An Open Letter to Diane Ravitch

December 3, 2010

Dear Diane,

In your latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, you break with your past views and roundly condemn many tenets of the modern education reform movement: school choice, testing, accountability for students and teachers, No Child Left Behind, and the reforms undertaken in San Diego and, in particular, New York under Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein. Last summer you continued your assault on the reform movement when, in accepting the National Education Association’s Friend of Education Award, you lambasted the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative and implored the teachers’ unions to “stand up” against “the current wave of destructive reforms.”

As someone who has been fighting in the education reform trenches for over twenty years, I am puzzled by the radical change in your views on education and I struggle to understand what alternatives you propose to improve upon the unacceptable status quo. I am most bewildered, however, by the war you have been waging against charter schools. In recent months, you have become an increasingly vocal critic of charters, assailing “wealthy lawyers and hedge-fund managers” (like me) for supporting them. But, on many levels, I believe your criticisms of charters don’t hold water.

You claim that charters have narrow curricula that place too much emphasis on reading and math; but charters, in part because they are free to extend their school day, are far more likely to include a focus on literature, history, geography, science, and the arts than traditional public schools. For example, at the Harlem Success charter schools, all students participate in chess, dance, sports, and cultural enrichment activities, and there is a particular emphasis on science: every student, beginning in kindergarten, takes a full-period, hands-on, experiment-based science class every day.

You are a proponent (as am I) of “content-rich” curricula, especially E. D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge. But children are far more likely to be exposed to Core Knowledge in charters than in traditional public schools. Carl Icahn’s four high-performing charters use the Core Knowledge curriculum, and more than 90% of their students perform at grade level.

You argue that high performing charters like KIPP “cream” the best students, but the latest research shows this is not true for KIPP. Earlier this summer, Mathematica Policy Research released the first report in a major longitudinal study of 22 KIPP middle schools. The Mathematica report found that KIPP middle schools did not have a systematic pattern of high attrition relative to neighboring schools and most often enrolled students whose average fourth grade scores were lower than the district average and comparable to the feeder schools. Nevertheless, the report shows that KIPP students made gains that were “positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial.”

You contend that charters are irrelevant because they serve only 3% of students nationally. Tell that to the parents in Harlem, where, until recently, they were forced to send their children to public schools that ranked among the city’s lowest-performing. Today, 23% of students in Harlem’s District Five attend some of the city’s best-performing charter schools, and demand continues to grow. In New York’s recent charter school lotteries, parents of 54,000 children applied to charters – including 14,000 in Harlem alone – yet largely due to restrictions and caps that you favor, there was room for fewer than 22% of those who applied. In cities where the barriers to charter schools have been removed, they have become very relevant. For example, nearly 40% of the long-suffering parents in Washington DC have chosen charters, and the figure is 70% in New Orleans. For someone who extols the democratic nature of public schools, it is puzzling that you give no credence whatsoever to parental choice.

You argue that charter schools harm traditional public schools; but the evidence indicates otherwise. A 2009 research study by the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters showed that New York City students in traditional public schools benefit when their schools face competition from charters. And a New York Times story earlier this year noted that traditional public schools in Harlem, spurred by competition from charters, are working hard to improve.

You claim that charters aren’t producing positive results, but you cite only studies that reinforce your viewpoint. For example, you almost exclusively cite Margaret Raymond’s 16-state study of charters, which found disappointing results. But Raymond’s study included many first-year charter students and was disproportionately focused on states with weak charter laws.

Raymond’s subsequent study of charters in New York City, about which you are mostly silent, found that charter students perform “significantly better” than their traditional public school counterparts. Specifically, she found that nearly a third of New York City charter schools outperform their local peer schools in reading and more than half do so in math, and almost no charters performed worse than nearby district schools. Similarly, economist Caroline Hoxby’s 2009 analysis of New York City’s charter schools found that students who attend from kindergarten through eighth grade would close 86% of the “Scarsdale-Harlem” achievement gap in math and 66% of the gap in reading.

We can agree that some charter schools are no better – and, in certain cases, worse – than neighboring district schools and that these particular schools should be shut down. (In New York, 10 charters have been shut down for poor performance.) But what about the extremely successful “no excuses” charter schools – such as KIPP, Icahn, Harlem Success, and Uncommon Schools? These schools offer precisely what you champion for all schools: high-quality teachers; a culture of strong values, rigor, and high expectations; and a rich, robust curriculum. Yet instead of celebrating them, you grudgingly acknowledge some isolated successes but quickly dismiss them, attributing their success to “creaming” – and then decry “privatization,” essentially calling for an end to all charter schools, regardless of quality.

Much of what you claim about charter schools is so off base that I wondered how familiar you actually are with these schools. So I recently contacted several charter schools – all in New York City, a short distance from you – to ask whether you had ever visited them. They could only recall one visit from you in the past decade.

All of them, however, said that they would be delighted to host you anytime, so here is my public challenge to you Diane: visit a few high-performing charter schools. See for yourself that these schools are doing exactly what you call for in terms of high-quality teachers and a rich curriculum. If you do visit, I think you’ll agree that many charters, especially here in New York, are achieving extraordinary outcomes and should be expanded as rapidly as possible.

Sincerely yours,

Whitney Tilson

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