Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 5: Jon Schnur

Links to the rest of this series here

Though I’ve complained for a few years that TFA alumni get more respect than they deserve, I’m also very aware that as an alum, myself, I too have benefited from my pedigree.  This is how I’ve come to know so many reformers.  Two summers ago, before I ‘turned’ on TFA, I was invited to be on a think-tank discussion with ‘New Leaders For New Schools.’  I went to a meeting with about ten other people to discuss education with Jon Schnur, whom I had not heard of at the time.  I did not know that he was Obama’s education advisor or that he was the ‘architect’ (and namer) of Race To The Top.  At that time, I didn’t really know what Race To The Top even was.  I found Jon to be a very caring and bright guy who seemed to have the ability to see a problem from multiple angles simultaneously and who had an interesting style of speaking as his mouth tried to keep up with his mind.

The next time I saw Jon was a few months later at the Teach For America 20th anniversary summit.  He moderated a panel discussion with Klein, Rhee, Levin, Canada, and L.A. superintendent Deasy   Though Schnur was not at fault for moderating such a one-sided panel, he also didn’t make a big effort to play ‘Devil’s advocate’ to challenge these ‘reformers’ on some of their oversimplifications of the issues and exaggerated claims of their own successes.  So many things in the TFA 20 contributed to my decision to spend so much time learning and writing about false ed reform, but this panel discussion was one of the main ones.

Over the next few months, as I read up and learned of all that was happening, I struggled to understand how Schnur, who seemed so open to analyzing things from every possible point of view, could be the ‘brains’ behind the reform movement which seemed, to me, to be based on people pretending that they know what’s wrong with American education, and pretending that they know how to fix it.  And they make these bold claims despite zero proof that they are right and a lot of proof that they aren’t.  When the book ‘Class Warfare’ came out and I saw Shnur on page one of it, I sent him an email asking him to clarify some things.  I was particularly interested to see what he thought about ‘reform’ that is almost completely based on fixing teachers.  He wrote back, and gave me permission to publish, a thoughtful note  which included this quote:

“I agree with you emphatically that any strategy for improved education based simply on teachers working harder has no prospect for success.  There is no evidence to support the effectiveness of a one-dimensional strategy of getting teachers to work harder or be more motivated.   Indeed, our educational systems must drive dramatic improvements in teaching and school leadership excellence – with a blend of high standards, smart accountability, and very deep, meaningful support for the development of educators systemwide.  A teacher quality strategy that relies exclusively on better individual teacher performance won’t succeed – nor will a strategy that ignores the dramatic impact different types of teaching can make on student success and achievement.”

Jon and I have talked a few times since then, both in person and on the phone.  When I told him about this letter series, he was the only one who agreed to publicly respond.

Here is part five out of my, I believe, eight part series of letters to reformers I know.


Dear Jon,

First I want to thank for already saying you’re willing to publicly respond to my letter.  Improving schools can’t happen if there isn’t a meaningful dialogue about the pros and cons of various ideas, and I’m proud that you think that I’m someone who is worthy of engaging with despite my fundamental disagreement with some of, it seems to me, the pillars of your philosophy of education reform.

I’m going to refer to things you said a few weeks ago in a debate you had with Phil Handy, Romney’s education advisor, at Teachers College as these, I assume, represent your current views.  Here is a link to the entire debate for people reading this letter.  If you feel that I’ve taken anything out of context, please let me know in your response.

You are known as the brains behind the ‘reform’ movement.  I put ‘reform’ in quotes since it has come to mean only a very specific type of reform championed by people like Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, and Arne Duncan, to name a few.  You are a favorite at conventions featuring these players.  But as nice as a guy as you are, and as ‘nuanced’ as your ideas are, you would not be a favorite at most teacher’s lounges throughout the country.  In fact any mention of the words ‘Race To The Top’ would cause the blood pressure of most teachers to rise and for them to smirk and shake their heads.  As ‘the architect’ of Race To The Top, not many teachers would be offering to take you out for a drink.

My plan in this letter is to try to resolve some ‘inconsistencies’ between what you have said in public and some of the policies that are supposedly fueled by your ideas.  I’m also going to challenge some of the basic assumptions that seem to drive some of your ideas.

Just as the DNA between any two people matches by about 99.99%, I know that you and I, despite some differences, agree on a lot when it comes to thinking of ways to improve our schools.

First, I think we both think that schools can be improved.

Second, I also very much agree with what you said (Debate 42:42) about the current standardized tests.  You said that these multiple choice tests are too narrow and they don’t test what they need to.  Also you said that even if students are passing these tests, it doesn’t mean that they are truly learning since the tests are just not good enough yet.

Third, I liked that you said that NCLB didn’t work because it prescribed a “one size fits all” remedy for all districts which did not give each district the flexibility to do what they felt would help their students. (Debate at 24:24)

Fourth, I appreciated that you acknowledged that ‘out of school factors’ do make it especially tough for teachers who have students with a great number of those factors to contend with.  (Debate 1:02:38  “The evidence also shows that schools are not everything”)

And though I agree with you on these four critical points, each has a ‘flip side’ where you and I are very far apart, it seems.  I’ll address these issues one at a time.

1)  Though we agree that schools can be improved, we disagree on two critical points:  How good are our schools already?  and How good can our schools get?

What’s ironic in the ed reform debate is that you are considered an optimist because you think that schools are currently in very bad shape (Debate:  43:38 “We were once number one in the world”) but you think they can improve very much from this starting point.  To make up grades, you seem to think schools currently deserve a C or D, and that they can be brought up to an A.  I’m a pessimist, I suppose, because I think that schools are doing an OK job, maybe a B and that without an astronomical increase in resources, even with the best research based reforms can only get up to maybe a B+.  I could easily argue that this makes me the optimist since I think that we are doing reasonably well already and that you’re the pessimist!

Where schools currently are, and where they can go are tough things to quantify accurately, but the difference, I think between our two views is that you have seen schools that have convinced you that with the ‘same kids’ as the nearby ‘failing’ school, have been able to get miraculous results.  I’ve researched, and even visited, these so-called miracle schools and have found that they are not doing much better than the nearby ‘failing’ school.  Some have horrible standardized test results.  Some have good test results but, as you mentioned, these tests don’t necessarily test what they should so the good test scores might not be relevant.

As a teacher for fifteen years at all kinds of schools ranging from ‘failing’ to ‘high performing,’ I can assure you that I believe in the power of school to change kids’ lives and also the limitation of school to overcome those ‘out of school factors.’  The ‘failing’ school that I taught in when I was in TFA had great teachers and great kids.  I think that we did give the kids a meaningful learning experience, even though many of them did not go on to graduate college.  I’m in touch with a superstar math student from twenty years ago.  She had a baby when she was 16 and got married and never got to go to college.  Neither I, nor she, blames the school for the fact that she never went to college.

The reason I’ve spent so much time digging into the statistics of the so-called ‘miracle schools’ is that we can not have an honest discussion about education or about what schools should be expected to accomplish when some schools are lying about their achievements.  Accountability without true transparency unfairly benefits schools who know how to game the system, which is what has happened.  When the new generation of standardized tests come out, which will be, presumably, harder to game, you will see that there really isn’t much of a difference between the miracle and the failing school, in terms of student achievement.

2)  You are right that the quality of the current standardized tests are not acceptable.  Yet, you seem to be OK with the fact that these sub-par exams are, as a condition of Race To The Top, going to be used as a ‘significant’ part of teacher evaluation.  I know you said it is just “one of multiple measures,” but the reality is that many districts are using it for up to 50%.  These tests are just not good enough for such high stakes purposes, and the ‘value-added’ metrics that are based on them are so inaccurate that a teacher who teaches two different grade levels can be ranked as a highly effective teacher in one grade and highly ineffective in the other grade.  This is why so many teachers — not just lazy ones worried about being exposed as frauds — are very concerned about the new trend, pretty much mandated by RTTT, to weigh these factors so heavily.

I also find it unusual that you are so pessimistic about the current state of education in this country, yet you are so optimistic about the power of these upcoming ‘next generation’ exams based on the higher common core standards.  I can assure you that very few teachers agree that the new tests and the higher standards will accomplish much.  Perhaps the new tests will reveal that some miracle schools aren’t as amazing as was previously thought, but if that’s all we learn from them, that would be a big price for something I could so easily tell you now for free.  These new tests will be very costly, as they will be taken on computers, and this, I think, is not the best use of our limited resources.

As far as higher standards, which you seemed to be very excited about (Debate 25:50), well, for one thing, the standards aren’t really that different from what states devised for NCLB.  Also, higher standards if they are too high could actually lower achievement.  This is why we don’t try to have kindergarteners learn Shakespeare.  What I want for my own kids and for the kids in this country are not ‘high’ standards, but ‘appropriate’ ones.  You seem to believe that low standards and low expectations are a large reason that many students are not graduating, or barely graduating, high school, and I’d say that this is a very small part of the problem.

3)  You were right that NCLB made a “one size fits all” mandate which wasn’t appropriate.  You even said (Debate 24:29)  “I think we should be very careful about what we mandate.”  The moderator at Teacher’s College really let you off the hook, though, on this one.  Go around the country and what you will hear from the majority of teachers is that Race To The Top and the NCLB waivers are just as restrictive.  Both RTTT and the NCLB waivers require that districts use the flawed calculations based on the flawed multiple choice tests to be a significant portion of the teacher evaluations.  Maybe it is just that RTTT hasn’t been ‘marketed’ well that I see it this way, but I hope that you could see that it certainly appears this way to many teachers.

4)  In your debate (Debate 1:02:43) you said “I think some people would suggest that we shouldn’t tackle school reform until you fix poverty” and though I don’t think there is anyone out there who believes that, I can see how someone might take things that I’ve written and others on my ‘side’ to mean that.  Poverty, as you also admit, is a factor and one that some of the better programs like ‘Harlem Children’s Zone’ (by the way, the middle school there had almost 100% turnover in teachers a few years back for working conditions and the high school there has pretty low test scores and also minimal participation in advanced coursework) tackle the poverty issue with wrap-around services.  Though you are frequently invited to speak at conferences with ‘no excuses’ champions, there is no way to have a true discussion about education when people constantly claim that they have the secrets, at their schools, to getting very high achievement with high poverty students.

Of course there are some schools that are doing better than others with similar populations, and of course we should try to dissect those ‘good’ schools to see what they do differently.  But if instead of thoroughly investigating what they do and why it works, we simply ask the schools, we only get what those schools want us to think, like that they can fire their teachers easily, or that they have teachers with higher expectations.  If the true reason for their success is that they simply game the tests then we need to know that otherwise we risk replicating dishonest schools while simultaneously shutting down ones that are playing fairly.

Well, that’s what’s on my mind.  My fear is that your Race To The Top was not implemented properly.  It is causing schools to focus on the tests.  It is making teaching — which is already a stressful job — an unattractive profession.  I think anyone becoming a new teacher in today’s climate is crazy.  My belief, and I’ve been pretty good at predicting the long term effect of various reforms, at least at a school level, is that in a few years there will be a huge teacher shortage.  Issues like LIFO layoffs won’t even matter anymore.  This will not be good for kids.

I saw the website for your new organization ‘America Achieves.’  It seems like a good organization focusing on supporting teachers with resources and sharing what is working.  I don’t see anything in there about how to more easily fire the bottom 5% of teachers based on their value-added.  I appreciate that.  But my concern is that you’ve become the ‘good cop’ to the various accountability and choice zealots who have way too much influence in the national education discussion.

As someone who is just one degree of separation from President Obama, perhaps you could intervene and help get this Race To The Top wildcat back in the bag before it causes too much damage.  The way Race To The Top was implemented is bad news and when the damage of it is eventually assessed, I don’t think you will want to be known as its architect.



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6 Responses to Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 5: Jon Schnur

  1. David Coffey says:

    I wish all reformers, especially those with the ear of the President, would read and comprehend the message of Stigler and Hiebert in “The Teaching Gap.” If we are to improve education, then we need to focus on improving teaching, not teachers. Furthermore, teachers need to be central in the improving of teaching. We need to quit ignoring the people with the most complete knowledge of what is and isn’t working in their classroom.

    Thank you for this post.

  2. Caroline Grannan says:

    Don’t you think that in many cases they’re getting money and power from it? “I struggled to understand how Schnur, who seemed so open to analyzing things from every possible point of view, could be the ‘brains’ behind the reform movement which seemed, to me, to be based on people pretending that they know what’s wrong with American education, and pretending that they know how to fix it.”

    Obviously that doesn’t apply to the Gateses and Tilsons who are funding the hoax. They must be getting something else from it.

  3. Caroline Grannan says:

    (And since we were never number one in the world, he’s either awfully poorly informed for such a supposedly great thinker — or just a shameless, brazen, amoral liar.)

  4. Educator says:


    This is a fabulous and well-written letter to Schnur, and I applaud you and your efforts to engage with education reformers. Your letter doesn’t have much detail/research behind it, and I’m going to assume that the intent of the letter wasn’t to provide a scientific analysis of your claims (which you provide in other blog posts, and which I’m guessing you’ve provided to these education reformers in some other manner), so to anyone reading this who is wondering where Gary is coming to his conclusions, I hope you do read Gary’s many previous blog posts that refer to actual statistics and research, and they show a logical, well reasoned analysis of education reforms.

    I hope that you can continue engaging the education reformers so that they can be held accountable. (It’s funny, their goal was to hold the educational establishment accountable and challenge them, but now it seems like the education reformers are now the new status-quo who need to be challenged with their reforms that are sold to be working in the public media sphere, but in reality aren’t as good as they claim.) I hope that these education reformers don’t dismiss you as another “status quo” educator, like they seem to do with Diane Ravitch.

    I hope these education reformers, and I do believe they are well intentioned, will step back and reflect. Is incresing segregation via charter schools good for children and society? Is kicking students out of their charters because they’re SPED or ELL or can’t keep up with no excuses good for children? Are they putting students first when low-income neighborhoods are stratified? Why can a charter claim to be excellent when they have 40% of students drop out / maybe even pushed out? (And then bash the local traditional school that must accept these drop outs and lower their test scores?) These false claims are hurting children, as they’re confusing the politicians, confusing the media, as to why it’s so difficult to education especially poor students.

    I hope Schnur can be honest, and analyze what is really going on. I do have a feeling many education reformers privately feel this way, but publicly feel pressure to continue in this manner. It’s an education reform bubble. Too much is now at stake for the education reformers to have a good, hard look in the mirror.

    But more education reformers must start speaking out about what’s really going on. I personally know some lower level TFA employees who have reservations about what they’re doing, but they continue because, well, it’s hard to change.

    Let’s get to real, honest, research to figure out what would be best for education. Or, let’s be honest about what some of the reforms do, especially charters — help a small percentage of students who are self-selected out of their neighborhood school by applying to and winning a lottery. And in order for the school to continue its miracle, it must get rid of those students who cannot uphold the miracle. Now, to a parent of one of these students who does make it, it’s great. But for the community/society as a whole, it’s probably not.

    Anyhow, keep up the good work.

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