The Strength of the Wolf is the Pack

by Robert Pondiscio
October 6th, 2008

Influential Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews is no fan of merit pay, warning that Michelle Rhee’s plan to pay Washington, DC high-fliers up to $20,000 extra a year has the potential divide teachers, instead of getting them to work together for struggling kids

The idea troubles me, because it is at odds with what I have learned from charter leaders who have made great achievement gains in their independent public schools. Their staffs thrive on teamwork. Everyone shares lesson plans, swaps ideas and reinforces discipline to help each child. Won’t big checks to just a few members of the team ruin that?

“Teams with all players pulling hard are also more likely to attract more committed people,” Mathews correctly observes, “happy to escape schools where co-workers make fun of strivers.” He quotes several leaders of successful, high profile urban charter schools, each of whom takes issue with the idea off rewarding individual teachers for gains made by their students

Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP school network, said, “Given the interconnectivity of teaching kids, the best incentives are school incentives which the school itself can then decide how to allocate.” His fellow KIPP co-founder, Mike Feinberg, quoted Rudyard Kipling: “The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”

Hiring and Firing

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2008

Jay Mathews, the dean of education reporters, takes a strong stand on teacher retention, arguing that giving principals the unfettered power to hire and fire teachers is “crucial” to closing the achievement gap.

This is a difficult choice and a hard time for D.C. teachers. They are fine people who have chosen a tough profession and put their hearts into their work. Many fear being judged by principals who were not skillful teachers themselves and have little clue as to what helps kids learn and what doesn’t. But I don’t see any way the city’s children are going to get the instruction they deserve — the imaginative, fun-loving, firm teaching found at schools like KEY — unless principals are given the power to hire and fire teachers based on demonstrated skill and improved learning in class.

Mathews cites the example of the KIPP DC:KEY Academy, where principal Sarah Hayes dismissed two teachers who were not cutting it, despite efforts to improve.  “If KEY were a traditional school, Hayes’s only reasonable option would have been to mentor the teachers, note her dissatisfaction on their evaluations and recommend that they not be kept after a two-year probation,” he writes.  “That is the way it goes in most school systems. Staffing rules, tenure agreements and low expectations tend to favor weak teachers unless they do something awful.”

Speaking of New Paternalism…

by Robert Pondiscio
September 12th, 2008

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has decided that “No Excuses Schools” is a better moniker than “New Paternalism.”  You may recall, Mathews had issues with the title of David Whitman’s new book, Sweating the Small Stuff, about KIPP, et al., praising the author’s work and the schools profiled in his book.  But he found the subtitle, “Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism,” off-putting and a PR disaster.  So he invited his legion of readers to come up with a better name. 

Uncle Jay was kind enough to cite my objection in his column, but my point remains: if we want to move the agenda forward for kids, we need to focus on the practices that make those schools successful. If that means acting in loco parentis–or as a loco parent–so be it.  Whatever it takes. Also as Corey Bower points out, “No Excuses Schools” implies the reason most schools are struggling “is because they’re making excuses, or allowing kids to make excuses.”  It ain’t necessarily so. 

Hmmm.  How about “ILP Schools?”

It’s What’s Inside That Counts

by Robert Pondiscio
September 2nd, 2008

Great teaching, not great buildings, make for a first-rate education, says Jay Mathews in the Washington Post

Ten years ago, I wrote a book about high schools with golden reputations in some of the country’s most expensive suburbs. They were full of Advanced Placement classes and fine teachers, but I was astonished at how bad some of the buildings were. Mamaroneck High School, in one of the most affluent parts of Westchester County, N.Y., had three 66-year-old boilers that repeatedly broke down and many clocks that didn’t work. La Jolla High School, north of San Diego, full of science fair winners, was a collection of stained stucco classrooms and courtyards of dead grass.

Mathews is right, of course, but while some in education use poor facilities as an excuse for underachievement, let’s not make excuses for miserable facilities either.  I taught for years in a poorly maintined 110-year-old building in the South Bronx, whose construction predated indoor plumbing and electricity and seemed to reject both like badly matched donor organs.  Pigeons roosted in the lighting fixtures if you forgot to close the windows at night.  There wasn’t so much as a slide on the playground.   There wasn’t a playground.  On its best days it was an physically uncomfortable place to go to school.  A few blocks away, the local library remained shuttered for years while it operated out of a trailer.  It’s hard to imagine upper crust Manhattanites abiding these kinds of conditions for long for their children.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be. 

“It might be better if we spent our money on principals and teachers who inspire, who don’t take lethargy or resentment for an answer,” says Mathews. “Put educators like that in the rickety buildings we have, and stand back.”

Stand back indeed.  It smarts to be struck by falling plaster. 

What’s In a Name?

by Robert Pondiscio
August 19th, 2008

David Whitman’s new book, Sweating the Small Stuff, looks at Amistad Academy, KIPP, SEED, and other successful inner city schools that have done the best work at closing the achievement gap.  The book is winning early praise from the education cognoscenti.  But there’s a problem: 

“I hate his subtitle, ‘Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism.’ And I like his decision to refer to this group as ‘the paternalistic schools’ even less,” writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.  USA Today’s Richard Whitmire, guestblogging at Eduwonk agrees, saying simply Whitman’s subtitle “needs work.” Whitney Tilson, a big charter school supporter, praises the book in his latest ed reform email blast, but adds, “I don’t like the word ‘paternalism.’  What the schools are doing is instilling not only knowledge, but the absolutely critical soft skills that are necessary to succeed in life, such as ‘kindness, decency, integrity, and hard work.’”

Checker Finn of the Fordham Foundation, which brought out Whitman’s book, notes that the schools themselves don’t much like the label of ‘paternalism’ and reject any suggestion that their schools condescend to students or their parents, which some feel is implied by the paternalism label…But it’s undeniable that these schools aim to change the lifestyles of those who attend them.”

David Whitman explains his title this way:

By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Unlike the often forbidding paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are prescriptive yet warm; teachers and principals, who sometimes serve in loco parentis, are both authoritative and caring figures. Teachers laugh with and cajole students, in addition to frequently directing them to stay on task.

It’s the rare person who works with or observes struggling inner city schools who doesn’t cite family disruption and a low-level of parenting skills as part of the problem.  As a teacher, I often thought my job was not just to teach my students but to help raise them.  Matthew Tabor gets it right when he notes that “very, very few education leaders, from individual community leaders to those on the national scene, are comfortable and honest enough to tell it like it is. We need to say what we are, what we aren’t, and get on with things.”  Fordham’s Mike Petrilli writes that as uncomfortable as it might be to discuss in public, “what these schools are doing is providing a middle-class, achievement-oriented culture to children who come out of a culture of poverty. And for that, the schools should be applauded (and emulated). It might not be politically correct to use these terms, but they are accurate. And that should count for something.”  

Whitman deserves praise for calling ‘em like he sees ‘em.  From what I know of the schools he profiles, his analysis–and use of the term paternalism–is spot on.  Jay Mathews worries that when a defender of these schools uses a freighted word like “paternalistic” those who don’t like the the schools methods will use the word like a cudgel.  Methinks he worries too much.  Nothing marginalizes criticism like success.  As long as these schools deliver on their promise of a solid education, you could call them “Pact with Lucifer” schools and they’d still be oversubscribed.  We ought to have reached a point where our patience with failing inner city children has shamed us into applauding and emulating success, whether or not we like the methods by which it’s achieved or take exception to how they are described.

A school’s culture matters a great deal.  In neighborhoods where children often lack strong adult guidance and authority–or are surrounded by adults who undermine it–it matters more than anything.  Whitman has done a valuable service by focusing our attention on it.  I’m looking forward to reading his book. 

Critical Thinking Not Possible Without Content Knowledge

by Robert Pondiscio
August 11th, 2008

Here’s a plan for eliminating the national debt: Charge a tax of one dollar on anyone who says ”teaching critical thinking skills” should be the goal of schools.  One person less likely to idly toss around the phrase in the future is none other than The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, arguably our most influential education writer.  He concedes today that critical thinking programs “don’t work very well, except as a measure of the gullibility of even smart educators.”  How did he come to see the light?

A remarkable article by Daniel T. Willingham, the University of Virginia cognitive scientist outlines the reasons. Critical thinking, he explains in a summer 2007 American Educator article, overlooked until now by me, is not a skill like riding a bike or diagramming a sentence that, once learned, can be applied in many situations. Instead, as your most-hated high school teacher often told you, you have to buckle down and learn the content of a subject–facts, concepts and trends–before the maxims of critical thinking taught in these feverishly-marketed courses will do you much good.

“The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge),” Willingham says. “Thus, if you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.”

Willingham’s work builds the strongest case I know for why narrowing the curriculum to load up on reading and math at the expense of other subjects is ultimately self-defeating.  If we want kids to be critical thinkers, they need the broadest possible education.  Describing Willingham’s upcoming book, Why Don’t Students Like School? — A cognitive scientist answers questions about how your mind works and what it means for the classroom,  Mathews says “Willingham’s own work is, in my view, a triumph of critical thinking because he knows his content so well….We need to do our homework and remember that no matter how brilliant we think we are, we can be useful critics only after we master the facts.”

Dewey Need This School?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 17th, 2008

Washington PostFrom the Washington Post comes an uncharacteristically credulous piece about a soon-to-be launched private school built around a radically student-centered model. Harvard-educated lawyer Alan Shusterman’s 6-12 grade school will charge $25,000 a year in tuition, but the schedules and lessons will be different. “The model is inspired by the success of home-schoolers,” says Shusterman.

“Students will set their class schedules, enabling them to learn at their pace and in their styles. Teachers will act as advisers, not taskmasters,” reports the Post’s Jay Mathews. Yup, more “guide on the side” stuff.

As for homework, “the one-size-fits-all [model] mandated in today’s schools is largely counterproductive,” Shusterman says in a slide presentation he uses to sell his idea. School for Tomorrow will have a home reading requirement and “encourage and support individualized, student-initiated homework.”

Mainstream education can learn a thing or two from successful homeschoolers. But if this kind of radically student-centered model is what you’re after, why pay $25,000 for what you can get at home for free?

Surprise Update.  Alan Shusterman responds in the comments section.  He turns out to be quite well-versed on Core Knowledge–and his school will have a core curriculum after all.