Dropout Nation usually reserves commentary on education historian-turned-thoughtless polemicist Diane Ravitch for the Twitter feed, not on these pages. As proven by folks more willing to dissect her every thought, her use of data is often slipshod and her wrongheaded conclusions would be more-laughable if she wasn’t given so much credence by others who should know better. But her latest claptrap, an attempt to persuade congressional Republicans to essentially gut the No Child Left Behind Act published in the Wall Street Journal, is just too interesting to ignore. Why? Because Ravitch has seemingly lost her ability to master her career subject: The history of American public education.
The piece offers more than enough for Ravitch critics to ridicule. Just in one paragraph alone, you can take aim at the fact that she (like Linda Darling-Hammond and other opponents of standardized testing and value-added assessment-based teacher evaluations) tries to trot out Finland as an example of a country that manages to recruit top-performing collegians into teaching without considering that Finland is a much-smaller country with different economic and social traditions from the United States. You could also note that she trots out Japan and South Korea without mentioning that in those countries, students spend more time in school and teachers devote more time to instruction than their American counterparts (by the way, those conditions can be duplicated) or that South Korea actually does conduct standardized testing at a national level.
There are also her declaration that school districts are being forced to close schools and fire teaching staffs because of No Child’s accountability provisions — ignoring the fact that most school districts and states avoid using those (much-useful) prescriptions for stemming faltering performance. By the way: Obama’s School Improvement Grant program allows for other turnaround measures, which states and school districts have used instead of shutting down dropout factories and replacing teachers (as they should). Her declarative statement that value-added assessment is considered too flawed for use in evaluations by education researchers ignores the fact that this isn’t so. Such use is backed by researchers such as Eric Hanushek and institutions such as the Brookings Institution (which released a report earlier this month in support). The opposition largely comes from National Education Association-backed outfits such as the Economic Policy Institute (whose petition asking states to not use student test data in teacher evaluations counts Ravitch as one of its signatories).
The biggest problem with Ravitch’s piece is that she offers a history of the Republican Party and federal education policy that doesn’t square with the facts. While she is right in writing that the Republicans face an ideological divide on federal education policy (I’ve said this myself with greater nuance and thought), she misinterprets the role that Republicans have long played in expanding federal policy. If anything, Republicans have been as willing to expand the federal role in education decision-making when it sees fit.
It was President Dwight David Eisenhower who urged the federal government to expand its role in education and successfully advocated for passage of the first major expansion of federal education policy — the Cold War-prompted National Defense Education Act of 1958. The law was responsible for fostering the first major wave of standardized testing in the 20th century. By 1966, nearly all high school students were taking some form of standardized aptitude test, versus just one-third of students in 1958, according to a 2006 report by the Institute for Defense Analyses. Seven years later, 18 Senate Republicans would join Democrats in the upper house in supporting the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (14 Republicans, along with four Democrats, would oppose its passage).
As Chester Finn points out, it was Richard Nixon (at the urging of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the famed Coleman Report) who pushed for the earliest efforts at bringing rigor and accountability through a proposed center that eventually became the Institute for Educational Sciences. And the school reform movement would have merely remained one based in the southern states without the help of the Reagan Administration, which issued A Nation at Risk, the report on America’s education crisis that helped rally Republicans, centrist Democrats, big-city mayors and urban progressives to embrace standardized testing, charter schools, school choice and teacher quality reforms. In the most-recent two decades, Republicans have pushed for even greater expansion of the federal role in education. While the passage of No Child by a Republican-controlled Congress is the best-known example, there is also the now-shuttered D.C. Opportunity school voucher program (whose revival is now being sought by Congressman Jason Chaffetz and others).
Certainly Republicans have opposed expansion of federal education policy when it didn’t suit their ideological (or political goals). After all, it was the GOP-controlled Congress that in 1995, passed budget blueprints that proposed to reduce increases in federal education and Head Start spending by $40 billion for a seven-year period and voted (in the House of Representatives) to reduce spending increases in Title I by 17 percent. The Republicans also opposed Bill Clinton’s efforts to move towards national testing and efforts to fund class-size reduction efforts. But most of that opposition was motivated not by pure ideological concerns, but by the general effort to weaken Clinton’s case for a second term in office. Once Clinton won re-election in 1996, Republican opposition to expanded federal education policy weakened substantially; by the time Bush came into office, the school reform movement had gained substantial momentum in both GOP and Democrat circles.
Given that Ravitch was a former U.S. Department of Education flunkie during the first George Bush administration, and an advocate for the very school reform policies she now opposes during those years, she should know this history well. But as typical with Ravitch these days, she engages in the kind of cherry-picking of historical facts that wouldn’t be tolerated by either an adjunct professor or an editorial page editor. The piece, like her book, is just plain shoddy.
It’s time for Ravitch to put down her pen and her Twitter feed, and get back to the books.