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.