Reihan Salam has a criticism of education policy expert Diane Ravitch that I will nominate for Blog Post of the Quarter, at least. Reihan charges Ravitch of making crude simplifications and showing overall poor analysis. This is something I’ve written about before, and quite frankly I’ve been waiting for someone with more subject knowledge than me to write exactly what Reihan has written. While there are many points Ravitch makes and Reihan dissects, the central disagreement is this: Ravitch says that the real problem with education is poverty, Reihan says that while poverty is a real problem and it has an impact on educational outcomes, there are a lot of other things we can improve in our education system that will make real differences.
To take but one example, here is Reihan countering the claim that if public schools had the same classroom sizes as they do in the Harlem Children Zone they would do as well or better:
…on the class size point, note that Shanghai, the PISA outlier this year, finds that the average class size in Shanghai is 35. That is, students in Shanghai are achieving the best educational results in the world with a teacher-student ratio of 1:35, not the 1:7.5 that Ravitch cites as the source of the success of HCZ. One has to assume that the push for smaller class sizes has helped dilute the teacher talent pool in the United States. This doesn’t mean that larger class sizes are necessarily the right answer. But it does at least suggest that Ravitch’s analytical framework is decidedly imperfect.
That Ravitch’s “analytical framework is decidedly imperfect” is, I think, the key takeaway from Reihan’s piece.
I’d like to counter one common point that Reihan quotes Ravitch making:
Instead we’re creating a revolving door where we say if you’re no good, you’re out and let’s bring in Teach For America. They’ll send in 8,000 kids to stay for two years and then they’re gone. This is no way to build a profession.
A 2008 study by Morgaen Donaldson on Teach for America has some useful numbers on this subject. Contra Ravitch, 61% of TFA recruits are teachers for longer than the required 2 years, and 24% stay teachers for at least 6 years. While this may seem low, remember that 40-50% of all teachers leave the profession within the first 5-6 years. In addition, 15% of teachers in low income schools leave those schools annually.
These number show that, as Ravitch well agrees, the status quo for attrition in public schools is not so great. So to point to tenure choices of TFA teachers as unbecoming of the profession, when those teachers are actually less than twice as likely to leave the profession in the first 6 years relative to all public school teachers, is an exaggeration.
There is a lot more in Reihan’s piece and you should really read the whole thing if you care about education reform. I’d like to see a back and forth between Reihan and Dana Goldstein on Ravitch and her analysis of the education system.