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Is Education on the Wrong Track?

A TNR Symposium.

From: Kevin Carey

To: Diane Ravitch, Ben Wildavsky, Richard Rothstein, and Andrew Rotherham

Subject: School improvement has to happen now, not at some magic moment when the conditions are just right. Also, surely we can find common ground on charter schools.

Richard, I sometimes wonder why you bother to write about public schools. You seem to have very little interest in the practice of education itself. You’re forever asserting that schools are, at best, incidental.

Of course hunger, mobility, stress, and poor health are barriers to learning.

But let me put it this way: Say we have a group of low-income minority students with chronic health problems whose parents are unemployed. They can attend one of two schools. The first has crumbling facilities, no coherent curriculum, indifferent leadership, and a poorly trained staff of unmotivated teachers who can never be fired. We suspect that academic results in this school are very bad, but we don’t know for sure because the only available data comes from the school itself, which reports that students are doing “fine, all things considered."

The second school has new facilities, a rich curriculum, and a strong principal. Teachers are well-trained and work in a cooperative, mutually supportive environment. Excellent teaching is rewarded, and there is no tolerance for incompetence. Student results on national criterion-referenced tests are reported to the community every year.

Do you care which school those children attend? Or are you indifferent, because the differences between them are “likely to be overwhelmed by the impact of unemployment”?

With respect to teachers, you chide policymakers for using evidence to conclude that, “if low-income students were assigned for five years in a row to teachers who were better than roughly 80 percent of other teachers, these low-income students would achieve at the level of typical middle-class students.” Why? Because, you say, it is “not feasible to seek a policy that would move all teachers up to the level of effectiveness of the top quintile of teachers.” Don’t you see the flaw in your logic? Most students aren’t low-income. And some teachers in high-poverty schools are excellent already. We don’t need a Lake Wobegon school system, where all teachers are above average, to close the achievement gap. We need strong incentives for the best teachers to serve the minority of students who need them most.

You also say, “It is fanciful for national policymakers to pick this moment to raise their expectations for academic achievement.” But no moment ever meets your standards--you’ve been making the same argument for a decade, through good times and bad. I am reminded of conservatives who always believe that the present economic circumstances, whatever they may be, are the worst possible time to raise taxes. Your motto seems to be, “No accountability until the revolution comes.” I don’t think underprivileged children can afford to wait that long.

Diane, let me propose some common ground on charter schooling. You’re right to say that charters aren’t blowing the doors off academic achievement, on average, nationwide. NAEP scores say this, and a recent Stanford University study had similar findings. But the same Stanford researchers applied the same methods to charter schools in New York City, with different results: New York City charters outperform regular public schools. A different Stanford scholar, Caroline Hoxby, published another report with similar findings last year. Both studies went to great lengths to control for the characteristics of individual students. Hoxby, for example, compared student who won charter school lotteries to similarly motivated students who lost lotteries by random chance.

There are reasons that New York City charters do better. New York didn’t pass a laissez-faire charter law that let anyone with a dollar and a dream hang out a charter shingle. Many public school systems have been actively hostile to charter competition. But, as your book notes, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein embraced charters as part of their school reform plan. While many localities badly under-fund charters, New York funds them generously. Philanthropists have provided additional resources and support.

And it’s working! Test scores are up, and parents are flocking to charters, to the point where students are being turned away for lack of space. That’s why there was a lottery for Hoxby to study in the first place. You say, “Most parents want their children to attend schools close to home, if possible.” Charter parents obviously care more about performance than proximity. Do you think they’re wrong?

You clearly see New York City as emblematic of the nation’s educational challenges--it occupies two whole chapters in your book. So let’s build on New York City’s charter results: Provide fair funding for all charters and support from the regular public school system; don’t give charters to shady operators; demand rigorous accountability for success; shut down low-performing charters quickly but replicate successful models, as the best charter management organizations have already begun to do.

You object that “even if [the percent of students enrolled] in the charter sector doubles to 6 percent, we’re still left with 94 percent of our students in a system that needs major improvement.” But I don’t think all of our schools need major improvement. Many of them are very good right now. The strong curriculum we both support, along with reasonable testing and accountability, should be enough for most regular public schools. High-resource, high-performing charters--like the top quintile of teachers--should be directed to the dangerously at-risk students who are currently failing in large numbers. These children need and deserve everything we can give them.

Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C.


By Diane Ravitch: We need to improve our education system--not tinker with models that affect tiny numbers of kids and can’t be replicated.

By Nelson Smith: Public charter schools are community schools, providing a model of success that we know can work. They deserve more credit than Ravitch gives them.