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More Things in Heaven and Earth, Dr. Ravitch, than are dreamt of in your ideology (Ravitch vs. Reality Part III)

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

Part three of a three part series. 

Part 1

Part 2

As Ravitch admits in her book, there is strong bipartisanship in favor of K-12 education reform. The two charts below succinctly summarize the evidence of why education reform has attracted such broad consensus. First is from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showing global K-12 education spending charted across mathematics performance.

Relationship between performance in mathematics and cumulative expenditure on educational institutions per student between the ages of 6 and 15 years, in US dollars, converted using purchasing power parities (PPPs)


Mind you that this is the OECD’s chart, not mine. No amount of lipstick will help this pig: The United States gets academically clobbered by multiple countries spending less than half as much per pupil. One of the countries beating us is spending less than a quarter of what we spend.

The Gospel of Public School Helplessness would hold that countries like the Slovak Republic simply don’t have to deal with the poverty problem that we have in America. I’m guessing however that the country that can only afford to spend one quarter the amount that we do per pupil might in fact have a greater poverty problem than we do in absolute terms, not a smaller one. In any case, a study by the United States Department of Education on international test scores very helpfully breaks down American PISA scores by subgroup:


Again this is the OECD and the United States Department of Education’s data, not mine (click the link and look on page 14 for the ethnic breakdowns). I would love to hear Dr. Ravitch use her historical acumen to explain why Mexico, a country with a poverty problem self-evidently far greater than anything here in America, can get their students to within striking distance of American Black and Hispanic students on math while spending less than one quarter the amount of the average American spending (see previous figure).

Did some “corporate reformers” put something bad in our urban water supplies north of the Rio Grande?

The sad reality of course is that far too many American schools are spending far too much money to teach far too many children far too little. It doesn’t really matter whether you are a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian or a vegetarian; you are within your rights as an American to demand much better than this from our public schools. The kids starting with the least have the most to lose in maintaining the status-quo which Ravitch so adamantly defends.

Well, American schools can’t begin to match the academic rigor and cost effectiveness of those schools in the Slovak Republic, but what about her claim that American schools have never been better than right now? Ravitch bases this claim on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, and the claim is true even if **ahem** Ravitch draws the wrong conclusion from it.


The figure above shows long-term trend NAEP scores for four regularly administered exams: reading and math for 9 and 13 year olds. The dotted line indicates the introduction of one of Ravitch’s bête noires—the dreaded No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Ravitch seems to hold state standardized testing with a contempt only matched or exceeded by that which she reserves for parental choice. NCLB of course required states to test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

NAEP score trends don’t lend themselves to a random assignment study, so you won’t be getting anything in the way of an armchair claim from me that NCLB caused the score clearly visible in the data since 1999.  There are lots of things going on at the same time here. Note however that in 1999, Ravitch would not have been able to claim that all of these NAEP scores were clearly at an all-time high. Today she can, but she might want to employ some caution in so doing.

It is very difficult use this chart to argue that “corporate reformers” are ruining American public schools with their oppressive testing and other nefarious plots. It looks far easier to make the case that state accountability systems and other reforms have been nudging modest improvements out of schools and that we should be looking for ways to improve them. Ironically, Ravitch simultaneously argues that American public education has never been more effective while desiring to roll back the clock to 1980 in terms of education policy.

Ravitch wraps up her book with a series of chapters calling for massive new social welfare commitments to fix society and thus schools. Apparently she missed the memo saying that Washington, D.C. has already been borrowing 40 cents on the dollar spent to sustain a level of spending we already can’t afford in the long term. Ravitch for instance spends a chapter calling for publicly funded prenatal programs, apparently blissfully unaware that the nation already spends $7,000,000,000 on such programs annually.

She has a similar chapter on preschool, but predictably fails to note either the multi-decade existence of the Head Start program or the recent random assignment studies sponsored by the United States government showing that the impact of the program quickly fades. Dr. Ravitch characteristically omitted such messy evidence from her narrative—someone might get the unhinged idea to reform Head Start. It suits Ravitch’s purpose better to continue to cite studies from the 1960s.

Perhaps these programs don’t work as well as they should with their level of investments. Both liberals and conservatives have correctly concluded that we can certainly say the same thing for the American public school system. Ravitch will continue to bask in the approval of those who disagree while the serious conversation continues to carry on without her.

Dr. Ravitch has again played to her base, but she has done nothing likely to persuade reformers from continuing to improve systems of academic transparency and to expand parental choice. Accountability and parental choice have driven Florida schools to new heights. Digital learning options are providing opportunities to students who are in schools that by sheer numbers just can’t support having specialized teachers for every imaginable subject.

Ravitch at her core seems to yearn for a bygone world where the teachers unions and their allies quietly dominated K-12 education policy. Spending per-pupil surged while student learning stagnated—expanding support for reform on both the left and right. Ravitch and her camp of disgruntled reactionaries may as well face the fact that K-12 education policymaking has grown (gasp) more pluralistic. Name calling and polemics won’t do anything to change this, and quite frankly a better champion for those with status-quo preferences could do a lot more to keep reformers honest in what would be a more illuminating debate.


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.