Kevin Carey on Diane Ravitch

by Reihan Salam

Kevin Carey has written an essay for The New Republic on the career and evolution of historian and pro-union activist Diane Ravitch, a leading intellectual opponent of efforts to promote choice and competition in public education and to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Part of Carey’s essay contrasts positions Ravitch had taken in the past, as an advocate of structural change in public education, to those she takes now as a partisan of the view that comprehensive social democracy is the way to improve educational outcomes:

At the Save Our Schools rally, Ravitch again brought up international tests—but this time to observe that students in the least-poor U.S. schools (which also tend to have the wealthiest families and best-paid teachers) score better than the average students in top-performing nations like Finland and South Korea. Back then, she compared our average to their average. Now, she compares our best with their average. The facts haven’t changed; the way Ravitch uses the facts has changed. 

Or, she picks and chooses which facts to cite. Take a 2009 Stanford study Ravitch frequently references, which found that only 17 percent of charters outperform regular public schools with similar students. By contrast, 37 percent perform worse than regular public schools, and the rest are about equal. It is a well-designed study and a sobering reminder that some localities have done far better than others in recruiting, funding, and monitoring high-quality charter operators. But the Stanford study is only one of many. And the general consensus among researchers is that, on average, charter schools perform evenly with regular public schools. 

In 2000, Ravitch, seemingly anticipating just such a consensus, argued: “If we found that there is no difference in performance between charter schools, voucher schools, and regular public schools, it would not be a victory for the status quo. Instead, we would have to say that the choice of school belongs to the parent.” Now that the overall research consensus matches this scenario, Ravitch focuses repeatedly on the Stanford study, asserting that it proves charters have failed. 

One locality that has done a good job with charter schools is New York City. At least, that’s the clear implication of a subsequent study performed by exactly the same Stanford researchers using exactly the same methods. In math, 50 percent of New York City charter schools outperformed regular public schools while only 16 percent were worse. Ravitch is surely aware of the second Stanford study, yet never seems to cite it.

Because Kevin Carey is writing from a center-left perspective for a center-left audience, his essay might have more impact.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.