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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 10/27/2010

Ravitch on how wrong 'Superman' really is

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch on her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website.

Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement.

Dear Deborah,
I reviewed "Waiting for 'Superman'" for The New York Review of Books. I thought the movie was very slick, very professional, and very propagandistic. It is one-sided and very contemptuous of public education. Notably, the film portrayed not a single successful regular public school, and its heroic institutions were all charter schools.

There are many inaccuracies in the movie.

One that I describe in my review is Davis Guggenheim's claim that 70 percent of 8th grade students read "below grade level." He has a graphic where state after state is shown to have only a small proportion of students reading "on grade level" or "proficient." The numbers are based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

But Guggenheim is wrong. NAEP doesn't report grade levels. It reports achievement levels, and these do not correspond to grade levels. Nor does he understand the NAEP achievement levels or just how demanding NAEP's "proficiency" level really is. To score below "proficient" on NAEP does NOT mean "below grade level."

NAEP has four achievement levels.

The top level is called "advanced," which represents the very highest level of student performance. Students who are "advanced" probably are at an A+; if they were taking an SAT, they would likely score somewhere akin to 750-800. These are the students who are likely to qualify for admission to our most selective universities.

Then comes "proficient," which represents solid academic performance, equivalent to an A or a very strong B. Guggenheim assumes that any student who is below "proficient" cannot read at "grade level." He is wrong.

The third level is "basic." These are students who have achieved partial mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to be proficient. This would be equivalent, I believe, to a grade of C. Many (if not most) states use NAEP's "basic" as their own definition of "proficient." This is because they know that it is unrealistic to expect all students to be "A" students.

"Below basic" is the category that appears to be what Guggenheim means by his reference to "below grade level." But in 8th grade reading, 25 percent of students are below basic, not 70 percent.

If Guggenheim knew what he was talking about, he might have said that 70 percent of 8th grade students were unable to score the equivalent of an A, but that would not be an alarming figure. It would not be a very dramatic story had he said, in sonorous tones, "25 percent of our 8th grade students are 'below basic' in reading, and that figure includes students who are learning English and students with disabilities."

He also erred in setting up charter schools as the singular answer to the nation's education problems, especially since he admits that only one in five charters gets "amazing results." The actual number that get amazing results is far smaller.

In the CREDO study to which he refers, it is 17 percent, not 20 percent, closer to one in six, that outperform a matched neighborhood public school. Not all of those one in six get "amazing results," just better results than a nearby comparable school. I was told by Professor Ed Fuller at the University of Texas, who studies Texas charters, that only a couple dozen charters out of 300 in the state get "amazing results," and that many more get "abysmal" results. But you won't hear anything about that in this polemical film.

There are excellent charter schools, as there are excellent public schools. I saw one last week when I visited the KIPP flagship school in Houston, a K-12 school set on 35 acres. But it polarizes the national discussion to treat public education as a failed institution, as this film does.

The aggressive movement to lionize charters and to demonize public schools is scary because there is so much money and power pushing this agenda. I urge you to read this account by Barbara Miner, who is deeply suspicious of the billionaire hedge fund managers and foundations behind this movement.

It disturbs me that the CEO of Participant Media, one of the main producers of the "Waiting for 'Superman' " film, was previously the CEO of a chain of for-profit post-secondary institutions, a sector that is now under fire in Congress for its shoddy recruitment practices and its high default rates on federally funded student loans. The man behind the other producer, Walden Media, donates heavily to conservative think-tanks, which promote privatization, vouchers, and school choice.

How socially useful is it to destroy public confidence in an essential public institution? Shouldn't we work together to improve the schools, rather than handing over our children to the private sector? I know it is the vogue now to privatize public libraries, public hospitals, public parks, prison facilities, and other public sector institutions. What will be next on the chopping block? But why give away public schools to the private sector? The private sector does not get better results on average than the public sector, not (according to NAEP) for black students or Hispanic students or urban students or low-income students. But even if it did, we should be wary of undermining one of the bedrock agencies of our democracy. This meretricious film offers fake answers for real problems.



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By Valerie Strauss  | October 27, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Diane Ravitch, Guest Bloggers, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  charter schools, davis guggenheim, diane ravitch, naep, proficient, standardized tests, waiting for superman  
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If each state has a different test, how does "advanced" or "proficient" correlate to anything? My kids usually scored "advanced" on DC-CAS, but I do not think they will be scoring in the 750-800 range on SATs. In fact, their PSAT scores predict lower scores on the SATs. The DC-CAS is a cakewalk compared to PSATs -- one of my daughters struggles mightily with math, and still scored proficient on the DC-CAS -- and I am assuming the PSATs correlate more strongly to SAT performance than the DC-CAS.

Based on personal experience with DC-CAS scores, which I assume are submitted for NAEP purposes, I think Guggenheim has it right, and Ravitch is the one who has it wrong.

Posted by: trace1 | October 27, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Further example: almost 40% of kids at Deal MS score in the advanced range on reading and math. Ravitch claims they are all headed for 750 - 800 SAT scores and the most selective universities. This just isn't true.

Posted by: trace1 | October 27, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

tracet - you are uninformed about NAEP. It is a completely different test from the one school districts use. The NAEP is a national test that is administered separately. The NAEP shows that Massachusetts has the highest NAEP scores. Its purpose is to compare one school district/state with another. It is the true evaluation of how a student is doing.

Posted by: sallycat | October 27, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Further example: according to most recent results, almost 40% of students at Deal MS scored in the advanced range on reading and math. According to Ravtich, they are all headed for the country's most selective universities, armed with near-perfect SAT scores.


Posted by: trace1 | October 27, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

sallycat -
Who takes the NAEP test? My kids didn't take it in DCPS.

Posted by: trace1 | October 27, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

I think that it was inartfully stated but also refers to the NAEP test. I am reasonably certain that 40% of Deal would not score advanced on the NAEP.

You are correct to wonder how advanced or proficient on a state test compares to the NAEP (which almost everyone agrees is well-written and not subject to political pressure).

There have been studies done on high school level tests that show that Mass. is probably the closest to NAEP in rigor (kids score about 10 points less on average on the MCCAS then NAEP), DC is about 30 points (kids score about 30 points less then the NAEP scores would indicate).

Basically, you can look at the score DIFFERENCES and see how much easier your state's test is compared to NAEP. State level proficiency means almost nothing because it is a political decision.

In the first couple of years of NCLB, Alabama had no failing schools because they set their standards and tests so low, while Mass. had lots of them because their standards were high. No one argues that Mass. students are worst then Alabama's, merely that Mass. chose to assess at close to grade level and Alabama did not.

Remember, politics drives educational decisions, not what would be useful to the kids.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | October 27, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I stand corrected. The DC-CAS is not the NAEP test. But I just spoke to someone at NAEP who said that Ravitch is making a general statement and has no data to support it. NAEP is currently doing a linking study that will attempt to correlate performance on NAEP to performance on SAT, but it is a work in progress with no results published yet.

And what would Ravitch say about NAEP data that has already been published that shows private schools outperforming public nationwide?

Posted by: trace1 | October 27, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Wyrm1 - thank you, that's helpful.

I would argue that setting the bar so low, as it is on the DC-CAS, is really detrimental. It gives parents a false sense that their kids are academic standouts, when in reality, when they go out there to compete against kids who have had to meet much higher standards, many of them don't measure up.

Posted by: trace1 | October 27, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Upon reading the above mentioned account by Barbara Miner, which is a good one, the obvious missing elements are Obama and his man Duncan. Bush et al set the table for this grand buffet (and put out some tasty hors d'oeuvres), but it is Obama and Duncan who are ushing in the gluttons and sending note to the French chefs in the kitchen, more delicacies for our fine guests. The butler's pantry is continually restocked, at tax-payer expense, to the profiteers' power, glory, and insatiable bellies.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 27, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse


I could not agree with you more. But remember, the DCCAS pass points (and any other states) are politically decided based on what the goals of that state are.

If you google New York State standardized test scores, you'll find a lot of information about how NY basically lowered the proficient score every year so that it's "scores" would go up. This went on for 3-4 years before the State Supt. was forced to rescale scores to correspond with reality.

This is the problem with standardized test scores driving what constitutes success, there is a great deal of incentive to cheat in various ways.

For example, in DCPS the DCCAS sits in administrator's offices for 2-3 weeks, often after the exams have been taken. Many administrators will lose their jobs because their kids did not do well on DCCAS. What do you expect will happen some percentage of the time?

Teachers in the teaching grades can lose their jobs if their kids don't perform. I'm surprised more teachers don't "help" on the DCCAS.

Honestly, I'm surprised there isn't more cheating at every level.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | October 27, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse


Yummy conceit!



Nice job with your strawmam argument when your point is proven wrong.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 27, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

It's been previously reported that selected students in DCPS were indeed given the NAEP. Those students were selected to participate in an academic enrichment program to prep them to take the test. It was in no way a representative sample. This is another one of Rhee's scams that was finally exposed.

Of course private schools do better than public schools. Private schools cherry pick their population and can kick out the disruptive elements that get sent back to the public schools to try and mop up the mess. Apple meet Orange.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | October 27, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse


You claimed the other day that teachers came from the bottom 1/3 of high schools. That obviously was not true.

How do we know you are telling the truth this time?

Posted by: jlp19 | October 27, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Jlp19 . . .
About half of our teachers are currently drawn from the bottom third of college graduates. Are you disputing that?

As for this post, not sure what you're talking about. The NAEP has said it has not done a study correlating its scores to SATs, although such a study is in process. Ravitch is guessing at what the correlation would be. Maybe she's right, maybe she's wrong. Who knows?

Personally, I suspect the truth about the state of public education lies somewhere between the perspectives of Ravitch and Guggenheim.

Posted by: trace1 | October 27, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Yes, trace1, we are disputing your allegation of "bottom third become teachers". Still waiting for your data and its source besides your opinion and no one else's.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | October 27, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

I'm not trace1, but quick Googling leads me to this article, posted a few weeks ago:

"According to a forthcoming McKinsey & Co. study, just 23% of new teachers in the U.S. come from the top third of their college classes; 47% come from the bottom third."

Frankly, I'm not surprised.

Posted by: quatsch | October 27, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse


I don't expect you to change your opinion based on facts. But for other readers out there, they might be interested in this quote from a teachers union leader:

"The late Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1997 to 2004, was open about the problem as far back as 2003. ``You have in the schools right now, among the teachers who are going to be retiring, very smart people,'' she said in an interview. ``We're not getting in now the same kinds of people. It's disastrous. We've been saying for years now that we're attracting from the bottom third.''

Read more:

No one --but you --seriously disputes that the quality of the public school teacher corps needs to be addressed.

Posted by: trace1 | October 27, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

quatsch wrote: "According to a forthcoming McKinsey & Co. study, just 23% of new teachers in the U.S. come from the top third of their college classes; 47% come from the bottom third."
Yet people constantly badmouth older teachers who most likely had higher class ranks as there weren't as many career choices available to them.

Posted by: musiclady | October 27, 2010 7:10 PM | Report abuse

You all really know everything. Next, I'll have to report my IQ, SAT scores, and college grades to parents on back-to-school night.

Posted by: wakeupfolks99 | October 27, 2010 8:59 PM | Report abuse

You all really know everything. Next, I'll have to report my IQ, SAT scores, and college grades to parents on back-to-school night. But according to you, I'm sure I'll still suck.

Posted by: wakeupfolks99 | October 27, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

This Country pays Teachers bottom of the barrel wages then are surprised at what they attract. Would a Company owner hire the same way? You want Chemists, Physicists, and mathematicians to work for poverty level wages, do you really think these College Grads are that ignorant? One-half of the Teachers who graduate go into other fields. They never ENTER the field. Out of the remaining grads that go into teaching, half of those leave in the first several years. Where do you suppose your problem lies?
Should we privatize schools....will the pool of teachers suddenly change? When the Companies expect profits do you think the cost of education will go down?
The school I teach in just lost 3 Science teachers in their mid-fifties, they retired, because they are fed up with the attitude of the Parents, school boards, and that of the Country in general. That's a lot of experience lost. They could easily have stayed maybe 10 more years. But just as the young teachers leave, you chase out those with experience.
Both of my Children teach in inner-city schools. My son teaches 46 students in each of his algebra classes...and you compare his results with a Charter school that cherry-picks their students, tosses out those that don't/can't keep up, gets additional funding from donations allowing for 15 in a class, and this Country wants to pay him based on test scores.
This Country doesn't deserve to have my children teaching theirs.

Posted by: classichammond | October 27, 2010 11:23 PM | Report abuse

trace1 you are confusing DC CAS and NAEP. They are totally different. I suggest you go back to Diane's article to see what she really wrote.

Posted by: pat1117 | October 28, 2010 6:56 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if that research on teachers is counting people who graduate with teaching degrees or people who are actually teaching. I think it would be difficult to get accurate and complete data from the public schools.

I wonder if data has been collected on other fields and what the results are say, for science, humanities, engineering, business, communications, etc.

Is there comparative data on class standing or occupation from years past?

I wonder what research has been done on people who were near the bottom of their classes, no matter what their major. I know that John McCain didn't do very well at Annapolis, but he went on to a distinguished career in the military and politics.

Posted by: efavorite | October 28, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

When our grads don't want to become teachers (remember 75% leave), their class placement becomes irrelevant.

Posted by: classichammond | October 28, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

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