When Diane Ravitch talks about the D.C. public schools, you can predict she will discount the years of reform that made progress possible. If you’ve been watching, she has signaled for years that she tired of actual academic scholarship long ago. The identification of facts, consideration of logical reasoning, and the expectation of professional integrity were getting in the way of her profitable career as a Pearson-published author of polemic attacks on education reformers.
This month, however, Ravitch formalized her break from all known norms of scholarship. In a scathing and unhinged attack, she described the results in Washington, D.C. as proof that education reform since 2007 has delivered no results for students.
Mostly, she points to the recent results of Washington D.C. students on the PARCC tests (tests you may know as “Common Core”). She accurately notes that the results demonstrate students in D.C. schools have a lot of work to do to meet the rigorous new definitions of success embodied in these tests. If she were a scholar she would take the next step and compare D.C. results today vs. D.C. results before the wave of reforms that began in the middle of Mayor Anthony Williams’ term, accelerated under Mayor Adrian Fenty, and have continued under Mayors Vince Gray and Muriel Bowser.
Mayor Williams, who served from 1999 through 2007, does precisely that in a recent Washington Post column. Mayor Williams wrote that, using the gold-standard National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “As recently as 2003 … our results were the worst in the country, and they were a considerable distance behind the second-worst.” He noted that by contrast, Washington D.C. was the fastest-improving jurisdiction in the country for the second time in a row, and that Washington D.C.’s test scores have improved for 10 straight years. Reading scores for fourth graders improved by more than any jurisdiction in the history of the test. As Mayor Williams wrote, “Such sustained advances are very rare.”
So how does Ravitch respond to Mayor Williams’ comments and evidence, which appeared a month before her anti-D.C. jeremiad? She ignores them. Ravitch does not utter one word about NAEP. She focuses only on PARCC, which is a brand new test. You heard that right: there are no “before” and “after” analyses of PARCC results in D.C., because PARCC is radically different and (as Mayor Williams noted) much more difficult than the prior D.C. tests.
Using PARCC as a benchmark when there is no history with PARCC, and ignoring the NAEP scores that show enormous D.C. improvement, would be scholarly malpractice if Ravitch had any claims to continue to be a scholar. Using that evidence base to conclude that D.C.’s reforms failed, when the overwhelming evidence shows the opposite, is flat-out mendacity. If Ravitch had any shame left, she would feel it after writing that misleading column.
Elsewhere in her column, however, Ravitch reveals her real intention, by citing an obscure blogger named G.F. Brandenburg who concludes that D.C.’s reforms did not work. A review of Brandenburg’s blog shows that he has been obsessed with Michelle Rhee for many years. Mr. Brandenburg argues that because the pass rates on PARCC are poor, the test should be discarded in favor of a test that is easier for the schoolchildren to pass. This is not a fact-based critique, but at least it reveals Ravitch’s true goal: dumb down the test to artificially inflate pass rates. This goal is consistent with Ravitch’s paymasters, the teachers’ union sympathizers who spend massively to buy her books and pay her speaker fees.
Ravitch has been signaling her break from scholarship for a long time. More than anyone else, she has used her celebrity to create false narratives based on selective citations. She bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for national misperceptions about charter school effectiveness, and the campaign of malice against education reformers.
Finally, by literally ignoring the wealth of evidence about Washington DC public school successes, she seems to be relinquishing her claim that she’s doing any of this under the banner of scholarship.