The Corner

Politics & Policy

Spinning Against DeVos

I recently criticized Douglas Harris’s misleading New York Times op-ed against Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Now he’s defending his criticism of her—by shifting ground and apparently hoping no one notices.

In that op-ed, Harris declared Detroit’s charter schools a “disaster” and said the system had “failed.” His most on-point piece of evidence was that “[o]ne well-regarded study found that Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools.” I pointed out that performing at “about the same dismal level” sounds more like a disappointment than a disaster, and that the study Harris praised actually reached more positive conclusions than he let on.

I quoted the study’s own summary of its conclusions, and will do so again:

Based on the findings presented here, the typical student in Michigan charter schools gains more learning in a year than his TPS [traditional public school] counterparts, amounting to about two months of additional gains in reading and math. These positive patterns are even more pronounced in Detroit, where historically student academic performance has been poor. These outcomes are consistent with the result that charter schools have significantly better results than TPS for minority students who are in poverty.

Now Harris is arguing that the study’s results should not be taken “literally.” They may reflect “cherry picking” of students by the schools; Detroit’s traditional public schools aren’t really a good control group; etc. None of this, Harris says, is a a criticism of the study. He means only to point out that the researchers’ work is “hard to interpret by itself.”

But in the original op-ed, the one in the New York Times that will be read by far more people than either my Corner post or his follow-up, Harris raised no concerns about the study. He leaned on it and called it “well-regarded.” And the researchers themselves presented an interpretation. He is implicitly finding fault with it now, even if he is unwilling to come out and say so; but he did not find fault with it even implicitly in the Times. If he had written, “While one well-regarded study concluded that Detroit’s charter schools had shown signs of success, there are reasons not to take its findings literally,” I would not have criticized him. What he wrote instead was a misrepresentation of the study. And he is now covering his tracks.

How well Detroit’s charter schools are performing is a question I will leave for others (although several of Harris’s arguments on the point seem to me weak). Whether Harris can be trusted to present facts on this question fairly and accurately, on the other hand, has been established.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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