"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Facts about Diane Ravitch's So-called "Rain of Errors"

I rode the Reign of Error review horse as far as I intended. But, Mike Petrilli issued his “Rain of Error,” lambasting Diane Ravitch in the National Review Online. He may be the first reformer to challenge Ravitch’s evidence and logic, as opposed to complaining about her use of the words “privatize” and “corporate reform.” Petrilli supplemented the standard, conservative soundbites with some links to his sources. He concentrated on the parts of Ravitch’s agenda that he characterized as “pie-in the-sky” dreaming, as opposed to mean arguments against test-driven reforms.

Petrilli described Ravitch as, “the repentant reformer, the double agent.” From his conservative perspective, “she knows the weaknesses in our arguments because she was once one of us. And she exploits them piece by piece.”

Another way of putting Petrilli’s criticism is that Ravitch has studied both sides of the evidence. I wondered if the same could be said for him. So, I followed his links and allusions to “research.”

Petrilli began with the claim that Ravitch is wrong about vouchers because, “the overwhelming evidence that school vouchers generally benefit a great many recipients (while harming none.)”

Where have we read this before? Could Petrilli be quoting himself? He and seven other conservatives made the same claim in a joint Education Week Commentary. Their source for such an exaggeration was a compendium of pro-voucher studies by The Foundation for Education Choice. Fortunately, Education Week also linked to a list of other research. Clicking links, I quickly came across studies by the Institute for Education Studies, the Chicago Federal Reserve, and the National Center for Education Statistics. The findings of those reputable studies were much closer to Ravitch’s carefully worded conclusions, showing that vouchers are expensive, have produced modest gains for only a few, and they are unlikely to be scaled up successfully.

Perhaps Petrilli et. al had this sort of ambiguity in mind when concluding that we need debates “based on norms, logic, and evidence drawn from beyond just the scientific sphere.” They support choice as a means of changing “the distribution of political capital and influence,” increasing private financing, empowering entrepreneurs with “consumer-information sources,” and moving beyond the public policy approach to education."

But, isn’t that precisely what Ravitch has been saying about corporate reform? Are they not attacking Ravitch for exposing to the entire nation the goals that they have been proclaiming in some education circles?

After offering source-free criticism of Ravitch’s proposals for cutting class size, Petrilli links to an expert on socio-economic desegregation to attack her recommendation that we “devise actionable strategies and specific goals to reduce racial segregation and poverty.”

Petrilli’s source, once again, was Mike Petrilli.

Most of Petrilli’s fact-related arguments against Ravitch are aimed at her “solutions” (which he puts in quotes.) They include good prenatal care for all pregnant woman, high-quality early-childhood education available to all children, and medical and social services to the poor.

Petrilli wrote that “evaluations of newer, large-scale programs (like those in New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas) suffer from “selection-bias” problems.” Again, why does that sound familiar?

Sure enough, Petrilli’s sources for challenging the effectiveness of early education programs in New Jersey, and Texas and Oklahoma, seem to be Russ Whitehurst and Russ Whitehurst. His other source for challenging early education and wraparound services was – you guessed it – Russ Whitehurst.

Russ Whitehurst is a solid scholar. Also, Petrilli and his colleagues are busy traveling around the country promoting their agenda. But, surely, they could find time to read other perspectives.

In contrast to Petrilli et. al who keep repeating the same old canned arguments from the same few sources, Ravitch draws on research that also includes analyses of what has worked in Union City, New Jersey; Cincinnati, Ohio; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Syracuse, New York. And by coincidence the Diane Ravitch Blog links to an answer to the defeatism of reformers who think that successful American early education efforts are due to selection bias. She links to the conservative Economist Intelligence Unit’s analysis of the cost and benefits of preschool in 45 countries. It raises the implicit question of why Vietnam can make a good start on helping poor children from a variety of ethnic groups, but conservatives like Petrilli believe that America is not up to the challenge. Its Lien Foundation survey, for instance, even found that, “examples abound of excellent child development taking place in the poorest surroundings, such as within South African townships.”

I like Mike Petrilli. He makes some bone-headed blunders, such as arguing that choice is necessary to help the “deserving poor,” and then wonders why readers are offended. In “Rain of Error,” he even wonders why Ravitch doesn’t criticize young, unwed, uneducated mothers. But, I attribute such errors to a lack of historical awareness, and that is common with liberal, as well as conservative, school reformers.

Coincidently, when bridging differences with Deborah Meier, Petrilli recently wrote, “I'm a child of the 1980s and the Reagan Revolution. The idea that unions are essential to democracy, for instance, never made much sense to me; by my time, they seemed like one more interest group. Nor does the "soak the rich …."

So, Petrilli describes politics as a Venn diagram where there is very little overall agreement between what his conservative allies and liberals believe. The “paltry list” of issues where opponents could work together includes the focus on early childhood education (which he attacks Ravitch for supporting?), as well as school improvement.

I’d be glad to meet in the center with Petrilli, and I would propose a modest first step. Could we not agree to read research on both sides of educational issues? Petrilli could be free to continue to criticize Ravitch for knowing too much about the conservatives’ logic and evidence. He could continue to demonstrate his solidarity with the anti-science wing school of reform. Petrilli should follow Ravitch’s footnotes and links to the social science research, however, and then ask whether her historical perspective makes sense when viewed through the prism of actual evidence.


  1. Nailed it! Thank you, John.

  2. What if We Are Asking the Wrong Question about Public Education in America?

    There is a question at the center of discussions about educational reform: “Why do children fail?” or, more often, “Who is to blame for the failure of education in America?”

    We talk about poverty, racial discrimination and segregation, deteriorating neighborhoods; bad schools, teachers and unions; charter schools and vouchers; privatization; testing; and, holding teachers and schools accountable.
    What if our questions are the wrong questions?

    Consider a different question.

    “Why do children succeed in school?” Or, better yet, “What do successful students have in common?”

    We will discover that it is not affluence. There are many successful students who are affluent and there are also poor children who excel. Conversely, there are affluent students who fail as badly as some of their poorer classmates.

    It is not race, because the list of excellent students includes students with white skins and black and every color in between.

    It is not bad schools and bad teachers, because excellent students can be found in both our best and worst schools.

    The one characteristic that most links our best students, wherever we find them, is that they are supported by parent(s) who are determined that their children will get the best possible education and who consider themselves to be partners, sharing responsibility with teachers and principals.

    The most common characteristic of children who fail is that they are not supported by parents who are determined, committed, and who accept responsibility as a partner in the educational process.

    These new questions and their answers should change the way we think about education.

    Education is in crisis because of a burgeoning population of mothers and fathers who live under a stifling blanket of hopelessness and powerlessness. These men and women are effectively disenfranchised and no longer believe in the American Dream for themselves or for their children. They do not stress the importance of education to their children; they make little if any effort to prepare their children for learning; and, they view their children's teachers and principals as adversaries. Many have lost control over their children and are no longer the guiding influence in the daily lives of their sons and daughters.

    Because the quality of the education our children receive will determine the future of the U.S. in the Twenty-first Century, we face two challenges:

    1. We must utilize every resource at our disposal to pull parents into the process as fully participating partners in the education of their kids. It is the absence of this partnership that results in the lowest level of motivation to learn on the part American children in generations and this is a reality that must be altered at all cost.
    2. We must admit that our current educational process is poorly structured to get the results we seek. We must create a reality in which children are given time to master their subjects before they are expected to move on. After all, we do not expect that they all will have achieved the same things by the end of twelve years of school. What we need is that they will have learned as much as they are able and that they can apply what they have learned when they enter the next stage of their lives, whatever that may be.

    The first challenge demands that we strive to change the culture of American society to one in which the American dream is real and achievable, if not for every man and woman, then at least for their children. It will require that we quit bickering and come together as a unified force to achieve a common objective.

    There can be no excuses for failing to achieve the second challenge because the educational leaders in each of our fifty states has the authority to change, by decree, the educational process in their state.

    If we continue down the same path, we place our entire future as a society in jeopardy.

  3. Well said, Mel!!!