Refereeing a Rigged Fight

When I read “A Battle over School Reform: Michelle Rhee versus Diane Ravitch” two weeks ago, I felt as if I had entered a time warp.  This article couldn’t be new, I remember thinking that it must have been written a few years ago.  But no, it is dated January 2014, suggesting to me that the author, John Buntin, relied on old news, inaccurate data and a stack of clichés.  “Rhee vs. Ravitch” is his hook. Indeed, he writes:  “Reading Rhee (sic) and Ravitch’s books together is like watching two accomplished pugilists fight a 15-round bout…. Think of this as an attempt to score the fight.” In one corner, Buntin has Rhee representing ‘education reform.’ And in the other corner, Ravitch represents those who oppose reform–a semantic choice by the author that seems meaningful.  He ignores Washington’s erasure scandal that calls into question Rhee’s claims of academic success, and he fails to mention the current conditions of public schools in Washington, two points that readers have a right to know about.

Buntin hardly seems like an impartial fight judge. He writes of Rhee’s ‘most impressive accomplishments’ while she was in Washington; however, his tone when discussing Ravitch is markedly different.  She writes ‘with grim determination’ and ‘like General Sherman marching to the sea,’ he notes.

His real goal, we discover at the end of the piece, is not to referee a Rhee-Ravitch bout but to find a new heavyweight champ.  And so he urges us “….to step back from Rhee and Ravitch’s specific disagreements and consider the ingredients of educational excellence from a different perspective. That is precisely the strategy pursued by journalist Amanda Ripley in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way).

Rhee and Ravitch are both wrong, he says, although–because Rhee believes that teacher quality matters (and Ravitch doesn’t?)–Rhee is apparently less wrong than Ravitch: “In the world described by Ripley, Ravitch’s complacency is misguided. But so is the reformers’ narrow focus on standardized testing. The best way forward is likely more nuanced, and more complicated. {{1}}

Upset by his factual errors and the central argument of the essay, I wrote Mr. Buntin, as follows:

Dear Mr. Buntin,

I have a couple of observations about your Rhee/Ravitch piece that I hope you don’t mind my sharing. The first is a minor quibble about the firing scene. We filmed that as part of my NewsHour coverage–we followed the young Chancellor for her entire three years in DC (12 NewsHour reports).  Only later did we include it in our film for Frontline.  I allowed Oprah to use the footage, and Davis Guggenheim appropriated it without our permission for “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” although he did eventually pay us for using it.
My second objection is substantial and has to do with Rhee’s record as Chancellor. Not long after she departed, USA Today broke the story of widespread erasures on the DC-CAS, the city’s standardized test, during Rhee’s first and second years.  We covered that in our Frontline film. However, AFTER the film I obtained a copy of a confidential memo that made it clear just how much she knew of the erasures and how she failed to act.  That is summarized here:
While “Rhee vs. Ravitch” is a compelling headline and a sexy feature, it’s a roadblock to understanding American education.  Ravitch is a passionate advocate who argues from facts.  In contrast, Rhee’s policies were tried, and they failed. By almost every conceivable measure, the DC schools are no better than before her tenure. In key areas of student attendance, graduation rates, and principal and teacher turnover, they are worse.  Central offices in abutting districts have shrunk, but DCPS’ has grown considerably. Even DC’s most recent gains on NAEP, which began 12-15 years BEFORE Rhee’s tenure, seem to have been fueled by an influx of better-educated families (gentrification) and quality pre-school. Here’s a summary:
I urge you to revisit this story.  There is a titanic struggle going on in public education, one that is complex and deserving of coverage.  Using Michelle Rhee as symbolic of ‘one side’ is misleading, unfortunately.  Wendy Kopp and Teach for America might better represent one side and Ravitch another, although the issue has more than two sides.

Thanks for reading this,

He has not replied.

The magazine that published Mr. Burton’s article, GOVERNING {{2}}, describes itself as “the nation’s leading media platform covering politics, policy and management for state and local government leaders. Recognized as the most credible and authoritative voice in its field, GOVERNING provides nonpartisan news, insight and analysis on such issues as public finance, transportation, economic development, health, energy, the environment and technology.”

The magazine, which first appeared in 1987, says its core readers are “elected, appointed and career officials in state and local government, including governors, mayors, county executives, city and county council members, state legislators, executives of state and local agencies, and those holding professional government positions…”

Those men and women ought to have accurate information. Perhaps they get it when the magazine reports on transportation, public finance, energy and other key issues, but GOVERNING let its readers down when it published Buntin’s superficial piece about public education.

GOVERNING claims to have 85,000 readers. This blog does not always reach that many readers every week, so I hope you will share this post.

Superficial opining like Mr. Burton’s muddies the waters, not a good thing at a time when clarity is needed.

[[1]]1. Here’s the link, if you’d like to check it out for yourself: [[1]]

[[2]]2. For more about the magazine and its publisher, the Governing Institute, go here: [[2]]

18 thoughts on “Refereeing a Rigged Fight

  1. Thank you!

    This is another example, I believe, of journals that would never be so sloppy with foreign affairs or major domestic policies that they deem more important. Perhaps because the elites have no personal experience with high-poverty schools, it would take too much remdiation before they could write properly on education.


  2. Dear John,
    Agree completely that continuing to portray the ed wars as a fight between Rhee and Ravitch not only is way too simplistic, but also mischaracterizes each of them, their motives and accomplishments. But I have not read Amanda Ripley’s book. Did I miss a blog you wrote about it? If you haven’t commented on it yet, I hope you will.


  3. Great post, John. It has prodded me to think: don’t we run the same risk of oversimplifying education reporting when we focus on “successes” vs. “failures”? What’s a more nuanced way of reporting what goes on in the big world of education?



  4. We seem to be in a never ending battle to save/improve public education and always disappointed in the next innovator or savior. I recall the promise of Mark Shedd in Philadelphia in the 1960s-70s and the promise of the Great Society and ESEA only to see the hope unravel with some notable exceptions– Get Set and Head Start, to highlight early childhood education, which de Blasio — and Cuomo — are pushing in New York. To me, the school and teachers are scapegoated for the failure and dysfunction of the urban condition. Alone, the schools cannot compensate for the deficits at home, no matter how much they do.


  5. Thanks, John. Oversimplification is frustrating.

    At the same time, I think we are seeing some district & charter public schools all over the country who are doing a great job of helping low income students make considerable progress. They don’t overcome all their problems, but they do help them in a vast array of ways.

    Here’s a column about a national coalition that honors outstanding district & charter public schools:


    • She’s right that the teacher acicuntabiloty stuff, especially as it is in Tennessee, is very effective at demoralizing teachers and encouraging them to go elsewhere. The problem is, suggesting that it is foolhardy to try to put systems in place that do value better teachers sounds pretty stupid.Other reasonable measures, like just asking kids (and maybe parents) which teachers are good ones, can and will quickly be co-opted by teachers who give (perhaps metaphorical) candy to kids to get them to give evaluations. I know I always bought beer for my students before I had them fill out their evaluations. (Well, not really, but it’s a good story.)


  6. John, I’m a huge fan of your film work. But this has me baffled.

    You write, “Ravitch is a passionate advocate who argues from facts.”

    John, every week for over three years, I engaged Diane over these ‘facts’. What I found in her was hardly a voice of analytic reason.

    When I joined the discussion, Diane purported to represent the reform side. Yet I never saw that. Around 2006-7, when I met her at ‘reform’ presentations in DC, she had seemingly lost curiosity or a determination to solve problems. As those long days ended, I thought I shared her frustration with the circular routes we traveled. But the rest of us could at least shake it off, have a friendly laugh, and pledge to try again tomorrow.

    I urge you to read Jay Green on Diane’s handling of factual arguments. As I learned weekly from 2008-2012, she can be more than biased in how she reads and relates studies.

    In particular, she has made huge mileage off a flawed interpretation of the CREDO report. Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking opposing views of the meaning of that report, and what the nation should take from it in terms of future policy.

    But Diane is supposed to be better than the rest of us. As you have here shown, she is supposed to be the standard-bearer for evidence-based reasoning.

    Her totally biased reading of CREDO–and subsequent anti-charter campaign thereof–tell us all that she is nowhere near as analytically curious as her credentials and fans proclaim.

    Sadly, that is not even her worst lapse, by far. Any of us have our weaknesses in that regard. We can only absorb so much data. But we all can be fair and gracious to others who are trying.

    Recent years have seen Diane argue more like a pre-teen than the educated scholar she is supposed to be. The politics of personal destruction have become her stock-in-trade. Sadly, billionaire-bashing and ad-hominem attack are all Diane has to sell these days.

    Whether there is a slippage of mind, or a rational sell-out for the cash and fame that have become hers, I cannot say and would never guess.

    What I do know–and am surprised to hear you not notice–is that it is sad. Really sad.


    • I disagree entirely with Ed Jones, even though I’m not a member of his “in-group” of “reformers”. I find Ravitch’s work accurate, and I try to tell the truth.

      Diane Ravitch’s erstwhile ‘opponent’, Michelle Rhee, is in fact the one who has parlayed dubious facts and distortions into fame and a career that has apparently earned her millions of dollars.

      What, precisely, were those distortions that Ravitch is allegedly guilty of regarding that CREDO study?


    • Ed,
      Then you decry politics of personal destruction.

      Sorry to engage in the politics of personal destruction, but you are an idiot.

      As for Jay P Greene, he is currently writing like a hypocrite whining that voucher schools shouldn’t have to prove their worth like public schools.


      • The more I think about Ed Jones’ remarks here, the more I realize that HIS criticism is completely ad-hominem and reeks of character assassination.

        It also contains no facts whatsoever.


      • Guy, I think you do not know the meaning of the term ‘ad-hominem’. For reference, Wikipedia defines it here:

        As to facts, it’s true, I above do not reference facts for those who do not want to see them. (Of which there are a large contingent more interested in seeing a few adults special interests win out over the large sector of urban and minority youth.) For those interested, they are there in abundance.

        Jay has well documented Diane’s data lapses–in many articles. Those lapses are substantial.

        The CREDO report itself is also available to those who wish to read with a curious and open mind. Those readers who make it to the bottom, who read the fine print as it were, will see that the report’s real conclusion is that charters are a victim of their own success.

        All of this, of course, leads to Buntin’s–and John’s–point that the struggle to improve education is complex. Much more complex than Diane’s woeful march against ‘privatization’, and ‘competition and choice’.

        Whether planned or no, Diane’s call to arms has teachers everywhere–from the left, right and middle–asking for more choice for students, not less. It’s both funny and heartwarming to see union zealots and tea-party activists rallying together against the Common Core.

        How much of the latter results from Diane’s crusade I can’t suggest. Maybe a lot. What I do know, however, is that the statement “Ravitch is a passionate advocate who argues from facts” is true as far as the passion part, but quite widely disputed by serious people as to the ‘facts’ part.


    • Ed Jones,

      Read Diane Ravitch’s blog and you will see that she is the spokesperson for the people who deliver education to the nation’s children.



  7. I heard from John Buntin, the author of the piece I criticized. He told me that he had not seen my letter to him. He also asked if his magazine could run my critique and his explanation. I agreed, as long as I could run his letter of explanation to me in this space. Here’s what he asked me to post:

    Dear Mr. Merrow,

    Thank you for providing me with your email address. I read your posting yesterday with interest. When you write a book review/essay about a contentious subject such as ed reform, you do your best and then people get to react. Fair enough. What did perturb me, though, was reading that I’d ignored an email you sent me. That is something I would never willingly do. I try to respond to every personal email, positive or negative. To do otherwise would be rude.

    A published piece should stand on its own. As the author, I get to write a story, but I don’t get to determine how others will interpret it. I would like to clarify one important point though: Sherman’s march to the sea was not ineffective. By likening Ravitch to Sherman, I meant to suggest that she was devastating, relentless, and, yes, occasionally excessive. Presumably she (like Sherman!) would think otherwise.

    There is another very important question about Ravitch’s argument that my review may not have done justice to. It is this: Ravitch claims that America has a poverty problem, not an education problem. Control for poverty and educational outcomes are excellent, she argues. In her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley claims that that is flat out wrong. In a lengthy footnote, she describes Ravitch’s claim that “our schools that are low poverty schools are number one in the world” as “nonsense.” Ripley’s discussion of Poland, a country with childhood poverty levels comparable to the U.S. , is a kind of extended counter-argument to Ravtich’s claim. This seems to me to be a critically important point.

    I was interested in Ravitch’s claim that Rhee ducked the chance to debate her. It would have been fascinating to see Rhee and Ravitch debate this point, as well as Rhee’s central claim, one highlighted in my review, namely that with several years of effective classroom instruction, children growing up in poverty can compete equally with the children of affluence. It is my hope that someone will follow up with Rhee’s class and see how those children have fared over time.

    I agree with you that there is a complex struggle going on that will determine the future of public education and that Governing’s readers deserve accurate, on-point reporting on it. We will try to do it justice in the years to come. I look forward to following your reporting on this subject as well.

    Sincerely yours,


    JOHN BUNTIN | Staff Correspondent


  8. John,

    Any interest in taking on Arne Duncan too? I am a DC public school teacher, and his comments about DC schools in his recent editorial in the Washington Post absolutely do not ring true. Who do you think is influencing his misguided views? His opinion is so far from being rooted in reality that it actually scares me.


  9. First, Mr. Merrow, thank you for continuing to monitor the claims put forth by the corporate reform propagandists, and the resulting disinformation that appears with alarming consistency in mainstream media. I, myself, am a District of Columbia Public School teacher, and from where I stand, the picture of reform successes that is being sold and bought whole-cloth by politicians and journalists, alike, is deliberately misleading to the point of being fraudulent. I would love to sit down with Mr. Buntin, and examine with him, point by point, these claims, so that he does not find himself in the position of merely parroting the talking points created by the publicists. Education is terribly complex, as is the current struggle over its place and its future in our society. It is also terribly important. It deserves to be examined from a serious, thorough, well researched sort of journalism that informs the discussion, rather than the unquestioning copy-and-paste that I find even in the most respected and influential news and public affairs broadcasts and publications.


  10. Once again the people furthest from the classroom claim to have all the answers. What does it take for those who have been on the front lines coming up with both complex and simple answers that work in schools set in a variety of socioeconomic settings to be heard? Many of us have blogs or books. Mine is DOING THE RIGHT THING: A Teacher Speaks.

    Read our work. Listen to our stories. Put the decisions in the hands of those who can (from experience) solve these problems.

    But to do that, you have to first listen, read, and remember the real pugilists are on the front lines fighting the elements that slow down quality education every day.


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