Diane Ravitch v. Science

Over on twitter, my friend Mark Safranski and I have been having a conversation regarding school reform. Diane Ravitch, and the role of science in public policy.

Diane Ravitch is a historian. Being a historian, she has never published any scientific work. But she knows just enough science to be dangerous. Take for instance this line, which she seems to actually think is relevant:

Guggenheim [the directory of Waiting for “Superman”]seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores.

Think of how stupid this line is.

Imagine someone criticizing heavy launch vehicles, castigating those who believe that “chemicals alone” can overcome the effects of gravity, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between gravity and crashing to earth.

Imagine someone criticizing vaccination, castigating those who believe that “medicines alone” can overcome the effects of malnutrition, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between malnutrition and mortality.

Imagine someone criticizing civil engineering, castigating those who believe that “better on ramps alone” can overcome the effects of traffic, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between driving and danger.

Identifying the single largest influence in a system may be a useful trick for historians. This allows them to reduce a complicated reality to a simple narrative, which they can then tell to others. This is a historian’s craft, and it’s fine, as long as one realizes that all history is the process of simplified deception.

Science is the process of “predicting, controlling, and improving” variation in a system. In science, unlike history, one does not simply take the largest contributing factor and write a narrative around it. Instead, one seeks to understand what the most efficacious ways of changing variation in a system is.

Ravitch‘s use of scare quotes around “alone” may be meant to mock scientists, but it ends up mocking herself.

Whether or not teaches “alone,” or heavy-lift chemicals “alone,” or vaccinations “alone” is irrelevant. Ravitch, in the same article, continues her irrelevant, worthless, straw-man attack

The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement

Again, think of how stupid this line is.

Imagine someone saying the central thesis in today’s aeronautics community is the idea that heavy lift chemicals are the most important factor in determing an objects moments.

Imagine someone saying the central thesis of the medical community is that vaccinations are the most important facotr in determining someone’s health.

Imagine someone saying the central thesis of the civil engineering is that on-ramps are the most important factor in determining the safety of a commute.

We are fortunate there is a biparistan consensus to ignore hacks like Diane Ravitch, and instead use scientific methods to improve our failing public schools. I am grateful to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama for pushing science-based school reform, instead of falling under the pseudoscientific haze that envelops Diane Ravitch and her provincial allies.

7 thoughts on “Diane Ravitch v. Science”

  1. Hi Dan,

    Nice post, love the examples of oversimplifying complex systems. Your definition of science is too narrow though. Historiography is an empirical science.

    Here’s to science improving education,

  2. Hey Tyler,

    Thanks for the comment!

    By histiography, do you mean the study of the studies of history? That’s certainly empirical and also fascinating, but it is hard to see how it (or even cliometrics) is scientific (though certainly scientism has spread through the academia to a great extent).

  3. Dan,

    Historiography is the actual writing of history and is based on selection of sources, attention to the facts (thus empirical), and interpretation. Certainly there are historians whose interpretations are inaccurate for a variety of reasons, but that happens in experimental science too.


  4. You do an excellent job of taking apart the single sentence of Ravitch, by demonstrating that it is not valid to criticize a given of a means of betterment to a problem which does not happen to correspond directly with that problem’s major determinant. A nice, rhetorical accomplishment.

    However, the substance of her argument still stands and your criticism of her form pales in comparison: too much $, publicity and institutional focus is being spent on an an indirect solution to a problem whose determinant variables could be better swayed with other, more direct means. Without access to wages and good incomes, working people are forced to work long hours & have little time for at-home enrichment, supervision and role-modeling for their children, let alone the host of other materials, extra-curriculars and private training resources provided to children of more affluent families. These neighborhoods not only lack the income for a decent textbook or tutor in an overcrowded school with crumbling walls, they don’t even have access to nutritious food or clean water: unless you count Wendy’s and Orange Soda as fit for growing minds and bodies. There are millions upon millions of children in this country whose only meal per day is a school lunch: and we all know how healthy these are!

    To any imbecile, the link between poverty and poor educational performance is pretty damn easy to identify. Have you ever spent any time in Anacostia, central Baltimore, Hartford, Philly, Detroit, E. Memphis, S. Side Chicago, Dorchester or Lynn? The reason “teacher performance” is the hot-button topic in ed. policy debates has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with the fact that corporatist puppets like Bush and Obama (2 faces to the same Oligopoly) do not want to challenge their rulers and propose real reforms: like ending the endless roster of disasterous trade agreements which destroy US jobs, decrease wages & benefits, cause contraction of economic activity and cross-sector consolidation of industry; instilling a healthy wage/incomes policy; pursuing anti-trust and anti-consolidation measures seriously in order to promote small business growth & vitality; creating universal health insurance in the manner of every other industrialized, affluent nation (which would cut our per capita spending on health IN HALF, while improving access AND outcomes); promoting affordable housing initiatives in urban areas, directly creating jobs and public resources (like schools, libraries, community centers and free or very-low cost public transit) with government spending instead of endless expansionist wars & trillions upon trillions of bailouts to evil corporations which export jobs, deplete resources, seize up valuable real estate, pay no taxes and destroy workers & the environment.

    Another reason teacher performance has achieved such a disproportionate focus in the press & policy debates is that the oligarchs are intent on destroying one of the last enclaves of labor unions, so as to fully eliminate the chance for a rapid regrowth in private sector labor organizing activity when the sweatshops are returned to our shores after a few more years of economic deterioration is used as justification.

    Why aren’t the rulers of the client press, conversely, blaming neighborhood crime on poor police performance and then going after their unions (which are much stronger than teachers’ unions & have a far more strangling effect on city budgets) as a the driving force behind their poor performance? Because the ruling elite know that this would not jive with their age-old divide and conquer scare strategy of diverting the masses’ attention from their own exploitation onto external threats like “terrorists,” “illegal immigrants” and “urban minorities,” all of which the police (and culture of force in general) supposedly protect them against. They also don’t want to risk a threat to their assets at the hands of dissatisfied rioters who, in the absence of a strong, well-paid police force, might actually constitute a force with which to reckon.

    Ravitch gets her rhetoric wrong and her ideas right. You achieve the reverse.

  5. Recondite,

    I apologize that I do not meet your definition of an imecile. Perhaps with practice, I may become at least an idiot.

    Certainly, trade liberalization has magnified the impact of school, teacher, and neighborhood quality. We once lived in a country where factory workers could live a middle class life style. That certainly seems weird now!

    Near the end of your comment you raise an issue of union politics, which certainly are a part of how the issue plays out in a tactical sense.

  6. You’re a clever man. Apologies for my polemics – but you began this post with quite a polemical denunciation of Ravitch yourself, calling her criticisms irrelevant and her lines stupid. In fact, she is voicing correctly the chief problem with education policy debates today: they are a diversion from the major determinant factors influencing educational outcomes: class position.

    Another fallacy, rarely addressed, is the improper motivations for most Americans’ concern with our failing education system. For the most part, the pundits express a purely utilitarian – and illogical – concept of education as not only the prerequisite but predictor of a certain income earning potential in a “skill-based” or “information-based” economy. This construct is flawed, as it ignores the simple reality that the division of labor will not radically alter across an economy based on the academic attainment levels of the labor force: 250 milllion Ph.D.s with excellent resumes would yield nearly as many maids and baristas. The issues at question, then, are wealth creation and distribution. Clearly, our GDP is high enough for the national wealth to be distributed and even augmented to the satisfaction of such purported concerns without half of us progressing beyond our current abysmal levels of institutionalized educational performance.

    The motivations for educational reforms should therefore be more deeply rooted than simply improving the income earning potential of the stragglers, as – on the whole – this is a flawed causal construct to begin with. USA Capitalism in its current form will not permit a society of reasonably-paid persons with free-time, health care and the right to retire. It needs human fodder to ease the gnawing realization that deprives its primary shareholders of nightly sleep: one could always be getting more out of the serfs!

  7. Hey Recondite,

    No worries — I stand by my denunciation of Ravich’s nonsensical arguments — but the ones you make are well thought out.

    If one’s focus is honestly class conflict in society, a utilitarian approach to education might well be misguided.

    That said, I think you oversimplify the reformer’s arguments. It’s not that everyone should go to college, or that everyone should have a PhD, etc. It’s that our system focuses on teaching economically worthless liberal arts & civics instead of economically worthwhile STEM classes.

    While 250 million PhDs may lead to a uniquely distorted labor market, greater knowledge of STEM subjects would go a large way to addressing the severe labour shortage in high-skills segments of the American economy, even those exposed to international labor competition.

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