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Ravitch vs. Reality (Part I)

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

Diane Ravitch has released another polemical book in defense of the status quo of American K-12 education and dripping with hostility towards “corporate reformers.” While this sensationalism might sell books and please government union defenders of the status quo in education, Reign of Error systematically ignores or distorts the highest quality evidence in order to reach preordained conclusions.

The debate over education policy involves establishing cause and effect relationships—the realm of social scientists rather than historians. Various groups have any number of ideas and theories about how to improve K-12 outcomes, but without rigorous measurement of educational outcomes, education policy can devolve into arm-chair theorizing.

The book contains far too many examples to begin to summarize here, so I will provide illustrative examples. The phrase “random assignment” does not appear in the text, footnotes, or appendix of this book. Random assignment studies, with control and experimental groups, are the most powerful tools researchers have to establish causality.

Random assignment studies are not always perfect, and not everything neatly lends itself to random assignment. By carefully avoiding a large and growing body of random assignment research on the academic impact of attending a charter school, Ravitch repeatedly claims that charter schools are no more successful than district schools.

Why let our best measures of the truth get in the way of a good story?

Reign of Error has a formula, and determinedly sticks to it. The Ravitch modus operandi in chapter after chapter is to introduce the beliefs of “corporate reformers” before noting some of the research that supports their viewpoint. Next she notes some criticism of that research, much of which has been purchased with funds donated by the teachers unions. This is an old tactic used by unions to muddy the water and to take advantage of the fact that most reporters have tight deadlines to meet. Much of Reign of Error is simply a scrapbook of risible tactics.

Ravitch’s Reign of Error recipe: Combine a highly slanted review of research literature with Ravitch’s arm-chair theorizing, sprinkle in a little conspiracy theory and muck-raking journalism, and there you have it—the teachers unions have been right about everything all along. Who knew?

There is nothing remotely scholarly or even serious about this latest book. It ignores the fact that poverty isn’t exclusive to America. In fact, we spend more on students in America than most other countries.

The myths Ravitch perpetuate are too numerous to correct each one, so in the next post we will focus on the glaring logical problems in the Ravitch meta-narratives.


Joint post written by Dr. Matthew Ladner and Dave Myslinski

About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.