If you’re not finding any thoughtful reform writing, then you’re not looking hard enough. Read Michael Petrilli and the Fordham Institute’s stuff, particularly Education Next; read some of the Dropout Nation, which includes important discussion of school discipline; read Rick Hess or Jay Green. Not of course that all these writers fit neatly into the ‘reform’ box – and I think that’s a good thing.
I certainly agree with you that TFA can be far too simplistic both in its public portrayal and its training of corps members. I remember during Institute having an almost religious belief in ‘high expectations’; then I got to my school and realized that, no, what made a great teacher was not so simplistic as ‘teacher mindset.’
That being said, I’m willing to defend TFA to a small extent: I think it’s appropriate for teacher-training programs to be highly aspirational, even unrealistic. During my first, very difficult year teaching, something TFA indoctrinated in us often haunted me: “Everything that happens in your classroom is your responsibility.” Could this literally be true? Of course not, and I often tried to convince myself that it wasn’t. Yet, to this day, I basically believe it – in other words, I think that good teachers hold themselves accountable for most everything that occurs in their class.
I think of ‘poverty is not destiny’ in the same sense. Of course it’s wrong to suggest that poverty has no effect on student outcomes – even Michelle Rhee acknowledges as much – but it would be wrong, in my view, for a teacher to focus on that. And, yes, at my school, that sort of mentality, that poverty meant our students were destined to fail, did crop up every now and then.
TFA is wrong insofar as it suggests that poverty can be wholly ameliorated by high expectations and student ‘investment’ (along with all the other Teaching as Leadership prongs – which I agree with you are mostly awful). Where TFA gets it right, though, is with its focus on the very real potential of all students.
Do I think that excellent teachers at my school changed some students’ life trajectories? Yes, I definitely do. Do I think some charters (as well as some traditional public schools) have changed students’ life trajectories? Again, yes.
On the other hand, I knew corps members who would say things like, “My students have grown five years in reading.” Similarly, I’ll always remember a ridiculous article about a few of my former students claiming that some of them had “advanced more than four years” in reading – over the course of a half-year.
I think it’s unfortunate and wrong when schools or policymakers or journalists overstate success. I really admire the thankless job you’ve done at debunking many of these ‘miracle’ schools. I know it’s affected my thinking. A couple times in the last year I’ve been to high-performing charter schools, and the first question out of my mouth is: what is your rate of student attrition? (Though it may be a little less clear cut than you’ve made it out to be – we don’t know how many of those students, say, moved away. I’m also inclined to believe that many of these schools, while not being miraculous, are nevertheless really good.)
I think the reform community is becoming more honest with itself on this point. That’s a good thing. By the way, I suspect the cause of such (inexcusable) hyperbole is neither evilness nor pure ignorance, as you suggest; I think it’s that people so badly wanted to believe that we could ‘crack the code’ on failing schools. (Which I suppose is a form of ignorance.) What reformers are discovering, I suspect, is that the fruits of reform will not be borne overnight.
What’s odd to me is that the logical conclusion from your belief that school can’t change life trajectories is that we should be spending less money on schools than we currently do. The short of it is this: if schools can’t significantly improve students’ lives, and public dollars are a finite resource, we should invest less money in schools and more money in other things. I genuinely don’t get how you can on the one hand emphasize how little schools can do, but on the other suggest that the public pour more money into those same institutions.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, and perhaps we can also pivot a bit to discuss school choice. Do you believe that charters or vouchers or other forms of choice can ever be good? Is there any hope or positives from the school-choice movement?
I’m glad to see that you’re writing more reasonably now. Mark my words that in the not-too-distant future, nobody will be willing to admit that they were once associated with the ‘reform’ movement. Unfortunately for most of them, there is a very permanent and easily searchable record of exactly what ideas they supported. You seem to present yourself as a ‘moderate’ reformer, always willing to admit that the issues and proposed solutions are more complicated than critics, like me, might give you credit for.
But the fact is that apart from someone like Jeb Bush, most reformers try to claim that they are moderates too. Since you mentioned her in your last two letters, let’s examine the sorts of things that Michelle Rhee has said about different issues. You referenced her Huffington Post piece from last September as an example of how she admits that ‘poverty matters.’ Reading this, I could see, could make some people think that critics of Rhee are unfair when they accuse her of saying “poverty doesn’t matter.” In the first half she very nicely lays out all the reasons why living in poverty and why teaching poor kids is quite difficult. But she really isn’t giving anything away by admitting this since the other shoe drops in the second half of the piece which justifies the title of the article “Poverty Must Be Tackled But Never Used As An Excuse.” More recently she spoke in Kansas City and really summarized her views when answering a question from the audience in the last five minutes.
She had met with a bunch of teachers before the interview and explained:
“One of them said ‘are you saying that there are people out there who are saying that what teachers do in schools don’t matter? That poverty is, you know, is sort of the driving force and we can’t make a difference? He literally said ‘I can’t believe that that’s the case.’ And I said ‘Yeah, actually there are people out there who believe that.’
So here’s the bottom line: Does poverty matter a whole lot? Yes it does. Does living in abject poverty make it harder for children to come to school every day and to be ready to learn? Unequivocally yes, it makes it harder. Does it make it harder for the teachers to teach those kids effectively? Yes it does. But can that be an excuse for why we aren’t pouring everything that we can into making sure that that child is successful? No we can’t. Because the bottom line is that if we say if you are poor we can’t really help you in school, sorry, then that’s basically saying to kids if you’re born into poverty, sorry, you don’t have a chance to live the American dream you’re not gonna be able to be successful in life because of the very fact that you are poor. That is so unamerican. That is against everything that we stand for as a nation. What we stand for as a nation is the notion that you can be a child coming from any circumstance, any family, whatever the color of your skin, the zipcode you that live in and you can still live the american dream and you can have a full and productive life because you are getting a high quality education. That’s what we stand for as a country.”
So what we have first is Rhee accusing her critics of saying that good teaching doesn’t matter. Now I could see how you might think it is fair for her to say this. After all, if her views are being oversimplified by some to say that she doesn’t think that poverty matters at all, shouldn’t she be able to say that the critics don’t think that quality of teaching doesn’t matter at all? But notice her main argument isn’t so much that poverty ‘matters’ but that poverty “makes it harder” but that teachers can’t use it as ‘an excuse.’ But what is this ‘no excuses’? If I tell a student that I want the ten homework problems tomorrow and I don’t want any excuses, I’m saying this because I feel that the student can accomplish this goal if he just decides to do it. That’s when you say “I don’t want excuses.” But if I tell a kid to do something that I don’t think is possible like I want them to do the entire book and I don’t want excuses, this is quite unfair. Since the kid can’t possibly accomplish what I want, what is he supposed to say to me the next day when he doesn’t complete the assignment? So when Rhee and other reformers say that poverty can’t be used as an excuse they are either being very unreasonable as they are asking people to do something that may just be impossible, or they believe, deep down, that it is something completely within the teacher’s control if the teacher just decides to do it.
In all my years of teaching, I have never once heard another teacher say that the reason a student failed a test was because the student was poor. I’ve heard teachers say that the student must not have studied, that the student goofed around during the lesson so they aren’t surprised. I’ve heard them say that the kid just isn’t smart enough to master the material. And yes, teachers often admit that they didn’t teach the topic as well as they had hoped to. I suppose that these are excuses, but if you do not achieve perfection you should be able to come up with a reason about where the breakdown was.
As far as whether or not Rhee believes that ‘great’ teachers can overcome poverty single-handedly, watch what she said recently on the Bill Maher show. She told an anecdote about how when she was chancellor she went to a low performing high school during first period and noticed that most of the classes had just a few students in them since students were coming late to school, but that there was one teacher who had a full classroom. Then, later in the day she noticed some kids from that full class leaving the building before school was over. When she asked them why there were leaving school they said that they come to the first period class because they learn from that teacher, but they don’t go to the classes later in the day because they don’t. While I’ll admit that students do selectively cut the classes that they dislike the most for whatever reason, this story is very contrived that there should be a teacher that is so great that he gets a class that would generally have twenty chronic cutters and he gets them all to get to school at 8:00 AM. It is a typical example of the exaggerated power of a teacher.
In a speech last year Arne Duncan did something similar when he said “Everyone who has worked with poor children knows that poverty matters and affects school performance. But everyone who has witnessed the life-altering impact of great teachers and great principals knows that schools matter enormously too.” I’m on a mailing list where I get a monthly newsletter from the DOE which is actually called “Teaching Matters,” a double entendre which is also a dig against all the critics, like me, who supposedly think that it doesn’t.
The fact is that nobody realistically thinks that poverty does not matter nor does anyone think that quality of teaching does not matter. The difference between the ‘sides’ really is how much do this different factors contribute to student ‘achievement’ or lack of it. I’ll bet that if there was a way to truly quantify where most people stand on this issue, most people (with the exception of some who have their heads completely in the clouds like Joel Klein and Bill Gates) would have scores that were pretty close.
Again I want to stress that the reason I love being a teacher is that I do feel that I am making ‘a difference.’ It is just the nature of the job and I think I make a difference even when I’m just doing a so-so job that day. If you’re an English teacher and you’re introducing your students to a classic work of literature, you are making a difference. Sometimes when I’m teaching a topic that is particularly interesting, like The Pythagorean Theorem, I think how lucky I am that I get to be the one who taught them this. That’s one thing that makes teaching exciting. It is one of the few ‘perks’ of teaching that Michelle Rhee isn’t trying to take away from us. Even a below average teacher makes more of ‘a difference’ in a kids life than, say, a highly effective waiter. I just don’t know that there are many of these mythical ‘great’ teachers who inspire whole classes of kids to alter their life’s trajectory. When I think of the few ‘great’ teachers that I had in school, I’m sure that not every kid agreed that those teachers were great. So an average teacher is considered ‘great’ by a few kids in each class but of course we remember the teachers that we thought were great and politicians who don’t understand education don’t realize that no teacher is considered great by all his students. I often wonder what percent of my students think that I am ‘great.’ Certainly I’ve received my share of thank you letters from students saying things like “you’re the best math teacher I ever had,” but there are plenty who did not think I was very good either. As a math teacher I try to incorporate the beauty and history of math into my lessons, when possible, as opposed to the practicality of it. Not every student really cares about how Archimedes derived the surface area of a sphere. Some are content to just memorize the formula and know how to apply it.
My ‘pessimism’ about the influence of teachers, remember, also comes from having kept in touch with some of my superstar students from twenty years ago. Most of those promising students did not complete college. Most of the girls were mothers before they turned 20 years old. Even one of the true ‘nerds’ I knew took about ten years to get his undergraduate degree.
You raised a good question about how the premise that even ‘great’ teachers don’t make a huge difference in changing students lives, then shouldn’t we just reduce funding to schools? You could go even further and ask why I get so upset about how poor TFA training is if I think the teacher influence is so small. What I’ve really said, though, is that ‘great’ teachers don’t make so much more of a difference than ‘average’ teachers, and that I think average teachers do make an appropriately sized difference in student’s lives. So cutting funding might not actually lower standardized test scores by very much, but I do think it would decrease some of the less easily quantified benefits of school. I think Einstein once wrote that “education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one has learned in school.” Though this is not very ‘data driven’ of me to say, I feel like if education budgets are stripped, the shallow experience kids would get in school would mean that after they have forgotten everything there would not be anything left while putting more money into things like arts, music, and theater is worthwhile since it contributes to Einstein’s nebulous ‘education.’ I do think, though, that a lot of money is wasted by schools so perhaps even without increasing funding, we could use the existing funding more efficiently. But what I see going on with corporate ed reform is budgets being cut AND the sparse remaining money being used on consultants and computers which don’t have a large educational impact.
Finally, I want to address your question about school choice. This is something I have not written very much about, aside from demonstrating that many charter schools aren’t much different than the neighborhood ‘failing’ school. I do understand the choice strategy: Schools will be forced to ‘up their game’ since if students have the freedom to go to whatever school they want, the ‘bad’ schools will be left with no students and be forced to shut down.
I’ve struggled to come up with a good analogy for this, and I hope this one works: I don’t get out much, having a wife and two small children, yet suppose that I get permission to go out for New Year’s Eve. In New York City there are a lot of trendy and exclusive clubs and I don’t really have the ‘choice’ to go wherever I want. Besides not being able to afford the cover charge in some of the places, I also don’t have the ‘look’ to get any bouncer to whisk me to the front of any long entrance line.
So I end up in my local, ‘zoned’ if you will, club, ‘The Bull and Finch,’ where there are a lot of people who, like me, are over 40 years old and who aren’t going to be partying with Paris Hilton anytime soon. Maybe it is unfair that I can’t just choose to go to Studio 54 (I think there still is one) since maybe if given the opportunity, I’d show that I really do belong there. So if my fairy godmother got me into the club, I guess that would be good for me, assuming I don’t get kicked out of the club for not fitting in easily enough. But what if this is taken to an extreme and somehow everyone’s fairy godmother shows up and now everyone is at Studio 54. Well, at that point, it isn’t really Studio 54 anymore, is it? What I’m trying to get at here is that what makes Studio 54 so great — ‘high performing’ — is the fact that people who look like me are not there. The bartenders at ‘The Bull’ are just as competent as Studio 54. And certainly they serve the same Bacardi Rum and Coke. And ‘The Bull and Finch’ certainly doesn’t deserve to get shut down for poor performance. When are people like me supposed to go when we get kicked out of Studio 54?
The difference between the ‘high performing’ charter school and the ‘failing’ local school is the students. I am sure that if you were to swap the teaching staffs at the two schools there would not be a significant difference (we can argue what qualifies as ‘significant’) in what the students learn. Yes, there could be a few schools that are underperforming because they are completely mismanaged and out of control, but the vast majority of ‘failing’ schools, I think, have teachers who are, at least, competent.
I think it is important for people to realize this because without this established, the net result of ‘choice’ is that a small percent of students, maybe 3% (5% go to charters, but only about half of them benefit, in a real sense, I think), benefit from it while the other 97% of students actually suffer from it. And the ‘choice’ that supposedly exists is mainly a mirage. Parents, especially ones who have the students who need the most help, are duped into ‘choosing’ a school based on incomplete information. They see the false claims about the school’s 100% college acceptance rate and they leave their local school only to end up in a school that did not, generally, have any special talent for working with their child who often ends up back in a public school but who now has the permanent stigma of having been booted (call it ‘counseled out’ if you want) from a school that was supposed to be so great.
I never really had a problem with charter schools until I started noticing this negative side effect. If a charter school were to be honest, for a change, and admit that it is a place for the most motivated parents to send the most motivated poor students — like a magnet program — then I do think that there is a place for this in education. But when the supposedly miraculous success of that school is used by ‘leaders’ — many of them TFA alumni — as a justification for closing schools and for hastily developing unscientific teacher evaluation systems which will drive people away from the profession, away from schools that need the most help, and will discourage people from even entering the teaching profession in the first place, well, that’s what caused me to enter this fray only two years and three months ago.
The momentum of the push back to the corporate reform movement is gaining a lot of strength recently. A good one was the election of Monica Ratliff to the Los Angeles school board against a corporate reformer with a 2 million dollar campaign against her 50 thousand dollars. A parent trigger recently backfired leading to 21 out of 22 teachers there requesting to transfer and parents feeling like they were duped. I’m not sure if the ‘tipping point’ was reached yet, but I’m confident that it is coming. I mentioned in the last letter that I have a good instinct for seeing where things are going. I used to predict the collapse of the reform movement to be around four years from now. I’m moving my prediction up to under two years. When this happens, all the reformers will be scrambling to show that they were always ‘moderate’ reformers. Just yesterday the Rhode Island ed commissioner, Deborah Gist, claimed that she is distancing herself from the ‘reform’ movement. And in Minnesota, a very big TFA state, the governor vetoed a 1.5 million budget item to expand TFA there. Things are happening fast. This is just the beginning.
The ‘reformers’ remind me of the people in the book of Exodus who prayed to the golden calf while getting impatient waiting for Moses to return with the 10 commandments. And like those people, they will be punished. Will you be one of them?
For the next part in this discussion, click here.