Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 1: Whitney Tilson

Links to the rest of this series here

I think what gives me that extra motivation to participate, as much as I’m able to, in this current debate on how to improve this country’s schools (and yes, I do think they need to be improved) is the fact that I know, personally, many of the main people pushing the reforms that I consider destructive.  Some I’ve known for over 20 years.  Some I’ve only met recently.  Some I’ve partied with at TFA events back when I was a corps member or at various TFA reunions.  Some, during their training, attended the workshop I used to present at institute.  Some I consider friends while others are just acquaintances.  Yet these are the people I find myself in opposition with.  People that it sometimes pains me to have to ‘fact-check’ and expose how I believe they are fixing the numbers to fool the public and the philanthropists into believing that they know what they are doing.

Over the past two years I’ve exchanged emails with all the people on my list of reformers I know.  All have, at one time, written back to me.  Many have stopped returning my emails.  The ball, as the saying goes, is in their court.

I’ve written so many ‘left brain’ posts over the years — debunking this schools statistics, analyzing school report cards, investigating value-added evaluations, that I’d like to try something from the other side of the brain.  Debate, like teaching, is more effective when it has a human component.  The relationships between the participants enables each side to see the other in a more open way.  This is something that is missing in these debates, particularly when the discussions are on blogs or Twitter exchanges.

So this is the first in a series (of about 10) open letter I plan to write in the coming months.  My first one is to Whitney Tilson.

I see Tilson as the ‘purest’ of the reformers.  Whitney runs a hedge fund in New York City.  He comes from a very socially conscious family and has spent a lot of time over the years pursing these issues.  Back when TFA was just an idea, Whitney helped Wendy Kopp get the organization up and running.  Years later, Tilson was one of the driving forces behind the expansion and popularization of KIPP.  He is one of the founders of Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) which promotes politicians who support the current reform ideas of accountability and school choice.  He also starred in a documentary called ‘A Right Denied’ which lays out the problems in education and how charter schools have proved that these problems are surmountable by following their lead.

About two years ago, I became aware of Tilson when I saw his blog.  I was getting frustrated with the lack of back-and-forth on my own blog so I wrote to him and ‘challenged’ him to a public online debate.  He wasn’t interested at first, but eventually a more private debate ensued through emails.  Sometimes there would be twenty emails flying on a given day.  Other times, weeks would go by without any.  He put me on his email list and I’ve been able to keep up with his reporting of what’s happening in education from the reform perspective.  Reading these email blasts, for me, is like entering a strange ‘Bizarro’ world where everything is the opposite of what I believe.  School closings are celebrated, the NAACP is corrupt, teachers are people who often put their own interests above the interests of their children.  My heroes are his villains, and vice versa.  In theory, at least, we should hate each other.

But I don’t hate Tilson, and over the last two years, through our emails, we have developed something that might be described as a friendship.  Unlike some of the reformers whom I have known for years and who won’t return my emails anymore, Tilson generally gets back to me within an hour of my emailing him.  I can be friendly with someone like Tilson because I think he thinks he is helping improve education.  His heart is in the right place, but I truly believe that he has almost no idea what he is talking about when he makes his conclusions based on his minimal actual experience in real schools.

Now, sometimes an outsider’s perspective of things is useful.  I remember being a new teacher and being able to see the absurdity of some of the things that were going on in my school.  Others who were entrenched in the system may have not even noticed how certain policies and ways of doing things were hindering progress.  In that way, I can appreciate how someone like Tilson, who has been a successful investor and has even built a name for himself as a T.V. commentator on business and education, could have some good analysis about what is going on in the business of education.

Here is my open letter to Whitney Tilson which he has already NOT promised to publicly to respond to.  If he changes his mind, the response will be posted as a comment to this post.

23 November 2012

Dear Whitney,

How’s everything going?  Things are good with me.

First, I want to thank you for all the time you’ve dedicated to our email discussions over the past year and a half.  I haven’t counted them, but there have been many and I’ve appreciated that you’ve always been willing to introduce me to different people in ‘the know’ and leaders so I could get information from the sources.  Unlike some of your reformer friends, you are the person who most seems to want to learn about ‘the other side’ and see that as an important thing.  Others, I think, see me as a nuisance and maybe even a threat.  You have told me that you’ve ignored the advice of some of these people to cut me out of the loop, and it is to your credit that you have been willing to continue our on-going discussion.

My plan in this letter is to show for people who are following the issues are in ed reform nowadays, some of the ‘nuance’ of the two predominant ‘sides.’  The debate is often mischaracterized as one between ‘reformers’ and ‘unions.’  The ‘reformers’ want, well, reform while the unions want to keep the status quo.  The want to keep the status quo because it is good for ‘them’ despite harming the children they are supposed to help.

Of course the word ‘reformer’ applies to anyone who has ideas of how to improve things, and that would include people like me.  I have not been in a school that I didn’t think could be improved by some changes so I don’t like getting lumped in with ‘status quo’ defenders as if there are many of those.  Truly I don’t think I ever met a teacher who did not have something he or she was annoyed about with regard to what has happening at his or her school.  One thing I’d like you to acknowledge is that people who oppose the ‘style’ of reform that you support are not necessarily ‘anti-reform.’  They just have different ideas about what kinds of reform are likely to work and what kinds are likely to make people not want to become teachers anymore.

We ‘anti-reformers’ are often accused of believing that quality of teacher makes no difference.  As a somewhat popular ‘anti-reformer’ I’d like to set the record straight that this is not at all what I believe.  I’ve spent years not only teaching but in teaching other teachers to be more effective and also writing two books about how teachers can be their best so of course I think that teachers can improve.  I do think that a great teacher can make a huge difference in a child’s life.  He or she can inspire that child to want to know more about not only the topic at hand, but even about other things that come up when a teacher strays from the curriculum.  I like to think that I’m at least an above average teacher and that over my 15 year career I’ve ‘added value’ to the students I’ve taught.  The issue, though, is whether or not ‘rewarding’ ‘great’ teachers is likely to make a big difference in student achievement.  It sounds good to someone not involved directly in schools, but when the details start to develop and the definition of ‘great’ is reduced to what standardized tests show and ‘rewarding’ is giving a few teachers in a school a bonus while changing the yearly salary increases for experienced teachers, I think that the implementations proposed will do more harm than good.

I think my biggest frustration with ‘reformers’ is how you seem to ignore any evidence that the reforms are not working.  Take Washington D.C. (please!).  With all the experimentation they have done, there do not seem to be the results reformers would have predicted (if they would have only publicly predicted results).  This is my concern.  Everyone would like to improve schools.  Reformers are overconfident that their aggressive, and I’d say reckless, plans will do more good than harm while I think they will do more harm than good.

There are also misconceptions about what the reformers think and you’ve been very honest in some of your email blasts which show that the reformer view is not so two dimensional.  For example, some say that all reformers believe that it is the teacher’s job to overcome poverty and that charter schools have demonstrated that this is a realistic expectation for teachers.  In some of your writing about KIPP, it sometimes seems that you are saying that KIPP has fully proved that schools are not at all limited in what they can be expected to accomplish in lifting entire classes of students out of poverty.  But more recently I’ve noticed you scaling back on this.  You recently wrote (and I hope you don’t think this is taken out of context.  I did not see this email blast put onto your webpage so I can’t link to the full post.)

Speaking of the safety net, this fight isn’t about improving education – it’s about making sure EVERY child gets a fair shot in life. Of course, a good education is a critical component of that, but everything that goes on in a child’s life outside of the school is enormously important as well. Contrary to what opponents of reform say, we reformers have never denied the critical importance of the many non-school factors in the lives of children: obviously, things like poverty, hunger, illness, homelessness, proper nutrition, how parents speak to children, whether someone reads to them, etc. matter a HUGE amount. That doesn’t mean schools get a pass, of course – no matter what’s going on in a child’s life, schools should be held accountable for moving every child forward educationally at a reasonable rate – but as we think about how to make sure every child gets a fair shot in life, we should be thinking about issues far beyond the four walls of a school.

It reminds me of what famed doctor Paul Farmer said about the health clinics he runs in Haiti and Rwanda (he’s the subject of Tracy Kidder’s wonderful book, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World; He pointed out that most international health programs are focused on a particular disease like AIDS, malaria, etc., which results in absurdities like patients coming into a clinic to receive their AIDS meds yet then die of starvation the next day. He said his clinics try to treat the whole patient and, if they’re hungry, they provide a proven solution to the problem: FOOD!

For example, I think that cutting the child poverty rate from 23% today to, say, 10% would likely give more children a fair shot in life than EVERY educational reform put together. To do this, we’d have to expand various government programs that comprise the safety net like food stamps, unemployment benefits, temporary cash payments (welfare), housing vouchers, etc., but instead the Republican party has fought tooth and nail to slash all of these programs based on the rationale that we can’t afford such a “generous” safety net (though, apparently, we can always afford another tax cut, especially one aimed at the wealthy) and/or that these programs sap individual initiative and create dependency. Reasonable people can disagree on what we can afford and how these programs affect adults, but there’s not much doubt about the impact on poor children – and their educational opportunities – when the safety net is slashed.

When I read this, I think that we agree more than most people would expect on a huge issue:  What is the limit of schools in overcoming the obstacles every student faces, given a limited budget?  Even the most generous KIPP reports say that only a third of their students, thus far, have graduated college.  If someone criticizes KIPP by saying it should be 100% and  you say that the expected percent is just 8% for low-income students, that would just be an excuse, right?  But I think that you do acknowledge that even the best schools are limited in what they can accomplish.  We agree, I think, that even if there is a limit, if that limit has not been reached yet, we should do what we can to get closer to that limit.

I also think we both agree that ‘transparency’ is very important.  If a school is lying about their results and then that school dishonestly gets a lot of money that could have gone somewhere that people were being more honest about less dramatic results, that is not going to help this country move forward.  I see TFA and KIPP as two organizations that could be more transparent about what they have not yet accomplished.  I visited my first KIPP recently and found it to be a well-run place, but a place that was not doing anything particularly innovative or ‘paradigm shifting.’  The school was ‘fine,’ as I figured it would be, but not much more than that.  You seem to think that KIPP and TFA are very transparent, and more transparent than many other organizations.  I’d agree that they could be worse, but I hope you’d agree that they could be better.

Anyway, that’s what is on my mind.  If you get a chance to respond, I’d appreciate it.



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11 Responses to Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 1: Whitney Tilson

  1. B says:

    Post these more often, Gary.

  2. Michael Fiorillo says:

    As with so many other things, especially pertaining to education and charter schools, Whitney Tilson is a liar: it was Bill Clinton, a neoliberal Democrat much like Tilson, who eliminated AFDC (welfare), thus removing the income floor from the poor and working poor.

    As with corporate education reform, elimination of welfare and trade agreements are bipartisan movements with the purpose of entrenching the domination of Capital over Labor. Organizations like DFER are there to ensure that the fragile links that connect the Democratic Party to the New Deal and Great Society are severed forever.

    Whatever Tilson’s purportedly progressive statements might be, they are there as a rhetorical distraction, the solicitous comments of the Good Cop, meant to neutralize/eliminate traditional Democratic support for teacher’s unions, while his Bad Cop pals like Michelle Rhee set the stage for the main act: the looting of the public schools.

    • Joe Kenendy says:

      I totally agree. Tilson is and has been a liar for a long time, playing on both sides of the field while lying from both sides. This is a very scary time for the USA and the “folks” better open their eyes to the facts, many of which, they apparently don’t see clearly enough.

  3. KatieO says:

    Gary, this reminds me of a book I am reading by Chris Hayes called ‘Twilight of The Elites’ where he chronicles how our nation’s elites have become so very out of touch. He describes the growing social distance, where the people who make decisions are so very far removed from the realities or the impact of those decisions. He also points to a “meritocratic feedback loop” common on Wall St where people assume success means worth. This distance and self-congratulatory behavior has created a ruling class which sees no problem in sending young people off to wars (for it is never their own sons and daughters who will die) or creates the sub-prime mortgage crisis (because it is not their homes that will be foreclosed on nor their fortunes lost to bankruptcy).

    In my mind, this epidemic of the elites is exactly what plagues EdReform and especially groups like Whitney Tilson is a part of. They are so far removed from reality, and their consciences are so unburdened from the ethical implications because of their meritocratic “king-of-the-world” complexes, that they can create a joyless substandard type of schooling (no excuses charters) giving them substandard underprepared teachers (TFA) for students they never have to know personally.

    Corporate EdReform is a direct result of an elite class which is unaccountable and out of control. Would we be fighting any of these battles without the wealthy Gates, Broads, Kopps, or Tilsons of the world? The answer, I believe, is no.

  4. KrazyTA says:

    Gary, I heartily applaud your effort to engage in discussion with Whitney Tilson and those of like mind.

    To the Readers of this blog—

    I will abide by what I perceive to be Gary’s ‘rules of the road’ on this blog, so I politely ask: how can the vast majority of so-called edureformers, adherents of the “school of no excuses,” plausibly excuse themselves from engaging in serious, in-depth discussions with someone like Gary? IMHO, your silence is a deafening refutation of your own positions. Tilson’s willingness to engage in discussion, however limited, shouldn’t be the exception; it should be the rule.

  5. Steve M says:

    So, is Tilson putting as much of his money and effort into the reformation of governmental social programs as he is educational reform?

    I have a sneaky feeling that he pays about the same tax rate (and has the same types of tax shelters) as Romney and the gang.

  6. Bertis Downs says:

    just catching up with this thanks to the DR link today– all I can say is Thanks and Keep It Up. Well said and as noted, their silence is deafening. Rarely is WT silent about anything . . . shouldn’t this have made a blast!? ha! What we need is a politician to spend more than 5 minutes understanding the real issues of real reform. Too many fall into the Obama/Duncan trap of nostrums that sound good but won’t work. Most people are busy, don’t have kids in public schools, don’t talk to principals or teachers and don’t realize they are lining up with the ALEC privateers. Isn’t anyone in DC listening at all? Seems not and meanwhile the damage being done in the states and in the local schools is tangible and real.

  7. Pingback: NCTQ Letter Grades and the Reformer Agenda– Part II « deutsch29

  8. Francis says:

    Ok interesting, but what do you propose? I didnt see Any propositions? You stay you are a réformer too, so…. What do u want to change?

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