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Intro. [Recording date: April 2, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is April 2, 2020, and my guest is historian and author, Diane Ravitch, of New York University. This is her second appearance on EconTalk. She was here in April of 2010 talking about her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Her latest book, and the subject of today's conversation is Slaying Goliath.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing Diane with the Blackwire 5220 headset.
Diane, welcome back to EconTalk.
Diane Ravitch: Well, thank you, Russ, for inviting me.
Russ Roberts: This episode is a continuation of recent episodes on the charter school movement conversations I had with Terry Moe, Robert Pondiscio, and Sarah Carr. I encourage listeners to listen to those episodes, as well as earlier ones related to education, and maybe some ones yet to come.
Diane, you have a very different perspective from some of these previous guests. You call the proponents of charter schools 'disrupters' and those that oppose them 'the resistance.' What is your criticism of the disrupters, the people who promote charter schools?
Diane Ravitch: Well, the promise of charter schools--and I was there at the beginning, the beginning being the late 1980s, and was a proponent of charter schools. I was in the George H.W. Bush Administration, and we were very much in favor of the idea, which was a brand new idea back in the late 1980s, early 1990s. And I supported charter schools during the time when I worked at the Hoover Institution, and I was part of the Koret Task Force along with Terry Moe and Paul Peterson and John Chubb and Checker Finn and lots of others.
And, some time into the 2000s I began to become disillusioned because I realized that charter schools were not realizing the promise--the promise being that they would save poor kids from failing public schools. And, as time has gone by, I have become even more critical because there have been so many scandals associated with charter schools.
Essentially, the charter idea was originally going to be a collaboration between public schools and experimental schools--charter schools, that were meant to be like R&D centers for the public sector. And they would have the freedom to try out new things and then bring them to the public school so the public school could improve.
What has happened over time, though, is that they have become competitors. And they seek market share, and in some cases they seek to drive the public schools out of business. I think the premiere example of that is New Orleans where there are no more public schools.
But, the charter sector, as such, has failed to keep its promise of saving poor kids from failing public schools. Those that are the most successful screen the--either as Robert Pondiscio says, they screen the parents in order to get the best kids, or they don't want kids with disabilities, or they exclude the kids who are troublemakers. They have become selective schools. And those that are not selective schools are very low-performing schools.
In some states, the charter schools are the worst-performing school in the state. I'm thinking particularly of Ohio and Nevada.
But there are other states where the charter schools are doing very poorly. So, it's a broken promise. So, I hold[?] the charter--I don't think there is a charter movement, as such. I think what there is, is just a lot of money provided by a long list of billionaires to promote the privatization of public education.
Russ Roberts: You're very critical of those billionaires. Why are you that critical of their, what I would say is their motivation? You don't seem to respect what they're trying to accomplish. Or worse, you think what they're trying to accomplish is not honorable.
Diane Ravitch: Well, I'm critical of the billionaires because I think they could be doing so much more productive things. I think by now, by the year 2020, we've had 30 years' of charter schools and we know that they don't accomplish what they're supposed to. They haven't closed the achievement gap. They select the kids they want. Some of the charter schools have very, very skewed enrollments. Like, the highest performing charter schools in the country are the BASIS charter schools in Arizona and they are composed primarily--their highest-performing schools in Arizona are white nations. They don't have very many Latino kids; they don't have very many African-American kids; and there are very few African American kids in Arizona. But they don't reflect the population that's served by Arizona public schools.
So, I think that what the billionaires should be doing is things that are actually needed. They should first of all look at the evidence and say: This investment of, literally, hundreds of millions, in fact billions, into the charter sector is not producing results we want. Many charter schools have opened and closed, many of them take money to open and never open. And there have been massive financial scandals associated with the charter sector, the largest of them taking place in California. If I were a billionaire what I would be doing, first of all, is looking at the evidence and saying, 'My investment in charter schools has not produced the results that I thought it would. What I will do instead is open health clinics in neighborhoods where kids don't have health care.' I would open health clinics to provide prenatal services, to provide family services. Because, the biggest predictor of test scores is family income.
And, unfortunately, the charter school movement, has, such as it is--and again, I don't think it's a movement--but the people who support charters say that they can fix poverty by fixing schools, and that hasn't happened. We have the greatest inequality that we've had in many decades, up to and including the current crisis.
But, poverty is hugely, hugely important. It is the predictor of test scores. That being the case, I think that, were I a billionaire, first of all I would be lobbying to pay higher taxes, which I don't see any of them doing. In fact, the Waltons, who are the biggest supporters of charter schools, have had court cases around the country to try to lower their property taxes on their Walmart stores. But, taxes are what support education, and choice is not a substitute for inadequate funding for public schools.
Russ Roberts: Well, I want to come back to charter schools and their success and failure. I think there's a little more to be said on the positive side than you discussed just now, as well as in the book, and we can discuss that.
But, I want to talk about one issue related to what you think billionaires should do. I think if one of the Waltons was here, she or he might say, 'Well, I'd be happy to pay more in property taxes if I thought the public schools would spend the money well.' And of course there's a longstanding critique from the people you call disrupters that the money that we have increasingly spent on the public school system--and it has steadily risen, not salaries, but expenditures for public schools per student--have risen steadily over the last 20 years, 40 years, 60 years. And there's nothing to show for that either.
So, I don't find that a compelling case as a non-billionaire. Make that case for me. Why should I be in favor of higher expenditures for public schools that don't seem to spend the money well?
Diane Ravitch: Well, I could make the counter-argument and say that charter schools spend the money far worse than public schools do because there have been many studies showing that charters spend more on administration and overhead than public schools do. In public schools, more of the money actually gets to classroom instruction.
The other thing about charters, and I think it goes into this money issue, is that they are in a crisis of corruption. I mentioned that in California some of the worst corruption has occurred. There are a number of charter founders in prison right now in California for having embezzled money. And this comes about because of not having adequate oversight as public schools do.
And the single biggest scandal in the history of charter schools occurred just a year ago when 11 people were indicted in San Diego and it had to do with an online charter school that had embezzled $50 million dollars. There has never been a public school that has embezzled $50 million dollars. This kind of corruption is happening all over the country. And I'm not saying it's widespread, but on any given day there is a charter founder or a charter operator indicted or accused of mishandling money because nobody is watching the books. But it is--
Russ Roberts: Why is that? Let's get one thing straight. I think there might be some confusion among listeners. You're making a contrast between charter schools and public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded. Right? They're not private schools like the Catholic School System or general private schools. They are publicly funded, right?
Diane Ravitch: They are publicly funded, but I do not call them public schools. And whenever they are brought into court, their defense is that they are not public schools. So, they're public schools for getting the money; but when it comes to accountability, they're not public schools.
Russ Roberts: So, that's my question. Why isn't there--you are talking about the widespread corruption. Of course, there is corruption. People who steal money should go to jail. We also know that public school folks sometimes do things that are inappropriate. We know that members of the New Orleans School System, there was a serious corruption problem there in the public schools. I don't want to debate which one has more or less. What I'm curious about is why isn't there more oversight of the charter school funding?
Diane Ravitch: Charter schools don't have the same oversight and accountability and transparency as public schools.
And they fight--for instance, in California, the California Charter Schools Association has opposed efforts to make them more accountable and more transparent. And I think it's a fundamental, should be a fundamental rule that when you take public money you have to have public accountability.
But, when you talk about public school corruption, you may find a principal who has managed to steal the lunch money, or someone who has diverted thousands of dollars[? inaudible 00:11:06] to their own pocket. In the charter sector, it's usually in the millions of dollars.
I could mention Ohio where there was something called the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. It was the biggest online operation in the country. And it had more students than any other online charter. It took a billion dollars over 20 years and had high dropout rates, low graduation rates, and yet was consistently supported by the legislature. And, after a billion dollars disappeared down the rat hole, the State finally said, 'Well, we decided to audit your students and we find you have a lot of ghost students. You owe the state $60 million dollars.' And the owner of Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow decided that rather than pay back the $60 million, it went into bankruptcy.
But there are stories like this all over the country.
But, I don't want to make the story about charters only about corruption, although I think it is an important issue and it goes to the efficiency of charters. The charters are not more efficient than public schools.
The thing that I end up with at the end of the book is, how few charters there are. And part of this is because after 30 years 6%[?] of kids are in charters. Well, that doesn't seem to me a huge return. And then, when you look at the all-charter district of New Orleans, half of the charter schools in New Orleans are failing schools. They were ranked by the state as either D- or F-rated schools, and they're all black. But the high-rated charters have selection processes. The open-enrollment charters, half of all of them in New Orleans, are either ranked D or F by the State of Louisiana, which is itself among the lowest-performing states in the country.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's true, it's certainly true that charter schools try to get motivated students and motivated parents. But, of course, many of them, even the most successful ones, which are sometimes the most successful ones in the states that they're in, are serving extremely poor children from very poor families, and those children are having success in academic settings that other poor children in the state or city don't get from their public schools. What is your--does that count?
Diane Ravitch: I don't actually think that's true. I think what's happening is the selection process.
I was just communicating yesterday with one of the leading authorities in the country, one of the leading researchers, David Berliner at Arizona State, and he sent me a list of the charters in the State of Arizona and the selection processes. Some of them require the parents to write an essay. Some of them require certain grades. That, there are a number of requirements that charters use to skim the students they want and to exclude those they don't.
Russ Roberts: Sure. They try. But, in New Orleans--
Diane Ravitch: When you say to me that public schools are spending more and not getting better results, I would say that there's a couple of things to look at.
One is that back in the day when everything was idyllic, we did not include kids with special education. The charters don't want the kids with special education. And I've been in public schools where there were 16-year-old kids wearing diapers. I've been in public schools where the teachers literally had to carry the children because the children were in a wheelchair, but they couldn't go to the bathroom, and the teachers were taking them to the toilet. Those kids are not in charter school. Those kids are very expensive to educate. And the Federal Government, when it mandated special education back in the 1970s, promised that the Federal Government would pay 40% of the cost; and then it has never [inaudible 00:14:47]. It's a very, very expensive burden on public education that it must bear.
Russ Roberts: Well, I guess I'm less--I don't think that explains the magnitudes of expenditure. But, I guess the bigger problem I have, which you don't mention in the book, and I'd love your reaction, is that you're very critical of the charter school proponents for their support of charters and their claims that public schools are failing. There are numerous public schools where children can't read and write, and get moved forward without help. They graduate and they are poorly, poorly educated. Do you think that is not the case?
Diane Ravitch: No, I think that is not the case. I think the case is that America has a tremendous skewing of income; that we concentrate the poorest and neediest kids in some schools, which then have very low test scores, and then say their teachers are to blame, and if only there were charter schools--and then the charters come along and don't take those kids anyway. They push out the kids who have special needs. They don't want the kids who are the low-scoring kids, so those kids get pushed out.
The charter schools are not taking the low-scoring kids, and Robert Pondiscio says this in his book. They are choosing the families they want, and the ones that are most motivated, and those are not the kids who are the neediest kids.
Russ Roberts: Well, they're not the neediest, but they're plenty needy. And, right now in many American cities, those parents and those children have no opportunity to achieve any kind of academic success. They have a very low chance of going to college, they have a very low chance of graduating from college, and they have a very low chance of being financially successful.
Diane Ravitch: Wait a minute. Let me just give you the example of two cities that are wide open for charters, and one of them is wide open for vouchers. Milwaukee has a full-blown charter sector. It has a public sector that's been stripped of kids and resources, and it has a full-blown voucher sector. All three sectors do terribly. No one has been saved. And the black kids in Milwaukee are performing on par with their peers in Mississippi, in the charter schools as well as the voucher schools.
The other example I would offer you is Detroit, where charter schools enroll half the kids. And Detroit is today, still, the lowest-performing city in the country.
So, you have to have some examples of success and not just give me the theory that I heard 30 years ago.
Russ Roberts: How about the Success Academy in New York? Do you think they've cherry-picked all 41,000 students?--
Diane Ravitch: Absolutely. They--
Russ Roberts: And, that those 41,000 students in the public school systems of the poorest parts of New York City were thriving before, or doing as well as they are doing under the Success Academy?
Diane Ravitch: They are cherry-picking the best students. Their first graduating class began with 78 children in kindergarten. By the time they graduated, there were only 16 left.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I know that. Yeah, that's true.
Diane Ravitch: You think that's not a high rate of attrition?
Russ Roberts: That is. That was their first class, though. You've got to give them a little bit of a chance to get up to speed.
Diane Ravitch: After fourth grade they do not accept any new students. Now, if they kick out kids who are in the fifth grade or sixth grade, where do you think they go? They don't go to another charter school. They go back to the public schools.
Success Academy is a very keen example of a school that practices careful selection and high attrition. And you get great results with that. There are over 80,000 poor black kids in New York City who get scores as high as the kids in the Success Academy. So, they have a lot of kids to choose from who are poor and who are black and who are doing very well in the public schools.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's a good comparison. I would like to see that. That's definitely relevant.
And, the improvements in New Orleans, when they switched to an all-charter school system, the achievements that Terry Moe championed here--I know you don't agree with his perspective. But, I was on the New Orleans school website. They have big increases in test scores. By the way, I agree with you that test scores are not everything. I hope we have a chance to talk about that. But, they have big increases in graduation rates from high school. They have big increases in kids going to college. Are those illusory? Would they have happened anyway to the kids if they had stayed in public schools?
Diane Ravitch: Well, I think the first thing to know about New Orleans is about 25% of the kids disappeared after the storm--
Russ Roberts: That's correct--
Diane Ravitch: Those 25% were not the wealthiest kids. Those were the poorest kids who fled to Houston and other places and never came back. So, it went from being a school system that had 60,000-plus to a school system of 48,000. And the choice system, ranked by the State of Louisiana, shows that half the schools are failing schools.
So, whether the test scores went up or not, they're still very low. And Louisiana scores are dominated by the scores of New Orleans, which is the largest city. Louisiana is one of the lowest-performing states in the country. So, you're talking about a district, the New Orleans District now, which is--by average the State of Louisiana, and Louisiana is one of the lowest scoring states in the country. So, is this a model for the rest of the country? I don't think so.
Russ Roberts: No. But, it says that for fourth and sixth grade students, the percentage of students scoring mastery and above in math increased 21 percentage points. That's not unimportant.
Diane Ravitch: But, that's still way below the state average.
Russ Roberts: Yep, they've got some issues.
Russ Roberts: Where you and I agree is that it is absurd to think that the greatest school in the world is going to transform the lives of every desperately poor kid who is in a horrible neighborhood, that has issues dealing with crime, that has issues dealing with family problems, driven by poverty. We agree on that. The question is: what are we going to do for those kids? Today? Not tomorrow. Not--
Diane Ravitch: I think what we should be doing for those kids is reducing their class size. Many of the kids who are in these schools that are doing very poorly, and are overwhelmed with poverty and special education and kids who don't speak English, they need smaller classes.
They also need--plus, they've been stripped of the arts; they've been stripped of everything that their kids might want to come to school for because they've been turned into just test-test-test. And, we should talk about the test because by the nature of the test, the kids who come from poverty are going to always be classified in the bottom half because tests are great predictors of family income, and most kids don't make it out of the bottom half.
And I contend, and I think that there's lots of evidence on my side to show it, that the charter schools have not succeeded in closing the achievement gap. They've cherry-picked their students.
Russ Roberts: That's possible. I raised the same point with Terry Moe. I agree that that's an issue, especially--and with Robert Pondiscio, also. I think it's an issue of any of these comparisons, that it's very hard to control for the factors of selection.
Having said that, I do think it's important, as I said before, to remember that these schools that we're talking about work with very, very poor students. Now, it could be that they just get the best ones.
Diane Ravitch: They don't all work with poor students. There are--
Russ Roberts: That's true, yeah--
Diane Ravitch: There are charter schools in California. There's one in--and I forget if it's Los Gatos or Los Altos. Not being a Californian, I get them confused. It's for rich kids. And they have created a charter school for rich kids where the parents each put up $5000, and it's a heck of a bargain for them, because if they sent them to a private school they would never get it for $5000, and they're very exclusive.
Russ Roberts: Well, I don't mind that rich people, kids, get a good education. As you do, I think every American child, every child in the world, deserves a great education. I think, the public schools--I am a product of public schools, by the way, as I know you probably are as well.
Diane Ravitch: I am. I'm a product of the Houston public schools.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I went to Lexington. Most of my public schooling was in Lexington, Massachusetts, an excellent school system on paper; but it also of course suffers from the same selection problem. Those kids, and my peers, would have done well going to a number of not-so-great schools. I would not call the state of public education in America first-rate for anybody.
Diane Ravitch: No, it's not first-rate. And charters don't make it better.
Russ Roberts: Well, what--
Diane Ravitch: Actually, I would argue that charters make it worse, because they divert resources from underfunded public schools. And you may say that they're not underfunded, but I've seen them. I've seen the condition, the lack of investment in capital planning; and the fact that, when you take away your best students, even if they're all black and poor, and you take away the best of them, the public schools are left with the most expensive, hardest-to-educate students, and less money to do it.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the documentary, Waiting for Superman, which you mention in your book. I encourage people to see it. I found it powerful. You didn't like it. You said,
The marketing of Disruption reached a large national audience in 2010 with the release of the documentary, Waiting for "Superman," which falsely asserted that America's public schools had failed, extolled the virtues of privately managed charter schools, and ridiculed public schools and their teachers.
The creator of that documentary is David Guggenheim. No one would call him a right-winger. He allegedly made that documentary because he felt guilty driving past mediocre public schools to take his kid to public school, and realized it didn't seem quite right that he had the freedom to chose for his child what he thought was the best education, but poor people were stuck in the neighborhoods that their housing was in. And I think that's another appalling aspect of America's public schools, is that we give people access to good public schools via the price of their house, which makes no sense to me whatsoever as a design on purpose: If your goal is to educate students, why not give people an opportunity to proper and flourish?
But, what's wrong with that? Why shouldn't--
Diane Ravitch: What's wrong with that is, first of all, that was sheer propaganda. In 2010 when that film was released, there was absolutely zero evidence that charter schools would save any kid; but it helped to propagandize the movement.
There were a lot of factually inaccurate things about it. They used--I was seven years on the board at the national testing board--it's called the National Assessment Governing Board. They used the national scores in a way that was either ignorant or dishonest. And they used the--there's a level called 'Proficiency' which is reached by only about a third of kids. And they consider that anyone that didn't reach Proficient was failing, which is ridiculous; the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] Board, the NAGB [National Assessment Governing Board] Board, certainly doesn't do it that way.
The film was produced by one of the most Right-wing evangelical anti-gay billionaires in the country, a man named Philip Anschutz. And so, I don't know what [?] were, but I know what Philip Anschutz's motives were. He's an evangelical and he loves charters. He loves vouchers. Like the Koch brothers, or the remaining Koch brother, and Betsy DeVos, he is of their world. He's of the world of ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council].
So, there is a--there has been for many, many years, long before you and I were in public school, a determined right-wing effort to defund public education and to say that everyone was on their own.
The charter schools, and I came to see this after having been a charter school proponent for many years and turning against them, that they are a step towards vouchers, and that the people who advocate the most avidly, like Betsy DeVos, see them as a step towards vouchers, and vouchers are the ultimate goal. As you may or may not know, and I forget if I mentioned it in the book, Betsy DeVos sponsored a voucher referendum in Michigan in the year 2000, because that's what she really wants: she wants kids to mainly go to religious schools. And, it went down overwhelmingly. It's interesting that whenever charters or vouchers are put to a vote, they're voted down. And, vouchers have always been voted down. The State of Utah voted them down in 2007. The State of Florida voted them down [crosstalk 00:27:37]--
Russ Roberts: But, there's one set of voters that votes for them rather enthusiastically, that you don't give much attention to in the book, and that is parents. That piece of propaganda, Waiting for Superman--which, it's documentary so it's naturally grinding an ax--that portrays, as did Sarah Carr's book, as does Robert Pondiscio's book, as does I think anyone who is part of this movement, the incredible urgency that parents have to get their kids out of a failing public school system. How do you--do they not count? They are desperate. Their kids are having horrible times in their public schools--some of which are the result of other factors, for sure. But they are desperate. Desperate. The number of people who apply for those slots in the lotteries, they are so thirsty for their children's education. Doesn't that count?
Diane Ravitch: First of all, I would say that parents should do whatever they want to do. The choice is up to them as to whether they want to send their children to a religious school. If they want to choose a charter, that's their choice. It's not for me to tell them that they shouldn't.
As a policy maker, however, I think policy makers, whether it's the Secretary of Education or the State Superintendent, have an obligation to strengthen and improve the public school system which enrolls anywhere from 80-90% of the children--
Russ Roberts: Correct.
Diane Ravitch: I was talking with someone in Georgia, to a reporter the other day, about what's happening there, and she said the only thing they talk about in the legislature is vouchers. And I said, 'What percent of the children in Georgia are in public schools?' She said '92%.' 'What are they doing to improve the education for the 92%?' 'Nothing.' Nothing.
Russ Roberts: Well, they've been trying that for 60 years. For 60 years--for three generations--we have failed the poorest children in America through the school system.
Diane Ravitch: The charters are not an answer. If that were the case, Detroit would be--New Orleans would be the best system in the country. It's not. Half the schools there are failing schools.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's not because of the reasons you talk about. The children are desperately poor, they live in very poor families, in very poor neighborhoods. It's a tragedy.
Diane Ravitch: But, charters were supposed to fix poverty. That's what the reformers were saying, all this. Well, they don't fix poverty.
Russ Roberts: No.
Diane Ravitch: And, half the kids are in schools that are rated D or F. Detroit is--
Russ Roberts: And those schools can struggle to attract parents. But, the public schools that deserve a D or an F, they can keep getting them. Doesn't that bother you?
Diane Ravitch: No, it--what bothers me is that public school teachers are not paid enough. It bothers me that classes in public schools with very poor kids have kids who are homeless. I think we should do something about the homelessness. I think we should do something about their not having medical care. I think we should do something about the fact that we have more poverty than any other highly industrialized country in the world. And we'll have even more poverty after this pandemic is over.
We have right now about 20% of our kids living in poverty. That's not the case in any Scandinavian nation to which we compare ourselves to, where the poverty rate is somewhere around 5% and sometimes less.
So, I think we have very serious social issues. Our society is failing. Our schools are a reflection of our society.
I think the schools--and I've been in a lot of the Title I schools and schools that enroll poor kids--the teachers are doing an incredible job; and all they get from the reformers is attacks, judging them by the test scores of the students--which will inevitably be lower than those of kids who live in leafy suburbs. Waiting for Superman, I felt was a dishonest film, and that's why it didn't get the Academy Award, because there was an article published saying that some of the scenes in it were staged. And I checked that--I reviewed it from the New York Review of Books and I found not only was it flawed in its use of data, and not only were some of the scenes staged, it was just plain wrong.
Russ Roberts: Was it wrong?
Diane Ravitch: One of the five schools that was recommended was a boarding school that costs $35,000 per student. Do you think this country is prepared to pay $35,000 per student for kids to live in a boarding school?
We don't even know if any of those charter schools are still open. It's another aspect of charters that you haven't mentioned, which is that many charters close almost as soon as they open. Right now in Florida and some other states, they're closing--for every charter school that opens, another one is closing. So, you may find your kid in a charter school, first of all, that doesn't want you because your child won't get a high score, your child may be rejected because of having special needs, your child may be rejected because he doesn't pass whatever the entry requirements are, but the school may close in January and you're all out on the street. So, this is a risk you take.
I think that what we have to do, and I know you don't agree with me, and I know Terry Moe doesn't agree with me--
Russ Roberts: It's all right. Doesn't matter. Go ahead.
Diane Ravitch: I think we have to make our public school system the best in the world. And the only way we're going to do that is to address the underlying social problems in this society where we have kids who are homeless, kids who never see a doctor, and kids who are not sure that they're going to get a meal anywhere except in school.
Russ Roberts: Well, let me add one thing about the cherry-picking, which I think is important. You know, I agree with you that certainly they like to get bright kids, if they can; and they like to get especially motivated parents who are willing to devote time to the children. But if you read the first-hand accounts of Robert Pondiscio and Sarah Carr, you cannot be unmoved by the effort that the teachers in those schools put forward to help students who are not cherry-picked, who are struggling, who have desperate challenges in adapting to academic life. And those teachers work 80 and 90 hours a week. They're not like the kids who are self-motivated, necessarily, and go home to an easy environment where parents can help them. Those kids are struggling. You can call them cherry-picked, but those teachers break their hearts to help those kids succeed. And it's not easy. And you know that. You know that.
Diane Ravitch: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: You know how hard that is. It's hard work.
Diane Ravitch: You know, I never put down anybody that teaches. I think teachers are wonderful.
The problem charters have is that they have tremendous turnover of teachers. Success Academy, which you mention, has a 50% turnover rate every single year. They are constantly advertising for new teachers. They train their own teachers, and within two years they have to almost have a complete turnover of staff because of the high turnover rate.
Russ Roberts: True.
Diane Ravitch: You can't work people 60 and 70 and 80 hours a week and expect that this is going to be their profession. I have enormous respect for the teaching profession, and I think the teachers are underpaid.
You look at what's happening right now in the midst of this pandemic: I mean, teachers are really knocking themselves out to find ways to stay in contact with their kids. I have grandchildren who are in public school: they're on Zoom three times a day for their conferences and their meetings. Their teachers are doing whatever--I mean, there's a phenomenon around the country right now called 'teacher parades.' And the teachers line up their cars, one in a car, and they go through the neighborhood waving to their children, and the children stand on the porch and they're all blowing each other kisses. I mean, this is an incredibly important and valuable profession, and these so-called reformers--or, as I call them, disrupters--have been attacking teachers for the past--and I was there at the Hoover Institution hearing. Whether it was Rick Hanushek or Terry Moe complaining about unions, complaining about teachers themselves, as though it's an easy job. It is not an easy job, and I would dare either one of them, or any one of them, to get into a classroom with 30 kids for a day and survive.
Russ Roberts: I don't think Terry or Eric would underestimate the challenges of being a school teacher. I only raise--
Diane Ravitch: They do indeed.
There was this theory, which Rick Hanushek helped to propound, that you should fire the lowest-performing teachers every year, the bottom 5%. And the way he defined the bottom 5% were those who didn't get test score gains. And the problem with the theory was: a) that it never worked; and b) you're basically identifying the teachers who are working with the lowest-performing kids because they don't see the big gains.
So, wherever this has been tried out--this judging teachers by the test scores of their students--you find out that the best teachers are in the best schools. And, so, the suburban teachers see the test score gains, the teachers of wealthy kids see test score gains, and the teachers who are teaching the kids with disabilities all look like bad teachers, and there's no one to take their place.
Russ Roberts: But, the teachers in New Orleans who doubled the performance of the kids before Katrina and after Katrina, when they went from a public school system to an all-charter school system, you've got to give them some credit, don't you?
Diane Ravitch: No, no. You cannot make a valid comparison from before Katrina, when you had 25% more kids. So, you disappear 25% of your kids from the poorest families, and then you compare it to the kids who came back after the storm--
Russ Roberts: The kids who came back were pretty poor.
Diane Ravitch: They're not all poor. The white kids who remained are in the highest-performing schools. They're not in the schools that are rated D or F. What they've done in New Orleans is, if a school consistently fails, they close it; they open it again, and then five years later they find that that school fails, too. This--
Russ Roberts: Diane, do you really believe--do you really believe that the doubling of test score--of proficiency--in New Orleans is because only the best kids came back and the bottom tail didn't come back?
Diane Ravitch: No. First of all, the test scores: yeah, when you say there's doubling proficiency and it's one of the lowest-performing districts in the--you can double proficiency if proficiency is very low and you still have a low-performing district. New Orleans is a low-performing district and a very low-performing state--
Russ Roberts: Yeah--
Diane Ravitch: So, let's not overstate what this doubling of proficiency means.
Russ Roberts: But, if you had your way and those charter school weren't allowed to be there, they'd still be at half of what they were before. Doesn't that--
Diane Ravitch: No, because the other thing that happened in New Orleans, which doesn't get mentioned, is: there was a significant increase in funding because of Katrina, and the significant increase came first from the Federal Government and secondly from the philanthropists. So, if you were to increase the funding significantly, would you see the same increase?
Russ Roberts: I doubt it. We've tried that in lots of places; I haven't seen that significant increase, but it's possible. I would just mention to listeners that Rick Hanushek, who, Diane, that you just mentioned, has been on EconTalk a number of times, and you can hear his views on teachers. I do not agree that we should fire the bottom 5% every year. I don't know if Rick would state it that way either. But--
Diane Ravitch: He did.
Russ Roberts: Well, I want to get back to the public schools for a sec and Waiting for Superman. One of the parts of that film that was disturbing was how the worst teachers--not because of test scores, but just because they don't do a good job--get shuffled around within the district and can't be fired. Do you think that affects the quality of the public school system, the willingness of unions to defend horrible teachers and keep them employed?
Diane Ravitch: Well, I think that that was overstated. I live in New York City, which has a union, and the union's purpose is to defend teachers. And when teachers are unjustly accused, they have a right to a hearing. This is not lifetime tenure. It's not the kind of lifetime tenure that professors have at a university. Teachers have a right to a hearing and that's all they have a right to. And--
Russ Roberts: So, a principal in a public school can fire a lousy teacher if they're just a lousy teacher?
Diane Ravitch: They sure can. They don't get tenure on the first day that they're at work. In most districts, at least--California, probably, has the shortest period before teachers are tenured. But, in most districts it takes three to four years before you get tenure. And, if, too many--if bad teachers are getting tenured, then we have an administrative problem.
Russ Roberts: So, let's turn to that, actually. Why don't we try that. Maybe we can find a little more agreement, Diane.
What do you think principals, in your ideal school system--which, of course would not be a one-size-fits-all; I know that from our earlier conversation--what do you think principals could do to do a better job?
I agree with you that in the charter school system there is an overemphasis, for a lot of reasons, on test scores. You think that's a mistake. I do, too, up to a point. But, what should be different? What could be done, besides the social policy things that you'd like to change in the lives of these children outside of school? Do you think America's schools are well-run? And, if not, what might be done that would be different?
I mean, in my case, I think I'd like principals to have the right--this is what I like about public schools. Let me tell you the two things I like about them. One is parents who don't have to go there. If they live in the neighborhood they can go somewhere else. And the second is that the principal can get rid of bad teachers and honor good ones. That's not as true, it appears to me, in the public school system. Do you think that's irrelevant, or do you think it's relatively small in its impact?
Diane Ravitch: Well, I think it's relatively small in its impact because, first of all, I'm married to a former school principal who had no problem getting rid of bad teachers. And, people don't get--teachers don't get tenure for three to four years. And during that time they get observed repeatedly by their principal, and the principal has the right at any time to say, 'You're not cut out to be a teacher. I suggest you find another job,' and you're out. Finished.
If teachers get tenured, they have a right to a hearing. I think that's reasonable. Why shouldn't everyone have a right to know who is accusing them and whether the accusation is just? If they don't get a speedy hearing, then shame on the administrators. But, I've also met principals who said, 'You know, I do my best to train my teachers to make sure that they not only well-prepared teachers, and then to support them once they're in the classroom.'
So, what we have right now nationally is a huge shortage of teachers. Whether that will be true after the pandemic, who knows, because teaching may become attractive again because there is going to be massive unemployment in this country. But, the best schools are the ones that recruit their teachers carefully, make sure that they're well-prepared to teach, support them in the classroom, make sure that they have what they need in terms of supplies and don't have to pay for it out of their own pocket, and then do their best to retain them. That's what a good principal does and that's what good teachers do. And they give them the freedom to teach.
I think right now one of the huge problems we have is we have a really stupid Federal law. It started with No Child Left Behind, it was continued by Obama's Race to the Top, and remains in the law as Every Student Succeeds Act; and that's the infiltration and mandating of standardized testing. And we're the only advanced country in the world that tests every child every year and waste billions of dollars on it. But, that's introducing a different subject.
Russ Roberts: No, let's talk about that, actually. I do think teaching of the test is a problem; although again when I read Sarah Carr's book about what happens in the actual classroom, or Robert Pondiscio's, where they were embedded in schools for a year, there's a lot of education going on there. It's not just teaching people how to take tests or how to memorize and spit back answers. And obviously you can design a test that's better than some, although inevitably there is some imperfection--there's no test can test what we really deeply care about, which is the ability to think or learn or communicate. So, I agree with you that's a problem.
Do you think that outside of the test score obsession America has, in both public and charter schools that you're talking about, that the rest of it would be okay?
Diane Ravitch: Well, I have spent many years doing what I do, which is to say that for almost 50 years I've been a historian of education. I spent seven years on the National Testing Board. I got to know standardized testing pretty intensively. I was disappointed to discover that the outcomes seldom changed. The richest kids have the highest scores and the poorest kids have the lowest scores. And, you can say charter schools changed that, but we've already had that discussion so I won't go into that.
What I've learned about tests, and I would read the questions before they were given on a national test to kids across the country, is that I often found that the questions were really bad questions. They had ambiguities in them that were confusing to students. They were passed through multiple review committees and they were still confusing questions. And then even worse were the answers. I could look at the answers and say, 'Wait a minute. There are two right answers here,' and I would argue with other people sitting in the same review committee, and we'd all say, 'It's true there are two right answers.' 'Which one is the right answer?' 'We don't know,' and yet the kid is supposed to figure out what the test maker had in mind.
What I've learned by reading test questions, and reviewing them, is: the tests are not really very good measures of anything other than your ability to pick the right answer, the one that the test-maker had in mind.
Now, let's look at the way it works. The kids usually--this year they're not taking the test because of the pandemic--but typically the kids take the test in March. The results come in August or September; the kids no longer have the same teacher; and then the results tell you nothing about the individual child. They simply say, 'This child scored a one, a two, a three, or a four. This child is at the 35% or the 65%.' This is not what you call diagnostic information. This is what you call useless information.
It's like, you're going to the doctor having a tremendous pain in your stomach and you say, 'Doctor, what should I do?' and the doctor says, 'Well, I'm going to give you a test and I'll get back to you in four months.' Okay. You may be dead by then. But then he comes back to you in four months you may not have the pain anymore, but he says to you, 'You know you're in the top 20% for people who have this particular pain, but that's all I can tell you.' That's what the tests are today. They are utterly useless, they have no diagnostic value.
So, we're spending billions of dollars testing every child every year and getting nothing from it other than rankings and ratings which stigmatize schools and say, 'This school should be closed because it has--.' We should be looking at those schools and saying, 'You know, there's an overload of kids here with disabilities. We need more help for them. There's an overload of kids who don't speak English. We need more help for them.' There are a lot of things we could be doing that would be more useful than simply giving standardized tests.
Russ Roberts: But, I think the reason that the test movement became so popular among both Republicans and Democratic politicians, and Left and Right, is that there was an impression--one that you seem to disagree with--but there was an impression that the public schools in poor neighborhoods were not effective. That the inability to get rid of the worst teachers was a problem. That principals who did a mediocre job did not face any accountability. And there was a desperate effort at that point which has failed--I agree with you, it has failed--but there was a desperate effort to say, 'Well, we've got to have some accountability here. We've got to have some measure in a system that doesn't have much competition.' And, perhaps it's a mistake to go to a voucher system or a charter school system, but the status quo is not acceptable.
I'll give you the challenge this way. You're the Secretary of Education for the United States, or I'll let you be the head of a school district, or I'll let you be a principal in a crummy public school, and you can't fix the social problems overnight. It's a problem. I agree with you. It's a terrible challenge for the schools of America, where the cultural and social and financial challenges that the kids face is a huge part of the problem that no school, no matter how great, can easily overcome. But it does overcome it for thousands of students; and I think that counts. And it counts in the charter schools where that's happening. And I think it happens less frequently in the public schools. And I think that's a tragedy. I'd like to hear from you: What could we do better? Is there anything that would could do better? Or do you think everything is fine if we just got rid of the charter school system?
Diane Ravitch: I think that there should not be competition for public money to divert money away from public schools where 80-90% of the kids are, because it's really robbing Peter to pay Paul, or Paul to pay Peter. It's wrong, because you're defunding the kids who are left behind, who are the neediest kids, so that a few kids can go to a charter school--which may or may not be a successful school. It may be a failing charter school. It may be a charter school that closes, and yet it's absorbing public funds.
We haven't even talked about vouchers, but vouchers to me are probably going to be supported by the Supreme Court in this Espinoza versus Montana case, and I think that's really scary because we as a society are going to be supporting not only evangelical schools--I don't mind supporting Catholic schools, although I do think that Catholics should fund their own schools. I don't want to see yeshivas supported. There are yeshivas in New York that don't teach English and they're proud of it. They don't teach modern science and they're proud of it. We'll be supporting Muslim schools. There are religions we haven't dreamed of who will open schools simply to get public money.
What we know about the voucher system in Florida is it takes a billion dollars a year out of the public schools. The kids in the voucher schools do not take the same tests as the public schools. There are no standards whatsoever and no accountability whatsoever for the voucher schools.
Russ Roberts: Except--agreed, except for that one thing you keep forgetting, or at least not mentioning--which, I know you don't forget it--parents have to choose those schools for their kids.
Diane Ravitch: There are parents who are choosing terrible schools for their children. There are parents who are choosing schools where they're teaching them that science can be taught from the Bible. Science cannot be taught from the Bible. Religion can be taught from the Bible, but not science. There are schools where you don't have to be a high school graduate to be a teacher.
I met someone when I was traveling in the West who is not a high school graduate who is teaching at a religious school, and I thought that was pathetic. But, you know, parents are choosing to have their children uneducated. I don't think that's a good decision for society, and whereas I think, 'This is a parent's choice. They should pay for it themselves,' it's pathetic to have the public expected to pay for bad religious schools, and for that matter for any religious schools.
Russ Roberts: I happen to agree with you there, but I think it's equally pathetic that parents have to pay for schools that have horrible teachers in public schools. And we don't have a very good mechanism for getting rid of them.
Diane Ravitch: Well, Russ, where you're wrong is we have a teacher shortage because we have so demonized teachers over the past 20 to 30 years that we have a national shortage of teachers. We do not have a surplus of teachers. We don't have people banging on the door and saying, 'I want to be a--' There are people who are banging on the door and saying, 'I want to be a teacher,' but there are very few. They're the very few and they're the very dedicated. I can't tell you how many people I've met who are ordinary teachers who are smarter than anyone I ever met at the Hoover Institution, okay?
Russ Roberts: It's a very low bar, Diane, but I'll let you get away with that one.
But, would you agree with me that we've got to get rid of certification as a requirement? Do you think it's useful that teachers get a degree in education to be able to teach in a public school? Maybe we could reduce the shortage that way.
Diane Ravitch: No, we can't reduce the shortage that way, because teaching is such a low-paid profession that as long as people can make much more money doing anything else, it's hard to recruit into teaching. But it's even harder to recruit into teaching when teachers are treated with such disrespect, and when teaching is demonized the way it has been by academics--by think tanks, by journalists, and so forth--and where the public is encouraged to look down on teachers the way Waiting for Superman did. Teaching, I think--
Russ Roberts: [crosstalk 00:52:57] I didn't--
Diane Ravitch: No. You're continuing to say that schools are somehow filled with bad teachers. They're not. Even in the worst schools there are incredible teachers--
Russ Roberts: No, I agree.
Diane Ravitch: who are knocking themselves out every day working with the most difficult children, diapering grownup children, jobs you wouldn't consider taking, who are working for $45,000 a year. And then I have my friends in think tanks making $200,000 a year complaining about bad teachers; and I encourage them to try teaching for a week. A week--
Russ Roberts: Well, I would never demonize teachers as a profession. And I disagree that--I think that the think tanks are really good at demonizing the unions. Whether that's a good idea or not is a different question.
But, most of the people I know, and I'll include myself in this who at least are sympathetic to the charter school movement and who are concerned about the state of America's public schools, we don't demonize--I think teachers are honored in America. I think it's a glorious job. I say that as a former academic who was very proud of the teaching I did in the classroom. It's a deeply satisfying job, to be able to work daily with students; and I think you get a lot of respect. Now, you don't get a lot of respect maybe in certain social circles because you don't make much money. That's a shame. That shows the littleness and pettiness of human beings, unfortunately.
But I agree with you. I think there are a lot of fabulous teachers who work--who work so hard. And I think we could have more of them if we got rid of certification, if we got rid of educational requirements for teaching. I think there are a lot of great, talented people who would love to teach if they didn't have to jump through those hoops.
Diane Ravitch: Well, let me just give you an anecdote. I know that anecdotes are not social science or science.
Russ Roberts: It can be educational. Go ahead.
Diane Ravitch: But, you know, one of my friend's children went to an elite Ivy League college, then went to Oxford and got a double master, and decided when she came back to the United States she wanted to teach. She could not teach in a public school. She wasn't good enough because she didn't know how to handle the kids. She knew how to teach one-on-one. She couldn't handle a classroom.
What teachers learn, and I'm--in California, for example, teachers have to get their undergraduate degree in a subject, and then they can get a master's in education--I believe that it's important for every teacher to have a bachelor's degree and a discipline, whether it's English or history or science or mathematics. But, I then think it's important for them to be certified as teachers. I don't think that amateur teachers are good teachers. I don't think that Teach for America is a good model for teaching because it's only five weeks of preparation and it's being used as a stepping stone to some other real position.
Russ Roberts: Well, I agree with you that classroom management is a huge aspect of teaching that non-teachers are oblivious to. They have no idea how hard it is to keep 10, let alone 20 or 25 adolescents in their chairs and paying attention.
Of course, that's one of the reasons that the charter school movement spends a lot of time on that. Which, I think, bothers a lot of people. I understand that it can be somewhat controlling.
But, I think most Education Degrees, that Master's you're talking about, they don't teach that stuff. It's not part of the education. You get theories about how people learn; not how to manage a disruptive or unruly classroom. Or am I wrong?
Diane Ravitch: I think that's not true. I think I would rather see people who have an education certification than people who don't, because I think that it's important to know something about the field you're going into. I would not like to see people going into medicine who had no medical training. There is pedagogical training that's important.
Russ Roberts: I wish the science of education were half as good as the science of medicine, both of which struggle. The fads that were popular in educational theory, pedagogy, 20 years ago have been left behind; we have new ones. I don't think we're making a lot of progress there.
Diane Ravitch: I've written a lot about the fads. I happen to think that school choice is not only a fad, but that school choice--I'm old enough to remember when the term 'school choice' was stigmatized because it really was born with the Southern segregation movement. And the charter people hate to hear this, but it's true. The term 'school choice' was the favorite slogan of the Southern governors and the Southern Senators because it was their way of maintaining segregation. And there have been many studies coming from the UCLA Center on Civil Rights, and from other civil rights groups, that any kind of choice intensifies segregation--racial segregation, social segregation, religious segregation. And that's true internationally, not just here.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'll just close with a question, a response to that, and I can let you respond and have the last word. I don't really care about the phrase. The people that I know, and I'll include myself again in this, who are in favor of school choice, are deeply disturbed by the lack of opportunity available to the poorest children in America, many of whom tragically are black.
Black parents are the biggest proponents of charter schools; they are the biggest proponents of choice. It's true, they are aided by billionaires; but at least somebody cares about them. I don't think it's correct to suggest or imply that people who want choice for parents and children are somehow racist. I just don't think that's true.
Diane Ravitch: Well, I wouldn't--I haven't said that anyone who supports choice is racist, although the school choice movement did begin amongst the Southern segregationists.
But, I think it's important to respond that in the only massive vote on charter schools, that took place in Massachusetts in 2016, it was that, on one side were the teachers and parents at the local school committees, the civil rights groups, and they were against the expanding charters. On the other side were the Waltons, Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund managers, a lot of incredibly wealthy people who said, 'We're here to provide more charter schools and more choices.' And that measure went down, and every single minority community--black and Hispanic parents voted against it. The only place that it won a majority were in wealthy white communities that never expected to see a charter school in their own community, but thought they should do it for someone else. So, to say that black and Hispanic parents are the main drivers of this movement ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of black and Hispanic children are in public schools. They are not on waiting lists.
The talk about waiting lists is ridiculous because no one has ever audited them. And in the few instances where they were--for example in Boston, they were audited by the local public radio station--and they found duplications, [inaudible 01:00:00] been accepted, who were still on a waiting list, and that the waiting lists were in fact vastly inflated. So, don't believe that.
Russ Roberts: You don't think that the charter schools of New York City, the Success Academy, the charter schools of New Orleans, have waiting lists? That that lottery is irrelevant: it's just a PR [Public Relations] move?
Diane Ravitch: I live in a neighborhood with a Success Academy school. They are constantly advertising for students. It's a marketing ploy. I don't think that there are waiting lists in New Orleans except to get into the very best schools because half the schools are failing schools. Half the charters in New Orleans are failing schools. So, of course kids want to get out of the failing schools and get into the successful schools. But that's only--you know, it's a half-and-half deal.
In New York, as I said, the Success Academy is constantly trying to pump up their applications so that they can have a lottery. But I think that in most of the charters, they don't have lotteries at all because there is not that overwhelming demand. There are not huge lists waiting to get into charters. In Detroit, they have lots of charters that have closed because there was no demand. In Washington State where Bill Gates fought to install charters, several of his charters have already closed because of a lack of demand. So, I think they should really stop playing this card of, 'There's this huge demand. Hundreds of thousands of kids are on the waiting list.' It's simply not true. Eighty percent of the charter schools in Los Angeles have vacancies; at least when they were open, 80% or more than 80% have vacancies. So, yeah, a few successful schools have waiting lists. Most are not successful schools.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Diane Ravitch. Diane, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Diane Ravitch: It's been a pleasure to talk with you, Russ. It's always fun.