Russ Roberts

Ravitch on Education

EconTalk Episode with Diane Ravitch
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Diane Ravitch of NYU talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Ravitch argues that the two most popular education reform movements, accountability and choice, have had unintended consequences that have done great harm to the current generation of students. She argues that the accountability and testing provisions in legislation like No Child Left Behind and similar reforms have actually corrupted the testing process, taken time away from subjects other than math and reading, and failed even to boost success in math and reading. She argues that the empirical record has provided little evidence that school choice as it has been implemented has boosted achievement. The discussion closes with a discussion of what reforms might indeed make a difference.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: April 7, 2010.] Reform in last century or so: what were some of those ideas? Writing about history of education for about 40 years; doctorate at Columbia 35 years ago. Noticed that American education always seems to be in crisis, which talk seems to drive some particular crisis. Beginning of the 20th century, schools were said to be too traditional, needed to be more progressive, active, hands-on curriculum. Have heard this time and again throughout the 20th century. Also a demand for more vocational education; led to first federal aid to education--1917 act. During the 1920s the great crisis was the lack of seats--huge immigration from eastern Europe. Big boom in construction in the 1920s. In the 1930s, demand was two-fold. One was curriculum was too rigid, should be teaching kids to be out in the world; we're in a depression now and even little kids have to learn to put their shoulders to the wheel. Other demand was the rise of socialism and communism--age of individualism is over; time for us to have collective action and the schools should build a new social order. Modest task--for school children, and for school teachers, who are having enough trouble teaching reading, writing, and math. Wrote about this in a book ten years ago, Left Back,--history of the 20th century. In the 1940s, heard the demand for federal aid to education; again in the 1950s. Because of the Great Depression and the war, years of lack of maintenance; school buildings crumbling; the South had racial segregation. In the 1960s, the period of legislative and judicial activism--federal government finally passes major aid to education and also begins to take steps through legislation and the courts to end segregation--at least de jure segregation--to use school funding at least at the federal level to force school districts to stop assigning kids to school on the basis of their race. Crisis after crisis. In the 1980s, pick up story of this current book--there was a crisis called the "Nation at Risk"--report that came out under the aegis of the Reagan administration in 1983, although Reagan himself didn't like the report. He wanted it to say we need vouchers and school prayer. Report didn't say that; it said we need to have real high school graduation requirements, expectations the kids will study history and English, literature and science and the arts and so forth; and have a balanced curriculum, well-prepared and well-paid teachers, good textbooks--basic stuff. Huge flurry; half million copies of that report--never been a report at least on education with that much discussion around it, if not action. Set the agenda: Our nation is at risk; there is a rising tide of mediocrity; we've got to do something. Then we had the first President Bush, who I worked for though not from the beginning--he convened all the governors and said we've got to have goals for education. The governors, led by Bill Clinton, set six national goals, one being that America will lead the world in math and science by the year 2000. All children will start school ready to learn by the years 2000. Our graduation rates will rise to 90% by the year 2000. We have not reached any of the goals that were set for the year 2000. Now 2010; we've sort of forgotten about the Goals Panel. In the early 1990s, maybe the answer is choice: Chubb and Moe book--the reason achievement is low is because of terrible bureaucracies, unions that stood in the way of improvement; suggested vouchers, choice. Wanted to suggest that choice itself was a panacea; with more choice, we would see dramatically rising improvement in education.
6:22Will come back to choice and accountability. Before we get to that, a more broad question: reading the history, struck by the analogy to development and growth and poverty in the world. In similarly depressing book, William Easterly, he outlines different fads the intellectual elite went through in terms of how to get poor people in poor countries to a decent standard of living: everyone knows there is not enough investment in poor countries; we have to have investment because we all know that investment creates growth and that will solve the problem. And then it doesn't. Then there's a new fad. Expect to get to the point in the book where something really works, and that's human capital--if we just give enough education, children will grow, their lives will be better and they will get out of poverty. Of course, we are spending more money on education in poor countries and it hasn't had any influence either. So, reading your book, similar feeling of inverse epiphany: a new fad comes along in education theory that is finally going to solve the problem, get us out of mediocrity; but it never does. It doesn't solve the in-the-trenches, classroom experience of a passionate experience, motivated teacher in front of a group excited--and sometimes bored--but hard-working-if-they-want-to-be kids. Have to have first rate teachers and curriculum. None of those fads--accountability, choice, standards, physical school room--touch those things in any direct way. Suggests we are looking in the wrong place, don't you think? Yes, we are. Can't detach schools from the society they are part of. Talking to a teacher this morning, someone who teachers in an urban school and who has spent many years in urban schools: she said "We're teaching in a war zone." Schools are not themselves the war zone; they didn't create the war zone. They are perfectly wonderful teachers who go into school and encounter kids who a). do not speak English, b). who come from families where nobody ever tells them to do their homework or even attend school regularly, and c). the great majority of our kids, who are distracted by popular culture. Report that came out a few months ago for the Kaiser family foundation: the average child from ages 8-18 spends 7 and a half hours a day with electronic devices. That's way more powerful than the hour or few hours with the teacher. The teachers are fighting popular culture, families not doing their share, kids arriving who in a lot of cases are just not interested. All these problems, but we're supposed to say in a utopian way by 2014 have to have 100% of kids proficient or we'll close your school and fire your staff. Whether you are an economist, a sociologist, a parent, or just an ordinary citizen, we're in a national era of madness about our schools. Russ: Reminds me of somebody who comes in with chest pains and they chop off the person's foot because the foot didn't look so good. Obvious that while our school system has some serious institutional problems, most of the long-term trend in school performance is not the school's problem but cultural issues. Much of it driven by demography. Network interview asking same question over and over again: how are we going to raise achievement? Finally said in desperation: if we can figure out how to eliminate poverty and also close off all immigration--not recommending the second, just saying that as long as we continue to have a steady inflow we're going to have poor performance on tests of English. If you want to look at 50 years of social science research or longer, the single most reliable predictor of achievement is socio-economic status. College-educated parents pass on their advantages to their kids and poor parents don't have those advantages to pass on. Doesn't mean everybody is destined to go in their parents' footsteps, but the odds are not with them. We know the occasional school or teacher who manage to overcome this challenge.
12:06Last twenty or so years. Two issues: accountability and choice, movements you originally embraced but came to reject; impressive honesty in book. Accountability: on the surface seems like a no brainer. What happened politically and in the trenches? Accountability began in the 1980s, partly having to do with the Nation at Risk--we have to have a way of measuring whether we are going forward or backward. The governors and key policy makers agreed we have to measure. Time for results: we'll give you the flexibility and autonomy if you'll give us the measures. How good is the data? Sounds reasonable. Don't recant anything; wrote many articles about merit pay and accountability. What I didn't understand.... Not alone, though. Over time saw what most extreme critics were predicting but wasn't wise enough to see was that if you were only measuring basic skills, grades 3-8, that's all you are incentivizing people to teach. If you have high stakes attached to them, as they are now, you are not teaching the arts, science, history, geography, and everything that an educated person would say was part of a good education. Irony is we're not even making progress on those basic skills. Not just every educated person, but every parent would say the same thing. No parent thinks math and reading are unimportant, but most parents would want some other things too. Or maybe just get a job. Moving up the social scale when only trained for low-level work. Irony of emphasis is that we don't see rising scores on the only test I consider to be a valid measure, which is the federal test, the national assessment of educational progress. Served on that board for several years, good test. Not against testing--very useful when used for information and diagnostic purposes. But when you begin punishing people for not getting the right scores, you warp the testing and accountability, warp what you are trying to measure. Induces institutionalized fraud. Book shows what's going on behind the headlines: NYC Shows Improvement! Literal cheating; but the fraud is subtler. Mayor took over the schools in 2002; scores came out in 2003. Chronology was such that there was a big jump in scores right when he took over, but he hadn't done anything yet. Got to wave that around. Later, when not making big gains, he started taking credit for the year before the program. To this day still take the baseline as the minute he took control, before he even decided what he was going to do. The children got smarter just from knowing he'd be in charge. Name on the door that did it. Not antagonistic to business or capitalism. But you get these Enron-style accounting methods where the business is doing spectacularly well right before the day it goes into bankruptcy because the numbers can be played with. Before writing the book, immersed myself in reading about business scandals. Read Barbarians at the Gate and Smartest Guys in the Room; books about Enron, and At Any Cost. Numbers can be played with, but day of reckoning comes. Other part is the incentives they face. Most horrible about No Child Left Behind: First, it set a utopian goal: 100% of children will be proficient by 2014 and every school will make progress for every group by race, ethnicity, language skills, etc.; and if you don't make progress for every group, you are going to be put on the failing list. And every year you are on the failing list, the penalties get worse and worse, till the point that you will be closed, privatized, handed over to another school, handed over to the state. At a Hoover Institution conference the spring before No Child Left Behind was signed. On one panel; next panel was a group of senators. Stood up and said, "Do you really think that 100% of children will be proficient by the year 2014?" A senator said, "No, we don't really think that, but it's good to have goals." If you have a goal that is out of reach, how can you punish people because they can't do it?
21:00New York City: couple of case studies given in book. Joel Klein comes to NYC, hand-picked by Mayor Bloomberg, and he does something you account happens in other cities: a left-right set of reforms. The actual curriculum put into place is progressive or at least favorable to the left; but the techniques or at least the way it's implemented is more businesslike, which is supposed to comfort the right. Describe how that worked in NYC and in general. The Mayor campaigned saying he's going to install a back-to-basics curriculum. Left Back was a critique of progressivism and the idea that kids discover things by themselves rather than having knowledgeable teachers in front of them. When the Mayor actually took charge and brought in Klein, and neither of them being educators, they aligned themselves with the constructivist, progressive approaches in both reading and math. Reading and math were synonymous with No Child Left Behind--the only thing that counted were reading and math. They installed balanced literacy: text-to-text connections and text-to-self connections and shared reading--not a back to basics reading approach--and "everyday math." Everyday Math has in some places been successful, but the state of California has literally prohibited it because it's a very constructivist program. Explain what you mean by constructivist. Means kids figuring things out for themselves, having seven different ways to solve a problem instead of being taught the basics. The basics in math are addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Districts that use this program usually have to adopt a second program to teach the basic skills because Everyday Math doesn't teach these skills. Here's a problem and let's see if we can find four different ways to solve it. Example in book: student works out one or two ways, for example how to take a bunch of numbers and have different combinations reach 10, some adding, some subtracting. Another student working on it. And then you both get together and share your ideas, work on new ones--sounds lovely, but there are a whole bunch of students who for the entire 45 minutes don't come up with a solution. They've learned nothing other than the fact that they feel stupid. No instruction. In many cases, it's kids teaching each other. Better to teach 6 × 8 = 48, rather than having to count it out on their fingers and toes. Most of them are not parents. Revolt across the country at the grass roots level by parents. Also a revolt among math professors--kids not prepared for higher education. Bloomberg and Klein decided to go with teachers' colleges, the ed-schools. At one point a group of reading professors who didn't like the approach and wrote a letter to Klein saying this is a mistake, urged not to adopt this program; it's never been tried and proven successful, particularly for these students coming from disadvantaged homes. His response was that he gotten a letter from a hundred education professors saying we love your choice, exactly the right choice. Looked at the list of professors who signed on and they had nothing to do with reading. The seven eminent people were discounted, and the hundred who were teaching other things reconfirmed his decision. In 2007 the national assessment scores came out showing that NYC made 0 progress in reading from 2003-2007. We'll be having test scores come out again in the next few weeks; probably will be flat because NY State was flat. Will have had no progress in reading from 2003 to 2009. Even a student of not-Everyday Math knows that 100 is greater than 7. Also pointed out that some of the signatories--one of them, the lead one in support of Klein--got the contracts to do the training. Happened with No Child Left Behind. Washington Post reported that No Child Left Behind generated a whole set of new curricular materials that were produced by someone in the department of education formerly. Subtheme of book: explosion in teacher training, consultancy, testing industry. Testing industry: maybe that creates jobs but it's the wrong jobs. The obvious thing people said when No Child Left Behind was passed was this is bad; it will cause teachers to teach to the test. Response to that, reasonable, was that if it's a good test, that's not bad. But that corrupts the whole test-design process; cherry picking of kids from certain schools, whole data analysis; also focused everybody on reading and writing, and they weren't even good at that. Tragedy. NAEP test scores--scientific samples in all 50 states: the gains in math were larger before No Child Left Behind than since. In reading no gains at all: in the fourth grade and eighth grade where the kids had been taking the test every year. The state tests kept going up; the state tests weren't accurate; the state officials lowered the cut score--the passing mark.
29:29Next reform: Choice movement. Really begins 1955 with a paper by Milton Friedman suggesting that competition among schools for students, the fact that a school could fail, you should let parents vote with their feet--the way that happened in practice in the 1990s and 2000s didn't work out that way and didn't work out very well. What did the choice movement do in practice? Vouchers have been studied: many states have constitutions prohibiting any public funds for sectarian institutions. That's been a huge handicap. First vouchers instituted in Milwaukee in 1990; subject of court battles up until 1998 when the court said it was okay. Then vouchers instituted by Ohio legislature for Cleveland, 1995; Congress passed a program for vouchers in D.C. in 2003, recently frozen, letting it play out but not taking new students. In neither Milwaukee nor Cleveland, nobody says vouchers have helped much. Reason the battles go on is there is no conclusive data. May have had good effects or no effects, having harmed anybody; but they certainly haven't been the revolution or panacea. After 50 years or since Reagan, 30 years, or start with Chubb and Moe and say 20 years of education for vouchers--we have 30,000 children with vouchers--somehow the odds don't seem like it's with vouchers as a solution. The supply is not there. Even if you had a real voucher program, the number of Catholic schools that exist is diminishing by the day, being killed in many cases not only by the financial position of the Catholic Church but also because of the competition with charter schools. Supporter of Catholic schools even though not Catholic; give money, put two kids through Catholic schools for better education; but they are still not going to get enough money. Claim of the voucher movement is that new schools would come along if you did a good job. Charter school movement was attempt to capitalize on that. The Catholic school system has been very effective. There are debates on whether they cherry-pick students. In St. Louis, head said that every parent in the Catholic school system paid something. Might be $50, might be several hundred--most didn't cover the cost; people willing to work at low wages, harder and harder to attract now. We give education away in the United States--part of the problem. When you get something for free you don't value it as much. Do you think that's important? One of the keys to the Catholic schools system success; many other keys. People involved in Catholic education have a spiritual commitment to each child: each child is a child of God. If a child comes to school hungry and homeless, we'll find food and a home; will do whatever it takes because of a sacred responsibility. Don't know how you'd translate that to a public school system. Not scalable. St. Joseph High School in Brooklyn: kids are all impoverished, but the kids don't drop out, don't get kicked out; graduate in the high 90s and most go on to some college, local community colleges or state universities. Carroted and sticked. With the loss of nuns and free labor facing tremendous financial crises; and paying out heavy fines because of the priest abuse issue.
37:01Charter school movement: on the face of it seems encouraging. Monopoly of public schools discouraged innovation. Today something like 5000 charter schools enrolling 1.5 million children. That's 3% of the public school enrollment. Concentrated in cities. Idea was that anyone could apply to the relevant state agency and say they'd like to run a school; if vetted could open a school. Every 5 years the school would be reviewed and if they are getting good achievement, the charter will be renewed; if poor achievement closed. Not opposed to charters, though critical. Charters have been around since 1992. Original idea for them came from two men, Ray Budd, professor of administration at U. Massachusetts, and Albert Shanker, President of the United Federation of Teachers. Didn't know each other; idea was that these schools would take on the tough cases, and without having regulation, they would come up with innovations and make the public schools better. What's happened, though, is that the Charter schools have turned into a replacement for the voucher movement. The voucher movement is stalled; charter movement is what attracts those in favor of unfettered choice. Also drawn a huge entrepreneurial sector; chains, some for profit, some non-profit. Some community groups, huge variety. Knowledge is Power (KIP) program, 82 schools across the country; others also run in more than one city. Others are for profit and are successful. But charters no longer subscribe to the original vision of being there to help public schools get better. In many places not just competition but out to kill public schools. Particularly true in NYC where there are some very aggressive charter chains; Chancellor Klein has given them space in public schools, and they then seek to take over the whole building and turn whole neighborhood into a charter neighborhood. Kids might want to go to the school across the street and find they have to enter a lottery; there is no neighborhood school left anymore; sense of community lost. Charter schools, in some cases, not every case, have been cherry-picking students. Some studies show charter schools do not have their fair share of the students who are hardest to educate. Not fulfilling original vision of trying to educated the hardest kids; trying to avoid them. Not taking fair share of those who have trouble with language, immigrant kids, homeless kids, special ed kids. Consequently, the neighborhood schools get disproportionately large share of kids who are hardest to educate. Makes it difficult to do a fair comparison. Larger problem: performance. Media loves the story of the incredible charter schools where poor black kids and poor Hispanic kids are going to go to college. Great story, assumption being made that that's the way all charter schools are. But study after study has shown that charter schools do not get better performance than public schools. NAEP, the national test given to both groups since 2003; charters have never outperformed public schools. If we are looking for the quantum leap in American education, charter schools are not going to provide it. 97% of the kids are in the public schools; the smart brains in the country are now focused on the 3% in charter schools and nobody's thinking about what to do about the 97%.
43:50As an economist, wife a math teacher, know how hard being a good teacher is. Difficult to teach one child one thing--play the piano, swing a baseball bat--time consuming. Teaching ten students, all different, different personalities, learning abilities, abilities to sit still for an hour--requires incredibly talented person, don't get good at it for a while. Why do we think there is any systemic reform that might help other than getting rid of the public school system--radical. The public school system has shown no ability to improve, through every fad. Doesn't mean getting the government out entirely would be better--could be better, could be worse. Small steps we've made toward competition haven't been big improvements, but does seem to improve parent satisfaction a little bit. Parents not getting much for it. Let a thousand flowers bloom not because of the rhetoric: school is like a business, increase competition. No idea what the school system would look like if the government weren't running it. But it seems like anything being run from on high will fail. What can we do writ small or large that might help our children. Parents can do a lot. Most education begins at home. Schools are not a black box. Vocabulary, experiences, motivation, turning off the television--everyone could do that. In terms of the system, propitious moment; Obama, scared teachers to death, could be fired next year, panic. Moment for changes. Focus on federal or state policy that we will have a 20-year plan to change the teaching profession. Anyone who comes into teaching should have a bachelor's degree in the subject they plan to teach, and possibly in two different subjects, double major; or tested to show they have mastery of the subject they plan to teach; face rigorous examination in literacy and numeracy to make sure they are well-educated people that we are putting before our kids. Not overrun with bad teachers but there are bad teachers. Not just removing them, but not bringing them in in the first place. Not a federal mandate, but should accept that we need master teachers who are principals--who to hire, who will get tenure, which teacher needs help, which will be terminated. Can't have somebody come in who has taken a one-year course in how to be a leader. Should have expert principals. Should have superintendents who are experienced enough to make decisions about curriculum, instruction, and personnel. Also changing the assessment testing. Arnie Duncan. In this country we care about science, history, the arts--one federal mandate. Would like to see every child have opportunity to play a musical instrument: teaches practice, playing with others, almost everything you need to know. If you mandate it, though, could cause millions of people to hate music. Music and art. Russ: C student in art; little opportunity to draw. When budget cuts begin, the arts go first; but for many kids, that's what brings them to school. With music and art you have to practice to get better and you see the result: you get better.
51:39Is there any value to the emphasis we currently have on requiring education degrees? Opposed to education degrees. Is there anything they learn there? Could be helpful if the courses teach one of two things. One is classroom management. Hard. Many ed schools don't even teach that. Friend who went to Ivy League schools, graduate degree from Oxford, public school teacher for about seven minutes. Couldn't control classroom; and also didn't know how to make the things in her head comprehensible to a teenager. Isn't that what you should learn in an education degree? What young teachers need is the skill to be able to translate their knowledge into being comprehensible. Don't believe in undergraduate education degrees. What about the elementary school teachers? They too should have a bachelor's degree in what they are going to teach. Teach nine things--that's okay; will be a richer staff if somebody has a degree in music, someone in math; whole staff who care enough about learning to get degrees in something. What else? Wish President Obama would stop using the term "failing schools." A school called a failing school is in most instances a school that has kids who come in with a very low achievement level--can't read, do math. The crisis is not in the high school--the intake is bad. Would like to see every state have an evaluation team, go to every school and ask what's going on. Different situation for every school. Program of picking the bottom 5000 and shuttering them is draconian and highly demoralizing to the teaching staff across the country. San Diego and NY: question would be, whoever's fault it is, are there in those 5000 schools teachers and principals who are struggling to succeed and failing, or are they just doing something else? Talked with many teachers: they feel they are being turned into scapegoats. Rhode Island. One blogger: we can't fire poverty; we can't fire parents; we can't fire students--so let's fire the teachers. The teachers are feeling besieged. If you just close the school, where are the new principals and teachers going to come from. Chicago: the researchers found that 42% of students from the closed schools went to other low-performing schools. On average, no improvement. On the surface, it wouldn't hurt to let new teachers and principals take a shot at it. The problem with market language rather than market process is that too often government takes the language of markets and tries to graft them into institutional arrangements where there is no market process. The incentives are supposed to be tailored and tweaks so it acts like a market, but there's no market at all. California energy: no market. We're doing that in education. Main beneficiaries, those who create the curricular add-ons, consulting, training. Incentives, so like a market, but it's not. Bottom line ought to be results. The results we are using.... Also using graduation rates, but then the kids go into college and need remediation.

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COMMENTS (32 to date)
John writes:

So what about tenure and the affect on teachers? While it appears that some schools (inner city schools mainly) have trouble attracting new teachers most of the other schools have no trouble at all. In fact it is almost impossible to get a teaching job, there are hundreds "on the list". In other jobs that would drive down the salaries but with the tenure system coupled with the union this doesn't happen. Additionally this has the affect of little turnover in teachers. Wouldn't a bit of turnover be useful? It would allows more people to work in the system and maybe change things from an occasional "outlier" of a great teacher to a more great teachers in general. What is the actual benefit of tenure anyway? Do we really need it?

VA Classical Liberal writes:

Russ's phrase "Market Language" points to a contradiction in most educational reform efforts.

Educational reform is incredibly complex. Too complex to have a single set of goals and measures that apply evenly to over 70 million children.

Faced with that complexity, reformers resort to simple answers, like testing, curriculum reform and other fads. This is by necessity. The school-by-school diagnosis and remediation Dr. Ravitch recommends can not be implemented as a centralized program, the solution-style favored by almost all reformers. That leaves simple answers, which are easily gamed, as the reformer's only options.

Reformers are mostly sincere and intelligent, but they suffer from the fatal conceit. They think they can find "the answer" to the best way to educate over 70 million children from widely divergent backgrounds, with widely divergent aspirations.

If they trusted parents and local institutions more, they would achieve more. At the very least, they'd avoid the trap of having to define the one true goal for every family's educational needs.

I recommend James Tooley's The Beautiful Tree, the story of how the world's poorest people are educating their children for pennies a day.

VA Classical Liberal writes:

John asks what about tenure and unions?

There's a good article on Michelle Rhee, the new head the DC Public School system in this month's Reason Mag. She's negotiating a new teacher contract now and offering the union more money now, in exchange for giving up most tenure claims.

Hagen writes:

What a great podcast! Education & economics, two great things which taste great together.

MDG writes:

I don't know whether this has been addressed yet (this is my first post), but I'm skeptical about Dr. Roberts' argument about US education being worse due to the fact that it's "free" and people don't value things as highly if they are given without charge. He doesn't address the fact that every industrialized nation has a public education system, many of which are high performing.

Seth writes:

Great podcast. Thanks for having Ms. Ravitch on.

I think she's almost there. She understands education's institutional problems very, very well. For example, requiring bachelors degrees in their chosen subject for all teachers or state-based evaluation teams. While those sound good, they'd be subject to the same politics and system problems that we have now.

She doesn't yet quite see that her solutions have the same problems. She could use a dose of Hayek in her thinking.

If she could understand how it is McDonald's serves its customers consistently well without the need for a DC or state-based performance evaluation team, she might begin to understand solutions that could work in education.

In fact, there was a great article in "Forbes" (3/29/04) titled, "McDonald's: The Sizzle is Back" about McDonald's turnaround at the time.

The essence of the turnaround: They went away from centralized management and turned the accountability back local operators.

The fundamental problem in education is that the wrong people are making the decisions.

"Market language" - That is excellent. I have not thought if it that way before. Business consultants use scientific lingo in non-scientific areas to make their wares sound better. That's exactly what politicians do with "market language." Nice observation Russ.

Richard W. Fulmer writes:

At the same time that public schools’ ability to teach the “three Rs” has declined, they have become spectacularly successful at teaching sports. For example, my father went to high school in the 1930s. Compared to the education he got in public school, my education in the 1970s was quite poor. Similarly, the public education my children received in the 1990s and 2000s was worse than mine. Yet my son’s high school football team would have slaughtered mine, and mine would have slaughtered my father’s.

So what is different about the way in which public schools teach football and the way they teach, say, math? Clearly, we’re spending more money on sports than before, but we’re also spending more on education, so it’s not just money.

I think that the main difference is competition. The success or failure of a sports team is obvious, and coaches whose teams lose get replaced. Because success and failure are easily gauged, and are swiftly rewarded or punished, coaches become very skilled at their jobs. They don’t subscribe to the latest teaching fads, but go with what has been proven to work. What seems to work best is discipline and drill. Athletes who do not follow instructions are cut from the team. Those that remain repeat basic moves until they become automatic. Once the basics have been mastered, the athletes build on them, learning to improvise during actual games.

Competition, accountability, discipline, and drill – the factors that have proven so successful on the field – have been eliminated from the classroom. Parents cannot easily move their children from failing schools to more successful ones. Teachers, unlike coaches, cannot be easily replaced when they fail. Students who disrupt the class are kept there. Drill, disparaged as “mere rote learning,” has been abolished.

Unfortunately, success at teaching math is not as simply (nor as publicly) gauged as is success at teaching football. Many of the initiatives whose failure Ms. Ravitch documented in her book (testing, accountability, etc.), appear to have been attempts to fill this gap. The problem is that competition – the underlying driver of public schools’ success in teaching sports – is missing from the classroom. Without that, these initiatives fall short.

Frank Flynn writes:

When Russ Roberts says "We give education away in the United States--part of the problem. When you get something for free you don't value it as much."

He makes a classic economist mistake that all value is monetary or at least that money is the best motivator. I whole heartedly agree that having a high value for education perceived by the students is essential, perhaps the most important part of the solution but I don't think that forcing their parents to pay for school will achieve that.

I have attended many different schools because my family moved several times. I've attended Catholic and Public; good and bad schools. I believe how an education is valued by the students comes from the school itself. Which (if any) achievements are recognized and how are they rewarded. My personal thought is a wide variety of things should be recognized (all academic fields, arts, sports, and extra curricular activities) and the reward need not be much more that public recognition. We, humans, like being recognized for our accomplishments.

I do remember being told at some of the better schools I attended - especially in High School that this school was harder that others but we were getting a better education than everyone else. The value is not money but in releasing a greater potential from within ourselves.

Ralph Buchanan writes:

I attended Catholic school for most of my education, with just two years in public school, a majority black country school with prayer over the intercom and where kids had a choice between spanking (“licks” with a breadboard) or calling the parents – almost always, kids took their licks because they were more scared of their parents. My Catholic elementary school was majority ‘gypsies’ or Travelers, most of whom, at that time, didn’t finish elementary school, and never attended high school – an outcome based on their home culture, not the school.
My Catholic high school accepted kids who had been kicked out of every public school in the county system, none of whom were ever a problem after landing in Catholic high school. We had no art class, no band, but very active sports programs and a fantastic education. Many courses I had in high school were better than the equivalent courses I later had in a very good private college (especially Science).

The culture of the school and especially the home are the most important factors in educational outcomes.
The Catholic school system is the second largest school system in the US, and produces outcomes much better than the public system for a fraction of the cost per child.

On testing standards: Teachers can’t produce results up to grade level if the kids that arrive at their doorstep are already years behind. A kid functioning at a fourth grade level will not be prepared for high school, no matter what his eighth grade teacher does during the year. Any testing standards must take that into account by grading improvement, not grade level outcomes. Kids must also be failed – which may offend the self-esteem crowd.

Howard Jacobson writes:

Russ. A terrific topic for EconTalk. Some thoughts:

  • Schools and government cannot solve problems in the home. If parents will not become involved and lead their children to achievement, then achieving one, let alone all, of the goals recited in the Reagan Administration report will be unlikely.
  • If a child speaks English poorly and lives in a home in which English is not spoken or spoken only poorly, an hour a day in a classroom "learning" English is going to be of little value. Heck, English is the primary language in my home, and we have a tough time getting our children to use correct grammar, learn new words, and avoid slang. Math is no different.
  • Accountability cannot be a successful strategy if all persons with responsibility are not held accountable. You are absolutely correct that there's no cost to a family if a child is a poor student because the schools still serve that family's primary concern -- day care.
  • Isn't the problem with education the problem we have in health care reform -- the belief that equality in education means providing the very best education to everyone (i.e., giving every student equal access to all opportunities) and, therefore, setting this as the goal?
Ray Gardner writes:

She alluded to the fact that the real problem is cultural in that the vast majority of students will only do as well as is expected of them at home, and this much is true. However, reversing the cultural fall of Rome as it were being nigh to impossible, Ms. Ravitch has taken the path of least resistance in calling for yet more government policies to fix the last government solution.

About 40 minutes into the podcast, she implies that a for-profit charter school is necessarily inferior to not-for-profit schools, and disparages those charters that supposedly compete too aggressively with public schools, raising the specter of a charter monopoly with no public school to choose from if they should wish.

She also brings up cherry picking which is ironic - at least in Arizona - since the main statistics that opponents of school choice like to misuse are the data from the many charter schools we have that specialize in those students that are hard to educate for one reason or another.

Thus she seems to be cherry picking her private school data.

Also, she points out the supposed shortcomings of vouchers and charters, while failing to give voice to the fact that they are such a small private part of a much larger public i.e. non-free market education system.

Brian writes:

Consider reading this article:

Building a Better Teacher
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html

Justin P writes:

I have to thank Russ for this episode. After reading the description, I thought I'd oppose everything Ravitch would say, surprisingly I found myself in agreement with a lot of what she said about the problems. But a few thoughts:

There is no Panacea! The problem with the educational system is complex, she even mentions a few of them. It's pop culture, parents, inept teachers, incompetent school districts and school boards, bad tests, it's socioeconomics, it's language, etc. Does she think that any one thing is going to change all that?

She dismisses vouchers as an option because they haven't worked for over 50 years, then explains that vouchers did even start until 1998 after lengthy court battles all the while complaining about a lack of good data. Even though she says that a voucher program has never been fully implemented. Do they teach logic at Columbia? I'm wondering if that Columbia degree she flaunted at Russ is worth the paper it's printed on?

I don't mean to sound overly harsh, but do you expect a central planner, which is what she is (Assistant Sec of Educ as well as her work on National Standard and in Poland), to understand that the problem is with the central planning of education?

All those Fads she derides in the beginning...all solutions proposed by so-called "experts" like herself. All the product of a central planning body, all thinking that they and they alone know how to "fix" the problem. Should we expect any better outcomes from No Child, another product of central planning?

They all should read Hayek's The Fatal Conceit. They all need to read Mises on the failures of central planning. No one person can possibly know enough to "fix" what is wrong with out schools. The problem is far too complex. We need the experts to be honest with everyone and start saying the three hardest words in the English language, "I don't know."

If people would start to realize that the experts with their fancy degrees from Ivy League schools, didn't know jack. They might stop relying on other people to fix their problems and start coming up with their own solutions, that would be real market type innovations, not the pseudo-market oriented solutions that even more central planners are coming up with, which (I think it's Russ) right points out.

John Thurow writes:

The solution is obvious, do away with "public" education and let the parents decide how to educate their own children. Compulsion in a free country is ludicrous and is the basis for why the rest of the country and government is in such a mess. Let parents/ children choices and the free market find the correct solution. We don't need government and the use of force here. The German immigrants in the 1870's were wrong... it just creates an endless cycle of government dependence and special interests.

Seth writes:

After re-reading my comment, I thought it would be worth correcting bad editing on my part. My comment should have read:

"She understands education's institutional problems very, very well.

She doesn't yet quite see that her solutions have the same problems. She could use a dose of Hayek in her thinking.

For example, requiring bachelors degrees in their chosen subject for all teachers or state-based evaluation teams. While those sound good, they'd be subject to the same politics and system problems that we have now."

Justin P. - I agree with your comment. Well said. I too thought she did a good job of making a case for why vouchers haven't been given the test they deserve, but then says they don't work.

She also seems to trust data that fits her current thinking, even though she seemed to know the data doesn't measure the right things and could be incorrect.

A politico like Ravitch in DC might be able to tell me that the hamburger joint a mile from my house is better than the one two miles away for any number of measurable reasons. For example, the closer joint serves meals consistently faster, has the highest percent of employees who have attended Hamburger Broil University, have the fewest health code violations or that I burn less gas getting there.

Even knowing all this, I may still choose the furthest joint for any number of measurable or immeasurable reasons. I may prefer the taste, they give me more choice about what goes on my burger, they serve Coke instead of Pepsi, or because it's safer for me to turn into their driveway.

The problem with K-12 education is that we let the politicos in DC decide what's best because people like Ravitch don't trust people with that power.

NormD writes:

This was a horrible podcast.

Ms. Ravitch sounded depressed and overwhelmed by the problem. Most of the podcast focused on the history of the problem and what doesn't work.

Her solutions?

Require teachers to have bachelor degrees in the subjects they teach??? And how in the hell is this supposed to be accomplished??? What do you do with the millions of existing teachers? Who is going to pay for all this??? Are we supposed to wait for decades while this happens? I don't have a degree in history, does this mean I am not qualified to teach history to my kids? Simply bizarre... Does a degree in history prepare a teacher to handle a disruptive or cheating kid???

So what do we need to do:

1. We need to drum reality into students from Kindergarten on. The message must be clear that they are not going to be "taken care of" and MUST find their own way in the world. Education should be explained as giving them options. We must be clear that no one will pay you to play computer games or watch TV. Fantasies must be challenged with real-world numbers. The number of people who make a living at sports or as an actor is exceedingly small.

2. Parents must be forced to be more involved and responsible. For years parents have been pushed out of the way by "experts". Even when parents are invited to participate, it's in very limited and controlled ways. Government spends tons of money on education but spends it poorly. The solution starts with vouchers, but vouchers still feel very passive, like, I have my voucher but have to choose from three very similar schools. In the end, parents need to be able to take the vouchers and create schools (choose curriculum, hire teachers, rent classrooms, purchase supplies, impose discipline, etc.) that meet their perceived needs, even if these needs are not approved by the "experts". I guess there must be some oversight, so we don't end up with Madrases or all the funds going to a cult leader, but this should be minimal.

3. We need to extend schools virtually. There is no reason that a kid in Washington DC should not be able to "attend" a school in Arizona.

4. We need to stopping driving ourselves nuts worrying about the bottom 5%. We cannot sacrifice the education of the top 95% in a fruitless effort to drag the bottom 5%, kicking and screaming, into being "educated". I don't know why some people persist in self-defeating behavior, but that's reality.

Lee Kelly writes:
"[I dream of] a school in which young people could learn without boredom, and would be stimulated to pose problems and discuss them; a school in which no unwanted answers to unasked questions would have to be listened to; in which one did not study for the sake of passing examinations." -Karl R. Popper

This quote has always interested me, particularly the comment regarding unasked questions and unwanted answers. My experience with school was a series of unasked questions and unwanted answers to be memorised and regurgitated. On that rare occassion in which I was interested in a question and its answer, the curriculum would rarely remain on that matter or move at an appropriate pace. Teaching to a class of thirty children unfortunately necessitates some inconvenience of such kind.

In any case, it seems to me that many educators have it precisely backwards with regard to how learning works. Do not begin with the fundamentals, because what follows is a series of unasked questions and unwanted answers. Hardly anyone retains knowledge unless it is somehow useful to solving a problem. Problems are very personal constructs--each child has their own unique problems, and they are leanring all the time, even though it may not be what the teacher is hoping they learn. For most children, the problem situation of a mathematical equation is how to placate the adults who have authority over them. If they learn something about mathematics, it is almost entirely incidental, and they will probably forget that knowledge as soon as it ceases to be useful for that end.

The fundamentals are learned once a much higher level problem situation is identified, because for most people the only interesting stuff is higher up. It seems to me that we should begin with the messy, complicated, and interesting stuff, and then once children begin to identify problems for themselves, the fundamentals can be introduced so that questions are asked and wanted answers received.

Despite popular metaphor, the growth of knowledge is not a building constructed brick by brick from a secure foundation. In fact, the foundations are often only discovered much later.

Mark M. writes:

Here's a popular recent article from the Atlantic which is interesting:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/what-makes-a-great-teacher/7841/

One problem I see in the education market is that even if we figure out "what makes a great teacher", as the Atlantic article gets at for the most part, the solution is not scalable. That is, even if we can pinpoint the best teacher in the world, we can only get him/her in front of 30 students at once. If Fedex, Wal-Mart or Apple identifies some best process or best practice, it is deployed company-wide.

That said, it seems that there need to be a competitive process surrounding the creation of high quality curricula in digital form. Why don't we have a series of highly regarded (in terms of votes, views) high school history classes on youtube (perhaps they exist, but I assume using them in public schools would be prohibited by the unions in some way or another)? As Bill Gates indicated in his recent foundation letter, education is one area where technology has had little impact and he points to sites like academicearth.org as a potential model for improvement (The Teaching Company at teach12.com is another company that does this very well). Indeed, while things generally decrease in price over time as a result of specialization and efficiencies, education keeps getting more expensive (something like 10k+ / student now.)

Other improvements I like are the suggestion that only a bachelors be required to teach. The existing setup is obviously designed to create barriers to entry into the profession. This is like CPAs now needing 150 credits, excessive testing for actuarial scientists, etc.

Doug Milam writes:

Regarding the bias against, or 'non-utility' of, a liberal education, e.g., the arts, literature, etc., Mises had this to say in his excellent The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality:

"In dealing with the [classical] liberal social philosophy there is a disposition to overlook the power of an important factor that worked in favor of the idea of liberty, viz., the eminent role assigned to the literature of ancient Greece in the education of the elite. There were among the Greek authors also champions of government omnipotence such as Plato. But the essential tenor of Greek ideology was the pursuit of liberty. Judged by the standards of modern institutions, the Greek city states must be called oligarchies. The liberty which the Greek statesmen, philosophers, and historians glorified as the most precious good of man was a privilege reserved to a minority. In denying it to metics and slaves they virtually advocated the despotic rule of a hereditary caste of oligarchs. Yet it would be a grave error to dismiss their hymns to liberty as mendacious. [...] it was the classical studies, the essential feature of a liberal education, that kept awake the spirit of freedom in the England of the Stuarts, in the France of the Bourbons, and in Italy subject to the despotism of a galaxy of princes. No less a man than Bismarck, among the nineteenth-century statesmen next to Metternich the foremost foe of liberty, bears witness to the fact that, even in the Prussia of Frederick William III, the Gymnasium, the education based on Greek and Roman literature, was a bastion of republicanism. The passionate endeavors to eliminate the classical studies from the curriculum of the liberal education and thus virtually to destroy its very character were one of the major manifestations of the revival of the servile ideology."

[See http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1889&chapter=110039&layout=html&Itemid=27#a_2290180 -- Econlib ed.]

Rex K. writes:

Interesting Podcast.

My opinion is that there is enough blame to be spread all around for declining education in America.

I would like to see the effects the Teachers union have on the education system (see 1st comment by John). With the teachers union having such great control on preventing firing of teachers, how do we weed out the truly bad seeds that is sprinkled in our education system? I agree that teachers are not the primary reason why we have schools that fail, but there are a lot more bad teachers than what the teachers union say there is (i.e. nearly none).

The biggest problem I see in improving education is cultural. Ms. Ravitch pointed out a lot of non-English speaking families bring down the average of student test scores. I come from a Chinese-speaking family and while growing up in America, I had little to no trouble learning and speaking English. I have several Asian friends that immigrated and they were able to learn English fairly quickly. We spoke English at school and spoke Chinese at home. Did we lower the average test scores of the state exam? I would like to believe we did not.

Students from non-English speaking families that lower test scores are a symptom. We should not mistaken that for the root cause of the problem which is cultural in nature.

Most Asian families (Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc) highly value education. There is an entire service industry built on after-school prepping. So what are Asians doing different than Hispanics and African Americans to score similar to their Caucasian counterparts?

My belief is answer lies in the cultural differences. Hispanic kids or Black kids are no smarter than Asian kids when they are properly taught and given the same motivation to learn. The problem is that the family places a different emphasis on education. Do most Hispanic families expect their children to go to college? Probably not, in my opinion. That, is what I find disturbing.

Without changing that, children would have to go against their cultural nature and create their own motivation to excel in school.

We need a two prong approach in trying to better the educational system in American. We need to weed out bad teachers in the system by destroying the union and its hold on the educational system. The second is attacking cultural beliefs on education.

Greg, high school econ teacher writes:

Professor Roberts,

Thanks for bringing Ms. Ravitch and this topic to Econtalk. The interview was well-done as usual, but I did think you let her off the hook on two key points:

One was when you asked the "radical" question, why not do away with the public education system and let a thousand flowers bloom? She got off track and didn't respond to the question, and I wish you had brought her back to it because it's a good question and one that people in the education world wouldn't usually take seriously. I think there is a good answer to it, which can take the form of a thought experiment: What results would we expect to see in the market for postsecondary education if we as a nation were to commit to the idea that every 18-22 year-old will attend and we made it compulsory, but not mandate that any current institution accept them? Where would the half of 18-year-olds who currently do not choose to attend postsecondary education go? Similarly, in K-12 education, letting a thousand flowers bloom would actually result in about 500 flowers blooming which would serve those students who are most able to pay and/or most talented, with the government needing to fund and centrally plan the other 500 flowers to ensure that the rest of the nation's youth did not go without their schooling. Ultimately perhaps some improvement would result in the "upper 500" segment, but on the whole this would not be a much better outcome than what we have now.

The simple conclusion is that the private demand for a quality education cannot be reconciled with our public choice that K-12 education is a human right. The only way I can envision around this is if someone figures out how to make education exhibit economies of scale, where the cost of providing a high-quality education falls from $10-15k/student/year to something more like $1000 or less. Sounds farfetched but I have hope... IF innovation and entrepreneurship is not stifled.

Which brings me to the other issue on which I wish you would have challenged Ms. Ravitch was her dismissal of voucher and charter programs because they produce, on average, similar performance to public schools, and because they serve only a small number of students. So the claim would be that since the tiny fraction of schools that have been allowed to organize in this way have not yet figured out how to consistently achieve overwhelming success (there are merely several dozen examples of schools that have achieved outstanding results, as if this were unimportant) and this small cadre and limited consumer choice has not been sufficient to improve the public school system along with it, this must be a failed experiment and we are better off with a centrally planned, poorly performing status quo? Couldn't you have channeled Milton Friedman on this one?


Trent Whitney writes:

An interesting podcast, but in the end, I didn't find Ms. Ravitch's conclusions convincing or compelling.

I do think she was on to something with her comment about how we're focused on the 3% of the students in charter schools instead of the 97% of students in public schools. But I'd take that a step further.

If you look at how we apply resources, I'd argue that they are disproportionately applied to our fastest learners (advanced coursework, supplemental materials, etc.) and to our slowest learners (tutors, special needs assistants, student improvement plans, etc.). With an apology to Nassim Taleb, I picture a Bell curve of learners...normal distribution with thin tails at the fastest and slowest ends. But if you were to graph resources spent to serve those populations, I think those tails would be very, very fat...in fact, the slowest learners tail fatter than the middle.

In other words, it's the great majority of children in the middle who are being deprived of/cheated out of a quality education. And that's what's leading to the results we see in terms of comparatively lower standardized test scores and other measurements.

Juan C. de Cardenas writes:

I enjoyed the podcast and agreed with many of her objections and assertions but I think she is clueless about the real cause of the systemic failure of the education system because of her own predisposition to comprehensive, expert design "solutions" to complex issues like this and her collectivist mentality.
It doesn't occur to her that maybe the problem is not the failure of any particular fad or plan but the very attempt to design from above a system that will be right for tens of millions of kids from diverse backgrounds.
While she rightly ridiculed the stated goals of past plans, there is still insufficient questioning of the premise that can be summed up by the concept of "no child left behind".
Like all collectivist fantasies, it can only be achieved by reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. The only way not to "leave behind" a child that it is not very intelligent, or it is lazy, or have uncaring or anti-education parents, et cetera, is to hold down every other kid and dumb down the academic standards plus a good dose of fraud. Even if every kid receives the best possible education there will be disparate results and some will be "left behind".
Competition and choice are the best way to give, to those who care, the best possible education for their own particular background and innate capabilities.
About the 40 minutes mark she said "Kids might want to go to the school across the street and find they have to enter a lottery; there is no neighborhood school left anymore; sense of community lost."
Well if you are concerned about the "sense of community" and think only the government can educate a patriotic, uniformly minded citizenry on top of thinking too much of the capabilities of experts and planners, then you cannot see what ails the forest, no matter how good you are at diagnosing the rot in particular trees.

Koala writes:

The primary problem of education has to do with industrial organization of the school system. The system where teacher "broadcasts" to a passive listening students is outdated. It is interesting that founders of United States, mostly, did not go to school. They had tutors; in this system teaching is one-to-one, adapted to student's needs, at her learning pace. Current "one size fits all" strategy assumes all children are the same, learn the same, act the same. Grading system is part of this broken system. By the way, in earlier times with tutoring, it was a rare occurence that a kid was "unteachable". You either passed, or failed -- and almost all kids passed. Unfortunately today, a lot of kids are in a limbo state between pass and fail -- are "average", hence it is apparent there is something wrong with the "grading" system.

http://www.adlit.org/article/5981

But this decay is not limited to education; we see it everywhere when a task is bureucratized, industrialized, when "processing" mentality takes over, "assembly line" quantity over quality thinking reigns. Collapse of organizations during Katrina is only one example, failures in managing healt care, economy are others. This decay will not end until the system is revamped completely.

Today, we _have_ the means of broadcasting one quality teacher to millions, or billions. This new method is called the Internet. Through this and smart customizable software, a quality teacher can reach millions. All we need is a content management infrastructure (de-facto software, standards of communication, publishing of educational material) and the rest will follow.

Instead of classrooms, and schools, we also need to encourage construction of living / learning / lounge building, where kids learn to complete a project, play when they want, and watch ad-hoc lectures, presentation of, and consult to grown-ups when they need.

keatssycamore writes:

Mr. Roberts,

When discussing your desire to eliminate public/govt education so as to allow a thousand educational flowers to bloom, you say (at about minute 46) "anything from on high will fail".

How do you square these sentiments with economies of scale? If a school becomes a competitive business (govt is out of the game), why wouldn't/couldn't economies of scale develop? Because if you agree that these free enterprises would/could develop economies of scale, then wouldn't that necessarily result in a large system(s) deciding how to do things "from on high"?

My guess would be that as in most every competitive situation, the initial winners will want to keep winning and will develop economies of scale to take even more winnings. But, then again, I may be drastically mistaken. Is this completely the wrong way to think about this?

If not, it makes me wonder why, if schools are to be like businesses, we would ever assume that the economy of scale that becomes dominate would necessarily have anything to do with actual education of pupils? Might it not be just as likely that one type of school has a proprietary method for getting very cheap lunches for the students so as to hold down costs? Then couldn't that school simply exploit this competitive advantage to grow?

I would think, given Ravitch's comments earlier in the podcast, that the poor, uneducated parents would be more susceptible to marketing and price and that the wealthy, educated parents would be more susceptible to actual educational results (though I expect the 'results' they'd report would eventually become as obtuse to most parents as any business prospectus).

Thus, based on Ravitch's point about the advantaged/disadvantaged test score divergence, I could see a couple of economies of scale developing:

One that the rich, educated parents see as worth a lot of cash/tuition (though this will be a foolish expense on those parents part since the advantage of their kids is already sort of baked into their wealthy, college-educated little cakes. I see it as comparable in worth to trying to pick individual stocks versus investing in the broad market index).

Meanwhile another will develop based on the normal sort of purely competitive things that make a business grow and people prefer it (i.e. price). Wouldn't this ultimately leave us with something pretty similar to the two-tiered system that exists now and has everyone complaining?

I guess I'm trying to wonder why getting government out of education and allowing free enterprise to blossom, would solve the cherry-picking issue that seems to be such a problem for public schools? For example, if you can't compete on outcomes, what's to stop you from exploiting the niche of parents that are simply concerned about price and competing for those kids? I'm envisioning a Microsoft of education and an Apple of education, if that makes any sense as a metaphor.

At any rate, great podcast as usual. Thank you, I appreciate your efforts very much even though it's free. I tweeted that I loved it just a little while ago and I hope you gain a few more listeners from my social networking.

61north writes:

I was quite disappointed with Ms Ravitch's suggestions for improving education. She rightly points out the impossible utopian goals of No Child Left Behind, then turns around and suggests a laundry list of new rules that will "fix" everything.

Requiring a bachelor's degree in the subject taught? Ridiculous. One of the best teachers I ever had was a retired military officer with a degree in engineering. He taught math, history, government and economics. He didn't have a degree in any of those subjects, but he had a lifetime of experience and really cared about the kids. By the way, he only taught in private schools, because he couldn't get hired by the public schools because he lacked the requisite degree. His lifetime of real world experience had also taught him that the teacher's unions were pure evil and he wanted nothing to do with them.

Ms. Ravitch has apparently spent too many years in the ivory tower of policy circles to really understand that the problem is schools being run by the government. The solution for most kids (those whose parents care) is to get the government out of the way. If the government insists on paying for it, then give us vouchers. Otherwise, get out of the way.

It's always fascinated me that education is the only government aid where we have no choice in who provides the service. Other programs, such as Medicare, food stamps, Pell grants, even disaster relief, the recipient gets a check or voucher from the government and can choose to buy from whomever they please. Only in elementary and high school education are we forced to use the government-run service. Silly if you think about it.

Jake Russ writes:

@Frank Flynn:

We already *force* parents to pay for schools, it’s called taxes. And furthermore we make all workers pay for schools even if they don't have kids using the system.

Using the tax system hides the true cost of the service to the users. They have no way to know what their education is costing them and they never hold that money. It's an opaque way of doing business.

I believe Russ to be in favor of reducing the education tax burden and then having parents pay for using the schools. This would be the transparent way, as users would face the true cost. And they would be wiser about their choices.

#####

Why do we think that a bachelor’s degree is *the* answer for teacher certification?

A bachelor’s degree is already America's most overrated product [1]. So the answer is more of them?

Some universities are just paper mills and their students get trapped because they debt financed their education but they didn’t acquire valuable skills [2]. Then when they explore the open market, they find they can’t command a salary high enough to offset that debt.

In a competitive system firms do their own quality control. The incentive structure is already there. Let the firms (charter schools) figure it out the best way to do teacher QC.

[1] http://www.martynemko.com/articles/americas-most-overrated-product-undergraduate-education_id1234

[2] http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/03/the_plight_of_t_1.html

Carl writes:

That was an interesting conversation, and I appreciated the insights of both participants.

One thing that opponents of vouchers often say is that they siphon off the best students and leave the public schools with the worst students. This is probably true, and is a very, very good thing. I was one of many kids who had good parents, but lived in a bad neighborhood. My parents drove me miles to good schools, even though there were closer schools. You could say that by taking their kids out of the neighborhood schools that they participated in siphoning off the good student. But for those students, including myself, it has made a tremendous difference. I was not immersed in the culture of failure of my neighborhood schools, and because of that have been able to do well in higher education.

The worst possible thing would be to trap me and others like me in bad schools just for the sake of improving their test scores.

Nick Ronalds writes:

I was surprised and disappointed by the absence of two crucial topics: the NEA, or teachers' union, and the fact that there is a world outside the U.S. How can an expert discuss the U.S. public school system for an hour without even mentioning the obstructive role of the NEA? None of the "wishes" Diane Ravitch wishes for are likely to come about in large part because of the NEA's complete lack of receptiveness to reforms that don't put narrow teacher interests first.

Second, there's a world out there. Why can many other countries do a good job of educating kids through high school? I grew up in Europe and lived in Asia seven years, and their public education systems, for the most part, work better. Why?

MikeRINO writes:

I'm disappointed with Mr. Munger's Magical Market's will solve Everything.

What "Market's" will do is DISPLACE a low cost low performance system with a HIGHER COST - LOWER PERFORMANCE market solution, but, with a CEO gouging the public with bigger BILLS and expensive salaries.

Secondly, "the Market" won't give a DAMN about the bottom 80% of the population, it will cherry pick the 20% of children, by Family Income. Leaving the public school system in worse shape.

Third, the problems are:
- family culture
- income level
- ability of children to speak English

How is a "Charter School" going to improve these conditions?
- Can we fund schools to hire one parent with every child?
- Can we teach the parents to speak English?
- Can we teach the parents to love reading and education?

What we need is an initial Independent Beginning of year assessment of the children in a school, and fund the school depending upon the above conditions, giving BONUS Pay to the Teaching staff, and adding Teaching Staff to these problem schools.

Have an independent statistical evaluation of a public and Catholic school in the same economic area, with the same numbers of non-english speaking students, and find out if the Catholic school can deliver a better result.

If so, maybe we can start contracting out to the Catholic school system.

-

Adam Mik writes:

This was an interesting podcast and it was refreshing to hear Ms. Ravitch put a lot of the blame (correctly) on parents. My wife taught middle school math and shared a similar frustration with the push towards more progressive techniques to learn math and away from memorizing certain facts (such as arithmetic tables). It is clear in talking with her that the lack of motivation from parents is one of the hardest hurdles to overcome.

One thing my wife found frustrating was the pay structure. Ravitch said that teachers should hold a college degree in the subject they teach; however, the pay scales to not differentiate between a math teacher and an art teacher, only between time on the job. If the schools want to attract teachers with math, physics, and chemistry degrees, then they are going to have to pay those teachers more than art and english teachers. The private sector values a math degree much more than an art degree, but our school systems do not.

Adam Dynes writes:

I'm skeptical of Dr. Ravitch's overall assessment that accountability and choice don't work. I love her criticism of No Child Left Behind, but just because NCLB is defective doesn't mean all attempts at accountability are.

Her criticism of choice is also weak. Researchers have done several studies using school enrollment lotteries to test the effectiveness of vouchers, and in every single one, voucher students do as well or better than their public school counterparts and parental satisfaction of voucher recipients is much higher. On top of that, voucher programs often cost half as much per student as public schools. So even if vouchers aren't a "panacea," they still allow us to educate kids just as well (or better) at half the cost.

The strongest evidence of the effectiveness of combining choice and accountability is Florida. They've vigorously implemented both over the last decade and their NAEP scores have gone from the bottom to the top in the US. Hispanic 4th graders in Florida who were a grade or two below the national average now score better in reading than the average student in 31 other states.

Frankly, I'd prefer a voucher system, but if I can't have that, I'd like to have what Florida is having, a combination of reforms that directly contradict Dr. Ravitch's overall argument.

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