The Education Gadfly

Please see our previous posts about the Massachusetts Miracle and related issues -- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. After you're all caught up,??take a look at the latest addition, from reader Stuart Buck in response to Sol Stern.

In Part 4, Sol wrote:

Here are two of the highest performing school systems in the world, yet both have strong teacher unions. Ravitch was not presenting her own theory about the effects of teacher unions, merely challenging the validity of the reformers' grand theory about the wholly negative effects of the unions. She did this by pointing to specific cases where the theory doesn't seem to explain the empirically observed outcome. Isn't that what social scientists do all the time?

Stuart Buck responds in the comments of that post:

No one is trying to contend that unions are so powerful and so awful that wherever a union exists, it will be impossible for any school to attain high achievement. If someone made such a strong claim, then, and only then, would it be relevant for Ravitch to point out that in a few locations, unionized districts


It all started with a post of mine that argued that??Diane Ravitch is wrong to say that Massachusetts's situation proves teachers unions to be a non-factor in education reform. After Ravitch responded with a rebuttal post, Jay Greene added a follow-up that challenged her to "point to a rigorous piece of social science research that supports her argument."??Sol Stern then joined the discussion to add his take on what Greene said. We've now arrived at Part 5 of this Massachusetts Miracle series, where Jay Greene is back to defend his positions:

Diane Ravitch was not, as Sol Stern suggests, only countering the view that unions are "the main, sometimes the only,??institutional bulwark against reforming school systems and raising the achievement of disadvantaged students." Her clearly stated argument was that "[t]eachers' unions do not themselves raise or lower academic achievement." That is, she wasn't simply knocking down the hyperbolic claims of certain advocates, she was indeed "presenting her own??theory" ??that teacher unions, on average, do not harm student achievement.

So, Sol Stern is wrong to assert that Ravitch would never "say anything as absolute as ???unions do nothing.'" She said almost precisely that.


The debate continues. I started it with this post arguing that Diane Ravitch is wrong to say that the Massachusetts Miracle proves teachers unions to not be such the bad guys after all when it comes to education improvement. Diane's rebuttal is here. Then Jay Greene responded. Now Sol Stern has this to say:

Jay Greene's critique of Diane Ravitch's??comments??about the "Massachusetts??miracle" and what effects?? teacher unions may or may not have on school reform??misses the context of Diane's original statement. The context is that??most??"school reformers"??have been arguing that unions are so powerful and so??zealous about protecting??their members' material interests that they have become the main, sometimes the only,??institutional bulwark against reforming school systems and raising the achievement of disadvantaged students.??It was to interrogate??that received opinion that??Ravitch brought up the counter-factual of Finland and Massachusetts. Here are??two of the highest performing school systems in the world, yet both have??strong teacher unions. Ravitch??was not presenting her own??theory about the effects of teacher unions, merely??challenging the??validity of the reformers' grand theory about the??wholly negative effects??of??the unions. She did this by pointing to specific cases where the theory doesn't seem to explain the empirically observed outcome. Isn't that??what social??scientists??do all


The bi-annual survey of federal workplaces, which evaluates the quality of support, leadership, and the like, shows that the Department of Education comes in the bottom of the pack--the bottom five, to be exact. The Washington Post explains:

What separates these agencies in the minds of their employees is often the senior leadership, how well or poorly it shares information with subordinates, and the training and opportunities it provides workers...

I suppose the next question we should be asking ourselves is how this discontent leaks into the Department's work. Uh oh.

Guest Blogger

Guest blogger Diane Ravitch responds to Mike Petrilli's recent post, "The Massachusetts Miracle and the Teachers Union"

At the Philanthropy Roundtable conference a few weeks ago, I was a "judge" of a series of presentations that were supposed to showcase the best idea for education reform. The first one was by Richard Berman of the Center for Union Facts, who described his plan to launch a media campaign to "demonize" the teachers' unions; he gave examples of video and billboards in New Jersey.

I responded to Mr. Berman that if I were designing an ad campaign to counter his, I would point out that the highest-scoring state in the nation is Massachusetts, which has a strong teachers' union, and that the highest-scoring nation in the world on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is Finland, which is virtually 100% unionized, and that the lowest scoring districts and states in this nation have weak unions or no unions. So I judged that his entry would not improve education. He said something about being in the PR business and did not respond.

So I assume that this exchange was the genesis of...

Yesterday I argued that Diane Ravitch is wrong to say that Massachusetts proves teachers unions to be a non-factor in education reform. Diane responded here. Now it's Jay Greene's turn (from this comment):

Diane Ravitch's suggestion that critics point to a state or district that has done well without teacher unions to counter her example of MA that has done well with unions is a horrible way to determine the truth on this matter. Many factors influence student achievement, so isolating the effect of teacher unions would require a rigorous social science research design that could identify the influence of unionization independent of other factors.

Rather than point to a state or district, which proves nothing, I would point people to a rigorous study by Caroline Hoxby in a leading economics journal. The abstract states: "I find that teachers' unions increase school inputs but reduce productivity sufficiently to have a negative overall effect on student performance."

See Caroline Minter Hoxby, "How Teachers' Unions Affect Education Production," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 111, No. 3 (Aug., 1996), pp. 671-718

If Diane Ravitch wants to convince readers that the unions do nothing to lower academic

Amy Fagan

Two fifth-grade students work on math in the common area (filled with desks for testing) at KIPP Journey Academy , a charter school sponsored by Fordham in Columbus.

Last week, Laura Pohl (Fordham's new media director) and I had the privilege of visiting our Ohio colleagues. A particularly memorable part of the trip was peering in on two charter schools in Columbus that Fordham sponsors (authorizes). Both schools are in their first year and both serve just one grade at the moment, but will expand. Here's a little more about them.

At KIPP Journey Academy, walls??are covered with art, inspirational sayings and??photos of the students (there's??a "glow-out" wall, where students and teachers can post compliments of one another). The school of 62 fifth graders, most of whom are African-American students from??low-income families, emphasizes responsibility, respecting yourself/others, setting and attaining high??goals and??giving back to the community. They have longer schooldays, an incentive program for good work and a policy that allows students to contact teachers by phone until 9:30pm, we were told. Like other KIPP schools, students regularly do school chants and we were lucky enough to hear Iyana Hill and Melik Scott??give...

Sadly, new data from NCES shows the loss of faith-based urban schools continues.

Catholic schools remain the hardest hit, losing nearly 300 city schools between 2004 and 2008.????Nearly 100 city-based Lutheran schools were also lost.????A number of other denominations saw similar declines.????Small upticks in the number of Islamic schools and Jewish day schools partially offset the overall loses.

More on these sad trends here, here, and here.

Given the paucity of great schools in America's cities, we shouldn't allow these schools to disappear indiscriminately.????Why not figure out which ones are excelling academically with disadvantaged kids (thereby truly serving the public good), and see what can be done to preserve them?

Here's my humble recommendation to the Department: in the applications and guidance for the "Race to the Top" fund and the "What Works" fund make clear that proposals for tackling this challenge are welcome.????There are lots of ways this funding could help these schools beyond student scholarships such as training the next generation of teachers and principals or strategic planning for struggling networks of schools.

Maybe the best proposal in this area would come from a set of faith-based...

Sara Mead's thoughtful blog post responding to my Washington Post op ed is several hundred words longer than my original piece.??Mead is smart and perceptive, however, in addition to wordy. Once she actually gets her hands on??the book (Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut) on which my op ed was based--due back from the printer in a few days and meanwhile available in pdf form--she will, I think, find that I actually do heed the "factual" points she makes. Perhaps the only fundamental on which we disagree (and it's indeed fundamental) is whether "universal" pre-K is the right goal for American public policy. But the more interesting area of semi-disagreement concerns the markers and criteria of "quality" in the early-childhood field. Mead acknowledges that the field relies overmuch on input measures and should pay greater heed to learning outcomes. She's got that right; indeed, that's one of the book's major thrusts. But then she more-or-less exonerates the field for this oversight with the lame excuse that preschool programs are so egregiously underfunded that they must worry about inputs before they can afford to worry about results. That's mostly wrong. Some programs are doubtless underfunded but in the NCLB era...

A few weeks ago I was at a conference when Diane Ravitch made the point that if teachers unions are such obstacles to reform, how can we explain Massachusetts, a "strong union" state that boasts highest-in-the-country NAEP scores and dramatic gains for poor and minority kids over the past decade? It was a provocative, compelling comment, and a bit of a conversation-stopper. (In some ways the inverse of this conversation-stopper, about the South.)

I've been mulling about it ever since, wondering if she's right that we reformers have exaggerated the unions' negative role. To help me think through this question, I reached out to some friends, including Bryan Hassel, Jay Greene, Andy Rotherham, Greg Forster, Marty West, and Jamie Gass, who each provided thoughtful responses. And I've concluded that no, Diane isn't right. My sense of equilibrium is returning. Here's why.

First, when it comes to state policy, the Massachusetts teachers unions have been remarkably weak over the past fifteen years. They accepted the 1993 reform bill, as it came attached to hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending. But from all accounts it appears that they...