Political Animal


March 19, 2012 9:40 AM How Will Diane Ravitch Explain This?

By Paul Glastris

Two years ago, the Washington Monthly published a special report, “Fighting the Drop-out Crisis,” about three large urban school districts that were trying to apply the tools of the larger school reform movement—better data systems, higher standards, stronger accountability etc.—to the seemingly-impossible task of increasing high school graduation rates in lower-income communities. The big takeaway of the package, which was edited by Richard Lee Colvin and awarded a citation by the Education Writers Association, is that it is indeed possible to move the needle on such massive, intractable education problems when you have the right policies and sufficient political leadership in place.

But at about the same time we were making this optimistic case, the CW on both the left and right was turning sharply against the school reform movement, a shift personified by conservative education historian Diane Ravitch’s caustic assault on the movement she had once championed, and the acclaim with which her apostasy was received in some liberal circles.

These debates about what has or has not been achieved by school reform are perfectly legitimate, of course, and likely to continue. But more evidence that the the optimists may have a better case than the pessimists is revealed in a new report by a group of not-profits led by Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance. The report shows that the successes the Washington Monthly identified in a few big cities two years ago are in fact occurring in a dozen or more states—from Massachusetts to South Carolina to Wisconsin—with the result that the nation’s overall high school graduation rate increased three and a half percentage points from 2001 to 2009. You can read the full report here.

I hope this encouraging news prompts some of the folks having second thoughts about the current school reform agenda to have third thoughts.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.


  • John on March 19, 2012 10:12 AM:

    This is deeply unconvincing. Graduation rates are increasing so that means that the education reform agenda is correct? That doesn't even qualify as an argument. Correlation does not equal causation.

    The success story that's highlighted, Washington County, Maryland, doesn't even seem to be particularly employing education reformer strategies - the article says basically that the gains were achieved by giving individual attention to struggling students, not by testing regimes and firing teachers.

  • rrk1 on March 19, 2012 10:27 AM:

    Three-and-one-half percent increase over eight years doesn't qualify as much more than statistical noise. It could be random, and assumes that graduation standards were not lowered over that period. This is really a non-story.

    The so-called education "reform" movement has never been much more than a blatant and transparent tempt to destroy teacher unions, if not public education itself (a cherished goal of the right), and saving money by firing the most experienced and effective teachers who earn the highest salaries.

    That our feckless president and secretary of education do not stand for what really needs to be done, and flirt with a glib, fast-talking, self-promoting opportunist phony like Michelle Rhee, is a tragedy.

    The education "reform" movement is about ideology and politics, not education.

  • Morat20 on March 19, 2012 10:32 AM:

    The beatings will continue until morale improves!

    Education reform would work a lot better if so many would-be reformers didn't seem to secretly suspect teachers are, in general, lazy and inept.

    Too many reforms seem to either focus on striking terror into the hearts of educators until they start getting results....or mandating each and everything they do in class, and then blaming them when it doesn't work.

  • bdop4 on March 19, 2012 10:37 AM:

    I agree with the three posters above. Not quite sure what your point is, Glastris. Ravitch was right: the "reforms" of NCLB struck at the symptoms, not the cause. You don't improve education by forcing teacher's to "teach to the test."

  • PeakVT on March 19, 2012 10:42 AM:

    Great, next week conservatives are going to be saying "even the liberal Washington Monthly approves of school reform". And by school reform they mean destroying our public school systems and the DoE, of course, not actually fixing the problems found in poor-performing school systems.

  • JEA on March 19, 2012 10:43 AM:

    3.5 points in 8 years is supposed to be GREAT news? That sucks.

  • skeptonomist on March 19, 2012 10:54 AM:

    If you put the heat on teachers and administrators to improve test scores and graduation rates, it is predictable that some ways will be found to get better results, by hook or crook. The flaws in using test results are well known, as is the fact that giving (expensive) personal attention to students does get good results. If the premises of NCLB were valid, much better results should have been attained by now.

  • allan snyder on March 19, 2012 11:12 AM:

    Like those above, she'd probably laugh that you find this impressive. It's really a very transparent attempt to defend a previous story of yours which promoted a bogus education reform movement. We know that higher test result in Rhee's DC "miracle" were achieved by fraud, why should we believe that this so-called improvement has anything to do with an anti-union anti-public educattion movement, or that the higher rates weren't also a result of cheating?

  • Citizen Alan on March 19, 2012 11:26 AM:

    The ultimate goal of the "school reform" movement is to destroy public education and replace it with a for-profit model that will be no more successful but far more expensive and far less accountable. Every bit of "good news" I hear about the success of this or that "reform" should be viewed through that lens.

  • Rich on March 19, 2012 12:00 PM:

    Graduation rates have been jiggered as much as test scores, so I'd like to see more (including a direct link to the article). Ravitch isn't so much a conservative as a conventional wisdom "centrist". She seemed to finally recognize reality as opposed to cw when it appeared that charters and high risk testing were not living up to their hype.

  • David Triche on March 19, 2012 12:23 PM:

    This is bait and switch. I thought test scores were the absolute yardstick? This is an example of cherry picking statistics to justify a position. Students can have lower test scores and still graduate. And as others have pointed out 3.5% improvement in 8 years can't be considered a success. Would the same improvement be considered a success if it occurred in the test result numbers? I think not.

  • David in NY on March 19, 2012 2:05 PM:

    "How Will Diane Ravitch Explain This?"

    Graduation rates are a pretty unreliable statistic, given the ease with which they are manipulated. How would that be for a starter.

  • R on March 19, 2012 2:34 PM:

    Mr. Glastris, have you actually read anything Diane Ravitch has written lately? Try this: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/08/schools-we-can-envy/ and its sequel. Sorry, but she's right. She's fighting the kind of simplistic thinking that leads you to cast this as an argument between optimists and pessimists. I'll be an optimist as soon as Arne Duncan and all the other people you call "reformers" volunteer to send their kids and grandkids to schools in big cities staffed entirely by Teach For America 23-year-olds with 30 kids in each class.

    The best predictor of student test scores is family income. I'll be an optimist as soon as the "reformers" propose paying teachers more, not less, to teach lower-income kids. Right now student test scores are being used to get rid of experienced teachers in poor districts so that they can be replaced by cheaper TFA resume-padding "volunteers." Why do we think this is o.k.?

  • David in NY on March 19, 2012 4:07 PM:

    To supplement my earlier comment:

    "The unreliability of official public high school graduation rates is well known. It is so well known that last year, the National Governors Association (NGA) released a report that stated: 'Unfortunately, the quality of state high school graduation and dropout data is such that most states cannot accurately account for their students as they progress through high school.'”

    These are the opening lines from a Manhattan Institute study of a few years ago.

  • tcinaz on March 19, 2012 7:26 PM:

    The whole premise of school reform, spurred by A Nation at Risk, has been flawed. Fundamentally, that pointed the finger at teachers and at schools. Thirty years of "reform" have demonstrated the real culprit to be the disinvestment in public life encouraged by conservatives since the tax revolts of the seventies. It has not just been the withdrawal of funds, but also of sanction, on the part of the general public that has caused the decline in public services, including schools, since that assault began. The school reform movement has merely been a tool, for most of those thirty years, used by "reformers" to promote their own careers, in the face of ever more limited opportunity caused by ever more limited revenue. Michelle Rhee is just the latest, and most cynical example. As other posters here have noted, graduation rates, like all other NCLB targets, reflect symptoms, not causes. And I am not simply arguing for more money. It is the sanction, the commitment of all Americans to quality education, that is the real issue. I taught for 34 years. Results follow a belief that we can and will get the one's that really matter. It is not reform we need, but commitment by students, their teachers and parents, and their communities. The goals of these commitments can be arrived at sensibly in individual schools, informed by sensible educational practice based on the community's commitment and resources. States and Federal government can assist that process, but should not be dictating it.

  • Steve P on March 20, 2012 12:45 AM:

    It's not all that hard to get better graduation rates, or test scores.

    I worked at an alternative high school. The population was 100% failure. Every kid came from a failed experience at another school or schools. We also got the reputation for being the end of the line; at least one suburban alternative advised their problem kids to go to us instead---possibly because we weren't that picky about kids who skewed our graduation rate downward, or who didn't shine on standardized tests.
    We got the kids who'd been to three high schools in two years, or who had to miss a week or two--or a semester--because mom's boyfriend kicked them all out of the house and wouldn't let them back, and it was often HER house. We got the goths and the gays, the pregnant girls and the juggalos, and for a lot of them we made it work.

    But we lowered the test scores for the district, and they shut us down. They tried--they pretended to try--setting it up as a smaller unit in the main high school. It was a warehouse for discipline problems and perceived misfits, shoved in front of a distance learning computer program. The refugees from other districts--always among the best kids we had--had the door closed to them. I stood it for a year and took retirement the day the state offered it.

    You can talk about rates and scores and standards but you don't have to think about the kids who are being paved over to achieve them, because they are not, and will never be a part of your life. I'm glad they were a part of mine, for the best part of my life.