The Agenda

Diane Ravitch Is Making a Number of Interesting Claims

I can’t say I’m terribly impressed by Diane Ravitch’s work over the last few years. In truth, I wasn’t impressed when she was a conservative darling and I’m not impressed now that she’s been embraced by folks on the egalitarian left. But her latest crusade against a semi-popular documentary film has been especially dispiriting. Many people who think of themselves as thoughtful and rigorous have decided that Ravitch’s crude simplifications are better than those of the film in question. Yet crude simplifications are a problem regardless of who is enthusiastically advancing them in service of a particular political agenda.

At the heart of Ravitch’s effort is the plausible claim that child poverty is the real problem with U.S. school performance, and she rehearsed this point in an interview with GOOD magazine:

GOOD: What do you say to reformers who say that poverty doesn’t matter and teachers should be able to get the same results regardless of a child’s income?

DIANE RAVITCH: People who say that poverty doesn’t matter are just blowing smoke. When you look at the Harlem Children’s Zone, it is a model that takes care of medical issues and social problems and family problems. Whether it has effects on test scores or not, that’s great because human needs should be addressed. HCZ gets good results but not amazing results. On the last state tests, only 40 percent of the kids were proficient. In Geoffrey Canada’s seventh grade where the kids had been there for three years, only 15 percent of them met the state standards.

By the way, HCZ proves that resources do matter because his organization has over $200 million in assets. I suspect that if any neighborhood public school in Harlem had the resources of Geoffrey Canada—if they too could have a classroom with 15 children with two teachers, they could get the same results, or even better.

GOOD: Why then the reluctance to talk about poverty’s connection to educational achievement?

DR: ?It’s a lot easier to talk about firing teachers than doing something about poverty. At least 20 percent of our kids live in poverty—which puts us up there with third world countries like Mexico and Turkey. Davis Guggenheim compares us to Finland. Finland has fewer than four percent of children in poverty.To say that the schools are responsible for poverty—no, it’s the economy, it’s industrialization, it’s the shipping of jobs overseas. We have some serious economic problems and somehow the entire onus is on teachers. For the past several months I’ve been on the road talking to teachers and they are deeply demoralized. We can’t improve our schools by beating up on teachers.

This is all very interesting. And it’s certainly true that child poverty depresses educational performance for many children. Yet how does this mechanism actually work? Will eliminating child poverty automatically improve performance? Consider the rhetorical strategy here: let’s rue child poverty, a complex, multi-faceted problem, to deflect attention away from poorly performing schools, which reflect poorly performing structures and systems, including compensation strategies. And do this all while claiming to be the serious person in the room. At least some people will take you seriously, without giving due consideration to whether the initial claim is sound. 

Let’s consider the results of the 2009 PISA. On science, the United States performed ahead of a number of other OECD countries, including Norway, Denmark, France, Sweden, and Austria. Let’s compare child poverty levels across these countries. As of the mid-2000s, according to the OECD, the child poverty rate in the United States was 21.9%. Norway 3.4%, Denmark 2.4%, France 7.5%, Sweden 4.2%, and Austria 10.2%. That is, U.S. students have a higher PISA score than countries that have the lowest child poverty rates in the OECD. Finland, Ravitch’s example of choice, actually has a higher child poverty rate at 2.8% than Denmark. My hope is that Ravitch would not recommend that Denmark increase its child poverty rate to match Finland’s educational achievements. That would be bizarre.

The U.S. performed ahead of a number of countries on reading as well, including Sweden, Germany, Ireland, France, Denmark, Britain, and Italy. We’ve added a few more OECD members to our little club of countries that actually do worse along some dimension of educational performance than the United States: Germany has a child poverty rate of 10.2%, Ireland 15.7%, Britain 15.4%, and Italy 16.6%. So Sweden’s schools are performing as poorly at teaching children to read as countries with four times Sweden’s child poverty rate. 

To be sure, U.S. students living in high-poverty neighborhoods perform far less well on these tests than other children. And that is undoubtedly true in the egalitarian social democracies of northern Europe. But let’s keep in mind that the U.S. has a much larger influx of less-skilled workers from middle-income and poor countries, and that the children of these immigrants tend to lag behind the children of natives in levels of educational attainment across the OECD.

Moreover, we’ve seen that it is important for young children to have conversations with their parents. Children in disrupted households often experience less parental involvement. U.S. children are far more likely to live in disrupted households, as we’ve noted on a number of occasions. It’s not obvious that reforming the tax-and-transfer regime will solve this problem, which is why the fact that different educational strategies yield dramatically different results even when we hold inputs constant, both within and across the affluent market democracies, is worthy of note. 

Ravitch’s interview continues in frustrating fashion.

GOOD: Are there adjustments needed in the way unions roll out tenure or react to teacher evaluations?

DR: Unions don’t write the rules. Wherever you have a contract, it’s signed by both parties. Management and unions sit together and negotiate the contract. If management doesn’t like the contract, it should insist on changing the rules. Tenure doesn’t mean you have lifetime employment. Tenure means after you’ve taught for a certain number of years—in most places it’s three years and in some it’s four—someone in management decides that you’re good enough that you get due process rights.Teachers don’t give themselves tenure. Management gives them tenure.

Does Ravitch believe that this process is not influenced by politics? And isn’t the point of broadening the educational policy discussion to engage the wider citizenry, and to strengthen the hand of those who would reform the way management approaches these questions? 

Management has three to four years to say, you’re not a good teacher; you’re fired. That’s not what they do in other countries. What they do in other countries is they get teachers help—they get support, they get mentored.

It’s not clear to me that Ravitch has a very good sense of what is done in other countries.

We have a problem in this country. We have 3.5 million teachers and about 300,000 leave the teaching profession every year. Some of them retire, some of them are fired, some of them leave voluntarily because they think it’s not for them. They don’t feel successful. The working conditions are miserable and they haven’t had any support.

One of the academic experts in Waiting for “Superman” says we should be firing six to ten percent more teachers every year. That would mean we’d have to find 500,000 new teachers every year. That’s really hard because there are only 1.5 million college graduates every year. We’re doing very little to create a strong and resilient teaching profession.

Note that this number is presented out of context. What is the natural rate of attrition in any given year? The expert spoke of firing 6 to 10 percent of teachers, a number that ranges from 210,000 to 350,000 of the total Ravitch cites above. One assumes that the remainder is accounted for by attrition. This suggests that we manage to identify as many of 290,000 new teachers a year. This implies that the real delta, i.e., the real increase in the number of new teachers we’d need every year is far smaller than the 500,000 number implies.

Did the expert suggest that we should be firing 6 to 10 percent of all teachers, or of all new teachers? All teachers rather than all new teachers might not be what the expert meant; after all, if we weed out weak performers early, that will reduce the need for firing quite so many teachers. But if the expert really did mean all teachers every year, could it be that larger class sizes are part of the solution? Or that we could hire people who graduated from college a year ago or, dare I say it, three years ago? I’ll return to the subject of larger class sizes in a moment. 

Instead we’re creating a revolving door where we say if you’re no good, you’re out and let’s bring in Teach For America. They’ll send in 8,000 kids to stay for two years and then they’re gone. This is no way to build a profession. What we’d do if we’re serious about education—which I think we’re not—would be to develop a strong teaching profession. That’s what they’ve done in other countries that we look at enviously, like Finland and Korea and Japan.

What wonderful examples! Let’s bracket Finland for a moment. Here’s a little factoid about Korea from The Economist:

Working women in South Korea earn 63% of what men do. Not all of this is the result of discrimination, but some must be. South Korean women face social pressure to quit when they have children, making it hard to stay on the career fast track. Many large companies have no women at all in senior jobs.

The article continues:

South Korea is the ideal environment for gender arbitrage. The workplace may be sexist, but the education system is extremely meritocratic. Lots of brainy female graduates enter the job market each year. In time their careers are eclipsed by those of men of no greater ability. This makes them poachable. Goldman Sachs, an American investment bank, has more women than men in its office in Seoul.

Only 60% of female South Korean graduates aged between 25 and 64 are in work—making educated South Korean women the most underemployed in OECD countries. 

In Korea, the upper secondary teaching force is overwhelmingly male — only 27% of teachers at that level are male — but at lower levels, it is female-dominated. PISA tests 15-year-olds, not upper secondary students. The “strong teaching profession” that Ravitch describes, and the fact that teachers don’t leave for other opportunities, just might be impacted by a climate of rampant sex discrimination against educated female workers. 

And on the class size point, note that Shanghai, the PISA outlier this year, finds that the average class size in Shanghai is 35. That is, students in Shanghai are achieving the best educational results in the world with a teacher-student ratio of 1:35, not the 1:7.5 that Ravitch cites as the source of the success of HCZ. One has to assume that the push for smaller class sizes has helped dilute the teacher talent pool in the United States. This doesn’t mean that larger class sizes are necessarily the right answer. But it does at least suggest that Ravitch’s analytical framework is decidedly imperfect.

I really wish that more people would scrutinize Diane Ravitch’s claims. I absolutely think that child poverty depresses educational performance in the United States. But is eliminating child poverty a better strategy for improving educational outcomes among poor children than, say, Summer Opportunity Scholarships designed to combat summer learning loss or structural reforms designed to improve the overall quality of the teacher talent pool? And is it an argument to state that labor contracts are negotiated between labor and management, or is it a non sequitur when the concern is that management is failing to make the right demands? 

It is easy to see why Diane Ravitch’s star is rising. There are, as she notes, 3.5 million teachers in the United States. To put that number in context, there are roughly 154,007,000 workers in the formal U.S. labor market. Many teachers who’ve been on the job for several years receive more generous compensation than they would in the private sector, and at least some of this compensation is channeled to fairly powerful political organizations. At the last Democratic National Convention, 10 percent of delegates belonged to a teachers’ union. A Gallup survey found that teachers are among the most well-regarded professionals in American life.

This is an extraordinary amount of power, and this is a group with a healthy amount of disposable income, particularly in low-cost metropolitan areas. Telling this group of people want they want to hear is a lucrative, shrewd strategy. And in light of the recent vogue for education reform — a flash-in-the-pan that tends to melt in the face of serious political pressure, frankly — even makes it seem refreshingly contrarian. But don’t kid yourselves. Apart from being less than rigorous, Ravitch isn’t sticking up for poor children or even for teachers. Rather, she is sticking up for a broken model of educational management that has delivered very poor results for children and taxpayers. 


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