Diane Ravitch turns on school choice and testing

Her new book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.  Her bottom line is this:

The more uneasy I grew with the agenda of choice and accountability, the more I realized that I am too "conservative" to embrace an agenda whose end result is entirely speculative and uncertain.  The effort to upend American public education and replace it with something market-based began to feel too radical for me.  I concluded that I could not countenance any reforms that might have the effect — intended or unintended — of undermining public education.

Ravitch of course was once the number one advocate of these very ideas; read this excellent article on her intellectual evolution.

Overall it is a serious book worth reading and it has some good arguments to establish the view — as I interpret it — that both vouchers and school accountability are overrated ideas by their proponents.  (Short of turning the world upside down, some school districts will only get so good; conversely many public schools around the world are excellent.)  But are they bad ideas outright?  Ravitch doesn't do much to contest the quantitative evidence in their favor.  There are many studies on vouchers, some surveyed here.  Charter schools also seem like a good idea.

Is American public education such a huge success these days that it should be immune from significant restructuring?  I don't think so.  One of the best arguments for our current system is simply that — because it is lax — it doesn't waste too much time for the really smart kids who want to be doing other things.  That's an important factor but hardly a ringing endorsement for the system as a whole.


Ravitch's background is as a historian. She thinks that by studying the past and importing its lessons, we can perfectly plan the future. All we need is the will. Call it the "Green Lantern Theory of Education."

Could the comment that in your block quote be any more indicative of opposition to a dynamist way of thinking? She seems to think that combination of good intentions, sound theory, and a little historical awareness will help us avoid all unintended consequences.

Realistically, we can't rely on a politicized and unionized and bureaucratized system to give us the best results. Ravitch's conservatism--and she's right to call it that--offers little prospect of hope to those whom the system is currently failing. We can do better. Regarding the delivery of education, we need the most diversity, the greatest number of "escape hatches," and the thickest thicket of competing institutions to deliver education to every child...

If there were real prospects of reforming the public schools system that would be one thing. Not a shred of evidence says that could happen. Vouchers and choice can take place without the need for some national or even state-wide consensus. That's why Ravitch's argument, at least as summarized here, makes no sense. Choice isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. And there's plenty of evidence suggesting it would have a beneficial impact, just as competition does in any industry.

The main difference between failing schools and successful schools is the students. That's a reality ignored by both the left and the right.

In response to Ted Craig:

And behind 90% of bad students, you will find bad parenting.

Pragmatism and objectivity == a welcome addition, even if it means changing your views based on the evidence.

There is hope in the world.

What ever happened to American pragmatism? Why does everything have to become ideology?

David - spot on.


There is only so much you can do in any job or company. Send your kids to private school - you'll get the same. Not all humans are good at their jobs. Are all the people at your company excellent? If so, I would imagine you work in a small company. Once companies get large, you'll get tons of mediocre people working there.

Then realize that the total public school system is much larger than even the largest companies. The total number of school teachers in the US is 2.6 million. Walmart only employs 2.1 million people. How has your experience with a Walmart employee - are they all excellent? How is the US going to provide 2.6 million excellent teachers - for a job far more demanding than a position at Walmart?

Not many people grapple with this question other than handwaving with "incentives".

The NYT article makes me suspicious. I don't know about Ravitch, so I don't know whether NYT is misrepresenting her history or not.

I read the Wikipedia page about her, and there was no mention of her supporting vouchers, choice, or free markets.

The NYT article by Sam Dillon, which you describe as "excellent", starts by saying he once favored free markets in schooling.

But the article never returns to vouchers, choice, or freedom. There is no further discussion of this topic.

Is Sam Dillon of the NYT just lying through his teeth, or did Ravitch actually once support vouchers?

Oops, I meant to write "she [not he] once favored free markets".

I'm surprised Tyler thinks that a lax system frees up smart kids. In fact the current system substitutes tons of busy work for difficult and challenging assignments. This rewards the diligent but punishes the brilliant and easily bored. To a lesser extent grade inflation does similar bad things in college.

There are people of modest means who are overall good citizens but for religious reasons feel they must put their children in private schools. Does anyone care for them?

IMO since the middle class and rich cannot be subsidized, so people should charged on a sliding scale based on adjusted income for their children's schooling in the public schools.

No system based on coerced attendance and forced financial support can provide a healthy human learning environment. The public school system is nothing more than a glorified prison camp providing make-work for "teachers" and "administrators". A system where the so-called "professionals" have so little regard for their own abilities that they feel compelled to rely on coercion to gain customers and force to obtain a living wage.

And the comparison of the public school system to Walmart is appalling. When was the last time you were theatened with jail unless you "attended" your local Walmart? Or how often do representatives from Walmart force you to "pay" for their services whether you use them or not? And in terms of quality I would take a Walmart employee over a public school "teacher" any time. We would be lucky indeed if our school system was operated like Walmart. But the special interest groups would never allow that.

It is a testament to the Human spirit and the truth that all education occurs within the individual that most children survive their 12 year sentence.

One of the best arguments for our current system is simply that -- because it is lax -- it doesn't waste too much time for the really smart kids who want to be doing other things.

LOL! One of the dumbest things I've ever heard!

Anyone who thinks smart kids aren't wasting their time in schools isn't talking to the smart kids. Most smart kids are smart because they know how to learn things on their own, which is the exact opposite of what the American education system wants.

Then you have the other end of the bell curve - the students who have no interest in buying what schools are selling and no amount of effort is going to make them buy-in.

What you wind up with is the education system spending so much time trying to box the 2 ends of the bell curve into the middle that the average students suffer, too.

The #1 problem with American Education is compulsion. It refuses to let go of students who don't want to be in school (the law) and it refuses to let go of teachers and administrators who ought not be in the schools (the contract).

The lack of common sense is what makes schools dysfunctional, and people like Ms. Ravitch are part of the problem - too much experimentation where common sense would provide more bang for the buck. But common sense doesn't provide an ego stroke.

The Coleman Report concluded over forty years ago that the parents of a school's students were the overwhelming factor in determining student achievement. Most Americans ignore the results because they think schools can work miracles.

Then realize that the total public school system is much larger than even the largest companies. The total number of school teachers in the US is 2.6 million. Walmart only employs 2.1 million people. How has your experience with a Walmart employee - are they all excellent?

There isn't a national public school system. There is no single employer which pays 2.6 million teachers.

As for Wal-Mart, if they provide substandard service I have alternatives, such as Target. This competition ensures consistent quality and excellence. This is also why school choice is so important.

We need to take those hundreds of thousands of teachers and have them compete to attract the best students.

Ms. Ravitch ignores the fundamental question: OK, so the quality won't change. So lets go for reducing the cost. Education inflation is unsustainable and not delivering any results. Competition could at least drive productivity increases that could reduce costs. Before Gutenberg general information, entertainment and education were all very expensive. Today, general information (google), entertainment (hulu) are very cheap, and education: ludicrously expensive and more so every year.

Policy analysts who can't think in economic terms should never be listened to.

According to a line from Peter Drucker's book on Innovation, 5 years out of school, Asians test the same as Americans on math. Yes, math.

People want to explain away the flaws of the system by diversity and pockets of incompetence. Of course there are those, but it is also the system itself.

I wonder if part of the blockage is that people can't blame the system that they think made them what they are today.

Ravitvh is re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titantic. Anyone who is actually trying to figure out if public schools or charter schools or private schools (with or without religious affiliation) or home schooling are effective or if one or the other is better...stop wasting your time! They are all essentially the same. They are all subject to the same curriculum requirements the same teacher certifications the same time requirements and the same testing requirements. Just because you put different names on these coercive attendance programs doesn't change the overall prison-like nature of them. Nor does it change the stiffling rigid useless curriculum.

BTW - I will stop "whinning" about truancy laws when you assure me there will be no whinning on your part when I take your money for my favorite program. Is that really the kind of dog-eat-dog world you want to live in?

One of the principals of a hedge fund whom I advise on antitrust merger matters was always ecstatic about charter schools.

I was surprised, because he was not the kind of person whom I thought had much interest in other people's education.

He didn't.

What he like was that with charter schools he could offload some real estate to a new charter school that was being established, and he had an early financial interest in a textbook company that was also into testing.

My wife, a retired childrens librarian at a central library, also noted that the downtown charter schools didn't have libraries, and that the kids who were dropped off at the library didn't know how to find books.

I just hope people are objective on this issue. It is good to experiment, but it is also good to be ojective.

I moved my family to one of the best districts in the country for the sake of my three kids, all three of whom have now graduated from the local school systems. Here's one parent who says moving to a "good" school district is not as good as real choice. Even in our district there are bad teachers, and they're just as unfirable as in any other district. The school administration is just as unresponsive. The teachers are just as focused on their benefits at the expense of benefits for students. The ability to move to "good" districts is only an incomplete and unsatisfactory form of choice.

"Is American public education such a huge success these days that it should be immune from significant restructuring?"

Maybe. We do manage to integrate and socialize students from a wide array of cultures in relative harmony, and we have somehow built the most advanced civilization in the history of the world...

Perhaps we don't have the best test scores, but the real $coreboard suggests our schools may be doing some things that are more important than teaching trigonometry to people who will never use it.

From the NPR article at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124209100&sc=fb&cc=fp:

"Choice was not working, they all agreed. The scholars presented persuasive evidence that only a tiny percentage of eligible students were asking to transfer to better schools. In California, less than 1 percent of eligible students in "failing" schools asked to transfer to another school; in Colorado, less than 2 percent did; in Michigan, the number of transfers under NCLB was negligible..."

School choice isn't "working" because...er...parents aren't exercising their option to choose? Oh, I get it. Freedoms that are only exercised by a few shouldn't be allowed at all because they "don't work."

This is a very dangerous idea.

AGMycroft and SJE,

If only 1% of parents in *failing* schools are going to use a voucher option that is a problem. Voucher programs are not free, there are, if nothing else, transaction costs. The mechanism that advocates have told us would happen is parents will flee bad schools and storm good ones with vouchers in hand. If that doesn't happen vouchers are a failed policy.

You can try to spin this as 'choice is good in itself' but you're confusing vouchers with rights. Every parent has a choice today. The idea that you're denied choice because some choices are unaffordable (or more often you'd just rather not pay for them with your money) is an absurd deviation from just about all orthodox and even unorthodox thinking about economics and philosophy for the last ten thousand years.

Except it doesn't and it appears more often than not people don't want it unless they are voting for people who will force it on other people. The question I have is why this is so? The stock answer the right has is that teacher's unions are now the ultimate power in this galaxy. I note that in the US schools are highly localized. They are mostly paid for not by even state money but with local money. There are plenty of red states and even more red counties in the US. Are none of these places red enough for voters to overcome the evil superpowers that the unions hold, even to do a modified partial voucher system? Hmmmm.

I suspect there's another answer. Private schools IMO have an edge because they force parents to 'own' their kids education. They do this by forcing the parents to pay for it with their own money, or at least beg for scholarships and aid. Local public schools do not have that advantage so they create a sense of 'ownership' via the community. Whether its the HS football team or other activities, they make the local public school a focus of community spirit. This way parents who let their kids slouch feel a sense of shame. Is this as potent a tool for focusing as having to write a check from your own account? No but in many cases it gets enough parents on board for peer pressure to work on the rest. Voters don't like vouchers, I suspect, because it indirectly breaks that hold the local public school has. Hence they aren't that willing to go for it unless they have local schools with serious problems.

My thinking here is old school conservatism. Burke, remember, noted that when you see a social institution that's been around a long time chances are it has strengths that you probably can't see easily.

She isn't a conservative in the american political sense, she obviously is a conservative in the "I hate change" sense.

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