What Diane Ravitch Gets Wrong

Yesterday afternoon, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a lively panel in which well-respected education historian Diane Ravitch discussed her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Diane is arguably the best educational historian working today and one of the best the nation has ever produced. Chapter after chapter she confirms what we all know about education policy and practice—it is relentlessly based on fads built on the flimsiest of evidence. Diane shows that good ideas are often taken to scale without any thought about how any of reforms might work in a larger venue. She shows that ideas often become invested with magic properties so that people see them as a silver bullet that will cure all our ills.

But while her analysis is often spot-on, she also makes mistakes. And perhaps her most consistent ones pertain to choice and charter schools.

In contrast to charter schools, Diane exults traditional public schools, which she views as being firmly rooted in strong neighborhoods. Yes, it would be wonderful if neighborhood schools were what Diane wants them to be, but they aren’t. If they were what she wanted, I could understand her antipathy toward charter schools; however, far too many traditional public schools are failure factories that persist year after year after year.

Diane’s critique of charter schools is at the tail end of an analysis of the evolution of choice—hitting the usual notes, Milton Friedman, John Chubb, and Terry Moe, vouchers, and then the displacement of vouchers by charter schools as the preferred vehicle of reform for choice advocates.

She begins by reviewing the empirical evidence concerning the learning gains among voucher students and finds that there were few cases where the gains of voucher students were greater than students who were offered but did not accept vouchers.

This is taken as an indicator of failure—but Milton Friedman actually argued that voucher schools could either produce higher outcomes at the same cost or the same outcomes for a lower cost. Since vouchers, for example, in D.C. carry a price tag that is about 60 percent of what traditional students get, the second condition of Friedman’s hypothesis is actually met—students are doing as well for far less.

The same thing is true of charter schools, which, as Diane notes, produce pretty much the same results as traditional public schools—but charters are funded at around less than 90 percent of the traditional public schools, so from Friedman’s second perspective they are doing better.

Vouchers, as she rightfully notes, have hit a dead end, and charter schools have taken their place as the preferred mechanism for using choice as a mechanism for reform. Diane’s take on charter schools is pretty negative—and much of her criticism has to do with creaming. She writes:

Regular public schools are at a huge disadvantage … because charter schools may attract the most motivated students, may discharge laggards, and may enforce a tough disciplinary code.

This is an interesting argument—but where does it lead us?

On one hand, it is hard to prove. There may be parent/student differences in motivation that distinguish charter school parents from traditional public school ones, but I’m not sure how we can measure them. They are called “non-observables” for a reason.

Setting aside the measurement issue, there are many implications of Diane’s argument that simply don’t work. She worries that the success of charter schools will draw off the most motivated students and parents and create havens for good students, who attend schools for longer hours and more days, who have dedicated teachers, an excellent curriculum, and a culture that emphasizes hard work.

If we took the kids who sought out these charter schools and forced them back into traditional neighborhood schools would the performance of students in those schools really go up?

As a specific example, if we closed the successful Thurgood Marshall Academy in D.C. and sent those 400 students back to the neighborhood high school, what would be the outcome? We would most likely lose most of those 400 students, all of whom are poor black kids now headed to college. Is that a good trade-off?

Diane also notes the differences between “no-excuse schools” like KIPP that emphasize proper behavior and the attitudes needed for success. She notes that far too many public schools stopped expecting civility and proper behavior. But that difference helps explain why parents choose charter schools: they are looking for small, safe schools that often emphasize basics and accept no excuses.

In short, many charter schools come closer in aspiration and often in practice to the image that Diane has of what defines functioning schools. And more importantly, if we close down all the charter schools and wait for neighborhood public schools to improve, who pays the costs? Middle class parents will move to the suburbs or send their kids to private schools, leaving the burden of bad schools to fall on the usual less affluent victims.

The book tells a depressingly familiar story of a field wracked by fads and innovations that have gone off the track. Her diagnosis of where we’ve gone wrong is often brilliant—although as noted she got choice and charter schools wrong.

I, like so many people reading this, have good friends who actually do the incredibly hard work of teaching or running schools. They face real problems day after day. They are looking for help, for a way forward. Can we in good conscience say if we close down charter schools and look to a “shining neighborhood school on the hill” all will be good? I don’t think so.

Mark Schneider