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.