Diane Ravitch's Blog: William Mathis: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center, wrote this post for the Blog. 

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

A Closer Look at the Changing School Privatization Claims

​Flashed on a 1939 version of a jumbotron, the great and mighty Wizard of Oz appears, wreathed in great billows of green smoke, as a reverberating announcement commands Dorothy, the Tin man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Of course, as we all know, the mighty wizard was all pretense, magnification, and illusion flanked by great balls of fire.

​And so it has been. The privatization wizards have issued countless press releases saying that charter schools In Boston, Florida, Chicago or almost anywhere else are a great success because of standardized test score increases. 

For years this omnipresent claim is that turning schools over to outside contractors will result in grand progress as measured by great leaps – in standardized test scores. All we have to do is follow them down the yellow brick road. 

Indeed, Chris Lubienski and Jameson Brewer note in a NEPC review, “a whole generation of school reforms has elevated test scores as the predominant metric by which to judge the worth of policies, as well as of schools, teachers, and even in some cases subjection of public schools to choice regimes through federal policies like No Child Left Behind (NCLB).” (1)

Yet, lately, things have not been so rosy in Oz or for the school privatization wizards. Several recent, large scale and well-designed studies have concluded that privatization has not produced the mighty test score gains promised. 

Yet, Toto persisted in chewing on the curtain and ERIC, IES and a host of other scholarly and well-respected organizations concluded there really wasn’t much difference in test scores between public and non-public schools. In fact, in places such as Washington, DC, Indiana, and Louisiana, statewide evaluations have shown no advantage and, ominously, some have found actual test score losses as a result of privatization reforms. (2)

​Since their primary argument doesn’t look so good, the reformers now say, “Don’t look behind the curtain! Instead, look over there at attainment.” Attainment is the new goal which is a potpourri of indicators such as graduation rates, higher education attendance, higher education graduation, absenteeism and the like. These are certainly worthy goals which would be embraced by most people. Now, the pro-privatization purposes and measures are being shifting away from testing. In a complete about face, they ask, “Do Impacts on Test Scores Even Matter?” (3)

​Lubienski and Brewer address this “Don’t look here, look over there” shift-the-goal phenomenon in a recent NEPC think-tank review of an American Enterprise Institute paper presented at the Association for Education Finance and Policy’s annual spring conference. While the study has not been peer reviewed, it was provided with booming publicity by charter advocates. (4)

​Fordham’s Michael Petrilli, a prominent advocate for test-based reform, shows remarkable agility (perhaps realizing that the test score results were not very impressive), by concluding that “focusing on test scores may lead authorities to favor the wrong school choice programs. It’s a legitimate concern, and one I share…the experience of attending a private school in the nation’s capital could bring benefits that might not show up until years later: exposure to a new peer group that holds higher expectations in terms of college-going and the like; access to a network of families that opens up opportunities; a religious education that provides meaning, perhaps a stronger grounding in both purpose and character, and that leads to personal growth.”

​Buttressing this maudlin appeal to national pride, religion and personal growth, Petrilli shuffles the studies to get a different result and says, “yes, impacts on test scores matter” and urges caution in making too much of research literature that comes to a contrary conclusion.

​Robin Lake joins the shift saying, “We now believe effectiveness must be considered more broadly, as preparing children with the knowledge, skills, and analytical capacities necessary for them to navigate the new realities of an information economy and be able to prepare for rapid changes in workforce demand.” (6) The shift from mechanistic hard test scores has the reformees saying “look over there!’ (7)

​What’s missing is that we’re more in Kansas than in Oz. This is not Dorothy waking from a bad dream proclaiming “there’s no place like home.” It is a bad reality as many children have no home and society provides Dorothy and her classmates with only ersatz opportunities and facile shifts of words, phrases and promises rather than the reality of good schools for all.

Endnotes: 

[1] Lubienski, C. & Brewer, T. J. (2018). Review of “Do Impacts on Test Scores Even Matter? Lessons from Long-Run Outcomes in School Choice Research: Attainment Versus Achievement Impacts and Rethinking How to Evaluate School Choice Programs” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

[2] Barnum, M. (July 12, 2017). Do School vouchers “work.” As the debate heats up, here’s what research really says. Chalkbeat. Retrieved April 30, 2018 from https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/us/2017/07/12/do-school-vouchers-work-as-the-debate-heats-up-heres-what-research-really-says/
Dynarski, M. (2016, May 26). On Negative Effects of Vouchers. Brookings: https://www.brookings.edu/research/on-negative-effects-of-vouchers/
Turner, C, & Kamenetz. (June 26, 2017) School Vouchers Get 2 New Report Cards. NPR https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/06/26/533192616/school-vouchers-get-a-new-report-card
Spector, C. (February 28,2017). Vouchers do not improve student achievement, Stanford researcher finds. https://news.stanford.edu/2017/02/28/vouchers-not-improve-student-achievement-stanford-researcher-finds/

[3] Hitt, C., McShane, M., & Wolf, P. (2018) Do impacts on test scores even matter? Lessons from long-run outcomes in school choice research: Attainment versus achievement impacts and rethinking how to evaluate school choice programs. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute. http://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Do-Impacts-on-Test-Scores-Even-Matter.pdf

[4] Lubienski, C. & Brewer, T. J. (2018). Review of “Do Impacts on Test Scores Even Matter? Lessons from Long-Run Outcomes in School Choice Research: Attainment Versus Achievement Impacts and Rethinking How to Evaluate School Choice Programs” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

[5] Petrilli, M, (April 17, 2018). For the vast majority of school choice studies, short- and long-term impacts point in the same direction. Fordham Institute. https://edexcellence.net/articles/for-the-vast-majority-of-school-choice-studies-short-and-long-term-impacts-point-in-the

[6] Lake, R. (May 1, 2018). How Can We Get Serious About Successful Pathways for Every Student? Center on Reinventing Public Education.

[7] Saultz, A. et al.(April 2018).Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options. Fordham Institute. Retrieved May 1, 2018 from https://edexcellence.net/publications/charter-school-deserts-report

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She serves on the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation, Common Core, the Albert Shanker Institute of the American Federation of Teachers, and Common Good. She is an honorary life trustee of the New...

William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He is a co-recipient of the Horace Mann League’s national Outstanding Public Educator award, was a...