we don’t know whether the children enrolled in them might be different in important ways from their peers who didn’t enroll. In other words, the research on pre-school is a lot like the research on charter schools: We can find examples of high-quality programs that get great results, and we can find plenty of the other kind, and we don’t yet know how to take the great ones to scale.

Claim: Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, many schools have cut back on every subject that was not tested.

Reality: NCLB led to some modest declines in the time allocated to history and science in elementary schools (surely not a good thing). But the well-rounded, content-rich schools that Ravitch desires (as do I) haven’t existed en masse for decades. Ravitch wrote a whole book (Left Back) explaining why this is so — and it had to do with the education profession’s commitment to progressivism and romanticism, not because of more recent testing and accountability regimes. She wrote another whole book (The Language Police) that vividly explains why so much that passes for history and literature in our schools is banal and not worth learning, and yet another book (What Do Our Seventeen-Year-Olds Know?) showing how little of it they were learning long before NCLB was even a gleam in George W. Bush’s eye, indeed long before he became governor of Texas.

Claim: The benefits of class-size reduction are so large that the cost is well worth it, in terms of higher achievement levels, higher graduation rates, and lower special-education referrals.

Reality: The evidence indicates that class sizes must be reduced dramatically — to 15 students or fewer — in order to get an impact, and even then it matters only for the very youngest students in the very earliest grades. Yet class-size reduction is costly in more than just dollars: By expanding the teacher work force, it makes it that much harder to maintain high standards for entry into the profession (another goal Ravitch asserts), meaning it could actually reduce achievement. (That was California’s experience in the 1990s.) In other words, there are trade-offs at work.

Claim: Wrap-around services, like after-school programs, will close the achievement gap.

Reality: There is no evidence for this claim. For instance, a Brookings Institution study of the Harlem Children’s Zone — one of the few reforms that Ravitch likes — found its students performing on par with peers from charter schools that did not provide wrap-around services.

Claim: We need a new push for school desegregation in order to narrow racial achievement gaps.

Reality: There’s some evidence indicating that integrated schools have a positive impact on the achievement of minority students, especially blacks. But does Ravitch forget her book The Troubled Crusade, which described the disastrous history of forced desegregation? There is no political support to refight the busing wars of an earlier generation. The recent trend toward gentrification in some cities creates some new opportunities for integrated schools, but these will be limited. Yes, it would be nice if all schools were integrated; it would also be nice if all children had two parents at home. It’s not going to happen. Many low-income and minority students will continue to attend racially and socioeconomically isolated schools for the foreseeable future; the challenge is to make those schools as effective as possible.

Improving schools and helping disadvantaged children escape poverty are heroic challenges. They are complex undertakings with loads of uncertainty and potential for missteps. Some proposed solutions will actually make things worse. If Ravitch’s bromides push education reformers toward greater realism, that would be healthy indeed. But who will push Ravitch and her new friends toward greater realism on the anti-poverty agenda? America’s kids are waiting.

-Michael Petrilli

This review first appeared on National Review Online.

Comment on this article
  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    Claim: The benefits of class-size reduction are so large that the cost is well worth it, in terms of higher achievement levels, higher graduation rates, and lower special-education referrals.
    Yeah, let’s have 43 kids in an Algebra class.
    A gift from John Deasy and Dr. Hite for PGCPS middle schools.

  • Jason Norman says:

    Consider your “realities”…

    1) Clearly you don’t take much notice of what’s going on in the inner cities. Or else you’d know how poorly served their inhabitants are by an overwhelmed and underfunded Medicaid program in these neighborhoods. This doesn’t even include the millions who have no health insurance at all. I believe the totally uninsured are called the working poor, many of whom live in the inner cities. There’s a reason middle-class people will go to great lengths to avoid Medicaid.

    2) Aren’t you a supporter of charter schools – by the way? Which are quite different in that they don’t serve ALL children like a universal pre-K program would.

    3) Well, whatever non-tested subjects weren’t covered before – to the extent that was even true – it’s even worse now. So we should just accept that as fait accompli and say forget it, we’re not going to fix that problem?

    4) Typical reformer reasoning, “Fine for my children, not yours.”

    5) Wow what a statement! Your social, emotional, mental and physical needs are irrelevant to our goals. Students First! …And since when did evidence matter to you guys?

    6) Ah, the old train has left the station and there’s no turning back arrogance. There’s no political support for your reforms – at least from the lowly masses – but that hasn’t seemed to stop you from pursuing them. Yes it would be nice if your ideas for reform actually worked. But it’s not going to happen.

  • Dr. Sheridan Martin says:

    I am a retired NYC high school assistant principal (academic supervisor). For 23 years I worked as a teacher and then an assistant principal of social studies. I saw firsthand what was going on in the inner city high schools where I worked.

    The major problem with the reform movement is that it is divorced from reality. My former school is located in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is one of the poorest and most crime-ridden in the city. The school receives many students from another high crime area of Brooklyn, one in which students join gangs by the hundreds–often for their own protection or to make up for a family life that is lacking. Students at this school do anything to stay there as long as possible every day to keep from having to go home. The school provides programs and tutoring and everything it can to “ADD VALUE” to these students’ lives. The value it adds has nothing to do with multiple choice questions.

    The people in the reform movement need to get their priorities straight. The immediate problems of these students are so difficult and, yes, so expensive to solve that reformers want to latch onto something easy–testing, teacher evaluation, Common Core. None of these are worthless in and of themselves. However, they will not succeed, especially in high schools, unless other means of “adding value” are emphasized first.

    One added note. Everyone involved in education knows that the great push for 1) testing, 2) teacher evaluation and 3) implementation of the Common Core is simply a new way for large corporations to gain access to public money. Educators also know that corporate money provides funds for public figures and private organizations that push for these reforms.

  • Eric Weiss says:

    Your statement “… we also know that powerful interest groups (especially the unions) are wedded to the status quo. ” shows complete ignorance of where unions like the NEA stand on school reform. The NEA spends millions of dollars each year supporting reforms that work all around the country. And they are far from “status quo” ideas…do your homework before you make flip comments…

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