Diane Ravitch, “No Child Left Behind”, And The Racial Achievement Gap`s Kryptonite Cause
The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,
the new book by veteran education historian
Diane Ravitch, has received a lot of publicity for revealing her newfound doubts about
the current conventional wisdom on
education reform. Her summary:
Child Left Behind Act] introduced a new definition of
school reform that was applauded by Democrats and
Republicans alike. In this new era, school reform was
characterized as accountability, high-stakes testing,
data-driven decision making, choice, charter schools,
privatization, deregulation, merit pay, and competition
was ironic that a conservative Republican president was
responsible for the
expansion of federal control in the history of American
education. It was likewise ironic that Democrats
embraced market reforms and other initiatives that
traditionally had been favored by Republicans."
demonstrated by our catastrophic experience with the
traditional lending standards in the name of equalizing
minority homeownership rates, whenever the Republicans and
Democrats agree on something, you`d better watch out.
The Bush-Kennedy education consensus that
pushed through NCLB launched a decade of sound and fury in
public education, signifying, well, not much in terms of its
oft-proclaimed goal: narrowing the
gaps in school achievement. And the Obama Administration
has largely gone along.
I will point out here, because no-one else
(not even Ravitch) will do so, that this
fundamental goal of No Child Left Behind—closing the gap
Non-Asian Minorities [NAMs] and whites/Asians—is
Thus the current ambition of everybody who
is anybody is to take the (roughly) half of the kindergarten
population that is minority and raise their performance by
(roughly) one standard deviation, while, hopefully, doing
nothing to improve the performance of
whites and Asians (because if you also improve
performance by whites and Asians, then you can`t Close The
objective. And it just can`t be achieved in any practical
way because the racial
achievement gap is
based on the
racial gap in average IQ.
I offer my alternative objective at the end of this article.
cure-alls for ethnic disparities, such as
communities," have fallen out of fashion. But they are
always replaced by new crazes, such as tracking down the
best teachers and sending them to the slums to
somehow work their magic.
"In 2008, the
federal government`s education research division issued a
report with four recommendations for `turning around
chronically low-performing schools,` but the report
acknowledged that every one of its recommendations had `low`
evidence to support it.`"
That Department of Education document,
Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools,
research base on effective strategies for quickly turning
around low-performing schools is sparse. The panel did not
find any empirical studies that reached the rigor necessary
to determine that specific turnaround practices produce
significantly better academic outcomes."
"It seems that the only guaranteed
strategy is to change the student population, replacing
low-performing students with higher-performing students. …
Rather than "leaving no child behind," this strategy plays a
shell game with low-performing students, moving them out and
dispersing them, pretending they don`t exist."
Nonetheless, billionaires such as Bill
Eli Broad have donated enormous sums toward implementing
the last decade`s orthodoxy in its various manifestations.
As Ravitch acidly observes, this
"billionaire boys` club" of philanthropists ignored the existing
infrastructure of alternatives to urban public schools in
favor of arrogantly thinking they should reinvent schools
from the ground up.
Citing James S. Coleman`s
research, Ravitch explains that
wonderful record of educating poor and minority children
in the cities. It is a shame that the big foundations have
not seen fit to keep Catholic schools alive. Instead, they
prefer to create a marketplace of options, even as the
marketplace helps to kill off highly successful Catholic
example, the Gates Foundation, excited over the chic leftist
idea promoted by Bill Ayers and Barack Obama in Chicago in
the 1990s that the problem with big city public high schools
is that they are too big, spent almost
toward creating 1,500 new small high schools and
learning communities" within public high schools.
Gates orated in
2005: "If we keep
the [high school]
system as it is, millions of children will never get a
chance to fulfill their promise because of their zip code,
their skin color, or the income of their parents."
Thus Gates gave a
million dollars to Bill Ayers`s brother
(who also spent years on the lam) so he could set up
within Berkeley High School to, in part, take students to
Cuba to learn about
In 2009, Gates
admitted that he`d largely wasted his donations on this
small schools boondoggle.
didn`t the press and the think tanks point out clearly to
Gates that he was being ripped off by charlatans?
Because, as Ravitch points out, the Gates
Foundation had bought off most of the self-proclaimed
experts—handing out $57 million to
in 2005 alone:
"Never before was
there a foundation that gave grants to almost every major
think tank and advocacy group in the field of education,
leaving almost no one willing to criticize its vast power
and unchecked influence."
is right. Personally, I`ve been
damage being done to
children by the
Gates Foundation for
But, then, I`m not important enough to be bribed by Bill
Gates, so why listen to me?)
Gates has now given up on
"small learning communities" as so 2000s. Now he has jumped aboard
the educational fad of the 2010s: Blame Teachers!
"It is amazing how
big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective
one. Research shows that there is only half as much
variation in student achievement between schools as there is
among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child
to get the best education possible, it is actually more
important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a
This unfalsifiable line of reasoning—"If
students succeeded, it was the teacher who did it. If
students got low scores, it was the teacher`s fault"—has
According to Ravitch:
depending on which economist or statistician one preferred,
the achievement gap between races, ethnic groups, and income
groups could be closed in three years (Sanders),
four years (Gordon,
Kane, and Staiger), or five years (Hanushek
and Rivkin). "
"Over a short period
of time, this assertion became an urban myth among
journalists and policy wonks in Washington, something that
that `everyone knew.` This particular urban myth fed a
fantasy that schools serving poor children might be able to
construct a teaching corps made up exclusively of superstar
teachers, the ones who produced large gains year after
new idea embraced by the Obama Administration and the Gates
Foundation is to develop statistical techniques to find
effective teachers, so that they can be taken out of white
schools and sent to black and Hispanic schools.
It`s crucial to keep in mind that these
influential papers are not
studies of actual
success stories of school districts that closed the racial
gaps. Nobody has done that. Instead, they are merely
mathematical projections of what might happen if all else remained equal. The
authors are just assuming that the effect seen in one year
of a good teacher over a bad teacher can be multiplied by
any number of years.
example, Gordon, Kaine, and Staiger
"Therefore, if the
effects were to accumulate, having a top-quartile teacher
rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row
would be enough to close the black-white test score gap."
But that turns out to be a
big "If." Ravitch notes:
"The fact was that
the theory had never been demonstrated anywhere. No school
or school district or state anywhere in the nation had ever
proved the theory correct. Nowhere was there a real-life
demonstration in which a district had identified the top
quintile of teachers, assigned low-performing students to
their classes, and improved the test scores of
low-performing students so dramatically in three, four or
five years that the black-white test score gap closed."
Ending the black-white disparity has been
the Holy Grail of education reform since
Considering all the rewards that would befall any educator
who could achieve it, you might assume that absence of
evidence after all these decades
is evidence of absence.
And, theory alone suggests we should be
skeptical that the effects of star teachers would
three, four, or five years in a row. That`s due to one of
the most famous concepts in economics:
diminishing marginal returns.
a hypothetical example from a different kind of teaching:
These days, I have the
and time to only play golf about twice a year. I now average
about 40 strokes per round worse than the superstars of the
But imagine that I somehow convinced the
swing coaches of
Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Pádraig Harrington, and Jim
Furyk to drop their most famous clients and instead each
work with me intensively for one year in succession.
Assume that during the first of these four
years, Tiger`s new ex-coach Hank Haney helps me cut 10
strokes off my average score, from 108 to 98. Does that mean
I would therefore be on track over four years to cut 40
strokes, all the way down to 68, and thus challenge my
teachers` former pupils for the
green coat at the 2014 Masters?
Of course not.
That`s almost as mindless as saying that
if I then got a fifth
year of world-class golf instruction, I`d be averaging
58 strokes per
round and winning every pro tournament by 20 strokes.
Similarly, by the logic of this latest schooling theory, if
we gave blacks and Hispanics better teachers for not three,
four, or five years, but instead six, eight, or ten years,
then they`d be scoring twice as high as whites and Asians!
easy for contemporary Americans to understand why the best
imaginable teaching won`t erase the Superstar-Duffer gap in
golf. Yet, apparently, it`s very difficult for most
intellectuals to grasp why returns might diminish in
attempts to close the white-Non-Asian Minority gap in school
That`s because the racial gap in academic
achievement, and its unmentionable IQ cause, works on
American intellectuals, liberal and
like Kryptonite on Superman. It deprives them of all their
powers, leaving them helpless as babies.
If you proclaim enthusiastically that
sending the best teachers into the slums would close the
Diversity Disparity, it serves as a sign that you aren`t one
of those horrible heretics who thinks that genetics might
play a role. It`s a way of saying:
"Don`t do to me what
you did to
James Watson. I believe, I believe!"
The question we should be asking about
this latest fad: why would we
want to send the
best teachers to teach the worst students?
In all non-politicized forms of
instruction, you never hear anyone say anything analogous.
Everybody simply assumes that the best teachers should work
with the best students—that it is reasonable that
coaches Phil Mickelson rather me, that
Jackson coach Michael Jordan and
Bryant rather than a junior high school basketball team.
For 2400 years, it has been assumed that it was a
good thing for all
Plato had Aristotle as a pupil rather than some random
Similarly, superstar economics professor
and liberal pundit
Paul Krugman is never criticized for being a
professor at Princeton. You don`t hear anyone say
Krugman should quit Princeton and go teach at Passaic County
Community College where he could be doing more good.
On the other hand, Ravitch strikes me as
overstating her case that (in the words of her title)
Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. While they aren`t
panaceas, I don`t see much proof in her book that high
stakes testing and charter schools are particularly hurting
public education, either.
haven`t noticed that public schools did a worse job in the
2000s than in the 1990s. They almost certainly are doing
better with the students they have to work with than in the
1970s, the dark period in U.S. K-12 education history that
described in The Bell
“The Great Decline”.
For example, in third party tests, the
white-black racial gap has been slightly narrowing on the
National Assessment of Educational Progress tests and
slightly widening on the
SAT. In other words, despite all the hullabaloo, the
results are about the same.
What about charter schools? Ravitch
emphasizes that by skimming off the inner city`s most
diligent students, the much-celebrated
Knowledge is Power Program chain of 60 charter schools [KIPP]
leaves the nearby neighborhood public schools with even
worse student bodies. Furthermore, KIPP can`t be
KIPP provides a Marine Corps boot
camp-like environment that appears to do some good for a
small, self-selected segment of the hardest-working young
people, just as Parris
Island does some young men good. But mass-producing
hundreds of Parris Islands
wouldn`t solve our social problems. ("The
many, the blasé, the Marines"—not much of a slogan!)
Similarly, KIPP can`t
ever become large enough, while staying true to itself, to
move the needle much.
Yet, because they give
“the few, the proud” a chance to get away from ghetto culture, I
can`t oppose KIPP schools.
do need better
statistics on school and teacher quality. But, as Ravitch
demonstrates, we shouldn`t expect them to be the miracle
cures that Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and
Malcolm Gladwell presume.
As I`ve been pointing out since
traditional method of judging the job done by schools from
their students` test scores is self-evidently silly. Because
scores are IQ-dominated, you`re mostly just measuring how
smart the students were before they even enrolled.
Amazingly, over the last couple of years,
my long-standing suggestion that we should instead measure
"value added"—how much test scores go up relative to how smart the
kids were when they started—has actually become fashionable.
The Obama Administration is spending huge sums on capturing
this kind of data via its
Race to the Top slush fund.
however, contends that value-added statistics are too new,
too iffy, and too manipulable to use in determining teacher
pay and employment. Nobody knows yet, for instance, if a
teacher would tend to average a higher value-added score if
she takes on last year`s best or worst students. But when
there`s salary on the line, teachers will quickly figure out
how to game the system.
a lesson here. Innumerate commentators, which is to say
essentially all pundits and politicians, don`t realize that
statistics don`t necessarily tell you what you think they
Consider sports statistics. One of the
most famous numbers in American sports history is Wilt
Chamberlain`s average of
50 points scored per NBA game in 1961-62 (including 100
in a single game). Nobody else has ever averaged 40. He also
led the league in rebounding, the second most prominent
statistic, with an astonishing
26 per game. So Wilt must have been, at minimum, the
best player in the league that year, right?
Wrong. Scoring 50 points per game is more
impressive to naïve stats fans today than it was to Wilt`s
rivals and own teammates at the time. He lost the Most
Valuable Player balloting in a landslide to
Bill Russell, who averaged only 19 points per game. Wilt
received just nine first place votes from his colleagues
compared to Russell`s 51. Wilt loved winning statistical
championships, but Russell loved winning team titles. (His
Celtics won 11 in 13 years.)
If we had had today`s
more sophisticated basketball statistics back in 1962,
they might have been able to demonstrate quantitatively what
was apparent to the players at the time: that Russell was
better at helping his team win than Wilt was. It took a
couple of generations to invent the requisite measures.
from the study of sports statistics: it`s easy to come up
with useful measures of small questions, but it requires
long, hard work to devise valid overall summative ranking
systems of who is better than whom—even though that`s what
Bill James, for instance, began
revolutionizing baseball statistics in 1975. But it took him
until 2000 to come up with his
for inclusive ranking of players.
And rating teachers is less like rating
players and more like rating baseball team
larger challenge, one that baseball statistic fanatics have
fitful progress in quantifying.
There`s another problem. While value-added
ratings of teachers may be a good idea, there is simply no
chance that they will be implemented honestly in Obama`s
George W. Bush`s, for that matter).
noticed this in his 1966 study of schools: black teachers
averaged more years of formal education, but that didn`t
have any correlations with student achievement. The one
thing that did matter, besides students` backgrounds, was
the IQ of their teachers. But to avoid hurting black
he left this crucial finding out of the
Tellingly, and ominously, Arne Duncan, the
Obama Administration`s Education Secretary who is promoting
"value-added" statistics, has also recently announced a new
Civil Rights crusade to demonize school districts whose
policies appear to have disparate impact on protected
Duncan`s two contradictory campaigns going to be reconciled?
way that everything else is rigged in Obama/ Bush`s America:
more quotas and more lies.
Ravitch ends her book with a call for a
return to the quality neighborhood public schools she
Houston in the 1940s:
"Going to school is
not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be
burdened with locating a suitable school for their child.
They should be able to take their child to the neighborhood
public school as a matter of course …"
2010, this is simply unrealistic. Massive demographic
change, induced by federal immigration policy, has meant
central problem with the neighborhood school is,
typically, the neighborhood. As the real estate agents say
when talking about
We`re not supposed to talk about the
downside of diversity, so the quality of chatter about
schooling is low. Ravitch`s book is well above average, but
it would have been even better if she didn`t have to tiptoe
around this central fact.
goal do I propose instead of Closing The Gap?
instead, would be to raise the average performance of all
racial groups by half a standard deviation.
words, both goals are intended to improve the national
average by half a standard deviation—but the
Gates-Obama-Bush-Kennedy consensus wants to do it entirely
by raising the scores of the minority half.
objective sounds more achievable?
obviously, for two reasons:
Diminishing marginal returns: a one standard deviation
improvement is not merely twice as hard to accomplish as
a half-standard deviation performance, it`s
improvements tend to better everybody`s performance. For
example, I can drive a golf ball farther off the tee
than I could 15 years ago because driver technology has
significantly improved. (Clubheads are
approaching the size of toasters, so you can now
take a wild swipe at the ball without fear of whiffing).
But then, Phil Mickelson can also hit the ball farther,
too. So the pro-hacker gap in driving distance hasn`t
summary: my aim is both more achievable, more fair, and more
sensible than the Gates-Obama-Bush-Kennedy consensus.
therefore, of course, it`s also much more unmentionable.