EconTalk |
Robert Pondiscio on How the Other Half Learns
  Author and teacher Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute talks about his book How the Other Half Learns with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Pondiscio shares his experience of being embedded in a Success Academy Charter School in...
Sarah Carr on Charter Schools, Educational Reform, and Hope Against Hope
Journalist and author Sarah Carr talks about her book Hope Against Hope with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Carr looked at three schools in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and chronicled their successes, failures, and the challenges facing...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Emile Hatem
Jun 15 2020 at 7:35am

It seems that using schools as a “leveler” is running into a genetic barrier. Kids with poorer parents have worse genes, and schooling can’t overcome that.

Assortative mating (people marrying others with similar earnings ability) drives this correlation between educational success and high-earning parents.

This helps explain why income mobility is down. There is little room for mobility because people are mostly already sorted by earning ability and educational success. The ranking is already mostly “efficient” in some sense.

Jun 15 2020 at 9:53am

I see you’re believing your lying eyes and not the experts. What’s wrong with you?

Emile Hatem
Jun 15 2020 at 12:50pm

I’d love to hear your thoughts or experts’ opinions. Maybe I’m missing some important evidence.

Jun 15 2020 at 2:34pm

I was joking. I agree with your comment. The expert would Diane Ravitch.

Jun 15 2020 at 1:59pm

This argument might have made some sense except for the fact that you see very poor countries become overnight much more prosperous.

Singapore, South Korea, India, and China are all nations that were at one time among the poorest, lowest income,  and dysfunctional countries anywhere.  And then when some social policies changed, overnight these countries changed dramatically.


The gene argument might explain why one child might go on to win a noble prize while another becomes a mere lowly professor, but certainly not why one set of parents produce children who go to college while another are mired in poverty.

Earl Rodd
Jun 16 2020 at 7:45pm

I agree. I think that the “sorting” is a true phenomena, however, there remains a lot of diversity. Some very bright kids just happen to end up in economically and socially poor situations. There are just so many different life paths for lots of reasons.

Mark Z
Jun 20 2020 at 3:18am

There have been plenty of studies where poor students are randomly assigned to high quality schools and in general the results don’t favor schools making most of the difference. The reasons why some countries are poorer than other countries aren’t necessarily going to be the same as the reasons why some people are poorer than others.

Jun 23 2020 at 9:41pm

The hereditary nature of success  I believe has more do to with culture than genetics. I have worked with low income kids in Houston TX the culture these kids grow up in is very toxic. Some of them are very bright but they have never had someone to teach them what it takes to be successful. They lack the discipline and forethought to delay awards and that is not there fault it is the parents fault. But the parents were never taught either. It is sad.


Jun 15 2020 at 8:10am

Hearing that Success Academy has a high attrition rate, stops accepting students after 4th grade, and has a 50% teacher turnover rate throws the Sarah Carr interview into a whole new light.

Armin Chosnama
Jun 15 2020 at 8:23am

It seems that a lot of people in the education field work really hard to consider every theory and possibility for the issues discussed in this episode except for one: A common factor (culture, low IQ, lack of impulse control, poor decision-making skills) make certain people poor. The same common factor makes their kids perform poorly in school. Schools can’t fix that.

The best we can do is select out the kids who have a chance of succeeding and separate them from the disruptive kids who are stealing their education. The disruptive kids are going to fail anyway. Let them fail alone and let us save some of the kids who would have gone down with them.

The episode was also frustrating. The most important part of having an honest and open discussion is having a partner who feels the same. I felt this week’s guest did not an fell back on unproven tropes and bad reasoning:

Poverty and test scores are correlated. The guest assumes causation.

Race getting conflated into everything. Mono-racial countries have the same issues with low-performing classes.

Unnecessary and irrelevant name-calling (“Disrupters,” “Billionaires,” “Evangelical,” “Anti-gay,” “Koch brothers,” “Betsy DeVos,” “Right-wing”).

Using examples of corruption in a few charter schools to impugn the whole system. This may be true, but the guest didn’t go anywhere past a few examples.

Telling “Billionaires” how to spend their own money (fixing social issues according to this week’s guest’s preferences).

Telling Russ that his saying there are some bad teachers means he’s demonizing teachers.

Attempting to conflate the racist history of the term “school choice” with the current charter movement.

Finally, the guest says that she does not want to support religious schools. However, she doesn’t seem to have a problem with the dominant religion being taught in public schools today: The progressive religion of social justice. It’s a religion in everything but name.

Jon Breslau
Jun 15 2020 at 5:24pm

Agreed that it was a frustrating episode, with lots of labels, repetitive statements, and dodged questions.
D:  Charter schools aren’t helping but hurting public education.  The underlying problem is societal.

R:  Are you saying some charter schools haven’t had success?!?

D:  Charter schools aren’t helping but hurting public education.  The underlying problem is societal.

R:  Are you saying public schools are okay as is?!?

D:  Charter schools aren’t helping but hurting public education.  The underlying problem is societal.

R:  Are you saying teacher unions are okay?!?

D: Charter schools aren’t helping but hurting public education. The underlying problem is societal.

(Ad infinitum)

Dr Golabki
Jun 17 2020 at 10:01am

Jon –


Diana did say there are some sucessful charter schools. And she did say that some public schools are failing kids.


But I think she was pushing back on common rhetoric from charter school advocates, which is to take the best charter school in the country (while ignoring the many bad charter schools) and compare it to the worst public schools in the country (while ignoring the manny good public schools).


I think Diana’s main point is that after 30 years and many billionaires pouring their personal fortunes into the charter school movement, the results are mixed at best. I think that’s a very fair characterization of the real-world results, and it’s something that charter school advocates rarely engage with.


I actually think we know the answer to this problem. It’s busing kids from areas with terrible schools to ones with phenomenal suburban public schools like Lexington MA. But it’s not even discussed because there’s bipartisan agreement not to do it.

[Dr Golabki: The guest’s first name is Diane, not Diana, right? So, Dr. Diane Rabitch? Or are you talking about someone else?–Econlib Ed.]

Dr Golabki
Jun 17 2020 at 4:46pm

To Econlib Ed. – apologies for the mistake on my part – I meant Dr. Diane Ravitch.

[Thanks for the clarification. In turn, I apologize to you for being chary. The comment section for this podcast episode has gone way overboard in derisive personal criticisms of the guest, and I’d rather reached my limit of tolerant generosity. I ought not have taken it out on you.–Econlib Ed.]

Jun 20 2020 at 10:43am

lived in Delaware for a few years where there is bussing right now.  Was stunned by how many private schools there were.  Every church has a school, not a day care or preschool, a school.  Because anyone with money pulls their kids from public and puts them in private.

i worked in a fortune 100 company with lots of highly educated scientists.  If they lived in Delaware their kids never went to public schools.  They all went to private schools.  The people whose kids went to public schools all lived in pa where, guess what, there was no bussing.  There might be situations where bussing could or has worked but I know that in Delaware it definitely didn’t solve the problems that Diane Ravitch has with charter schools.

Jun 22 2020 at 2:19pm

I grew up in Lousville, which had a history of busing (it started the year I was in 1st grade). It was a disaster, IMO. And has been modified and basically ended due to multiple lawsuits, ALL brought by black parents who wanted their kids to attend neighborhood schools (primarily Central High).

Jun 22 2020 at 2:16pm

Mixed results are a good thing as long as you allow the market to work and the bad ones fail and the good ones succeed. But that isn’t possible with public schools, but is with charter schools (and private schools).

Like with anything, some bad will survive and some good will fail, for reasons other than quality, but, in general, the trendline will be towards the good schools drawing in the students and the bad schools closing.

Josh L
Jun 22 2020 at 12:55am

How do you spot a child with a “chance of succeeding” from a “disruptive” one when they are both 5 years old, underfed and have crack whores for parents? The reason why academics don’t focus on such “common factors” is that those factors are largely irrelevant to the profession of education.

Whether they are high-IQ-chosen-ones or not, students in areas with bad schools are put at a massive disadvantage. This is not contentious. The goal for educators is to create a school system that allows these children to grow and flourish despite their disadvantages, whatever they may be. Unfortunately many of the worst schools in the country do the opposite, which plays into the urgent need for alternatives that Russ demonstrates in this episode.

Jun 15 2020 at 8:37am

I really appreciate that Russ gives a platform to someone that he disagrees with, and that he provides an opportunity for them elucidate why what they have to say is important to an understanding of the issue.  I would like to see that continue whole-heartedly.

However, I found this guest to be unhelpful to her cause.  I, personally, did not find that she helped my understand why school choice was the wrong directions.  I am very biased towards school choice and vouchers particularyl, so take it with a grain of salt, but I thought she was very combative, and dodged the questions that were put to her plainly.

Russ Roberts: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.

She never really answered the question in my opinion.  She also used the platform to insult the Hoover Institute and her former colleagues which absolutely degrades her credibility in my mind.

I would love to hear more about the success and failure of the school choice and voucher schools movement, but there were few moments where I came away enlightened by this guest.

Jun 15 2020 at 2:05pm

Excellent points. The Hoover Institute insult and some of the anti-religion points stained an otherwise decent discussion, although I, like you, have a pro-school choice bias.

Uncle Leo
Jun 15 2020 at 3:03pm

“She never really answered the question in my opinion.”

I think you are being too kind to DR. She replied to many questions with nonanswers, at least two of which were nothing more than restatements of her original assertion.

The exchange you cite is one example, and the other came at the end of the interview when Russ questioned the usefulness of a master’s in education considering that: a) they had just established, with mutual agreement, the vital importance of classroom management, and b) master’s programs don’t teach classroom management.

DR’s reply restated her original preference, utterly ignored the topic of classroom management, and ended with a comparison to medical school so outlandish that it struck me as something “the billionaires” would probably pay her to repeat in future interviews.

I disliked that one in particular because I suspect that classroom management plays a far greater role in educational outcomes in poorly rated schools than it does in “leafy suburbs.” And I wonder how DR thinks policies to increase the proportion of teachers with master’s degrees will affect the teacher shortage..?

Somewhat relatedly, I was more than a little surprised to hear DR state, unprompted, that “anecdotes are not data” given the extent to which she relied on them throughout the interview.

Overall, this was one of my least favorite episodes. And I say that even though I have a lower opinion of charter schools now than I did before listening.

Chris M
Jun 15 2020 at 9:14am

Some thoughts:

In I think the first 10 mins Ms. Ravitch jumps back and forth between poverty inequality, implying they’re synonymous.

Around 23:30 she says charters “divert resources” from underfunded public schools. I’m not convinced they’re underfunded. And I’m not crazy about the idea that the public schools are somehow entitled to that money and any other ideas are an aberration.

When I start hearing mention of the Koch Bros in disparaging terms, that’s frequently not done in good faith in my experience.

Ms. Ravitch mentions the Sec of Education around the 29 minute mark, she speaks as though the job is Sec of Public Schools, not Sec of Education.

At around the 31m mark she mentions that one of the schools in the documentary is a $35,000/year boarding school. My local city school district spends about $30,000/year now and is among the very worst in NY State, possibly near the bottom in the country.

The clear anti-religious bias was pretty ugly, imho.

On testing and and rating teachers, why is it that pretty much every other occupation on the planet can be measured, but somehow not teachers?

Right around the 1h mark Ms. Ravitch tries the argument that charter schools are somehow both a big threat, and at the same time no one wants to go there.

It’s almost as though she has on what I’d call ideologically polarized glasses (instead of rose-colored glasses), the only light/facts that make it through are the ones she is already predisposed to prefer.

Liz E
Jun 16 2020 at 10:51pm

I agree with your observations, but I want to add my hypothesis to why this woman feels so strongly that socioeconomic inequality is an insurmountable obstacle to education:

In the past fifteen years schools in America have tripled down on preparing for reading comprehension and math tests especially for those with the worst socioeconomic risk factors, and not much has come of it. We can maintain their scores a bit though elementary school, but then they crash in high school anyway. Why? It’s the home instability! It’s the health insurance instability! It’s the systemic racism! OK don’t leave yet. I believe there are a lot of factors, but here’s a big one: the curriculum in elementary school teaches “reading comprehension skills” as universally applicable, and intentionally does not attempt to build knowledge. The rich and well educated and happy families read books with elevated vocabulary about american history and maybe even get in a little Greek mythology at the art museum for a family outing. They try and open the door to this vast and excellent universe to their children. And among the poor kids whose parents value education, but don’t have it themselves … they trust that the schools are doing it. But they aren’t.

Note: Daniel Willingham’s research gets a whole chapter, and he has an old episode on this podcast.

RUSS – PLEASE read The Knowledge Gap and have Natalie Wexler on!

Jun 15 2020 at 9:38am

Russ, I appreciate you bringing on someone who is ideologically against yours (and on this issue, mine) thoughts on the issue, but I agree with Ethan to say this strengthed my belief more than some of the other recent episodes on education, like the more balanced Pondiscio.  She asserts that charter schools have failed to live up to their promise while also acknowledging that they have almost never been implemented above 15% or so. She talks about how schools are supposed to fix societal ills, when most poor students barely get an education in public schools. She categorically fails to accept that better than awful performance from charter schools vs. public schools is preferable to the status quo. I live in Baltimore, the third highest per-pupil funding in the country and one of the worst school districts in America, where many schools lack A/C in the warm months and heating through the winter. It may not be “billions of dollars of embezzlement” but to stand up for “more funding for teachers” without acknowledging that something has gone horribly wrong besides funding with the status quo of public schools that serve poor students is absolutely absurd. Is it the schools job to fix the public health system? poverty? this is clearly a smokescreen, not at all relevant to the actual issue of school performance.

She makes it seem that it is easy to remove underperforming teachers in public schools so I did a little research. About 75 teachers get fired a year in New York out of 210,00 teachers. I find it hard to believe that 99.93 % of teachers in New York are doing good enough to keep their position.  It seems that it is not quite as simple to remove underperforming teachers as she alleges.

She repeatedly falls into the trap of “more.” More money, more resources, more teachers will fix everything.

It was a strange and random to think that Catholic schools are ok but Muslim, Jewish, and Evangelical schools are not based on the opinions of Diane Ravitch. Also, this idea that there is a large outgroup who thinks “we” demonize teachers seemed like another smokescreen.  As she said, people literally cheer teachers, but also we hate them?

The sad thing to me was that she helped confirm my view that the virulent anti-school choice crowd does not actually care about holding the worst schools in the country accountable for failing their students, while expecting other options, like charter school to fix all of societies ills as the required benchmark for their reason to exist.

Jon Breslau
Jun 15 2020 at 5:36pm

Hello Daniel,

A little elucidation on your remark “About 75 teachers get fired a year in New York out of 210,00 teachers. I find it hard to believe that 99.93 % of teachers in New York are doing good enough to keep their position.”

“Fired” is a technical term of art.  A teacher is only fired if they’ve been forced to leave the position.  A non-tenured teacher is rarely fired, but instead “non-renewed”, their yearly contract was not renewed).  Tenure does not protect against job loss from contraction / shrinkage (budget cuts, population changes, or zoning changes means less need for teachers, or curriculum changes mean less need for a specific teacher).

At the county I work at in Tennessee (a “right to work” state, so naturally union protections are minimal), there’s only been 1 firing in the last 15 years.  Why is that?  Because nearly all teachers in that situation resign rather than have on their record tarnished with an actual firing.  In my county, if you are fired or non-renewed, you’ll never be hired again.  That’s strong incentive for teachers to resign.  (Also if they resign, they can’t get unemployment benefits… another reason they really want you to resign rather than be fired or non-renewed).

TL;DR, just b/c a school system has few firings doesn’t mean many teachers aren’t pushed out of the system against their wishes.

Jun 16 2020 at 6:23am


Thank you for clarifying that!


Doug Iliff
Jun 16 2020 at 6:09pm

I was surprised that Ravitch did not admit that NYC warehouses poor (but still employed) teachers in what are called “rubber rooms,” where they report for work but do nothing. The New Yorker magazine, hardly an affiliate of the Hoover Institution, did an excellent expose some years back.

Jun 15 2020 at 9:40am

I used to believe that vouchers could improve test scores but the data came in and it Diane Ravitch seems to be corerct. I do though think it is possible that tutoring or direct instruction could possibly improve test scores but for the most part I think it is an intractable problem. We should admit that

But I disagree with Diane Ravitch on:

It is NOT true that 1 in 5 US children LIVE is poverty.  1 in 5 US children live in families whose market income before taxes and transfers is below the federal poverty level. NIMBY is a porblem in some places though.
A Rational Argument Could Made that the USA has Best Education in the World and Florida has the Best Education in the USA
What we in the developed world call poverty is almost irrelevant to how well children do in school. It looks like it is relevant because parents’ ability in school correlates with income but the children of very low income parents who did well in school do fine. One example is, the children of poor grad students do great at school as do the children of very low income Hasidic Jews. Taking a vow of poverty will not make your children do bad in school.

So IMO we should:

Since we seem unable to teach children more, put more effort into finding out what are the most valuable things we should teach and teach more of that and less of other things.
Cut the overhead ta save money and let principles and teachers run the schools.
Force more direct instruction on the schools and teachers
Experiment with older student and volunteers tutoring younger students and teach doing more tutoring.

Realize that a school system the spends less for the same results is doing better.

Realize that there are only an insignificant number of bad schools in the developed countries, though they can still get better. What we call bad schools are schools that have bad average students.

Ajit Kirpekar
Jun 15 2020 at 4:36pm

On your last point I half agree and half disagree.

I believe the single biggest factor in determining a child’s scholastic achievement is the parents and the culture he or she comes from. No judgement implied but parents who stress education unsurprisingly will have children who perform better on test scores and graduation rates.

That would seem to imply then that the school is at best a second-order factor of minimal importance. But I’m not sure I buy this argument. There’s no reason innovation can’t exist in education. the fact that it hasn’t been 60 years is more telling of a broken bureaucracy than a dearth of innovation.

Has Robert Pondiacio pointed out there were things that success academy was doing that worked.


Mark Z
Jun 20 2020 at 3:35am

Haven’t adoption studies mostly undermined the importance of parenting though? The impression I’ve generally gotten is that peer effects are accepted to be the most important ‘social’ factor.

Jeffrey Walter
Jun 15 2020 at 10:08am

Great discussion on the pros and cons of charter schools. While ms. Ravitch presents good data on the pitfalls of charters schools, her analysis has one blind spot that most elites have, she completely discounts what parents want for their children.

Even if you assume her analysis is correct, why are charter schools consistently over subscribed? Why do parents of these children try to desperately get their kids into charter schools and out of public schools? It’s because parents want better for their kids. Ms. Ravitch completely ignores the desire of the parents. If the charter schools are so poorly run, why do parents consistently select them over the local public school? On this Ms. Ravitch has no answer.

Mark Carney
Jun 15 2020 at 5:12pm

Probably for the same reason the suburbs exploded when people ran away from cities during the high crime era. The problem is however that if charter schools still suck and I don’t think Russ was able to challenge Ms. Ravitch on the evidence, then you’re just compounding long term bads.

Same with the hollowing out of the city the hollowing out of the public school system is no solution and just a symptom of the disease that can only be fixed by revitalising the civic institutions, not leaving people to charter schools that don’t deliver.

Jun 15 2020 at 11:16am

I see why people say she was arguing in bad faith. Even when a school, like in New Orleans, shows significant improvement she can allow it to stand. She will just point out the national average or something else not considering that the national average is hardly a concern when every school in your region is far worse. The ending was especially annoying in this regard.

Todd Mora
Jun 15 2020 at 11:52am

Diane Ravitch is on a reputation rebuilding tour and she has been for years.  Incentives matter and her incentives come from the K-12 public school establishment, teachers’ unions, administrator unions, schools of higher education, none of which support or will tolerate “disrupters.”

Her almost spitting out the the term “evangelical” or targeting individuals by name shows her animus towards those who think differently or do not share her palpable hatred of charter schools.

The one thing that no charter opponent has ever explained to me is why it is wrong to give parents a choice in where their students go to school.  The empowerment of choice is life altering.  I understand that some charters screen the parents, so what?  The parents who chose to put in the time and effort to get their children in have already helped their children immensely without ever having them attend one day of school.

As far as embezzlement and corruption, that is on the state government.  If they can’t administer the funds properly, then the state needs to clean house in whatever department handles those funds.  Additionally, how corrupt is it when a public teachers’ union holds the students hostage for higher pay or better benefits?

Finally, I have never understood why with k-12 education we have to have only the government choice?  With food and medical care, poor people are given “vouchers” and allowed to shop for those goods and services where they choose.  Why not give vouchers to poor students and let them shop for education where they want.  If you’re concerned about schools not wanting the poor students, make the voucher 2x what a non poor student receives in state funding.  Then the poor students will be recruited.

Overall, Ms. Ravitch came across as someone who did not want to have a discussion, rather she wanted to argue a personal opinion and make sure the establishment knew she was carrying their water.

As always Russ was a gracious and well informed host.  Thank you for another great podcast.

Jun 15 2020 at 1:12pm

I loved this discussion and I am a huge fan of Diane Ravitch hearing or on another podcast.

I agreed with her points on charter schools and how we as society value teachers


I do think this discussion was to narrow.

I would of liked more discussion on historical racism in schooling. This was briefly acknowledge at the end of the discussion. It should be front and center of the discussion as so much of White Supremacy dictates segregation in our society and it permutes to our schools. Russ briefly acknowledge this when he talked about how a Childs school is dictate and the price of his house. We tried bussing in the 70’s to change this but white people apposed this successful integration technique and we stopped it

2. Diane mentioned that schools where not the biggest part of    the solution as russ agreed a follow up discussion could be at attacking issues of poverty, health care, gun violence, and food insecurity. That have such negative effects on our countries children and how we fix these problems.

Jun 16 2020 at 8:27pm

I’m not sure busing is the answer. Asking kids to spend 2 hours a day commuting is tough on the kid and the parents. Also, aren’t many kids that were bused subject to the same selection bias as charter schools? It takes parents that are willing to get the kids up early and have dinner ready late.

With charges of ‘systemic racism’ in schools, what minority parents really want to send their kids into an environment they perceived as racist.

Jun 15 2020 at 1:56pm

Diane Ravitch could have used a heavy dose of Tom Sowell’s “compared to what?” critique.

She correctly identifies the Charter School cherry picking as making a bad situation worse for the remaining public schools. I do sympathize with her there.

She argues convincingly of the waste from standardized testing and the biases it introduces.

She argues convincingly that teaching is hard and it appears the returns are low so its not attracting enough of the good talent that the profession should given the social impact.

Ok, but compared to what? She could never bring herself to concede that the alternative methods she preferred pre-Charter school were terrible and that standardized testing and Charter schools were both a response to that sad fact.

As an aside, her religious comments were borderline offensive. Catholic Schools are ok, those other religions are definitely not. Hmmmmm….

Jon Breslau
Jun 15 2020 at 5:50pm

To be fair, she did offer a few alternatives:
1.)  Stop leaching money from public education via vouchers.

2.)  Stop making public schools the educators of last resort via charter schools.

3.)  Focus more on what the data has shown:  reducing student to teacher ratios in tough schools.

4.)  Don’t assume that teachers who teach difficult to teach kids (disabilities, English as a second language, behavioral issues), in run-down schools, from unsafe neighborhoods, are “bad teachers” simply b/c they don’t get the test results you want to see.

As a teacher myself, a “bad teacher” is one who doesn’t show up on time, doesn’t grade papers, doesn’t give any grade but participation grades (not right/wrong, just “did you turn it in completed”), and rubberstamps A’s.  There’s plenty of those (if not more) in very good schools.

Ajit Kirpekar
Jun 19 2020 at 3:48pm

1.)  Stop leaching money from public education via vouchers.


Me: Because the public schools were doing so well prior to the charter School movement? The whole “leeching” was a direct response to that fact that they were performing horribly. This point went completely unanswered by Miss Ravitch

2.)  Stop making public schools the educators of last resort via charter schools.

Me: This seems to be related to the point I made above. It’s also a unstated condemnation of the public school system that they are chosen as a last resort.


3.)  Focus more on what the data has shown:  reducing student to teacher ratios in tough schools.

I would love to see the numbers behind this claim. This podcast has brought guests after guest on this subject and none ever proclaimed one factor that would dramatically benefit the school system.


4.)  Don’t assume that teachers who teach difficult to teach kids (disabilities, English as a second language, behavioral issues), in run-down schools, from unsafe neighborhoods, are “bad teachers” simply b/c they don’t get the test results you want to see.

Me:Ok but she never offered an alternative measurement ssystem. In fact she offered nothing in terms of teacher accountability.

Bottom line: if the prior regime was so successful, there wouldn’t be this need to upend the system with charter schools and standardized testing. The fact that the prior regime was so stupendously awful needs to servea as context for the charter school movement that Diane Ravitch is so against.

Victoria Pires Barracosa
Jun 15 2020 at 7:22pm

Is there a country where the majority of the schools are independent /charter schools?

Anyway schools are  there  to create citizens, how much math the kids learn or if they are any good at reading is secondary to the federal government ,   the role of the school in the formation of the nation state is easily forgotten but it’s vital to the endeavor. That’s why education tends to be quite nationalistic in general.  And why i don’t see the government supporting independent schools to a large degree.

Ajit Kirpekar
Jun 15 2020 at 9:08pm

Lant pritchett made that same point, that schools also serve as a form of early indoctrination, a very vital service that the government is unwilling to relinquish.


if that is indeed the case let’s at least stop pretending that it’s all about education for the kids.



Jun 22 2020 at 2:28pm

That is probably the best argument AGAINST public schools.

Brent Rood
Jun 15 2020 at 2:07pm

Enjoyed the discussion and contrasting viewpoints. However, that was frustrating to listen to at times as Diane seemingly repeatedly dodged, or mis-directed, questions. Such as,

Russ Roberts: “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…”

Really, Diane is not able to concede that there are SOME public schools where children can’t read or write? Russ is not speaking of all, or even anywhere near most. Frustrating.

These type of dodging responses were the sort of question re-formulating you might see on a 3 -minute cable news interview — not what I expect from a guest on an academic podcast.

Ed Kless
Jun 15 2020 at 2:18pm

Sadly, Diane Ravitch did very little to advance the conversation despite Russ’ best efforts to entice her into better dialogue. To not acknowledge that there are bad teachers that need to be removed demonstrates to me that she just repeats the tiresome messages of the teachers union. As is being demonstrated elsewhere with regard to bad police officers, public sector unions are a big problem.

Jun 15 2020 at 2:39pm

Ravitch’s disdain for low-income parents (so typical of “helpers” who see themselves as advocates for those parents’ children, as discussed by Mauricio Miller, Bob Woodson, and many others) was obvious. As Pondiscio pointed out, it is immoral that motivated parents who care deeply about their children’s education should by law be siloed off with all parents who share their income level (in the name of “fairness”) rather than being permitted to send their children to school with other parents who share their concern for education. (Also, has any smart person investigated whether parental satisfaction with schools is proxy for any other aspects of child well-being? Anti school choice advocates seem incredibly uninterested in that.)

Progress in low-income communities (as Miller and Woodson understand) is driven by the positive deviants from those communities themselves, not the top-down interventions Ravitch appears to favor. Charter schools allow for more positive deviants to blossom; over generations, that can change the story of entire communities, as more and more people see examples of how to “make it.”

Ravitch’s outdated hatred/fear of “evangelicals” smacks of the same bigotry that appears to be driving Elizabeth Bartholet’s crusade against homeschoolers. Some aging center-left boomer intellectuals seem to have once toyed with the idea of giving low income parents choice, but are repulsed at the idea that those parents might have preferences those intellectuals don’t approve of.

Jun 15 2020 at 3:27pm

Russ – Not sure if you listened to the multi-part series on the “StartUp” podcast covering Success Academy, but it is really well done.

In one part they actually spend a lot of time on new teachers learning how to manage/hold attention of the students in the classroom, something you and Diane touched on in this episode. In the Startup series the teachers who master that skill seem to find it not just essential but is among the highlights of their journey.

Considering that I can barely hold the attention of 6 adults on a work conference call, let alone my 2 elementary school aged children, I would guess that finding high quality teachers who have mastered this skill especially in elementary on middle school aged children is not easy.

The Startup podcast also spends a great deal of time on Eva Moskowitz and her background. Apparently she was elected to NYC city council on a platform which in part included fixing public schools. In an incident that she recalls in an interview in the series, she identifies that at one poorly performing school there was basically no working bathrooms for students, so obviously it might be hard to concentrate on school if you have to “hold it” all day. She battled with the school district for several months to just get the bathrooms working, which they did not do, and exasperated she concluded that the school system would not be reformed from within….shocking if the anecdote is true, both that the school system would be in such bad repair and that parents of children in that school would not be in the principals office complaining non-stop that the kids had no access to bathrooms.

Alan Goldhammer
Jun 15 2020 at 4:32pm

For those of us who have more than a passing knowledge of charter schools and vouchers, Ravitch is right on target. Most of the commenters to the podcast don’t like her view but they should really dig down into the data and once having done so will see that she is correct. Cherry picking students/families helps institutions such as the Success Academy look as though they are the solution to the educational problems that afflict this country. But one only needs to look at why public schools in some regions succeed and in others fail.

this is a hugely complicated sociological problem that is not amenable to a simple solution as school choice. In our county school choice is a non-issue as the public schools are very good. there are numerous programs that are available for enrollment that are not based on residential district which is the form of choice (provided the student qualifies for the program). It does not have to be privatized to succeed.

Jun 15 2020 at 5:33pm

Did you listen to the Pondiscio episode or read his book? It is true that Success Academy is able to filter out low-engagement parents, but that fact alone doesn’t meant that high-engagement parents should be forced to use the low-quality public schools.

Improving the public schools never seems to be in the offing, so concerned parents clamor for charters.


Armin Chosnama
Jun 15 2020 at 8:30pm

Skimming is a feature, not a bug, and the advocates of school choice need to own this with pride.

My motivated parents applied to immigrate to the US to give me and my sisters a better life. The US skimmed educated parents like ours out of Iran. Our lives are now better because of that skimming.

According to the arguments of the advocates of the status quo in schooling, we should have stayed in Iran in the name of some progressive ideal of “fairness,” and the US should have instead spent trillions on nation-building to transform Iran into a free-market liberal democracy. It worked out great in Iraq, after all.

Incidentally, mono-racial Iran (essentially) has the same issues with cycles of poverty and poorly performing students. It has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with parental and cultural factors. Bringing in race as if that explains even a small minority of the effects shows a narrow world view.

Jon Breslau
Jun 15 2020 at 5:13pm

As a public school teacher, I’ll put in my two cents:

1.)  Charter schools do cherry-pick students and their parents.  Some of them do lottery entrance, but to even qualify for the lottery there’s often much parents have to do.  Charter schools are able to dump kids back into the school system when they feel they aren’t working out.  I’ve worked with Charter Schools and teachers who teach there; they aren’t bad people, and I respect their work.

2.)  If you’re going to stick with “parents want the best schools for their kids”, as Russ Roberts does, then you must also respect parents who don’t want their kids in any school.  The justice system spends money for truancy officers to correct such parents.  I often have to fight parents to hold kids to educationally-appropriate standards, as most parents just want their kids to have easy A’s.  Years of education has made me more leery of deference to parents’ wishes than Russ Roberts.

3.)  Tenure means three things:  before firing, there has to be a reason to fire them, that teacher must know the reason, and that teacher must be able to argue against that reason in front of a panel of disinterested educators.  (In some states it means more, but that’s all it means in TN).

Tenure protects bad teachers, but it mostly protects good teachers (and students) from office politics, romances, and extra-demands.  I’ve had coworkers threatened to lose their jobs b/c they didn’t… clean up the cafeteria, mow the school or stadium lawn, sponsor a club, coach a sport, agree with admin on political issues, didn’t give good grades to certain students, you name it.

If you don’t believe me, look at your local private school that doesn’t have such protections; you’ll often find that teachers are often forced to do these things.  There’s a few in my town where half of all the teachers are coaches, and those that aren’t stay busy after school doing clubs, working 60-hr work weeks.  There’s even one where once a new headmaster comes, he gets rid of as many teachers as he can in order to hire either loyal teachers or fresh teachers he can pay nothing.  That happens in most businesses, I know, but I hope we can hold public schools to a higher standard.

Anyways, thanks for your time whomever reads this.  I’ll catch up on reading everyone else’s too.

Jun 16 2020 at 5:51am

John Breslau: Such a strong argument for good job security for teachers.

Jun 15 2020 at 5:58pm

This was a tough one. Hearing someone argue both that Charters skim the cream and that they don’t actually have waiting lists was laugh out loud absurd. Russ was very measured and I appreciated his restraint, but I struggled to stay engaged as she dismissed pro-choice (in this context) arguments out of hand.

Jun 16 2020 at 12:14am

I appreciate the different viewpoint, and although I would have liked more solutions, I felt that she had some good points on charter schools. One issue that seems to be lost in the pro-charter, anti-charter school discussion – why are charter schools synonymous with school choice? Choice is a policy and is independent of whether charter schools exist or not. San Francisco has a full choice public school program. There are vast differences in the public school options – some good and some not. Our local excellent high school district allows kids to choose any of the high schools – they apparently haven’t refused a request in 50 years. They are all good schools, and my two kids picked different options. I do find charters problematic for the reasons mentioned, but doing away with charters does not do away with choice.

A couple more points:

First on firing teachers – my kids have been in private and public schools. The teachers have been just as good in public – in fact, our private school tolerated a bad teacher who was almost immediately let go by our later public school. At least in California, schools don’t have to keep bad teachers.

Second on school funding – I agree 100% that schools don’t have enough funding and that all the choice in the world won’t fix schools. San Francisco has some excellent schools and some terrible ones. Choice alone doesn’t make schools better.

Russ says we have tried funding and it doesn’t work. But we know things that work that we don’t fund. School buses dramatically improve attendance and arrive to school on time. Low attendance rates are a huge problem in low performance schools. Yet we don’t pay for buses in California. We know teachers of the same gender and race dramatically improve outcomes. Yet, we don’t pay sufficiently to pull in a wide variety of teachers.


Jun 16 2020 at 4:12am

It’s frustrating to listen to episodes like this, because the take-away almost seems to be that the only thing we know about education is that what we are doing now is not working. There are a lot of groups in this country that are trying to improve the educational achievement of everyone, special subgroups, the impoverished, minorities, etc… I personally believe, like many others, that a good education is the path to a good life whatever your personal vision of that end. The billionaires, millionaires, middle class, poor, politicians, parents, teachers and educators all claim to share this goal, but we cannot seem to move the needle in the right direction.

Assume that Dr. Ravitch is correct and that the charter experiment has shown that its results are mixed at best and corrupt at worst. What is the next experiment to try? She suggests that we need to improve school funding and that we need to improve social programs but is lacking in detail of what that might look like. What is the best spend of the next additional dollar? Is it social programs or school funding? Should we reduce school funding to better fund social programs?

I am skeptical that additional school funding is the solution for several reasons:

Are we to believe that teachers are not performing to their best ability because they are underpaid? Would an increase in a teacher’s salary actually increase that teacher’s students’ outcomes? Would an additional $1,000/year in a teacher’s salary improve test scores (assuming they are measuring something useful) increase student test scores in any increment?
There is a conflicting argument that the teachers we have are good (and very few are bad), but if we raised salaries, we could hire better teachers. Hiring better teachers only happens if the teachers we have leave or we increase the aggregate number of teachers. We are not going to witness an exodus of bad teachers by paying them more. And the if the ability to hire better teachers enables us to remove the “bad” teachers. Why were we keeping the bad teachers in the first place?
New textbooks, equipment, upkept facilities does signal a dedication and importance to the student and the teachers and staff. But are those things necessary to learning? While the instruction of math has changed in ways I do not understand. Math of 1 year ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago, and 50 years ago has not fundamentally changed. While the slide rule has gone to the waste bin, the calculus, algebra, and geometry has not changed in a meaningful way that I cannot sit down and solve those problems if I absolutely needed to, though I was taught them 20+ years ago. English reading and composition have not completely moved away from Shakespeare, Upton Sinclair, J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, or others as references to storytelling, argument formation, prose, narratives, or composition have they? History is always being written and new insights are added, but is Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, English Colonialism, American History so different that the newest edition makes large differences (especially in the age of Wikipedia and the wider internet)? I’ll admit that hard sciences (physics, chemistry, geology, biology, anatomy, etc…) do benefit from expenditures every year to make learning and understanding easier through hands-on experiments and demonstration. I am sympathetic to Dr. Ravitch’s point on the defunding of the arts. I think they are necessary and should be continued, but if a school cannot teach its students basic principles, the arts (which are based on tournament models) are not going to create prosperous lives, and may depend on a little bit of social class (instruments, supplies, and lessons cost money). Computers (programing languages and concepts) require investment, but if a student does not understand variables (algebra) or electricity (physics) learning computers beyond a user base may be a bridge too far.

The assertion that charter schools are able to skim the best students or best parents should result in better outcomes for both the charter school and the traditional public school. Assume a normal distribution curve and a charter school removes the top 25% of the distribution, that reduces the variability of the traditional school. The charter school can focus on the top achievers and better meet their needs and the traditional school is better able to focus on the needs of the remaining 75% and better tailor the lessons to their ability. The best students are not held back in pace by their less scholastically achieving peers, and the teacher can better match lesson pace to aptitude of those remaining. It also theoretically reduces class size of both institutions which is a common pain point for teachers.

Thinking in terms of marginal cost, one of the assertions that Dr. Ravitch made is that the charter schools are taking the students that have a low marginal cost to educate. In a system that is mostly fixed costs this does make a big difference in overall funding effectiveness. If it takes $1.5 to educate a student from an impoverished, marginalized, or other disadvantaged community but it only takes $0.50 to educate a student from a wealthy or “privileged/non-disadvantaged” family then removing that student causes a disruption to funding formula for the school.

But a few questions:

Is it fair to potentially impede the educational development of that wealthy student and allow the poor student to free ride on their less costly development? (I.E. the teacher can ignore the wealthy, high achieving student because they will be successful enough without the teacher’s attention.)
Assume that every student has the same marginal cost for a unit of education, the wealthy parent is paying twice (ability to pay ignored). The wealthy, involved parents spend more time talking to their children about school, overseeing homework, reading to their children, interacting with teachers. So the wealthy parent is paying more in taxes, paying more in time, and their student is “rewarded” with that extra investment by getting less attention from a teacher because they don’t require as much intervention. (Not able to cite studies, but this is my understanding of current research on wealth and education).

This could point to the larger discussion about teacher compensation. Regardless of opinion on over/under pay, the market rewards higher pay to people with skills that are not commoditized. Most teacher pay agreements are not based on anything beside years of service and educational attainment. Which would be a strong indication of commoditization. We can replace a teacher with 5 years of service and a masters degree with a difference teacher with 5 years of service and a masters degree and see no difference in any meaningful outcomes (otherwise pay would be different). But also consider that teachers agreements have further commoditized their field with limits on class size, number of classes taught, fields taught, and required assistance. If a teacher is only effective when the class size is 20 – 25 students per class, and only when the total classes taught is less than 5 that teacher has a limit on value. Especially if any of those boundaries are breached at a higher scale (I.E. a teacher is just as effective in a class of 24 as a class of 12, but a class of 30 reduces effectiveness) or leads to additional support (e.g. I can teach a class of 30, but only if an assistant is in the class to help). Contrast that with a teacher that can adapt to class size regardless of the circumstances (I.E. I can teach a class of 12 or 100 without a reduction in effectiveness. I can teach a class in a barn or a state-of-the-art classroom without a reduction in effectiveness). That utility teacher has a tremendous value to the school and society (assuming that no reduction in effectiveness was already at least average if not better). I agree from Russ’s talk with Robert Pondiscio that we need to do a better job designing the work of a teacher to be much less reliant on teachers of great heroism and ability to push our students forward. Student achievement should not be based our ability to recruit the top 10% of teachers or their ability to sustain effort over a career of 40 years. That redesign will at best stall teacher salaries if not reduce them. However, if more students are higher achieving than I can live with that trade-off.

The final point on tests, I disagree with Dr. Ravitch’s perspective that tests are meaningless. She states that tests are only indicative of the test-takers ability to think like the test writer. While there are studies that support parts of this assertion (a student’s knowledge/familiarity of baseball will increase the test score) if that was the whole truth then the test would have no reliability (reproducibility of score) let alone viability (ability to predict an outcome). The fact that test scores are highly predictive of socio-economic class is something (too many multicollinearity issues to delve into). Russ often asserts that just because we can measure it does not mean it’s important, and I agree. But to completely dismiss tests score (with reliability and validity) without discussing those problems or any potential insights is disingenuous.

I agree with Dr. Ravitch that we should look at more than test scores for achievement and comparison. I even think that comparing averages across schools has limited insightfulness other than rankings. She didn’t discuss individual improvement as a measurement. If we have a test score for every student for every year, we should be to study improvement provided by a school system because the student is the control for themselves. In New Orleans, if a school improved its average by 2x, that should be examined (if it’s a selection bias like she claimed that should be in the data). If prior to the hurricane the average (or individual) student was receiving 0.4 years of education per year of school, but after the hurricane that went 0.8 that is a bigger insight than the average of the school or district compared to others. It’s still less than desired since it’s less than 1, but that is still an improvement to build on. That type of analysis allows for evaluation of schools, students, teachers, parents, or neighborhoods and identify dips, bumps, and other anomalies to find root causes. If the current tests she is referencing is purely just a percentile score, then the tests need to be re-written for better insights.

After listening to Dr. Ravitch, I just had this sense of dread that there is too much wrong to make any improvements or worse we still don’t know where to start to even try to make improvements. Her assertions that social programs, poverty, and parental involvement are the levers to pull that make a difference is disheartening and makes it seem like nothing we could do to schools will make a meaningful difference. Perhaps that is colored by her own frustration of seeing little improvement over her career. If she is wrong, let’s figure that out and improve. If she is right, let’s figure that out and improve. Education of the children is too important to abandon.

Jun 16 2020 at 6:22am

I live in the UK, so I have no dog in the fight, but I found this week’s guest very unconvincing. As others have commented, a combination of evading certain obvious questions and clear disdain for certain groups of parents (evangelical Christians, for one) gives the impression of a kind of special pleading rather than rigorous enquiry.

The point I wanted to focus on is her corny idealisation of teachers, for whom the has too much respect. I may have too little respect for them: at the moment in the UK the teaching unions are fighting tooth and nail to keep children out of public schools (only around 10% of children are getting any kind of teacher-led education at the moment in the UK), and the teaching union regards keeping them this way until September as a “win.” I see a massive differentiation between some teachers, who are adequate, and some who don’t even want to do the basics of showing up.

So I find her plea for teachers to be paid more a kind of magic thinking. Why would the US public system want to want to retain any more of the mediocre people teaching your children? My guess is that you will have the same problems just with slightly richer teachers.

And while I’m here, did she really say
<blockquote>You can’t <em>work</em> people 60 and 70 and 80 hours a week and expect that this is going to be their profession.</blockquote>
Has she ever eaten in a nice restaurant? How does she think that the chefs got so good? Or gone to the emergency room to get treated. There are <em>plenty </em>of people in life who work 80 hour weeks when they are young in order to become experts at something.

Jun 16 2020 at 6:40am

I enjoyed the vigorous debate. In previous posts I’ve urged Russ to challenge guests, so it was gratifying to see it here.  I thought both made excellent points. But rigorous debate is easier when the guest has opinions that are not aligned. I urge Russ to take the same scalpel to guests with opinions he shares. For example, Russ was – and apparently remains – a cheerleader for a previous guest who bashed school boards and teachers unions, suggesting they are the major cause of failing schools. But there are hundreds of school districts with boards controlled by ‘conservatives’ and without teachers unions, yet I’ve seen no data showing systematically better outcomes. I also would love to see Russ challenge the Charles Murray fans posting here who justify the obscenity of inner-city schools.  Shame.

Paul Jenssen
Jun 16 2020 at 10:16am

I worked over 30 years in business (CPA,MBA,CFO) and then went back to school to get a Masters in Education and am certified in NYS to teach Social Studies and Business. I did my student teaching in NYC schools and a public school in Nassau County.

For the last 12 plus years I’ve taught part time in a private school, a county jail and now GED to high school dropouts. I chose not to teach full time because I felt to do it well would have taken 0ver 60 hours a week which would have been difficult for me and my wife.

My observations:

My Masters in Education did not prepare me to be an effective teacher. I believe schools should hire college graduates and have them train under master teachers. Master teachers should be given support to reduce their administration time so they can focus on teaching students and teachers-in-training. We should reform the existing teacher certification.

Principals need more leeway to fire underperforming teachers after they have been given fair training and warnings, just like in business.

We need to develop better ways to measure teacher effectiveness, which is not the standardized tests we now use.

I think giving families more choice makes sense and is better than what we have now.



Jun 16 2020 at 11:18am

While seeming to attack everything that threatens the status quo in public education, Mrs. Ravitch appeared to only offer two solutions:  Increase teacher pay and decrease classroom size.  While those may indeed be part of the overall solution, I don’t think they’re the panacea that will solve the problems with the current system that she identified.

T. Schanel
Jun 16 2020 at 11:37am

Russ made a point about the science of education and fads in educational theory, and within 10 seconds she transitioned to school choice and how it was a slogan of southern segregationists.


I don’t think she was arguing in good faith throughout the episode.


Jun 16 2020 at 11:50am

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.”

And yet she is opposed to vouchers! Vouchers are how you give choice to parents in a publicly funded system, even one without charter schools! She can’t hold both positions simultaneously. One of them is false.

Diana Ravitch: “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.”

This is an important point but not for the reasons she mentions. It is one of the strongest arguments for charter schools. There is an unavoidable problem with one size fits all prescriptions created by central planning not discussed in this interview. It is that, even in well designed systems that benefit the majority of students, none of those students will benefit equally. It is an unavoidable fact that some will not receive any benefit. And even that some will harmed. And that is for the average kids! It is much worse for the outliers. Outliers exist in every population and they can be both positive and negative. The children Ravitch is describing here are not receiving “education” in the public school system. They are receiving very expensive nursing care and babysitting. It is likely they cannot be educated in the traditional sense. The fact that charter schools might avoid picking up such students may simply represent an acknowledgement that they lack any expertise in the areas those children require, not that they are too expensive or would bring down test scores. The same problem exists for positive outliers, the honor students. The average classroom, by definition, underserves the highest performing students. And that, too, is costly. Though the costs to those achievers is far off and immeasurable without a comparison group. The problem, then, is not insufficient financing to attract “good” teachers. It is trying to design a system that treats and evaluates outliers in the same way and with the same tools that it uses on more average cases. It’s not possible. Which leads directly to Armin Chosnama’s inspired comment above, “Skimming is a feature, not a bug. And the advocates of school choice need to own it with pride.”


Diane Ravitch: “It’s interesting that whenever charters or vouchers are put to a vote, they’re voted down. And, vouchers have always been voted down.”

In most communities public education is the number one or number two employer in terms of size. That is one very large, very coordinated voting block even in the absence of teachers unions. Thus votes failing to support vouchers or charter are more likely due to the problems inherent in democracy than any flaws of charters or vouchers. This, I believe, is “public choice theory” and worthy of at least a semester course in college, not just a pithy comment here.

Eric Fruits
Jun 16 2020 at 12:06pm

I think the term “disrupters” was a bad choice for the guest.

In many industries, especially tech, disrupters are celebrated. Benedict Evans was written extensively on this. It seems odd that there is only one industry in which disruption is seen as insidious.

Also, the guest’s focus on failed charters should be turned on its head.

Failure is a feature of a dynamic economy. Innovation necessarily involves successes and failures. Markets provide information, usually through the price system. But markets also provide information through business failures. It truly would be an inefficient market if new entrants didn’t learn the lessons from previous failures.

Jun 17 2020 at 7:50am

“Failure is a feature of a dynamic economy. Innovation necessarily involves successes and failures. Markets provide information, usually through the price system. But markets also provide information through business failures.”

Absolutely brilliant!

Eric Fruits
Jun 16 2020 at 2:45pm

The end of the transcript reads: “If teachers get tenured [don’t get tenured?–Econlib Ed.], they have a right to a hearing.”

I don’t think DR misspoke. As I understand her point is that if a teacher has tenure, they have a right to a hearing. Without tenure, the teacher does not have a right to a hearing.

[Thanks, Eric. You are quite right, and I’ve fixed it.–Econlib Ed.]

Doug Iliff, MD
Jun 16 2020 at 6:44pm

My public school education in the ‘50s and ‘60s took place in a post-war, middle class, homogenous Kansas City suburb.  We had 25 kids to a classroom, and no digital enhancements.  The demeanor was respectful and orderly, and everyone learned to their capacity for learning.  “Tracking” was allowed.  My senior year in high school we had 26 National Merit finalists, but dropouts were rare.  The average family income, and school expenditures, were far below (adjusted for inflation) what disadvantaged areas experience today.

Two stories have appeared in the Topeka paper recently— from the former principal of the most “disadvantaged” high school, and the new head of a local business diversity office.  Both grew up in all-black schools (Kansas and Mississippi) but had classrooms which were respectful and orderly.  Students learned to their capacity.

I’m not arguing for a return to segregation, obviously.  My point is that culture has changed, for poor blacks, browns, and whites, as Charles Murray has chronicled.  More money for families and schools will not change the course of this tragedy.

Short of a religious or cultural revival resulting in more residential fathers and better parenting skills, I see only two choices to raise more children with an adequate education.  One would be boarding schools, which would of course be prohibitively expensive— but you’ve got to get them out of toxic families.

More practical, and eminently doable, would be to roll back progressively stricter interpretations of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which by now “mainstreams” students with problems as diverse as Ravitch’s “diaper” kids to sociopathic thugs— and dumps them in the regular classroom for an overwhelmed teacher.

So take rearrange the public school administration such that special ed teachers, who are now paper-pushers with limited individual contact with their charges, teach specialized groups in very small classes.  After all, that’s what Ravitch says she wants.

Then let the kids who have had a modicum of discipline at home remain in a well-ordered class of 25.

I’m disappointed that she didn’t face this challenge.  I would have loved to hear her dissemble on that one.

As an aside: in the 18 years I was president of the board and part-time teacher at a middle class, low-cost evangelical private school, every student spent 4 hours a year taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills until high school, when they spent 4 hours a year taking the ACT or SAT.  So what on earth is the big deal about time wasted on testing?  Kids spent more time than that every year going to the bathroom.  However, we did produce NM finalists at ten times the state rate.

Ajit Kirpekar
Jun 17 2020 at 12:18pm

I think this is correct and sadly a subject not allowed to be discussed in polite society. The culture has changed and no one wants to admit it.

I’m actually quite in favor of the boarding school theory and I don’t think it would be prohibitively expensive, it would just be politically unpalatable.

Sad as it may sound, I wish there was as much fervor in social shaming fathers who abandon their kids or parents ignoring their children’s futures than what we target today ( I’m not talking about racial injustice here; we seem to shame a lot more than that). Parents who don’t read to their kids or refuse to take responsibility should be shamed.

Mark Z
Jun 20 2020 at 4:18am

Another cultural norm we’ve dispensed with that I doubt will be accepted in polite society again is shaming of mothers who have children out of wedlock (or the equivalent of wedlock).

I think you do have a point that shaming unfortunately may be more useful than we knew: most of the benefits of good parenting may be external (I.e., Raj Chetty‘s neighborhood effects). If you’re the only good parent in the neighborhood, your children may not turn out much better than the neighborhood average. Cultural norms one way to avert this problem.

Earl Rodd
Jun 16 2020 at 7:56pm

My summary: Host 10. Guest: 0. But it was very interesting to hear a true defender of a failing monopoly explain why the overpriced monopoly just needs more money.

I think the true monopolist and central planning desires of the guest came out clearly when vouchers were mentioned. So she thinks she should decide what religion is taught? Parents often want Catholic or evangelical schools because they want children taught well. She explicitly stated that competition is bad. Spoken as true monopolist.

I think perhaps my saddest contact in education came while living in a big city. We home schooled and by speaking to support groups were known in some circles. Thus a group of black mothers contacted us to investigate home schooling – they told us that they knew the ONLY skill there kids learned at school was dealing drugs. We could not get them over the confidence hump that they could home school. The tragedy is that they could have set up a small school in the church basement run on a shoe string financially. But they could not due to all the health and safety regulations (which don’t include dealing drugs) and formal educational requirements and lack of funds. So their kids had to go to $12000/yr schools to learn to deal drugs.

I had to laugh hearing about a teacher shortage. I taught until recently at a small private liberal arts school (computer science). But our large group of education majors, in spite of the college’s good reputation, had a hard time finding jobs (NE Ohio excluding Cleveland). True, not many wanted to teach in the couple tough city school systems. The shortage is of people who are that rare type of person who can navigate a school with severe behavioral problems, drugs, and crime.

Scott G
Jun 16 2020 at 9:50pm


This was one of the saddest Econtalk episodes of the past decade and shows the difficulties and limits of improving education by means of rigorous, evidence-based discussion.  I feel like very few minds were changed in this episode.  You made great points, asked excellent questions and were well prepared.  I’m sure you would want to say a few things differently had you a chance to have a second go, but it wouldn’t to matter much. There is a fundamental difference of world views here that can not be reconciled.  Your world view is not compatible with Diane’s and there many who share her view.  It seems to me that the best option would be, figuratively speaking, divorce.  What do I mean by this?  I’m not exactly sure yet, but I would want to throw in the towel on this type of discussion.  Sad to say.

There must be a better approach for getting the Diane Ravitchs of the world to leave us alone.  That’s all we want is to be left alone.  Please.



Jun 17 2020 at 12:27pm

Tangentially related to your post, I wish the US had more of an independent state mentality. If it did, then state’s could experiment with different policies and we could then see how these different policies played out. Instead, we have gone in the opposite direction.

It reminds me of an econtalk podcast with Larry White where the subject of India was brought up. Initially, Amartia Sen and Jagdish Bagwati were both top down traditional market failure first economists who supported the planner vision in India. They had to see the success of South Korea and Singapore to realize the error in this line of thinking.

If every state implements the same failing system, then Diane can continue to argue endlessly for the wonders of Public Education and it will always be someone else’s fault when it inevitably goes wrong.

[Ajit: I imagine you know or could take the time to find out how properly to spell the names of Nobelists and well-known economists such as Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati. Just in case, and so that readers know and can find out more about those you are discussing, I have respelled them correctly in this note. Somtimes things go awry, not of one’s own accord, eh?–Econlib Ed.]

Jun 24 2020 at 10:00pm

Scott, you hit the nail on the head. This was the most frustrating EconTalk episode in memory, and I have listened to almost all of them. Many great comments on this page deconstructing the various circular reasoning or outright ignoring Dr. Roberts’ questions.

I would add a couple more critiques.  Her statement that “anecdotes are not science” was laughable.  Almost her entire argument was based on anecdotes! “Charters go bankrupt” – okay, what percentage? “Charters are corrupt” – what percentage of owners were convicted of embezzlement?

She pushed back on the New Orleans example repeatedly without citing how much money per pupil was spent before Katrina and after?  Her entire argument was based on the fact that privatizing the schools didn’t miraculously make some of the worst performing schools in the nation the best in the state. Huh?

Finally, she can’t seem to decide what she believes about teachers.  On one hand, they are underpaid and we can’t attract quality teachers.  On the other hand, “even in the worst schools we have incredible teachers.”  Which is it?

Jun 17 2020 at 12:58pm

I thought this was the most important part of the discussion:

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.

Eighty-five percent of Ms. Ravitch’s view on education is that she knows better than parents.

The other 15% is based on the circular reasoning that it is imperative for taxpayers to fund education, and since education is taxpayer funded, she is entitled to override the decisions of parents she disagrees with.

Where I do agree with Ms. Ravitch (and I think Russ agrees, as well) — though I think she gets cause and effect backwards — is that the key problem with education is less on the system side and more that not everyone values education like she does, at least not the current form of it.

She hints at it with references to education disparities by household income or the number doctor visits a child has had, as if those are the causal factors. But, those are likely signals, rather than causes.

To ‘fix’ education, you either need to convince those who do not value it to change their minds or create versions of education they will value.

The former has proven to be a tough sell. The latter results in forms of education that Ms. Ravitch does not like.

Jun 17 2020 at 3:36pm

This is a good example of someone who is less persuasive because they give no ground to people they disagree with, on an issue we all know must have some nuance to it.

If Ms. Ravitch had been able to say at least one positive thing about some charter schools or the people who run them, her criticisms would have seemed more credible.

Kevin Remillard
Jun 19 2020 at 5:43am

As a former public school teacher, curriculum developer, and director of online and distance learning; Ms. Ravitch’s opinion of technology integration would be of interest should you do a follow up.

Price McCarty
Jun 19 2020 at 6:50am

Perhaps you could invite Thomas Sowell in to address this matter and his new book.

Joseph Crivelli
Jun 19 2020 at 9:28am

At 55, as a parent of three and teacher of 10+ years but one who has also enjoyed three rather different lines of work, my thoughts springing from this discussion are as follows:

Folks often feel the need to announce that teachers, like students in Lake Wobegon, are above average human beings. That’s neither useful nor accurate in my view. Rather, I’d prefer to talk about what teachers should be and hold off on generalizations that don’t pass the sniff test.

They should be people who like students, like to both teach and learn, are drawn to collaborate, have some solid academic base, and can afford to take the leap into a largely underpaid working option. This list is also pretty much how I would prioritize these competencies. Mix this sequence up too much and the cake doesn’t rise.

For these reasons, I don’t believe the vast majority of people should consider a ‘full career’ as a teacher for 30 to 40 years in the first place. Rather, I think teaching is best conceived as important and honest work for 5-15 years –a tour of duty–and for folks who have either an initial  knack for it or have already lived and learned and now come to believe that they could do it. These folks should be teachers. (They could also become administrators if they develop those skills.)

Instead, the way public schools work is that misaligned power struggles keep teachers believing that disruption is to be avoided, in my view. Change only if core ‘priors’, all those unchanging beliefs about what school is, remain in tact. This is wrongheaded and it leads to good ideas dying quickly or developing too slowly to be effective. It leads to teachers losing sight of the changing world for which they are preparing their students as well as the new generation of students who are growing up in it.

Learning to think, to be curious and how to imagine the future doesn’t enter into the public school curriculum.

There’s no room to focus on these features because folks who share Dr. Ravitch’s positions believe the following:

Despite teachers being above average, a D is not failing and so is fine for a public school student
principals actually control and approve of what goes on in classrooms –which proves that teachers are doing good, good at what they do and are exceptionally fine citizens
your tax-money is required in someone else’s school, especially if you are a parent who is poor but you should do what you want
more money is always better and less money means some parents have diverted it from your public school
their aren’t enough teachers because teachers aren’t appreciated
a union’s purpose is to protect teachers
certifications and master’s in education are invaluable investments for teachers –in fact they are best possible filters to screen for new good teachers
although it’s bothersome that teachers aren’t paid enough, it’s more bothersome that someone would want to teach for a short while and move on
tests are poorly made but testing is good and shouldn’t be questioned unless you are questioning how tests reflect on teachers or schools, which is bad
somehow the most mobile students in post-flood New Orleans–the 25% who left and did not return–were undoubtedly simultaneously the most poor and most challenging students in the city’s pre-flood public school system and so you cannot compare pre-flood to post-flood schools
it’s a good thing that teaching will become more attractive after the pandemic because more certified and master’s qualified teachers will appear suddenly and be flooding the marketplace because people who have no better opportunities will see teaching as their calling because teachers are doing an incredible job, especially in classroom management, and their fine work is public knowledge although they are not appreciated.

In sum, DR talks about teaching and schools when she should be talking about student-learning and learning-environments. Accountability is important. But so is self-assessment–on the part of teachers. In my view, more important because too often people go into teaching with the wrong ideas about what it is and what to get out of it.

Dr. Ravitch may believe more strongly that we must make public schools the best in the world than students should learn to think, become curious and imagine the future. She believes more that teachers are above average humans than that her precious public schools are failing students.

Jun 19 2020 at 4:29pm

I guess the only alternative is more of the same.
A real shame.

Jun 19 2020 at 5:02pm

I love these podcasts and have great respect for Russ on how he handled this discussion.  He clearly didn’t agree with many of the guest’s assertions, but kept his calm, challenged respectfully, asked good questions and let her argue her points.  Excellent job!

One of the many interesting points was where Russ asked if the parents desire to get a better education for their children mattered.  Her answer in summary to me was “not really”.

It brings me back to one of my favorite econtalk guests – Christopher Hitchens and a talk he gave on Orwell and socialism/communism.  Hitchens said in that system the citizen is owned by the state……Its seems to me Ravitch has a similar mindset – each student in the school system is “owned” by the school system – not the parents.

Seems like the parents should have options and the final say (some of them will make bad choices) – she doesn’t agree.

Al McCabe
Jun 19 2020 at 5:07pm

I dislike debates about education because so much obvious information is ignored.

First, you need to look at just raw hours that a student is engaged in learning.  A good school easily has a student engaged 4 hours a day and a bad school might get one hour per day.  Multiply that by eight years and the test results are not surprising at all.

Second, parent involvement is another just raw number that is inescapable.  A class with 60 hours of work per week by the teacher but only 1/4 of the 30 kids get an hour’s help per day has 112.5 hours of total adult teaching per week.  A class with 80% of kids getting an hour parent involvement twice as much, 228 hours of adult time.  Then add in a second parent and it doubles again….   The result is not surprising at all.

Finally, there are tons and tons of data about education results.  The results of all tests are pretty consistent at the broad level.  The problem is trying to fit the data into the theories.

Don Crawford
Jun 19 2020 at 5:17pm

Hard to listen to Diane Ravitch’s terrible bias and so impressive to listen to Russ’s calm interview.  Four key points are needed to put things into proper perspective.

The freedom to do things differently makes it possible for charters to do better than the government schools.  It is no guarantee.  The free market doesn’t guarantee that every entrepeneur will be better than everything that has gone before.  Not allowing innovation as the current public system does is sure to thwart improvement.  It does not follow that we should disallow choice because not every choice school is better than existing schools.
Charter schools and voucher absolutely DO NOT “drain” money away from the district school system.  That is a deliberate misrepresentation.  Like any sub-contractor they do part of the job of educating some of the students and get paid according to the number of students they serve.  The payments are always less than 100% of the per pupil amount given to the district, so they are a net gain.  If 100% of the students were educated in charters or with vouchers there would be money left over and nothing to spend it on. I find it disingenuous of people who know better to continue to claim that giving choice somehow takes money unfairly from anyone else.
No question but the over-emphasis on testing certain subjects in school has narrowed the curriculum and harmed the breadth of experiences that students need.  If we had full school choice we could allow the schools to advertise their benefits to parents using whatever methods they choose and whatever methods parents are interested in looking at.  We don’t need standardized tests to choose computers, cars or personal services.  We wouldn’t need them in education if we had abundant choices, e.g., everyone gets to choose the school they want.
Children who live in impoverished neighborhoods often come from very dysfunctional families without a single person in their household who can hold down a job, let alone a career.  So there are few or no role models of an appropriate work ethic.  In addition in the tougher ghetto neighborhoods there is a strong ethic against being a “school boy” or “acting white” that works against doing school work, paying attention or striving for success.  When children are required to go to the school “assigned” to them in their neighborhood, this very lack of choice works against developing a success oriented school culture.  School leaders can only establish a pro-education, pro-work, pro-success culture if attendance in their school is optional.  Not every independent can successfully establish a culture of success, but some can, and always there will be parents who do not support those efforts.  Some parents want their children to be taken off their hands for six hours a day, and refuse to support discipline in the school.  They rail against even the most enlightened efforts to discipline their very unruly and disruptive children.  Such parents must be allowed to leave the school and take their children if structure and discipline is not “a good fit” for them.  On the other hand parents who want structure, discipline, and a success oriented school should be allowed to choose one.  That is not “cherry-picking.” That is allowing people to make a good decision about how their child will be educated. Only school choice can enable parents to do that. And this is the only hope for children in these impoverished inner cities–that there will be a school that can teach them the knowledge and the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in America.  I do not understand why opposing school choice is not seen as being racist by the oh-so-righteous forces on the left.  Lack of school choice is the single biggest obstacle to upward mobility for the children in the inner cities.

Jun 19 2020 at 8:25pm

School Choice was started by racist? Or kool-aid drinker spreading misinformation?

Jun 20 2020 at 7:06am

Hi Russ,

I know your views on Charter schools but this talk was still disappointing. As a Scientist you are aware that you cannot compare two populations when you select the individuals. So how can you think that better test score of selected pupils prove anything about the quality of their school?

Since you were talking down on the science of pedagogy, the field of economics is not exactly revered by many scientists too (for good reason).



[spelling of Russ’s name corrected–Econlib Ed.]

Don Crawford
Jun 20 2020 at 1:02pm


There have been studies done of the academic success of all students entered into charter school lotteries. Those that are randomly chosen to get into the school are compared with those that are randomly not chosen.  Those studies show in about 9 out of 10 students that the students receiving the charter school education have better achievement.  So it is not two separate populations.

Yes, the New Orleans experience is not a true randomized study.  The fact that half of the charter schools are not good does not mean one should eliminate the other half too.  It means that barriers to entry into the system should be lowered.  It means that some of the more successful systems such as KIPP, or the Success Academy.  The IDEA schools that developed in Texas and are enabling ALL of their students of poverty to get into college have just started some schools in Louisiana.  They are not finding it easy to successfully implement their model in New Orleans with the tougher students and the available teachers.  It is very difficult to overcome the issues in these neighborhoods and the devil is in the details of implementing a management model with fidelity.  Hard work but it needs to be done.  Stupid to be arguing whether government-run, one-size-fits-all approaches could possibly do better than allowing a variety of innovative approaches to find a solution.  Of course, they can’t.  Lots of people can’t, but the free market can help find and reward the few who can make a difference for as many as will sign up for the schools.

Aaron M.
Jun 20 2020 at 3:26pm

Diane Ravitch said several times that the original idea of charter schools was to “save poor kids from failing public schools”, to “try out new things and then bring them to the public school so the public school could improve”, but in her opinion they “have failed to keep its promise of saving poor kids from failing public schools”. She opposes charters because “they have become competitors”, but what happened to public schools, have they got better? No, they have not, and she does not contest this standpoint.
The real issue for parents and students is not charter school encroachment, but that the elementary and secondary education system is as bad as it has been for the last hundred years, starting from 1920s progressive movement and its switch to Look-Say/Whole Language method away from phonics. Dr. Ravitch supports Whole Language proponents on her blog. She claims that there is no science of reading.
Thirty years ago she quoted research that did find correlation between quality of schools and success of students, nowadays she thinks that bad teachers and bad curricula is not a real issue, instead the real problem is poverty. And because schools cannot fix poverty, schools and teachers are off the hook. Our public schools and heroic teachers are as good as they can be, no repair needed.

Steve Hardy
Jun 21 2020 at 1:07pm

Ms. Ravitch says that people supporting charter schools really want vouchers as if this was a conspiracy. I believe we should do away with public (government) schools entirely.  What government monopoly has been successful in any field?

With privatized K through 12, we would have competition  so that

successful school companies would scale.  The unsuccessful ones would go out of business. We would have many different kinds of schools depending on the parent’s preferences.  Whether this is done with vouchers, ESAs, Tax credits, or anything else that would allow parents to shop for the best schools doesn’t matter.  We know that markets work in every other industry,

Why not education?

Dr. Duru
Jun 21 2020 at 6:08pm

Well that was a lively discussion! Thank you, Professor Roberts, for bringing on a contrary voice on the whole Charter school movement. I felt like I was missing something, like some important dots weren’t connecting, but I still found it informative with plenty to think about.

I was disappointed that Ravitch never directly answered your question: “What would you do if you were head of the Department of Education or ran a school district….besides solving the social ills burdening poor children?” I understand all the critiques, but what are the basket of specific solutions besides more money? An answer to this question could have been quite telling. Here in California, we seem to constantly increase sales taxes and approve various bond measures to send money to schools, not to mention the state lottery years ago, and somehow it seems the public schools still get yet more desperate. Is someone eating the money?

I also find these discussions about the impoverishment of public schools dissatisfying because they spend so little time discussing the systemic racism that has planted us where we are with the way we fund and run our public schools. That embedded racism (or some might say residual racism) continues to interfere with generating solutions. Professor Roberts, you had a guest years ago who briefly noted that public schools are working for suburban, affluent White children – these schools remain some of the best in the world. That was a very telling claim. Are Charter schools really a universal answer when they are funded by the same system that supports such inequities?

I recommend anyone interested in this topic read “Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling.” The book is a powerful case study of how even in an integrated public school setting resources get shifted away from Black students, compounded by the flight of affluent Black parents to private schools where they feel their children will be treated better and more fairly (parents who can exercise economic choice).

I think Ravitch will find that solving the social ills she thinks are critical to paving the way for better schooling will have to include confronting head-on the racism that keeps Black and other minority children locked into this cycle misfortune.

Ajit Kirpekar
Jun 23 2020 at 4:54pm

I think it’s fair to acknowledge that there is racism in our society still and where we can be eradicated we should make a valiant effort to that goal.

But I heavily dispute the claim that racism is responsible for why certain minorities are poorer than others. Thomas sowell has been loudly producing facts on this topic for decades. it seems cultural norms and certain pathologies explain a lot of the variation in expected life outcomes including income. We should be putting much more emphasis on these cultural norms and pathologies rather than assume it’s because of lasting racism

Jun 24 2020 at 10:12pm

I was rather surprised to hear Ms. Ravitch claim that Superintendents can easily fire bad teachers. That goes contrary to this:

Reality doesn’t quite align with her perceptions.

I appreciate Russ giving alternate view a airing and his ability to keep his patience when he can tell a guest is pushing their own agenda.

Ohio Illini
Jun 26 2020 at 10:00am

Ravitch could not budge one inch from her narrative.  I couldn’t believe Russ did not push back when she said public schooling needs zero competition!  Competition makes everything better.  I loved her progressive arguments:  (1) religion is bad (2) abortion is good  (3) we don’t pay enough in taxes (4) unions are good.  I am waiting for the first progressive to state the root cause of societal ills:  the breakdown of the family & devaluation of life.

William Middleton
Jun 28 2020 at 4:29am

Interesting Episode.

I think we are failing in our structure of both teachers and police officers. If we want high performing teachers and police officers then we need to do three things:
1) get rid of the teachers and police unions
2) pay teachers and police officers more money in order to attract more quality talent
3) set a really high bar for both teachers and police officers. Perform and require emotional intelligence testing and ongoing annual trainings and bell curve reviews. We can discuss how to rank and rate both professions but we need to get rid of the worst teachers and the worst police.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Jun 28 2020 at 3:09pm

If government schools are helpless against the effect of family income,  what is the argument for tax funding of schools at all?

Detroit charters outperform the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s Detroit facilities (which facilities Ravitch calls “the public schools).

Humans have devised no more effective accountability mechanisms than policies which give to unhappy customers the power to take their business elsewhere.

If a school district subsidizes escape options at a rate 1/2 < a/b < 1 of the district’s regular-ed per pupil budget, the per-pupil budget which remains in the district’s account will rise.


Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Jun 28 2020 at 5:00pm

(Ravitch): “… charters make [public education] worse, because [charter schools] divert resources(1) from underfunded public schools(2). 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(3); 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(4), and less money to do it.(5)”

If an LEA (“local education authoriy”, a “school district”) subsidizes escape options* at a rate 1/2 < a/b < 1 of the LEA’s regular-ed per pupil budget, the per pupil budget which remains in the LEA’s account will rise.
 The US spends more than all but two or three other countries.
NCES : District, 2015-16 revenue per pupil: DC, $27, 510, Jersey City, NJ., $24,857, Newark, NJ., $27,960, Buffalo City, NY.,  $29,841.  Dilapidated buildings and obsolete textbooks  are not due to insufficient taxpayer generosity.
Students cost whatever districts spend on them.
 See point #1. Load-shedding increases resources per pupil.

*Escape options include charter schools, tuition vouchers, education tax credits, education savings accounts, subsidized homeschooling, and Parent Performance Contracting.


Walter Boggs
Jun 29 2020 at 9:19am

I’m wondering why my comments don’t show up on this thread. I posted twice – never got a message saying there was a problem with the posts. Don’t know how to contact the editor directly.

Lauren Landsburg, Econlib Editor
Jun 29 2020 at 11:17am

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Mason Rumuly
Jun 30 2020 at 12:01pm

An interesting pair of assertions to juxtapose:

“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.”

“…we have a national shortage of teachers. We do not have a surplus of teachers.”

In order to fuel a high turnover of teachers, charters need access to a surplus of potential teachers. Since the charters are not paying significantly more than the local school district (at least for Success Academy and the New York public school system, both averaging $65k per anum) it would seem that the only way to reconcile the two would be if incoming teachers prefer charter schools over traditional public schools.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

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.

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