Says Who? Lots of Folks, Actually…

by Robert Pondiscio
May 9th, 2011

Whitney Tilson, ed reform’s most aggressively outspoken acolyte, is cranky with those who think reformers “don’t acknowledge the importance of factors outside of a school’s control like poverty.”  And he’s none too happy with the idea that reformers “demonize teachers.”  In his latest ed reform email blast, he throws down the gauntlet:

“I challenge anyone to show me even one quote from one leading reformer who says that reforming the schools is all that is needed or who believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance.”

Excuse, me Mr. Tilson, I think you dropped your glove.  Let me get that for you.  It took me all of 30 minutes of Googling to come up with these memorable bon mots:

1.  “By our estimates from Texas schools, having an above average teacher for five years running can completely close the average gap between low-income students and others.” Steve Rivkin, Rick Hanushek, and John Kain.

2.  “Having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.” Robert Gordon, Tom Kane, and Doug Staiger.

3.  “We know for poor minority children, if they have three highly effective teachers in a row, versus three ineffective teachers in a row, it can literally change their life trajectory.”  Michelle Rhee.

Reading these quotes in rapid succession feels like watching the old game show Name That Tune.  Isn’t anyone going to say “I can close that gap in TWO years”?  OK, reformers….Close that gap!  But, in fairness to Tilson, at least no one is saying poverty and outside factors aren’t a factor and teachers can overcome every obstacle. 

Er….um….well….

4.  “Florida is debunking the myth that some kids can’t learn because of life’s circumstances. The state has proven that a quality education and great teachers can overcome the obstacles of poverty, language barriers and broken homes. Florida is now forging a seismic path for modernizing the teaching profession nationwide.”  Jeb Bush.

5.  “What I know for sure is whether your family is well-off or not, functional or dysfunctional — no matter what your familial circumstances are — a great teacher can overcome the challenges that a child is facing so that they have a good chance of a productive life. I’m not discounting the effects of poverty or kids coming to school hungry, but we can’t use that as an excuse for not reaching our kids. At the end of the day, you know and I know, great teachers who took kids from improbable circumstances and catapulted them to great lives and we have to ensure that this is the norm and not the exception.”  Kaya Henderson, DC Schools Chancellor.

OK, well at least no one within the ed reform movement is making the mistake of saying things are simple and easy.  No, that’s the Amen corner’s job.

6. “Repeat after me: We can’t have great schools without great teachers.  And when you start with that simple truth, the solutions become pretty clear. Let’s recruit our best and brightest. Develop the ones we have to become better teachers. Reward the ones who are doing a great job. Recruit and train talented principals. And after trying everything, help find another job for those teachers who aren’t cutting it.” Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim.

7. “We know what works now and should just go ahead and fund it.” Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter.

Right.  Well at least we have a Secretary of Education who sees the big picture in all its nuance and complexity.

8.  “I think you need a number of things. I think that’s part of the difficulty here  is people look for one simple answer. So, do great teachers matter tremendously? Absolutely. And give an average child three great teachers in a row, and they’re going to be a year-and-a-half to two grade levels ahead. Give the average child three bad teachers in a row, they’ll be so far behind they’ll never catch up.”  Arne Duncan.

The Duncan quote is particularly interesting because he starts out by saying a number of things need to be done, but then states just one thing—teachers, naturally—is enough to get kids not just where they need to be, but ahead.

OK, so if teachers have come to suspect that the world looks at them and thinks the only thing standing between every child and upward mobility is them, it’s not something they just made up.

We are deep into a not terribly productive cycle of rhetorical excess, oversimplification and magical thinking from all sides.  I have often commended the work of Nancy Flanagan, veteran teacher and frequent commenter on this blog, whose Teacher In a Strange Land blog runs at Education Week.  Over the weekend she launched a cri de coeur, calling Duncan out for preaching education as social justice and a ticket out of poverty, while pursuing an agenda of market-based reform.  “I am heartily sick of politicians and educational entrepreneurs using ‘civil rights’ and ‘social justice’ as a rhetorical shield for advancing their own interests and commercial goals,” Flanagan thundered. 

“It’s time to remember the Freedom Riders, who risked their very lives fifty years ago this week, to achieve democratic equality. Not segregated charter schools which a handful of lottery-winners get to attend. Not classrooms staffed by two-year adventure teachers . Not watered-down, low-level curriculum and test items.

I’m deeply sympathetic to many of the items on Flanagan’s bill of particulars.  She loses me, however, when she presumes to judge who is or is not entitled to wrap their reforms in the language, history and terms associated with the civil rights movement.  Frankly, I find myself increasingly likely to stop listening to anyone these days, regardless of their cause or concern, the moment they start nattering on about the new front in the civil rights movement, who favors the status quo, who puts the interests of adults ahead of children, or whose reform is more disruptive. 

News flash:  This #$%@! is really, really hard and bewildering in its complexity.  But you knew that.

28 Comments »

  1. Robert,

    As comprehensive a review of the topic as one could develop.

    Does this post indicate a falling out between you and Nancy or simply a difference of opinion on this topic?

    I cannot help but wonder how so many of the naysayers at Bridging Differences (from EdWeek) would react to this piece, including the two authors of the blog. It gets old over there contending with those from the educational establishment who spend most of their time licking and groveling at the boots of Diane and Deborah; perhaps in a way to somehow gain favor with one or both of them.

    It also borders on humorous as to out of touch with reality many of them are, the regular posters as well as those simply stopping by to preach their missives. They don’t seem to appear here very often except from last week’s Alfie Kohn piece where a few of the off track crowd attempted to exact their support for the misguided huckster. Funny, Diane Ravitch goes on and on about the possible conflict of interests with folks like Bill Gates or Michelle Rhee and their ed reform actions, but I’ve never heard word one from her on ole Alfie, who, as we all know, makes his living via his writings; although Deborah Meier is a strong supporter of much of his convolusions.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 9, 2011 @ 7:53 am

  2. @Paul. I may be one of the few people who is on friendly terms with Flanagan, Tilson and Ravitch. Do I march in lockstep with any of them? Not at all (curriculum reform exists in an odd location in the DMZ between those who fight over structures; I sit in the trench all day and watch shells lobbed over my head aimed at one side or the other). At the end of the day, I see many, many men and women of good will on all sides. And I’m impatient with arguments that characterize the motivations of any particular person, cause or group.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 9, 2011 @ 8:30 am

  3. I think it is perfectly reasonable to point out that the goal of the original Civil Rights Movement was not better segregated schools but integration.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — May 9, 2011 @ 9:01 am

  4. Using the word “segregated” as to charter schools shows a lack of seriousness. Segregation was a very real horror in which black children were forcibly prevented from going to the school of their choice and were instead assigned to inferior schools out of theories of white supremacy. When black children today have the freedom of choice to move from public schools (which are often mostly black themselves) to public charter schools, that simply isn’t the same thing at all.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 9, 2011 @ 9:39 am

  5. I can only speak for myself, but I consider Robert not only a voice of exceptional sanity and depth, but also a good and true friend. A true friend will tell you when he thinks you’ve run a good idea off the rails.

    I could Google for 30 minutes myself and come up with another two dozen linked quotes of educational proselytizing and obfuscation, shielding the truth (we want a quick fix for our education troubles, a deflection from the economic disaster created by Wall Streeters) from the reality: It will take serious, sustained investment in schools, teaching and learning–plus real strides toward economic and democratic equality–to “fix” our public schools. But I’ll take the ones you found, Robert. Thanks.

    There’s actually a reason I wrote about the Freedom Riders, however. The Save Our Schools March is now partnering with the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation, created by descendants of Homer Plessy and Judge John Howard Ferguson, who will be recreating the Freedom Riders March, this summer, the 50th anniversary of the original Freedom Riders movement.

    http://plessyandferguson.org/history.html

    Some of the original Freedom Riders–who have said publicly that their work and their goals have been lost on today’s youth– will be riding the buses. Their journey will end up in D.C. on the day of the Save Our Schools March. The Plessy and Ferguson Foundation’s work is around social justice in schools and elsewhere. They are outraged, for example, that the Secretary suggested that it was a blessing that that public schools in New Orleans were demolished in Hurricane Katrina, paving the way for entrepreneurial charter operators to “insanely leverage” (a Tilson bon mot) public monies.

    I wasn’t trying to co-opt the bravery and martyrdom of the original Freedom Riders. I don’t have any claim to being the voice of civil rights in America (but, I would argue, neither does Whitney Tilson nor Secretary Duncan). Renee Moore–who was quoted in my blog–does, however. And Phoebe Ferguson and Keith Plessy do. They’re still living the cause, not using it to advance market-based ed reforms.

    As for licking and groveling at the feet of Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, that just sounds like sour grapes…

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — May 9, 2011 @ 9:53 am

  6. Oh, Stuart, thanks for making my point for me. You think children in all-minority, all-FRL public schools are not there in 2011 because of the horrors of segregation? What Brown was unable to do is overcome segregation by something even more powerful than the law: economic inequality. And if you think poor minority kids have “freedom of choice” to move to charters in their city, then you know nothing about poor children in public schools, who can only be “free” if they have reliable transportation, a uniform, and that all-important resource variable: parents who are able and willing to make it happen.

    Suggested resource for you and all who believe segregation is segregation only when legally determined:
    http://remembersegregation.org/

    And I am dead serious.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — May 9, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  7. If your point is that traditional public schools are still affected by white flight and the like, then that’s certainly true. But you said that charter schools were “segregated,” pointing to a report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project, which argued that charter schools have too many black students. This simply isn’t “segregation” — it’s a free choice of those black students. And it’s furthermore incoherent for you now to say that black students aren’t able to go to charter schools in the first place.

    As some friends of mine said in responding to the bogus UCLA report:

    the fact that poor and minority students flee segregated traditional public schools for similarly segregated charters does not imply that charter school policy is imposing segregation upon these students. Rather, the racial patterns we observe in charter schools are the result of the choices students and families make as they seek more attractive schooling options. To compare these active parental choices to the forced segregation of our nation’s past (the authors of the report actually call some charter schools “apartheid” schools) trivializes the true oppression that was imposed on the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the students seeking charter options today.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 9, 2011 @ 11:29 am

  8. You have to remember that the original Civil Rights Movement made a choice. They could have asked for improved segregated schools, or new segregated schools, more money for segregated schools, or vouchers to other segregated schools, access to advanced courses in segregated schools, recent Ivy League graduates to come teach in their segregated schools, or any number of other variations.

    They didn’t. They demanded integration. That’s what the movement was about.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — May 9, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  9. Stuart,

    I actually half-agree with you regarding the use of “segregation”. To “segregate” something implies that different groups are actively separated from one another — which, in the case of charter schools, isn’t really happening in the same way that schools were actively “segregated” 60 years ago.

    But, I’m not sure that “segregated” can’t simply mean that groups tend to be present in different institutions — I think that’s the way that Nancy uses it and I have used it in the past (Nancy, correct me if I’m wrong). When I say that schools are “more segregated” today than 20 years ago, I simply mean that racial groups are more concentrated in certain schools — that schools tend to be less diverse — than 20 years ago. In this sense, it’s a value-free statistical statement of fact reflecting the distribution of students.

    This is a separate, though related, meaning of the word that can also mean that members of different racial groups were forced to attend different schools. Given that the two situations *are* different, I could be convinced to use a different word . . . but I have yet to find one. Any suggestions?

    Comment by Corey — May 9, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

  10. Stuart, I’m not so sure I would say minority students are “choosing” charter schools. Superficially, you are correct. But if by “choice” you mean between crap and unknown possibility, sure, you have a point. But what makes for the crap option in the first place? Why are minorities clustered in poor areas where attracting good teachers is so difficult? There are large structural factors shunting the population into particular patterns and it is making “choice” look good in a relative sort of way.

    As for “choice”, see http://www.alternet.org/story/150875/corporate_martial_law%3A_public_schools_auctioned_off_to_highest_bidder_/
    and ask yourself whether Detroit minorities are really going to have a choice in the matter. Neo-liberal policies are asserting themselves in a bold way under the cover of deficits and exposing the real ideological assumptions behind many of the reformers. It is making the debate Robert highlighted a bit moot. Many of the reformers could care less whether teachers alone can solve all of the problems because their real agenda is privatization and market-based solutions.

    Comment by Kronosaurus — May 9, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

  11. Robert- do you think it is possible to have a great school without good teachers? I have a hard time picturing one. Granted even in a good school there will likely be the occasional dud (I don’t think it’s practical for an organization to weed out every single poor performer while maintaining decent staff morale). But the overall quality of the teachers at a school is certainly an important factor in the performance of that school.

    We need good teachers; administrators and bureaucrats who will allow those good teachers to do their jobs without micromanagement; a rigorous, content-rich curriculum (though *NOT* a “one size fits all” national one); *AND* parents & students who value learning. The last is the hardest to achieve, but there are things that schools can do to encourage it. Things like the Waldorf policy of having parents sign contracts saying that they will not allow their children screen time during the school year.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — May 9, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

  12. “When I say that schools are “more segregated” today than 20 years ago, I simply mean that racial groups are more concentrated in certain schools — that schools tend to be less diverse — than 20 years ago.”

    The evidence points to the contrary. Schools today are far more diverse than they were 20 years ago, simply because there are fewer white children and significantly more Latinos and Asians. According to the New York Times, enrollment in my district has gone from 81% white/9% Asian/7% Latino/3% black in 1987 to 52% white/30% Latino/13% Asian/5% black in 2006.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — May 9, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

  13. @CW I’m not suggesting you can have good schools without good teachers. In fact, I challenge you to…er…never mind.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 9, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

  14. Given that the two situations *are* different, I could be convinced to use a different word . . . but I have yet to find one.

    “Racially imbalanced” is one possibility.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 9, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

  15. @CW: in many areas of the country, minority students are more likely to attend schools with high concentrations of minority students than they were 20 years ago. “Less diverse” is, admittedly, an inelegant way to express what I was trying to say — I’m searching for a better way.

    Also, I’m not sure you’re asking the teacher question the right way. I’d ask if it’s possible to have a school full of good teachers that still won’t overcome the achievement gap.

    Comment by Corey — May 9, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

  16. Ho, Hum; my factors are more important than yours!

    Just remember:
    • The good teachers are better than the worst.
    • Smart kids do better than dumb ones … yes, Virginia, there are dumb kids … some by birth and some acquired.
    • Students with good support at home score better than the ones who live in a war zone.
    • Wealthy families give their children more exposure to the world than those in poverty.
    • Classes that are taught to the “test” will be recorded as doing better than the ones who are surprised by the questions.

    So reform is simple: just remove all those negative factors is all schools.

    Comment by Ewaldoh — May 9, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  17. Nancy,

    I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you on your sour grapes comment. You must be reading a different Bridging Differences blog than the one I’ve been posting on for the past decade.

    I have all the respect in the world for the bodies of work of both Diane and Deborah. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with their POVs on the contemporary education reform movement, and I don’t.

    The fact that most of the posters on BD agree with them (yourself included) has effectively foreclosed any differences needing to be bridged, especially since the former differences the two posters had, have morphed into a mutual admiration hoot-nanny.

    If Education Week decides to continue with the blog (I have no reason to believe they would not) they need to either change the title of the blog or bring in a contrasting viewpoint in an attempt to present a more balanced dialogue.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 9, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

  18. [...] Says Who? Lots of Folks, Actually… is by Robert Pondiscio. He’s gathered quite a few quotes from school reformers on the topic of the role of poverty and the role of teachers. I’m adding it to The Best Places To Learn What Impact A Teacher & Outside Factors Have On Student Achievement. He also raises some questions about a post written by Nancy Flanagan. You can find her response in the comments section there and in her post here. [...]

    Pingback by The Best Places To Learn What Impact A Teacher & Outside Factors Have On Student Achievement | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... — May 10, 2011 @ 12:01 am

  19. [...] Says Who? Lots of Folks, Actually… is by Robert Pondiscio. He’s gathered quite a few quotes from school reformers on the topic of the role of poverty and the role of teachers. I’m adding it to The Best Places To Learn What Impact A Teacher & Outside Factors Have On Student Achievement. He also raises some questions about a post written by Nancy Flanagan. You can find her response in the comments section there and in her post here. addthis_url = 'http%3A%2F%2Flarryferlazzo.edublogs.org%2F2011%2F05%2F10%2Fhere-are-some-good-posts-on-school-reform%2F'; addthis_title = 'Here+Are+Some+Good+Posts+On+School+Reform'; addthis_pub = ''; [...]

    Pingback by Here Are Some Good Posts On School Reform | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... — May 10, 2011 @ 1:52 am

  20. Great selection, arrangement, and analysis of quotes, Robert. The Duncan quote takes the prize; as you point out, he starts out sounding somewhat reasonable and then veers into a contradiction of his initial point.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — May 10, 2011 @ 9:10 am

  21. Rob —

    I think you’re not quite fair to Duncan. You say: The Duncan quote is particularly interesting because he starts out by saying a number of things need to be done, but then states just one thing—teachers, naturally—is enough to get kids not just where they need to be, but ahead.

    But Duncan didn’t only list “one thing.” In the very next paragraph, Duncan said this:

    So, great teachers matter tremendously. We need great principles [SIC FROM NPR TRANSCRIPTION]. Great principles attract great talent. They retain and nurture that great talent. We need our schools open longer hours. We need wraparound services. If children can’t see the blackboard, we need to give them eyeglasses. If they’re not fed, we have to feed them. If they’re not safe, we have to make sure we create an environment in which students are safe.

    So after mentioning great teachers, Duncan listed principals, longer hours, wraparound services, glasses, food, and safety. Maybe there’s another instance where Duncan really did say that “great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance,” but he didn’t do it here.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 10, 2011 @ 9:54 am

  22. @Stuart Point taken. But I do think by passing along the “X good teachers in a row” meme uncritically, he might be guilty of a fair amount of irresponsible oversimplification.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 10, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  23. Yes, schools would be more successful with kids if there was no poverty, crime, homelessness, hunger, or other social ills. But SCHOOLS can’t fix those problems. They can fix teacher quality and curriculum. I want schools and school systems to focus on what they can control. If they did, then schools would be significantly more effective (in both number and degree) with those kids suffering from the burden of social ills.

    Comment by Anonymous — May 10, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

  24. Yes, schools would be more successful with kids if there was no poverty, crime, homelessness, hunger, or other social ills. But SCHOOLS can’t fix those problems. They can fix teacher quality and curriculum. I want schools and school systems to focus on what they can control. If they did, then schools would be significantly more effective (in both number and degree) with those kids suffering from the burden of social ills.

    Comment by Mia Munn — May 10, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

  25. @Mia Aye, there’s the rub. The cost of the rhetorical battles is a clear sense of what is achievable, what is reasonable and what counts as progress. If the expectations are unrealistic and the goals unattainable, the inevitable result–is it not?–is a compliance mentality, rather than an achievement culture.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 10, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  26. [...] http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2011/05/09/says-who-lots-of-folks-actually/ [...]

    Pingback by The Hypocrisy of Tilson and the edreformers. #RTTT #edrefrom « Transparent Christina — May 11, 2011 @ 8:14 am

  27. [...] advocates (like commenters at this blog) might assert that de facto segregation is [...]

    Pingback by Plessy AND Ferguson– and the Freedom Riders — May 17, 2011 @ 12:49 am

  28. [...] blog has already taken up the challenge. Here’s the link to Podiscio’s post, “Says Who? Lots of Folks, Actually…,” which has some gems from various education reformers, including the Obama [...]

    Pingback by Back and Forth with Senator Bill Ferguson on DFER and Parent Revolution | Re:education in Baltimore — October 4, 2011 @ 8:33 am

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