My Discussion with Matt Barnum Part 5


That’s some fire-and-brimstone rhetoric you’re using, Gary. You’re absolutely right that pro-reform people like me are not doing a good job if we want to hide our tracks for when the reform-apocalypse is nigh. I’m not too worried though.

I don’t like being deemed ‘moderate’ – because I think ‘moderates’ too often just vapidly demand that we ‘do what’s right for kids’ – but I do think it’s completely appropriate and necessary for reformers to dissent, argue, and hold each other ‘accountable.’ (The irony there is intended.)

As to the politics, I’m not as pessimistic as you are optimistic – that is, I’m not worried that the tide will shift so quickly against reformers. Put it in perspective: almost every Republican politician is ‘pro-reform’ and a huge number of Democrats are too. It would take a massive shift of the political landscape to wind up where you predict.

I do sense some shift though. I think reformers are correctly realizingas I’ve written about before – that alienating teachers is not an effective method for enacting reform. Admittedly, it’s not entirely clear what this kinder, gentler reform looks like.

On that front, let me posit one example and a suggestion. You recently took Kevin Huffman to task for a proposal that would bring experienced, highly rated teachers into low-performing schools. I personally think it’s a terrific idea; as I’m sure you know, high-poverty schools are often staffed by the most inexperienced teachers. Huffman’s proposal would attempt to ameliorate that problem.

The Memphis teachers’ union president, Keith Williams replied to this eminently sane idea with an utter non sequitur: “These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society. Those students don’t do well until you put other programs in place for their families.” Regardless of whether this is true, it does not respond to the substance of Huffman’s proposal. Is Williams suggesting that because schools can’t change everything, we shouldn’t try to change schools?

I happen to agree with you that it doesn’t make sense to withhold the full $7,000 bonus from teachers who participate in the program but do not achieve a certain rating. (This is particularly true in consideration of the statistical noise in value-added measures.) This sort of feedback, I think, is an excellent example of where there is room for teachers and reformers to work together. But instead of trying to improve Huffman’s proposal, the union chose to bash it.

On the topic of school choice, I think your analogy to clubs is illustrative: Why don’t we just have the government-run clubs? Why not let the government take over restaurants too?  The answer is that many people believe that competition and the market lead to a host of good things: innovation, price reduction, diversification, better service.

Do you think we should nationalize our clubs and restaurants? And if we had such a system, would those who wanted to change it be waging a ‘war on restaurant workers?’ If government-run schools are such a great idea, why not have government-run restaurants?

A sensible answer is that restaurants are different than schools. Diane Ravitch often makes a similar point. I do think that choice supporters like myself have to acknowledge some degree of truth to that. I have been disappointed by some of the research (pdf) on charters and vouchers; though I also think there’s reason to be believe that we’ve not seen the true potential of a choice system since there are often caps on and unequal funding for charters. (Though I do recognize the charter funding disparity is a complex issue, I haven’t been able to find an apples-to-apples comparison.) There’s also a lot of research suggesting some promising (but not necessarily conclusive) results and innovations created by school choice.

Reformers have now by and large gotten on board with the notion of charter accountability, which I support. If a charter school is not showing good results within a few years, it should be closed. The evidence in favor of this is strong, and the leading reformers are embracing this idea.

I’d also add, anecdotally, that when my school hired a new principal she visited a neighboring charter and returned bearing many new ideas. Some of those ideas panned out; other didn’t. This is an example of the fact that school choice can benefit traditional public schools, and indeed there’s some strong evidence to support this view.

I’m also curious how your time teaching at a magnet school affects your view on this. I don’t mean this as a gotcha question, but aren’t magnets exactly – indeed even more so – like the Studio 54 club you analogized charters to?

Finally, I want to return to school budgets for a moment. In general, Gary, if you think that schools can only make a limited difference in students’ lives, than maybe we shouldn’t cut funding, but we certainly shouldn’t increase funding. (I’m not clear on your position though: is it that schools can’t generally make significant measurable differences in students’ lives or that they can’t make significant differences both measurable and immeasurable?) It seems like you think that the difference between an average teacher and an undertrained, inexperienced teacher is large, but the difference between a great teacher and an average one is small. Is that right? And if so, is there any evidence (beyond your ‘sixth sense’) for this view?



Dear Matt,

You are right that what is currently labeled education ‘reform’ does have bipartisan support.  You know what else had bipartisan report?  The Iraq war.  And if a president were to, again, lie and claim we need to go to war based on intelligence of hidden weapons of mass destruction, I seriously doubt that the bipartisan support for going to a war based on lies would be supported.  I could be wrong about my two year time frame.  I guess we will see.

This discussion that we are having, in some ways, is a microcosm, of the big ed reform debate going on around the country.  And just like the entire ‘reform’ side, you are already running out of gas.

I have no problem with trying to recruit the best teachers to teach in the toughest schools.  If nothing else, it will be an interesting experiment to test what would happen if everything else was held constant at a school and some of the teachers were replaced with ‘highly effective’ teachers.  $2,000 is definitely not enough money to lure someone there.  $7,000 might be enough, though probably not.  A few years ago the New York City DOE was offering $30,000 for ‘highly effective’ teachers to transfer to ‘failing’ schools and teach three classes and spend the rest of the time mentoring other teachers.  I applied for this, but got turned down.

If I had gotten that offer and taken it, I still don’t think that this would be a great ‘investment’ for the city.  As I suggested in that post about Huffman, there are other things besides money that teachers at ‘failing’ schools would like — such as smaller classes and smaller class loads.  So rather than giving me a big signing bonus, what if every teacher at that school had class sizes maxed at 20 students and four periods at most a day.  That might lure me there even without the merit pay signing bonus.  This would cost a lot more but I believe that this would make that big ‘difference’ even more.

I won’t address your government run nightclubs question.  I’ll let the readers who are willing to leave comments feast on that one.

Finally, a recurring theme in these letters is ‘how much of a difference’ can schools and teachers make.  In all my letters, particularly the fourth one, I’ve tried to make it clear that schools and teachers do make a difference.  And in answer to your question, sometimes it is tough to measure that difference.  Certainly test score ‘gains’ capture a small part of it.  If those gains are gotten through heavy test prep for poorly made tests then the gains don’t capture the difference at all accurately.  And, yes, I do think that there is a big difference between an untrained new teacher and an average teacher, but not as big between an average teacher and a ‘highly effective’ one.  This is just another way of saying that teaching, like juggling, has a steep learning curve.  A beginning juggler can’t keep three balls in the air, even for a few seconds.  Nobody would want to watch that for very long.  A competent juggler might be able to keep three balls going for a few minutes at a time.  As most people can’t even do that, it is still pretty impressive.  And the ‘highly effective’ juggler has five balls going at a time.  Even though few people can do that, it isn’t that much more impressive than the juggler with the three balls.

OK Matt, that’s it for me for today.  I do hope that you’ll come back with something a little more compelling that this recent offering.  Though it does give me some stuff to ‘riff’ off of, and that is useful if just for that, I just don’t know if me and the readers of this blog are getting enough out of this.  In terms that you can relate to, you’ve got to increase your ‘value added’ if you want to continue share the spotlight with me.


For the final part in this discussion, click here.

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13 Responses to My Discussion with Matt Barnum Part 5

  1. mg says:

    It would be ludicrous for anyone to go from a job where they are considered to be doing a good job, to a much harder position for only $2K, and the chance to get more money.

    This reminds me of the “teachers of tomorrow” grants that NYC offers to new teachers working in Title I schools.

    $3.4K is a paltry amount of money to offer someone to work in a much harder environment. And just on principle, what does that say about the dedication of the person going to work in a Title I school, just because they are offered a little more money? Ironically, many first-years are not eligible for the money because they were part of TFA, NYCTF, or other programs.

    Myself ? Of course, I accept the offer of free money to work with students that I already was planning on working with anyways.

    A few months ago I met a teacher at a workshop, who was working with a very difficult population of students at a school near JFK. She used to work on the UWS, but received a position as a math coach to work at the more difficult school. Not sure if this is the program that Gary was talking about??

    She told me that there are no more math coach positions, and that she is trying as hard as possible to get out of the school because it is a terrible school, and is likely to be shut down. So much for investing in helping struggling schools in the long-term.

  2. Dan McGuire says:

    Barnum doesn’t think it’s “entirely clear what this kinder, gentler reform looks like.” Well, it may not be clear to him, but here’s a very well articulated set of possibilites:

    And then there’s this -

    The clarity is there, Matt, if you look.

  3. gkm001 says:

    I think this exchange has, indeed, been valuable — but has gotten to the point where the writers are repeating themselves without persuading one another. That was bound to happen. And it’s not surprising that someone with an ideological affinity for market-based reform won’t let go of it — it’s an attractive idea, the idea that to improve schools you don’t have to do anything expensive or messy like raise the bar for entry into teaching, improve curriculum and assessment, reduce class sizes, train more teachers in special education, give teachers more time for collaboration and observation, expand early childhood education, provide better health services to poor children, or prevent lead poisoning and malnourishment. You have to do nothing at all but let the invisible hand take care of children. Easy!

    But does it work? Milwaukee has a 20-year history of vouchers, with nothing to show for it. At this point in the charter movement, the Think Tank Review Project can point to a “large body of research showing charter schools overall to be performing no better than (and perhaps worse than) traditional public schools.” Sure, there are some terrific charter schools with innovative, well-designed curricula and thoughtful, hardworking teachers. There are also regular old neighborhood schools of which the same could be said. In a public school system operating in the public interest, all of these schools could be expected to give their teachers and school leaders time to visit with teachers and school leaders from other schools, so that educators can learn from one another, as in Matt Barnum’s anecdote. In a marketplace, however, there is a disincentive to share learning in this way: why give away the secrets of your success to the competition?

    Then there are some not-so-terrific schools, both regular and charter. The reform response is not to improve them, but to shut them down for “underperformance.” Yet indeed, schools are not like restaurants; a school is the locus of a community, a web of relationships between students, parents, and teachers. Children value their friendships with peers and teachers, and you cannot simply torpedo their learning communities without doing them harm. How does it help children to be bounced from one failed experiment to another?

    And where are children supposed to go if their school closes and there isn’t immediately a new and more excellent school of choice nearby, with slots available? If all the restaurants in my town are bad, I can just stay home and cook my own food, but working families need to be able to send their children to school.

    A district can force neighborhood schools (but not charters, which are allowed to cap enrollment) to take the displaced students from shuttered schools, and it sounds good for a district like CPS to say students will be sent to better schools — but what will be the impact of expansion and overcrowding on these “better” schools?

    The Chicago public elementary school I attended, Ray, is slated to become a receiving school for a middle school that will be closing, which will mean that Ray will have to add 7th and 8th grades. There are no empty classrooms at Ray. The class sizes are already too large. But it is a stable neighborhood school which CPS is choosing to destabilize, removing the principal for no apparent reason (perhaps she objected to having to accommodate the middle school?), squeezing in children who have just experienced the upheaval of having to leave their own school and teachers, and disrupting the existing school culture and school structure. How does this help children? And how does it help the parents at Ray to have “choice” when they are not allowed to choose to keep their children’s school the way it is?


  4. tlmerrie says:

    I teach in Memphis at one of these high poverty schools. When I agreed to work there it was because the state of Tennessee had messed up my application for an out of state license and there simply wasn’t time to fix the problem and find the dream job that I wanted. I assumed that because I so often hear about inexperienced teachers at high poverty schools that I would find a bunch of incompetent people with no training. That just isn’t what I found at all, and several years later I am still there by my own choice.

    Because we are merging with the county district and moving to common core I have spent a significant amount of time over the past three weeks in professional development meeting teachers from around our new larger district who teach in a wide variety of schools. I have had great conversations with them about the differences in our schools (including one where I got to hear what really happened when Commissioner Huffman showed up at Collierville High School to teach an A.P. English class). I am glad that Gary responded to Commissioner Huffman’s op ed piece and pleased with his analysis of it. My classroom is significantly more crowded, my percentage of special education students is significantly higher, there are a million other complexities that I won’t get into, and parents don’t seem to get much support from district officials when they do try to speak out and support our kids.

    And so far as I know, none of these highly effective teachers has volunteered to come to my school. I assume they don’t come for the same reason that many teachers are beginning to leave schools like mine… in the present atmosphere staying at a high poverty school results in a dying career in education.

    • Educator says:

      And, if Parent Revolution is in town, your school could be targeted for an overhaul. Why would someone who wants to teach more than 2 years ever want to teach in a low-income school when 1) It’s so much more stressful 2) The parent trigger can nail you and your colleagues 3) Teaching has such a high turnover rate 4) The only financial rewards that seem to be promised recently are a few thousand dollars more…that’s it

  5. Steve M says:

    Indeed, Matt has gone full circle and demonstrated (for a second time) that he doesn’t read work that is critical of the views he favors. Did he even digest what was said about Kevin Huffman?

    He started out strong five threads ago, but has simply devolved to StudentFirst talking points…I’m certain that he gets his (weaker and weaker) citations from one of their databases.


    …topic that is. Matt’s a lost cause.

  6. veteran says:

    “The answer is that many people believe that competition and the market lead to a host of good things: innovation, price reduction, diversification, better service.”

    I think this may be true when we talk about restaurants and nightclubs. I’m not sure free market competition is a great thing when it comes to the product being children. Children who in this country have traditionally been given an education regardless of race, class, gender, language or disability. For the focus of this blog I will focus on children with disabilities. If we treat schools like businesses then the “best schools” are only going to take the “best” products/children (Let’s face it this is already happening). And the “best savy VAMMY driven public school teachers who may be forced to take kids with disabilities are going to target the students in a certain quartile, ignoring those students with disabilities, second languages, etc or even ignoring students at the top quartile because they’ll easily be able to pass the tests.
    I know for a fact that special education children are discouraged from enrolling in charters. Because I’ve experienced this personally with my own child. I’ve also heard nightmares about other students being counseled out. Let’s face it many kids with special needs are not “cost effective” in business terms. They may need special therapies, equipment, aides,etc. to ensure their success in education. This investment may not be a savvy business decision
    It is extremely frustrating to see some of the market strategies undermine years of work of the IDEA act and FABE- a free and basic appropriate education for all children. How can a market based system ensure access for all children that the public schools are providing?

  7. Pingback: My Discussion with Matt Barnum Part 5 | Teach for Us ← NPE News Briefs

  8. NY Alum says:

    As an 8th year teacher (and TFA alum), I am very eager to see Gary stop engaging in this discussion with Matt. While I think it’s important for everyone to be heard, let’s not forget that this kid taught for TWO years. I knew very little about teaching and education when I was at that same point, as did all of my TFA friends so I’m very skeptical about Matt’s credibility when discussing these issues. Gary, I absolutely love your blog, tell everyone I know to read it and brag how I was able to attend one of your workshops once as it honestly changed my life, but I am looking forward to the day when you do not waste your time or energy on arrogant and inexperienced so called reformers (ie Matt Barnum).

  9. Jennie says:

    We’ve also seen the wonders of innovation and lowering price when we see how the free market has worked for health care. That’s why we spend more of our GDP than any other developed country on health care, with worse results and a huge population of uninsured families and individuals who wait until problems become catastrophes to seek care, simply because they cannot afford it.

    “Free market” works (in a way, for some people) when there is a profit to be made. But certain services (e.g., education, health care) just are not profitable if you want to get the best results for everyone, including those who are not rich (or healthy, or have disabilities, etc., etc.) Just as it is not in the best interest of insurance companies’ bottom line to take on the sickest of our population and treat their long-term illnesses and conditions, it is not in the best interest of charter schools’ bottom line to take on the learning disabled, the physically handicapped, the English language learners, the kids who are so behind academically that they will never produce the “miracle” results the charter looks forward to bragging about as their excuse for taking an ever-increasing share of the education budget pie.

    If we want good results at an affordable cost, we need single payer health care (like every other developed nation in the world) and a solid public school system not held prisoner by the so-called “free market.” That means funding schools equally (right now the property tax funding structure often means that the schools in the worst need of funding get the least; not to mention that schools in rich neighborhoods have other sources of funding when they get cut, unlike schools in poor neighborhoods). It means putting quality programs in place at all schools that focus less on standardized tests and more on producing thinking, educated citizens who can participate in society and are well-prepared for college OR the workforce. It means we need to make sure that families have housing, health care and adequate incomes so that our students are not moving from house to house and school to school, and are not kept out of school by treatable medical conditions or family turmoil. And before anyone makes a comment about those “lazy families” who should “work harder” to “get ahead,” please know that I taught students whose parents worked 2-3 jobs and were NEVER at home, who could still barely keep the lights on. In the “richest country in the world,” that simply should never happen.

    But naturally the US refuses to learn any lessons from any other countries, because we brazenly assume we do everything better than everybody else in the world, so I know I am spitting in the wind here…

  10. Ad Hominem says:

    Matt Barnum is an infant when it comes to understanding K-12 education. It’s about time you you stop engaging in debate with this clown.

  11. Pingback: My Discussion with Matt Barnum Part 4 | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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