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The New Achievement Standard: Divine Intervention!

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There has been the "silver bullet" debate, the "secret sauce" battle, the "demonize teacher" tirades, and the "cracking the code" kerfuffle over Waiting for Superman. Now, according to Diane Ravitch, it's the miracle workers perfidy. Sinners, get ye to your rosary beads -- and fast!

According to Ravitch, writing in a recent New York Times op-ed essay, titled, of course, "Waiting for a School Miracle", all these high-powered education reformers, from President Obama to Arne Duncan to Jeb Bush to Michael Bloomberg, are claiming "miracles" for their reform efforts; and Ravitch is there, a one-woman Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a Devil's Advocate, to throw some almighty holy water on the hype fires.

Unfortunately, while accusing these folks of "statistical legerdemain," Ravitch commits the sin of rhetorical tromperie: none of her targets allege anything miraculous. I will leave to others the task of sorting out Ravitch's claims about the accuracy of the reformers' claims, but from the research I've seen so far, nobody's cooking books -- the dispute seems to be one of whether the glass is half full or half empty. And Ravitch proves herself as good at cherry- and nit-picking as the next guy or gal. (See this Jonathan Alter column; it's rather devastating.)

The problem is that slippery rhetoric is as unhelpful as saucy statistics. In her Times essay Ravitch very clearly cites four speeches (including a press conference) and four schools, to illustrate her point that "the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny": Obama in his 2011 State of the Union praises the Bruce Randolph School in Denver; then, it's Duncan addressing the 20th Anniversary Teach for America celebration last February commending Urban Prep Academy in Chicago; then Bush (and Obama and Duncan) at a Miami High School event in March, before a crowd of adoring high schoolers being extolled for their progress; finally, Bloomberg gushing over PS-33 in New York at a 2005 news conference. (Sorry, I don't have a cite to the press conference; I will assume, perhaps too boldly, that Bloomberg praised the school's improvement and that it's probably true, as Ravitch says, the school fell back to earth.)

"[T]he only miracle at these schools was a triumph of public relations," says Ravitch. But the problem is that the only person calling these improvements miraculous is Diane Ravitch. None of the reformers use the word; I suspect because they know what it means. I suspect that Ravitch also knows what it means, which is why she employs it -- in order to continue her seemingly relentless attack on the reform movement. But these kinds of rhetorical gimmicks are unfortunate, especially if the intent is to improve education opportunities for America's children. (I had a similar bone to pick recently with the Cato folks over their insistence on calling a "common" curriculum a "nationalized" curriculum. See my War of Words ) Indeed, we always need scrutiny of claims. But if we are accusing folks of claiming miracles, then the standards of scrutiny demand that those folks should at least have used the word. You've either been to Medjugorje or you haven't.

Ravitch has the same problem with poverty. "To prove that poverty doesn't matter," she writes in the Times essay, "political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them." And which political leaders are claiming that "poverty doesn't matter?" Again, there is not a single quote from any of the high-powered people Ravitch attempts to skewer in her Times essay that claims "poverty doesn't matter." Why? Because those are Ravitch's words, not theirs.

Skepticism about claims of success is always a good thing, as my colleague at Thomas Fordham Liam Julian suggested earlier, but Ravitch undermines her credibility by inventing these weak-kneed and flammable straw men to set fire to. And her cherry-picking of schools that don't match the hype is not helpful or productive to school improvement efforts either. Facts still matter -- but so do words. And if no one is claiming a miracle cure for bad schools or saying that poverty doesn't count, then let's not put those words in their mouths.

Praise the Lord!