Diane Ravitch: Campbell Brown Shouldn’t Worry Her Pretty Little Head About Education Policy

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Diane Ravitch has some fair critiques of your work.Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

Paul Farhi profiles Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor turned education-reform activist, who is working to end strict teacher tenure protections. Naturally, this enrages teacher-union evangelist Diane Ravitch, who not only disagrees with Brown’s position, but expresses offense that anybody should listen to Brown at all:

“I have trouble with this issue because it’s so totally illogical,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian. “It’s hard to understand why anyone thinks taking away teachers’ due-process rights will lead to great teachers in every classroom.”

As for Brown, Ravitch is dismissive: “She is a good media figure because of her looks, but she doesn’t seem to know or understand anything about teaching and why tenure matters ... I know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense.”

Why, yes, that does sound rather sexist. Now, Ravitch suggests here that Brown’s analysis is so transparently illogical that perhaps only her looks can account for her views. Why, Ravitch wonders, would the elimination of a job protection help attract better teachers? Let me reveal, via the power of logic, how this can work.

The basic problem is that some proportion of American teachers is terrible at their job and immune to improvement, yet removing them is a practical impossibility. (A good overview of the research on chronically ineffective teachers can be found here. Standard caveat: The author is my wife.) Under some conditions, loosening tenure laws can lead directly to more effective teachers in the classroom. For instance, when the Great Recession drove states to lay off teachers in order to balance their budgets, last-in, first-out hiring rules led them to fire teachers regardless of quality, thus removing highly effective (yet unprotected) teachers from classrooms.

Now, education-reform advocates come in conservative and liberal flavors. The conservative ones tend to believe ending tenure alone will improve classroom outcomes. Liberal ones tend to favor an end to tenure along with other reforms, such as higher pay. The liberal education-reform theory is that the public will be more open to higher taxes to support higher levels of teacher pay if teachers are accountable for their performance. Likewise, those dollars will be spent more effectively if they are related to performance rather than to years on the job.

In most fields, your pay is based on your perceived value rather than on the number of years you have spent on the job. Value-based pay does not work perfectly in any field. It certainly doesn’t work perfectly in my field, which explains, for instance, Howard Kurtz’s rumored extravagant wealth [Update: yeah, he's pretty loaded.] Yet if we stopped paying journalists on the basis of their perceived value and started paying them on the basis of time served, I'd argue it would reduce the quality of journalism.

Opponents of reform relentlessly pick apart the various performance pay measures that are being implemented by reformers, and it’s true that none of those measures is perfect, either. But nearly all of them work better than paying people on the basis of how long they’ve held a job and making it functionally impossible to fire them for being terrible at their job. In places like Washington, D.C., education reformers have given teachers a chance to forfeit their tenure in return for the possibility of much higher pay.

Brown seems to be reasonably well-aware of the policy arguments here.

Update: Ravitch defends herself on Twitter in characteristic fashion:

So, really, by defining a female policy activist with whom she disagrees by her appearance, Ravitch is standing up for feminism here.

Meanwhile, Jane Hamsher defends Ravitch in a tour de force of ideological free association. "I don’t really want to get into the merits of the Ravitch/Brown comments because I don’t want to distract from the larger looming issue," writes Hamsher. The larger issue:

If and when Hillary Clinton decides to run for the White House — and probably before — we’re going to be treated to a whole host of saggy old white men who bang their secretaries, berate their wives and despise woman who gives them “lip” as they take to marching down Main Street with burning bra in hand. ...

That good “liberal” Elizabeth Warren is out there trying to facilitate a new round of Fannie/Freddie bailoutsand give them the Good Progressive Seal of Approval even as she rails before cheering crowds against tax breaks for billionaire and the greedy 1%.

So stop criticizing Ravitch. Or something.