Hobson’s Choice

by Robert Pondiscio
August 28th, 2012

“Hobson’s choice” is one of those wonderful phrases you don’t hear much anymore.  The story is told about one Thomas Hobson, who ran a rental stable in England in the 17th century.  If you wanted to hire one of his horses, Mr. Hobson, who didn’t want his best mounts overused, offered you a choice: you could take the horse he offered or no horse at all.  “Hobson’s choice,” often mistakenly rendered as a “Hobbesian choice,” entered the language as a phrase meaning “no choice at all.”  Take it or leave it.

I thought of Hobson’s choice today when reading Nancy Flanagan’s Teacher in a Strange Land blog over at EdWeek.  “Choice isn’t the answer to building a vision of a high-quality, personally tailored, democratic education for every child in America,” she writes.  “Nor is it evil incarnate. It’s a distraction from the conversation we should be having about improving public education in America.”  The early aspirations of the charter movement notwithstanding, choice has failed to live up to its promise, Flanagan notes.

“While charter promoters talk a great game about families flocking to the innovative, high-quality programming at public school academies, what’s more likely is that the charter represents a more palatable option than the public school–perhaps over something as simple as a grumpy teacher, an inconvenient bus schedule, lack of opportunity for parental control.”

I’m not as troubled as Nancy by parental caprice in exercising choice.  It would be ironic to be in the business of education and have little faith in parents’ ability to make an informed choice—or to correct course if that choice proved untenable.  My personal bottom line, speaking only for myself, is that choice is an intrinsic good.  I like exercising school choice for my child and I want you to have the same options.  And let’s face it, education is fundamentally coercive: you have to educate your child.  Some latitude in how you go about it is to be encouraged.

Flanagan is on stronger ground when she observes that school choice has “not provided a range of options for children in poverty.”

“…and predictable aspects of entrepreneurial school start-ups have intensified: Cutting corners on staff. Relying on private schmoozing and charitable funding rather than community/tax-based support. Focusing on surface features–like uniforms and hall behavior–rather than strong academics. Using public monies for advertising rather than educational quality. Booting kids who don’t burnish the school’s reputation or scores. Inventing bogus politicized agendas like the parent “trigger” for personal and commercial gain.

The points Flanagan raises are debatable but here’s the problem with choice I think she overlooks:  Too often, the “choice” is either false or irrelevant.   To give the most obvious example, if a nearby charter school is wedded to the same content-poor curriculum as a neighborhood school, if writing is taught as pure process, and reading as a set of strategies to be learned and practiced, if test-prep dominates the school day and the curriculum narrowed for that purpose, then issues of staffing, management structures, union contracts and funding mechanisms don’t matter at all.

I’ve argued this before: education doesn’t have a process problem.  It has a product problem.  Having to choose between the same thin gruel, lowest common denominator education in Public School A or Charter School B is a choice.  Hobson’s choice.

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.

I Never Ate a Bee

by Robert Pondiscio
April 18th, 2011

I never thwart reform
I never ate a bee;
Yet know I what a child must learn,
And what a school must be.

I’m not a union shill,
Reform still has my backing;
I do not want the status quo
If I find your plans lacking.