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. 


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.

Private School Student, Public School Reformer

by Robert Pondiscio
April 19th, 2011

Many of the most prominent names in education reform attended private schools as children, observes Michael Winerip of the New York Times.  Does their background “give them a much-needed distance and fresh perspective to better critique and remake traditional public schools?” he asks.  “Does it make them distrust public schools — or even worse — poison their perception of them? Or does it make any difference?”

Winerip provides a substantial list of reform leaders and the private schools they attended including Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Jeb Bush, Fordham’s Checker Finn, and “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim among many others.   Ed reform flame-thrower Whitney Tilson, a hedge fund manager and one of the founders of Democrats for Education Reform, responds by calling Winerip “the worst education reporter in America” and a “gutless weasel.”  The piece, he says, is a “biased, error-filled hatchet job.”  And Whitney’s just clearing his throat.

“Winerip exposes, in dramatic and scornful fashion, that a handful of people associated with efforts to reform our K-12 public education system went to – I hope you’re sitting down – PRIVATE high schools!  Oh, what a high crime!  How indefensible!  How DARE such people criticize the existing system when they, for at least four years of their K-12 education, went to a private school!?”

Does it matter what schools ed reformers attended?  It might, but not for the reasons one might initially think.  Those who feel besieged may be quick to criticize private school reformers on issues of class, race and income.  They will no doubt presuppose that presumed privilege and a top-shelf schooling blinds them to the needs of low-income children and the efforts of low-paid teachers.   I don’t agree.   But I do wonder if those who have enjoyed a first-rate education take for granted the content of their education.  Private and parochial schools tend to have fairly set curricula that describes grade-by-grade content with great specificity.  Public schools tend to have “standards” that enumerate the skills kids should demonstrate, while leaving curriculum choices to the teachers.  That’s not a subtle difference.  Yet it may be lost upon those who assume that what one learns in elementary school is settled, and the differences are chiefly in the implementation.  It certainly seems to be lost upon or of no great concern to the vast majority of heavy hitters in ed reform.

Let’s say you’re in 5th grade in a private prep school in Manhattan.  The curriculum says you’re going to learn American history from the explorers through the Civil War and Reconstruction.  In science, you’ll get basic concepts of electricity, ecology and robotics.  It’s your first year of French, Spanish or Mandarin.  You will tackle Great Expectations.  By the end of middle school, you’re pretty much guaranteed a broad, rich basic education across and among academic disciplines. That’s what a good curriculum does.   

In public school, reading is skills-driven and largely dictated by student choice and engagement.  In struggling schools history, science, art and music are the first things cast aside to make room for ever-longer periods of instruction in reading strategies of questionable efficacy.  Test prep puts even greater pressure on the curriculum.  In terms of content in science, history, geography, art and music you’re pretty much guaranteed….well….you’re not guaranteed a thing. 

Nearly no one talks about the academic content of public vs. private schools, but it should not be taken for granted for a nanosecond that they’re comparable.  If you assume that what kids learn is basically the same from school to school, you will naturally assume the only thing you can change is teacher quality, accountability, pay structures and funding formulas.  Do students in public schools get poorer meals, fewer resources and lousy teachers compared to their privileged peers?  Some do, some don’t.  But the one thing most low-SES children certainly do not get is a well-rounded, academic curriculum.  Tilson himself once told me that a good curriculum “is like mom and apple pie. Everyone is in favor of it.” 

But then why are so many children saddled with content-free drivel? 

Like Tilson’s children, my daughter attends a well-regarded Manhattan private school.  For years I would drop her off at school and continue on to the low-performing South Bronx public school where I taught fifth grade. Here’s an observation that will not endear me to the staff or parents association at my daughter’s school:  there were teachers—lots of teachers—at the school where I worked that were clearly stronger  than some of my daughters’ teachers.   I would have gladly swapped some of my colleagues for her teachers.  I would not, however, swap her school for mine.  The magic of her school, at least at the elementary school level, was not in the teachers but in the curriculum and a first-rate, purposeful school tone. 

Tilson’s full-throated rebuttal to Winerip lists a number of bold-faced names in ed reform who attended public schools, including Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, KIPP’s Mike Feinberg, Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools, Jay Mathews, Andy Rotherham and Eva Moskowitz, who attended New York City’s competitive-entry Stuyvesant High School.  The distinction may not whether one went to a public or private school, but whether one went to a good school or not, and the assumptions they make about what children do in school all day. 

It took me quite a while, teaching in a low-performing school while my daughter attended a private prep school, to appreciate fully the dramatic difference in their respective curricula.  I wonder how many ed reformers remain blind to the difference.

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.