Civil debate, and why we need more of it

I’m strongly of the view that a passionate, honest debate is vital for any field, especially education. I was brought up believing that a courageous exchange of honestly held but differing views was the best way to arrive at understanding and truth.

But there was an underlying rule: the debate was about the ideas, not about personal or emotional slurs on the people behind them. There’s a reason that the ad hominem attack is a foul ball in a debate.

For the last two days, education historian Diane Ravitch and I have been engaged in a debate about KIPP and what one should learn from its example. You can read her original post here and my response here.

We disagree on the facts and on what one should learn from them. That’s ok. We even disagree whether my tone was respectful (my view) or “snarky” (hers). That’s ok too. What’s happened since then definitely isn’t.

In a series of four new posts this morning on her widely read blog, Ravitch—often quoting from others—puts forward a series of statements that move the debate deep into the realm of the personal. She quotes from a local blogger who claims that I wasn’t sufficiently critical of the KIPP school in Oakland when I worked at the Oakland Tribune. (The blogger has since renounced the claim, since the school she wishes I’d critiqued opened three years after I left the paper.) Then, to my bafflement, Dr. Ravitch drags my family into this debate. She discusses my father: “the famous Dan Schorr, who was a fearless man of the left, opposed to plutocrats and billionaires and privatizers and their schemes in foreign nations.” And she chooses to repeat this astonishing comment from the same blogger:

What is it with the offspring of principled people like Daniel Schorr and Marian Wright Edelman? I’ll never be famous or revered, but dammit, my kids are never going to sell their souls.

It should hardly be necessary to say that my father took deep pride in my work to improve education; he read me closely and, until his death two years ago at 93, was always my best editor. My mother, whose pivotal professional moments came working in the Office of Economic Opportunity in the War on Poverty under President Johnson, and later in writing about “what works” to improve the lives of underserved children, has forwarded my original blog post widely, and wrote an email saying, “I think EVERYONE should read it.”

It pained me to see my family brought into this debate, not just because it’s personal and nasty, but because of the effect that such attacks have on the wider debate. People are less likely to offer their views if they think they’re going to be personally attacked, resulting in a less vigorous debate peopled by fewer voices. The result is fewer good ideas, and ultimately, less progress in what I consider America’s most important conversation.

I’m all for a good debate, but let’s make it about the ideas, not the people behind them.



In her fifth post on this debate, Dr. Ravitch said that it’s time to call it a day on this discussion, and she referred fondly to a Monty Python skit. Apparently, there are at least two things on which we completely agree.




  1. Linda Johnson · · Reply

    You are correct. In order to keep responses civil, try to respond directly to the person’s question or comment. Don’t begin your response with a disingenuous comment such as this one:

    “There’s not a whole lot that schools can do to improve the life trajectories of children growing up in poverty. That seems to be the contention underlying much of the writing of historian Diane Ravitch…”

    When you start a post in that way, others will respond in kind.

  2. I have to say that if you actually believed that your work was righteous and that accusations that you had sold out were unjustified, you would have simply declared proudly that your work was completely consistent with your father’s principles rather than affecting wounded outrage, Mr. Schorr.

    Both your late, admired father and Jonah Edelman’s mother have occupied positions of such high-profile stature and respect — and the education “reform” sector is so overflowing with sleaze, dishonesty and right-wing money — that both of you are going to have to learn to deal with being branded unprincipled sellouts, perhaps for the rest of your lives. I’m not the first to say that and I certainly won’t be the last.

    However, I might have kept it to myself if you hadn’t set the tone, as @Linda says, with your nasty, snide tone toward Diane Ravitch. And having been on the receiving end of years of personal nastiness from voices of the “reform” sector (and I’m an unpaid volunteer), I’m just not feeling that much inclination to be ladylike and delicate.

    (Here’s a favorite example from years ago: An Edison Schools advocate created a Yahoo listserve logon, “Caroline_Takes_It_Up_the_Ass,” to respond to my comments.)

    One more point and I’m finished with this discussion too. I’m reiterating that my findings about KIPP attrition are accurate and the data that you pointed to are deliberately misleading in a slippery and conniving way, and I take offense at your attempts to deceive. If you wish not to be called a liar, you could try not lying.

  3. Um, Diane Ravitch set the tone by reprinting a rather obnoxious blog post comparing KIPP to the corrupt tobacco companies. Mr. Schorr was being rather restrained in merely pointing out the undeniable fact that Ravitch cherrypicks the scholarly literature on school choice.

    So have you hit 1,000 blog comments yet? I.e., 1,000 blog comments repeating the fact that you looked into a handful of KIPP schools in northern California half a decade ago? Whatever you think you found doesn’t apply to all schools for all time, you know, and you certainly don’t have the right to call someone a “liar” just because he cites a more recent, more representative, and far superior study on the attrition question.

    1. OK, I said I was done, but since the subject has changed from “the tone of the discussion” to substance, I’ll respond to @Stuart, especially since he’s clearly talking about me. However, he’s giving misinformation about me.

      No, I have not “suggest(e) that most or all of KIPP’s success is due to those factors (attrition and selectivity.) I dispute that it would be racist if I did — that’s just the usual “reformy” tactic of throwing **** at the wall to see what sticks. I also disagree that if I had “clarity of thought,” I would “specify exactly what percentage of KIPP’s success is due to selection/attrition.” How would you suggest I make that determination? How would you make it? I’m a volunteer advocate, not a statistics wonk. If KIPP and its advocates want to know that, why don’t they spend some of their vast philanthropy income on another study?

      No, here’s what I’ve repeatedly said, in various forums:

      KIPP and its supporters downplay or deny the selectivity and attrition (as you have repeatedly done, @Stuart). They often (though inconsistently) deny that it exists at all and that it’s a factor in any way.

      What I’ve said is that we can’t know until KIPP tells the truth about the selectivity and attrition what percentage of KIPP’s success is due to those factors. KIPP has been studied to death, but the studies are mostly based on false information, as the selectivity and attrition are normally not acknowledged as factors.

      The 2008 SRI International study of KIPP’s Bay Area schools did look at the attrition — which it downplayed greatly — and its conclusion was that the attrition was so great a confounding factor that it made it impossible to draw other conclusions about KIPP.

      The more recent Mathematica study was patently intended to mislead the public into believing that attrition isn’t a factor, so I don’t take that study as evidence of anything (except Mathematica’s lack of integrity, KIPP’S already being a given).

      mainstream debate. (Or at least it would be, if any of these critics ever had th clarity of thought to specify exactly what percentage of KIPP’s success is due to selection/attrition.)

  4. Linda Johnson · · Reply

    Mr. Buck, I just read your blog and would like to respond here. Sometimes a situation is better understood when looking at it from a different perspective. Here’s my situation:

    In 1981 I visited my son’s classroom in an affluent, mostly white section of town. I was somewhat shocked to see that several poorly behaved (white) students monopolized the teacher’s time. Although the teacher was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from UCLA and had an excellent reputation among parents, it was clear that these students were preventing her from doing her best.

    After discussing this situation with my husband, we decided that “we can’t send our son to a school like that” so we started looking for alternatives. Did we look at buildings, materials or teachers? No, we looked at the student population and chose a Catholic school with the best academic achievement (as determined by us during Open House when we scrutinized student work). This school was in the same neighborhood as the public school and served a similar demographic (i.e. affluent whites, Hispanics, Asians).

    The new school required a “placement test” before they accepted my son. The school said that it was for the purpose of “placing” my son but this seemed disingenuous since they had only one classroom per grade. I heard through the grapevine that children who were significantly below grade level were told “We can’t meet your needs.” The parents were required to cooperate with he school. Does this sound familiar?

    Which school do you think had the higher test scores – my neighborhood public school or the parochial school? Why? Did it have racial or religious implications to say that the Catholic school did “better?” Do you think the Catholic School did “better” in terms of instruction and quality of faculty or do you think something else was at play here? Can we know for certain how much effect the selection bias had on the achievement of the students?

    I can’t speak for others but I certainly believe that KIPP schools ARE getting better results, in the same way that Holy Angels Academy did. But Holy Angels never lied about it. They never said, “We are doing a better job with the same population of students.” By the way, almost every school that has a selective population (either through admission tests or parental involvement) has better test scores. This is the “secret” of almost every “successful” private, parochial, magnet or charter school. This is so well documented that it likely comes under the heading of “fact” and not “opinion.”

    Are KIPP schools in fact doing something “better” (in terms of faculty and instruction) to get superior results? If so, the only way to prove this is to take over an existing school or even start a school in a neighborhood and take whoever comes along in September, with the same exact registration forms as the other public schools. In the meantime, please acknowledge the well-known fact that any school with a select student population will likely have higher test scores.

  5. The first thing to keep straight is that when people say KIPP does “better,” they don’t just mean that the kids there have higher test scores. They mean that kids who go to KIPP tend to get better test scores in the future than similar kids who had the same test scores to begin with. That means KIPP is getting those kids to improve more. Improvement is the key thing.

    So why should such improvement be seen in KIPP? That’s the question. KIPP critics keep saying or heavily implying that it is ONLY because KIPP starts out (supposedly) with kids who score slightly higher, and then kicks out low scorers, and the remaining kids are more likely to improve when all gathered together in one place.

    OK, but then one is saying that several hundred extra hours of study doesn’t make a difference. What’s wrong with these kids, that several hundred hours of work doesn’t help them learn anything?

  6. No, I haven’t said or implied that it’s ONLY due to those factors. I’ve said quite clearly that those are very strong factors and that KIPP and its supporters deny that they exist at all. Also, I have NOT said that KIPP starts out with kids who score higher. I’ve said that KIPP starts out with kids who are compliant and motivated, and who have compliant, motivated and supportive families. We know that the majority of students who start KIPP schools leave without finishing the schools. The 2008 SRI International study told us that those kids who leave are the least successful. That’s what we know and how we know it. I don’t know and wouldn’t try to speculate on what different the extra house in class make.

  7. Why don’t you be specific Caroline? Surely you wouldn’t be so passionate about plastering every website on the Internet with complaints about KIPP — never qualified by conceding that KIPP is doing even the slightest thing right — if you thought that selection/attrition accounted for, say, a mere 10% of their success.

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