“Slaying Goliath” by Diane Ravitch

I wish I could write half as well as, or as much as, Diane Ravitch manages to do, every single day. I also admire her dedication to fighting the billionaires who have been dictating education policy in the USA for quite some time.

If you are reading this post, you are no doubt aware that only ten years ago, Ravitch did a 180-degree turn on major education issues, admitted she had been wrong on a number of points, and became one of the major forces fighting against the disruptive education-privatization agenda of the billionaires.

Since that time, she has been documenting on her blog, several times a day, nearly every day, the utter failures of the extremely wealthy amateurs who have been claiming to ‘reform’ education, but who have instead merely been disrupting it and failing to achieve any of the goals that they confidently predicted would be won, even using their own yard-sticks.


I found DR’s most recent book (pictured above) to be an excellent history of the past 37 years wherein certain billionaires, and their well-paid acolytes, have claimed that the American public school system is a total failure and needed to be torn down and rebuilt through these steps:

  1. Pretending that American students were at one point the highest-scoring ones on the planet (which has NEVER been true) and that the fact that they currently score at middling levels on international tests like PISA is a cause for national alarm;
  2. Claiming that student family poverty does not cause lower student achievement (however measured), but the reverse: that the schools that have students from poor and non-white populations are the CAUSE of that poverty and low achievement;
  3. Fraudulently assuming that huge fractions of teachers are not only incompetent but actively oppress their students (particularly the poor, the brown, and the black) and need to be fired en masse (as they were in New Orleans, Rhode Island, and Washington, DC);
  4. Micromanaging teachers in various ways, including by forcing all states to adopt a never-tested and largely incomprehensible ‘Common Core’ curriculum and demanding that all teachers follow scripted lessons in lockstep;
  5. ‘Measuring’ the productivity of teachers through arcane and impenetrable ‘Value-Added’ schemes that were devised for dairy cows;
  6. Mass firings of certified teachers, particularly African-American ones (see #2) and replacing them either with untrained, mostly-white newbies from Teach for America or with computers;
  7. Requiring public and charter schools (but not vouchers) to spend ever-larger fractions of their classroom time on test prep instead of real learning;
  8. Turning billions of public funds over to wealthy amateurs (and con artists) with no educational experience to set up charter schools and voucher schools with no real accountability — the very worst ones being the online charter schools.

One great aspect of this book is that Ravitch points out how

  1. All of those claims and ‘solutions’ have failed (for example, a study in Texas showed charter schools had no impact on test scores and a negative impact on earnings (p. 82);
  2. Teachers, parents, students, and ordinary community members have had a good deal of success in fighting back.

I will conclude with a number of quotes from the book in random colors.

“How many more billions will be required to lift charter school enrollment to 10 percent? [It’s now about 5 percent] And why is it worth the investment, given that charter schools, unless they cherry-pick their students, are no more successful than public schools are and often far worse? Why should the federal government spend nearly half a billion dollars on charter schools that may never open when there are so many desperately underfunded public schools?” (p. 276-277)

“Any movement controlled by billionaires is guaranteed […] to preserve the status quo while offering nothing more than the illusion of change.” (p. 281)

“There is no “Reform movement.” The Disrupters never tried to reform public schools. They wanted to disrupt and privatize the public schools that Americans have relied on for generations. They wanted to put public school funding in private hands. They wanted to short-circuit democracy. They wanted to cripple, not improve, the public schools. They wanted to replace a public service with a free market.” (p. 277)

“Our current education policy is madness. It is madness to destroy public education in pursuit of zany libertarian goals. It is madness to use public funds to put young children into religious schools where they will learn religious doctrine instead of science. It is madness to hand public money over to unaccountable entrepreneurs who want to open a school but refuse to be held to high ethical standards or to be held accountable for its finances and its performance. It is madness to ignore nepotism, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest. We sacrifice our future as a nation if we continue on this path of de-professionalizing our schools and turning them over to businessmen, corporate chains, grifters, and well-meaning amateurs. We sacrifice our children and our grandchildren if we continue to allow them to be guinea pigs in experiments whose negative results are clear.” (p. 281)

Ravitch proposes a number of things that billionaires could do that would be more helpful than what they are currently doing. She suggests [I’m quoting but shortening her list, found on page 280] that the billionaires could …

  • pay their share of taxes to support well-resourced public schools.
  • open health clinics to serve needy communities and make sure that all families and children have regular medical checkups.
  • underwrite programs to ensure that all pregnant women have medical care and that all children have nutritious meals each day.
  • subsidize after-school programs where children get exercise, play, dramatics, and tutoring.
  • rebuild the dramatics programs and performance spaces in every school.
  • lobby their state legislatures to fund schools fairly, to reduce class sizes, and to enable every school to have the teachers, teaching assistants, social services, librarians, nurses, counselors, books, and supplies it needs.
  • create mental health clinics and treatment centers for those addicted to drugs.
  • underwrite programs based on “the Kalamazoo Promise.”
  • They could emulate the innovative public school that basketball star leBron James subsidized in Akron, Ohio.

She also quotes Paymon Rouhanifard, who was a “prominent member of the Disruption establishment [who] denounced standardized testing when he stepped down as superintendent of the Camden, New Jersey, public schools […]. He had served as a high-level official on Joel Klein’s team in New York City […] Upon his arrival of the impoverished Camden district [….] he developed school report cards to rank every school mainly by test scores. But before he left, he abolished the school report cards.” She quotes him directly: “[…] most everybody in this room wouldn’t tolerate what I described for their own children’s school. Mostly affluent, mostly white schools shy away from heavy testing, and as a result, they are literally receiving an extra month of instruction […] The basic rule, what we would want for our own children, should apply to all kids.” (p.271)

“Disrupters have used standardized testing to identify and take over or close schools with low scores, but they disregard standardized testing when it reveals the failure of charters and vouchers. Disrupters no longer claim that charter schools and inexperienced recruits from Teach for America will miraculously raise test scores. After three decades of trying, they have not been successful.

“Nothing that the Disrupters have championed has succeeded unless one counts as ‘success’ closing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of community public schools in low-income neighborhoods. Ths Disrupters have succeeded in demoralizing teachers and reducing the number of people entering the teaching profession. They have enriched entrepreneurs who have opened charter schools or developed shoddy new products and services to sell to schools. They have enhanced the bottom line of large testing corporations. Their fling with the Common Core cost states billions of dollars to implement but had no effect on national or international test scores and outraged many parents, child advocates, lovers of literature, and teachers. “

Fortunately, the resistance to this has been having a fair amount of success, including the massive teacher strikes in state after state. As Ravitch writes (p. 266):

“The teachers taught the nation a lesson.

“But more than that, they taught themselves a lesson. They united, they demanded to be heard, and they got respect. That was something that the Disrupters had denied them for almost twenty years. Teachers learned that in unity there is strength.”



PISA shows great US education progress under Common Core, charter proliferation, reforms. (JUST KIDDING!)

If there is anything that the recent PISA results show, it’s that the promises by David Coleman, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Betsy Devos, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, and others of tremendous achievement increases and closing socioeconomic gaps with their ‘reforms’ were completely unfilled. I am copying and pasting here how American students have done on the PISA, a test given in many, many countries, since 2006. There have been tiny changes over the past dozen years in the scores of American students in reading, math, and science, but virtually none have been statistically significant, according to the statisticians who compiled and published the data.

Then again, nearly any classroom teacher you talked to over the past decade or two of educational ‘reforms’ in American classrooms could have told you why and how it was bound to fail.

Look for yourself:

PISA results through 2018


Source: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_USA.pdf


EDIT: I meant David Coleman the educational reform huckster, not Gary Coleman the actor!


PISA International Test Results Are Rigged

If you read the article, you see how the international student tests known as PISA are rigged. It’s rather simple: the high-scoring countries choose their wealthiest cities; in those cities, they choose the highest-performing schools; and at those schools they don’t let the low-performing students take the test.

In this way, Washington, DC could be the highest scoring “state” in the USA if it only allowed the highest-scoring kids from, say, Janney, Murch, Deal, Walls, BASIS, St Albans and Sidwell participate. Easy-peasy!

The Chinese government could give lessons to Cheeto45 on how to obfuscate and lie.

Compare ‘Education Reform’ to Ineffective but Profitable Quick-Weight-Loss Schemes

John Viall compares the past 15 years of education ‘reform’ to the past 30 or 40 years of completely counterproductive weight-loss schemes — in both cases, the results are exactly contrary to what they were promised to be. In one case, we can see that America’s obesity rates are some of the worst in the world. In the other, we have certainly not ‘raced to the top’ on TIMMS, PISA, or any other international test, despite all of promises by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

He concludes (I added some color):

“For a sixth time the PISA test was administered in 2015.

Now, 15-year-olds from seventy countries and educational systems took the test. How did U. S. students fare?
The envelope please.
In reading U. S. students scored 497. In other words, after fifteen years of school reform and tens of billions wasted, reading scores were still down seven points.
Fifteen years of listening to blowhard politicians—and U. S. students averaged 470 in math, a depressing 23-point skid.
Surely, all that meddling must have done some good? No. Science scores averaged 496, still down three points.
Fifteen years of diet plans that couldn’t possibly fail and, metaphorically, we were all just a little more fat.
PISA scores had been the foundation on which all school reform was built; and after all these years, America’s 15-year-olds were scoring 33 points worse.

What Lessons Has DC Drawn From PISA?

Basically, the lessons drawn by those in charge of education in Washington, DC, is to do exactly the opposite of everything being done by nations with high test scores. Valerie Jablow at EducationDC explains the details.

The Real Lesson of Singapore Math!

By now you’ve probably heard that Singapore and Shanghai are the two places on earth with the smartest kids in the entire world. We can see their PISA scores (go to page 5) are right at the top.

Case closed, right? Whatever they are doing in education, we in the US need to emulate that in order to catch up! Common Core! StudentsFirst! Teach for America! Race to the Top! PARCC! Bust those teacher unions! No more recess! All test prep all the time! Charter Schools! Turn the schools over to the billionaires (Gates, Bloomberg, Koch family, Walton family, and their hirelings and shills)!

But wait a second.

Have you noticed that an ENORMOUS fraction of the low-skilled, low-paid people living in Singapore are temporary foreign workers from various parts of Asia and Africa and are not allowed to bring their kids with them? Those kids are raised back in the workers’ homelands by various relatives, far away, and only get to see their parents at long intervals (somebody has to fly somewhere); back home, jobs are even scarcer and worse-paid, so the parents go elsewhere to try support their families.

Now, everywhere in the world, family income is very, very closely linked to children’s test scores in school. It’s one of the tightest correlations there are in the social sciences, as you can see in the simple scatter-plots I have repeatedly shown in this blog over the past 4 or 5 years. (Try using terms like “poverty” “income” and “scores” together in the search box on this page and be prepared to look through a lot of posts with such graphs, from all over!)

If one-quarter to one-third of the population of a country was legally not permitted to have children in the schools, and it was the low-paying 1/4 to 1/3 of the population, then the scores of the remainder of the kids would, quite naturally, be pretty darned good, since the bottom 1/4 to 1/3 of the distribution just got cut off.

If we systematically excluded the poorest quarter or third of our American student population from taking PISA, we know that our scores would be pretty darned high as well.*

Hmm, maybe the leaning tower of PISA hype is falling.



*Let’s remember that this WAS official policy in many states of the USA up until 1865: a large fraction of the population (guess which one!) was forbidden to send their kids to schools at all and it was explicitly forbidden even to teach them to read privately. When Jim Crow was established from the 1870s to the early 1960s, school facilities for Blacks and Hispanics, BY DESIGN of the racist authorities, so inferior to those for whites that they were a national disgrace. Which is why the calls for going back to the good old days should be so infuriating. There WERE NO GOOD OLD DAYS.

Some Released PISA Questions

Yong Zhao and some other commentators have been criticising PISA for a number of reasons, one being that its sample populations are at times ‘gamed’ by two cities (Shanghai and Singapore – and that’s all they are, two cities that import their labor force from elsewhere and neither place educates or tests the children of that labor force) while ignoring the outstanding performance of certain individual US states on the exact same test. In her recent book “The Smartest Kids in the World” Amanda Ripley follows a handful of exchange students to and from the US and thinks that the PISA is a pretty good test and that it predicts real things about how societies are going; she appears to be a great fan of Poland these days.

Looking at some of the questions, I am beginning to have a lot less faith in PISA as a test itself and in those folks who claim that the sky is falling on American education based on our scores.

Some of the questions seem OK, some not. I have no idea whether these released items are of equal difficulty if written in French, Polish, Chinese, English, Arabic, Urdu or Swahili, but let’s pretend they are equivalent.

More importantly I read recently an argument that PISA is *not* in fact a test of creativity and original applications of things learned in school; instead, it IS things learned at school or else IQ-type logic puzzles, Even Rick Hess, a big friend of Michelle Rhee, apparently agrees, to my surprise.

Apparently there ARE tests of creativity that are, supposedly, quite reliable. I haven’t read scholarly critiques of THAT creativity test, but I’ve heard of the concept. I will need to  reserve judgment on the real records of the creativity test, but I did indeed recall that one PISA question I saw really was basically a little math/logic puzzle of a sort that I had seen in various puzzle books.  Let’s see if I can find it.

In any case, now that I’ve seen the sample questions, I have even less sympathy

Just now I went to look for some sample PISA items that have been declassified — i.e. it is legal to discuss and show them to people; nobody will lose their jobs for leaking their contents — as teachers and other school staff are threatened with, no matter how stupid a question might be or how many students complained that the problem didn’t make any sense at all and you saw that they weren’t kidding, yes, the problem makes no sense at all.

Let me show you one PISA test item that I think has a fatal flaw – it doesn’t make sense, because ALL of the answers are possible. Some have a higher probability of being correct, but that’s all.

Here is the question:


A seal has to breathe even if it is asleep in the water. Martin observed a seal for one hour. At the start of his observation, the seal was at the surface and took a breath. It then dove to the bottom of the sea and started to sleep. From the bottom it slowly floated to the surface in 8 minutes and took a breath again. In three minutes it was back at the bottom of the sea again. Martin noticed that this whole process was a very regular one.

After one hour the seal was

  1. At the Bottom
  2. On its way up
  3. Breathing
  4. On its way down

In my opinion, the phrase “Martin noticed that this whole process was a very regular one” does NOT mean the same as “Martin took very careful notes and timed a seal that he had learned to recognize for precisely one hour. What’s more, the water was so transparent that Martin could see everything the seal was doing. At exactly 9:00 AM, the seal was at the surface and took a breath that lasted ____ seconds and then dove … and so on, and then it floated to the top where it surfaced at exactly 9:08 AM, and so on”

Notice the details I added. If you are out in cold coastal waters where I myself have seen some seals during my lifetime, you often can’t see down to the bottom if you are on top; even if you are underwater in scuba gear, you generally can’t see a long way; and if it took this seal THREE WHOLE MINUTES to swim to the bottom going, I suppose, straight down at speed that no human swimmer could possibly achieve without mechanical help of some kind, then it’s gotta be pretty deep water, right? You are going to have an impossible time seeing that seal.

And then how does mythical Martin actually know that it’s the exact same seal?

Come on, now. This is a bullshit question, made up by someone who hasn’t actually watched seals at all. I’ve only watched a few dozen myself, but it’s BS.

And plus: animals do NOT act like clocks. Their behavior is not metronomic: it is influenced by what goes on around them. Even though the problem says “Martin noticed that this whole process was a very regular one”, and even if we allow that that is true, nowhere in the problem does the wording imply the kind of clock-like precise repetition that is required to be able to answer the question.

Plus: it doesn’t really say how loong the seal is breathing, nor does it say how long the seal is at the bottom. All the numbers are very vague. It is impossible to answer the question with the information that is ghiven — we are being asked to guess what the problem-writer really meant.

In my opinion, repeating that pattern as being precisely 3 minutes and zero seconds plus 8 minutes and zero seconds, for exactly 60 minutes, is absurd and unbelievable. Animals are NEVER that regular, as I complained earlier. The cycle will shift, somewhat, and those odd seconds do add up. And, as I said, the writer never told us the elapsed time on the sleeping or on the breathing.

So the question is utterly bogus.

We could talk about the PROBABILITY that the seal was in one of those four categories, but only if we knew a whole lot of information. Any child who has ever observed animals knows that they will not keep up the exact same pattern for a full hour measurable to the exact second, no matter what. Not even if they are imprisoned in a cage or a zoo and go all insane and repetitive will they repeat to the exact second.


Published in: on April 9, 2014 at 1:09 am  Leave a Comment  

The Chinese Way to Get High International Test Scores: Exclude Low-Scorers

Here is the secret for getting high scores on tests like PISA, TIMMS and so on: systematically exclude any student likely to produce low scores.

In Singapore, the children of the local indentured servant class and the children of migrant workers who cross from Malaysia every day simply are not counted because they are not permitted to attend schools in Singapore at all.

In China, even though students in a number of provinces are tested and measured on PISA by the OECD, the Chinese government only permits scores to be published from the city of Shanghai — where half of the school-age children simply are not allowed to attend school or receive any services at all, since they theoretically and legally belong to their home town out in the rural provinces somewhere.

I strongly recommend reading this article, on Diane Ravitch’s blog, as well as my wonderfully edifying comment.


and here is the original article by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, and here are a few paragraphs from it:

The only reasonable conclusion is this: officials in Shanghai are only counting children with Shanghai hukous as its population of 15 year-olds, about 108,000.  And the OECD is accepting those numbers.  It is as if the other children, numbering 120,000 or more, do not exist.  This is not a sampling problem.  PISA can sample all it wants from the official population.  Migrant children have been filtered out.  Professor Chan of Washington agrees with this hypothesis, saying in an email to me: “By the time PISA is given at age 15, almost all migrant children have been purged from the public schools.  The data are clear.”

What Now?

As a researcher who studies student achievement, I use PISA data.  That requires trust and confidence in the integrity of the assessment.  I can be confident, for example, that the scores from Portugal are from a representative sample of all 15 year-olds in Portuguese schools.  I have no such faith in PISA scores from China.  PISA-OECD has been silent about its special arrangement with China.  All of the data from 2009 still have not been released.  The data from Shanghai apparently only represent the privileged subset of 15 year-olds who hold Shanghai hukous.  I don’t know for sure. In the four volumes of data on PISA 2012, neither hukous nor the migrant children of China are discussed. Not a word.  Not a peep.

PISA officials are not shy about offering policy advice to countries, especially policies that the OECD believes will promote equity.  Delaying tracking and ability grouping, reforming policies governing immigration, distributing resources so that schools with less get more, and expanding early childhood education—all have been promoted as equity-based policies.  But not a word about reforming hukou.  Not a word on a discriminatory policy affecting the education of millions of Chinese children.  Not a word on the human rights story of migrant families in China and the human suffering that they must endure. 

Published in: on December 12, 2013 at 9:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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The PISA results

Most of what I want to write has already been put into print. A usual, Diane Ravitch has done a masterful job of dissecting what they mean or do not mean.

Let me just emphasize a couple of points that I think are particularly important:

1. There is a lot of evidence that being a good test-taker does not necessarily overlap with other desirable properties, either on the individual level or on the local or national or international level.

2. A lot of silly things are read into comparing how many questions they get right in one country versus another.

3. The United States has now TEN FULL YEARS in which it has based essentially ALL educational decisions on test scores, with a small but well-funded and powerful group claiming that it would produce miracles in raising American students’ test scores on every level that they can be measured.

4. Those results have been a complete and utter failure EVEN ON THE TERMS CLAIMED BY this bipartisan group of Educational DEformers (or GERM group): the US scores on the PISA are essentially the same as when PISA started, back in the 1990s. (I’ll locate the graph later and post it.)

5. Every single nation that I’ve looked at has a very large gap in test scores between poor kids and rich kids. Some are even wider than ours.

6. As usual on the PISA, the US is in the middle of the pack. We are kind of an orange, below the UK which is in black.

7. Arne Duncan and his ilk say that the fact that the same approach has failed for 10 straight years, means we need to keep doing it harder. Sensible people would say no, let’s forget about measuring with stupid standardized tests. Let the kids learn, remember that humans LOVE to learn stuff — it’s what we do as a species. And precisely nobody knows what knowledge of today is going to be the most useful or fun tomorrow. So let’s get rid of the idiotic focus on standardized tests and Big Data, and stop wasting so much money and time and energy on them. We’ve got all sorts of art and sports and drama and dance and music and technology and building stuff and real science and history and psychology to learn and to perform.

Pisa 2012 results graphic

Published in: on December 4, 2013 at 11:25 pm  Comments (3)  

Shanghai PISA scores not representative of China

Interesting article by a Chinese-American scholar who studies Chinese migratory labor. He points out that the students in Shanghai who took the PISA tests, and who scored at the top of the various nations who engaged in the test, aren’t representative of Chinese students generally. An excerpt:

“… the contrast of the U.S. scores with Shanghai’s is not totally appropriate: It is comparing the entire U.S. population — including many who are on free or reduced-price lunches — with China’s cream of the crop, the Shanghai kids.

Even more important, but far less-known, is that in Shanghai, as in most other Chinese cities, the rural migrant workers that are the true urban working poor (totaling about 150 million in the country), are not allowed to send their kids to public high schools in the city. This is engineered by the discriminatory hukou or household registration system, which classifies them as “outsiders.” Those teenagers will have to go back home to continue education, or drop out of school altogether.

In other words, the city has 3 to 4 million working poor, but its high-school system conveniently does not need to provide for the kids of that segment. In essence, the poor kids are purged from Shanghai’s sample of 5,100 students taking the tests. The Shanghai sample is the extract of China’s extract. A fairer play would be to ask kids at [Alice Deal, Lafayette, Sidwell Friends, NCS, or St. Alban’s*] to race against Shanghai’s kids.”

Here is the link to the article:


* The author used some fancy private school in Seattle that I’ve never heard of, since I live in the East coast Washington. So I inserted names of some schools I do know something about.

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