Never Let The Facts Get In the Way Of A Good Story

by Robert Pondiscio
May 12th, 2009

Back in my ink-stained wretch days, I sympathized with beat reporters whose noses would get out of joint when a “bigfoot” colleague would parachute into town and write a column uncomplicated by reporting or background knowledge.  So I can’t help but wonder what the New York Times’ Paul Tough thinks of his colleague David Brooks’ column about the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Tough, as you probably know, wrote the book on the Harlem Children’s Zone.  Literally.  Whatever It Takes looks at Geoffrey Canada’s mission to change the lives of Harlem’s children by intervening in every moving part of their lives from schools to parenting.  But Le Blogosphere is up in arms this week  wondering how Brooks came to conclude ”the Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right” in arguing that school-based approaches alone can close the achievement gap. It’s a conclusion that’s hard to support based on even a passing familiarity with Tough’s book. 

I don’t have a dog in the Broader, Bolder vs. Education Equality Project (“No Excuses”) fight, which represents the quintessential ed reform false dichotomy. Like many such debates, it seems rather obvious (and utterly uncontroversial) to suggest that we need to draw from both sides to get to a solution.  But to conclude, as Brooks did, that HCZ proves the “no excuses” case makes one wonder if he even read Tough’s book.  As Diane Ravitch notes “there are lessons for American education, but not necessarily the ones that Brooks points to.”   Corey Bunje Bower at Thoughts on Education Policy calls Brooks’ conclusion ”flat out irresponsible.”  Over at Public School Insights, the usually erudite and articulate Claus von Zastrow is driven to sputtering, “What??!?”

Did Brooks really just argue that the Harlem Children’s Zone’s success supports the schools alone approach championed by “reformers”? That’s like arguing that the Surgeon General’s reports discredit the link between smoking and cancer.

“Brooks joins a long line of national commentators who are turning important conversations about school improvement into a morality play pitting the “establishment” against the “reformers.” In the process, he is promoting false and damaging dichotomies between efforts to improve schools and efforts to offset social and economic disadvantages that contribute to achievement gaps,” Claus concludes. 

Just so.  But back to my reporter friends.  It wouldn’t surprise them to hear a columnist wrote the story one way when their reporting led in a different direction.  That’s just the nature of the beast.  A columnist’s job is tell you what he thinks; reporters tell you what they found out.   Brooks recommends Whatever It Takes in his column.  It’s a great suggestion.  He should really see what Tough found out.

Mea Culpa:  Aaron Pallas did a terrific analysis of HCZ’ test results last week which I overlooked.  Do have a look.


  1. I’ve been annoyed by David Brook’s tendency to do this kind of column for quite a while. But it occurred to me today that this is the nature of the beast in punditry, particularly weekly column punditry.

    You’re hired because you have a point of view, and you have to find something to write about a couple of times a week I imagine it’s easy to get into the habit of reading something interesting, filtering it through your preconceived ideas, and popping out a column. Brooks seems one of the worst offenders — some of his colleagues (e.g. Nicholas Kristoff) pick unlikely topics and dig into them. But I think you could put together a bookd of Brooks’ columns built around the theme “hey, here’s an interesting story, and here’s how it supports my world view”

    Comment by Rachel — May 13, 2009 @ 1:43 am

  2. If you think reporters tell you what they found rather than what they think, you haven’t been reading Sam Dillon’s work for the last few years,amomg others

    Comment by charlie barone — May 13, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

  3. Charlie raises a good point, but then again, people often tend to judge reporting by the degree to which a reporter’s work reflects their own version of events.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 13, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

  4. Brooks claims the research compares zone students (with access to all the support services) who attend district-run public schools with those who attend Promise Academy. If this was done right, then the results should show the effect of the school, not the effect of the services.

    Ravitch is right in saying we should look at all the charter’s attributes, some of which are quite costly, such as small classes and much more learning time for students. And others have pointed out that Promise Academy students aren’t the highest-scoring charter students in New York City.

    Comment by Joanne Jacobs — May 13, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  5. I didn’t see that in Brooks’ column, Joanne. And regardless, that doesn’t prove the case that schools alone can close the achievement gap. I don’t think anyone would be surprised that an intensive, no excuses charter school would make great strides (at least I’m not). I’m a fan of the types of schools David Whitman described in Sweating the Small Stuff, the other book cited by Brooks.

    If you want to prove that schools alone can close the achievement gap, you need to find a school that has done so without the wraparound services. Promise Academy is clearly doing something very right and having a positive effect. But it doesn’t make the “schools alone” case.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 13, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

  6. I think people should stop using the label “no excuses school.” If a student had a deadline but had to go to the hospital, I am pretty sure that the school would extend the deadline. It is far more productive to focus on the things the school does to succeed. Better labels would include “high time on task schools,” “high standards schools,” and “no shortcuts schools.”

    What do other people think?

    Comment by Tim — May 14, 2009 @ 7:23 am

  7. Thought readers here might get a kick out of a post I sent to a variety of listservs when Brooks’ column appeared:

    OK boys and girls, on your toes. Orwell’s back in town. This time Big Brother appears in the guise of David Brooks who sets out a dichotomy between the educational establishment which says schools alone “can’t produce big changes” (I don’t know of anyone who says this), and those who say that schools alone can produce big changes or, as codified in NCLB, can do it all.

    As evidence, Brooks presents a new study from Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer, Harvard economists which is not yet peer reviewed and which the researchers themselves refer to as “Preliminary and Incomplete.” The title is “Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Close the Achievement Gap?” It’s a report of their study of some schools in Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone program.

    The key to the answer to this question is, of course, “What do you mean by ‘high quality schools?’” Typically the answer from the “reformers” is in terms of having high expectations, high standards, and high quality teachers (however defined), an ace principal and lots of testing.

    In part, in this instance, the answer means schools where kids who are below grade level (tests, of course) are in school twice as long as the typical student and those who are at or above grade level are in school 50% longer than the typical student.

    “Both schools emphasize the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers and used a test score value-added measure to incentivize and evaluate current teachers.” Teacher turnover rate is high which, I imagine makes the argument circular–teachers who don’t raise test scores don’t get to hang around no matter what other fine qualities they might possess, so, q.e.d., test scores go up which, in the Dobbie Fryer study, they do.

    But now comes the kicker in the description of the schools: “The schools provide free medical, dental and mental-health services (students are screened upon entry and receive regular check-ups) student incentives (money, trips to France, e. g.), high-quality, nutritious, cafeteria meals, support for parents in the form of food baskets, meals, bus fare, and so forth, and less tangible benefits such as the support of a committed staff. The schools also make a concerted effort to change the culture of achievement, surrounding students with the importance of hard work in achieving success. THESE TYPES OF SCHOOL POLICIES ARE CONSISTENT WITH THOSE THAT ARGUE HIGH-QUALITY SCHOOLS ARE ENOUGH TO CLOSE THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP. (CAPS MINE; I USED CAPS BECAUSE SOME OF THE LISTS RECEIVING THIS REMOVE OTHER FORMATTING DEVICES SUCH AS ITALICS).

    Now, I haven’t been tracking all the efforts of the Bolder Broader compact, but it seems to me that many of these items are services that they want to include because kids who can’t see can’t read, kids who can’t hear the teacher don’t pay attention, and kids whose teeth hurt can’t concentrate. If this is going to be the new definition of a high quality school, then, aside from issues of how much time the kids are in school and how the project defines “high quality teachers,” there might be some convergence. Hell, just keeping the kids in school twice as long each day keeps them off some very mean streets and might be an incidental benefit in itself (although I suppose some cynics might argue it gets them accustomed to incarceration at an earlier age).

    But so far, it’s only Dobbie and Fryer and Brooks who consider these as descriptors of a high quality “school.” The New York Times Paul Tough, who wrote “Whatever It Takes” about Canada’s project claims [Canada] has created in the Harlem Children’s Zone, an integrated set of PROGRAMS (MY CAPS AGAIN) that support the neighborhood’s children from cradle to college, in school and out of school.” Even Dobbie and Fryer write that “we conclude by presenting three pieces of evidence that high-quality schools or high-quality schools coupled with community investments generate the achievement gains.”

    The Dobbie/Fryer mss. is at

    Can’t resist pointing to one reason among many that, unlike those whom Jim Horn called the Three Stooges–Bloomberg, Sharpton, and Klein–I will likely not be visiting the White House anytime soon:


    Comment by Gerald W. Bracey — May 15, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

  8. Robert,

    You get to choose one of the following for the 2-year old little sister of one of your former students.

    a. KIPP School, Grade pre-K on.

    b. A “Bigger Bolder” mega package. Trips to NYC’s best doctors if sick. Dental complete with $50 tooth fairy for each lost tooth. Unlimited access to Barnes and Noble. Housing upgrade. Head Start. Summer camp. Violin lessons.

    Plus the closest regular district elementary, middle, and urban high school.

    Which do you pick for her?

    Comment by Mike G — May 15, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

  9. Did I mention it was a false dichotomy? Because if I didn’t, it is. There are lots of moving parts there. Are her parents employed? Engaged? Responsible? Do they have health care? If so, KIPP, hands down. By the way, Mike, this is no idle question. I spent years trying to persuade the parents of my 5th graders to send their kids to KIPP (Levin’s original South Bronx school, a few blocks from mine) instead of P.S. Smackdown, the middle school across the street from mine, and only one parent ever took my advice.

    When I say I have no dog in this fight, I mean it. By temperament, I’m more a no excuses guy, but to suggest that schools alone can close the achievement gap strikes me as wishful thinking. My hypothetical KIPP kid is still going to have a less that ideal outcome if she’s growing up sick, hungry and in a chaotic home. No excuses doesn’t fill your cavities or your belly. The thing that keeps me from being a broader, bolder guy on the other hand is what the military calls “mission creep.” I’d prefer to see urban schools be a little better at Job One before tackling Jobs Two through Twelve.

    At the end of the day, I believe kids need a warm, nurturing environment and a clear sense that school is a means to many positive ends. They need experienced, talented teachers and rich curriculum that exposes them to the world they live in, not just catering to their narrow self-interest. They need adults in school, at home and in their community who look after them, care for them and who are not afraid to discipline, set limits and act like grownups.

    I don’t have to choose for my daughter as if from a Chinese menu — you can have a good school or good health care, pick one–and I wouldn’t expect her to do very well if she did.

    You’ve asked me a challenging rhetorical question, and I’ve given you my best, honest answer. Now it’s my turn: Given the choice where would you want to send our hypothetical two-year-old: KIPP or Boston Latin? Is KIPP the best we can do? Or merely the best we can do for other people’s children?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 15, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

  10. Good question.

    If she could get admitted into Boston Latin, go for it! That would mean she’s reached the top 3% of all Boston children in math and English. That’d be neat.

    A number of KIPP like charters actually FEED Boston Latin up here. Kids arrive with low skills Grade 5, decent by Grade 9, test into exam schools. That frees charter up to do more turnaround work.

    What does the other people’s children thing mean/imply?

    Personally, we’re probably going to send our 1-year-old to the nondescript nearby elementary. If that little drooling bug could go instead to KIPP Shine, or Elm City in New Haven, or Edward Brooke here in Boston, we’d do it.

    I think the leader at one nearby high performing charter tried to get his own kid into the school. But there is no family preference for staff, just for siblings. When they ran the lottery in March, he was way down on their waiting list.

    Comment by Mike G — May 15, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

  11. P.S. Just got Dan W’s book and it’s GREAT!

    Comment by Mike G — May 15, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  12. Let me expand upon the “other people’s children” remark (perhaps Boston Latin was a poor example). I’ve been thinking lately about whatpoor metrics those of us who are concerned with education and ed reform have, and how they rarely apply to our own children.

    For example, whenever we discuss schools like KIPP and Achievement First, the first thing we do is say “look at the test scores!” I do it too. It’s a proxy for functionality. But when those of us who live in communities with great schools talk about what makes those schools great, the subject of test scores never comes up. It’s a given. Are we guilty of setting the finish line (reading on grade level) for other people’s children where we place the starting line for our own?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 15, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

  13. I made a similar comment on a different blog yesterday. Kids in No Excuses schools, certainly in ours, still have a ton of untapped upside.

    I don’t think most folks working in those schools believe they’re setting the finish line at reading at grade level!

    We vie to push the bar higher, higher….both more kids to functionality, as you aptly put it, and more kids past functionality to excellence.

    Comment by Anonymous — May 15, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

  14. Robert: “I’ve been thinking about what poor metrics those of us who are concerned with education and ed reform have, and how they rarely apply to our own children…When those of us who live in communities with great schools talk about what makes those schools great, the subject of test scores never comes up. Are we guilty of setting the finish line for other people’s children where we place the starting line for our own?”

    Interesting discussion. I have my own opinion on the malleable, eager-to-sit-at-the-cool-kids’-table David Brooks, but his column and perspective are less important than the key point identified above: the disconnect between “no excuses” schools and truly great schools with rich curriculum, effective instruction and genuine concern for individual students’ progress.

    Like Tim, I hate the “no excuses” label. What’s the opposite of a no-excuses school? A school where teachers do excuse students’ deficiencies because of their terrible life situations, but persist in teaching them, anyway? (I know plenty of those.) A school where teachers use the realities of students’ life situations to excuse their own negligence or incompetence? Who, precisely, is making excuses at the “excuses-OK” school?

    Perhaps the opposite of a no-excuses school is one where students are treated as individuals whose thoughts and goals (even excuses) are considered in the learning process. And who gets to have schools like that? Not other people’s children.

    The next step in this line of thinking is “paternalism”–a chilling and arrogant word that has recently been promoted as a positive quality in school reform. We get what we want for our own children, and we know best for children in poverty. Work hard, be nice. And no second chances or excuses.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — May 16, 2009 @ 11:13 am

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