My Discussion with Matt Barnum Part 6 (and final)

For links to all 6 part of this discussion go here


It’s certainly not surprising that I’ve failed to change your mind, and you’ve failed to change mine. You’ve been thinking about, and living, this issue for much longer than I have, so I apologize if my arguments strike you as stale. I take these arguments seriously though, and so do many others.

I do think there’s value in challenging one’s own thinking and avoiding the level of certainty that, in my opinion, exists to too high a degree on both sides of the education debate. And I think it’s wrong to consider those you disagree with you to be either evil or supremely ignorant – though that’s what you and some of your readers seem to believe about the current set of reformers. In any event, I appreciate your willingness to engage in this discussion with me; I also want to thank your many thoughtful commenters for sharing their thoughts.

I’d like to close our letter writing series with a few suggestions on where ‘reformers’ and ‘traditionalists’ may be able to agree:

  • I think you were right in your last letter to suggest that salary bonuses may not be enough on their own to attract experienced, effective teachers into high-poverty schools. You pointed out, correctly in my view, that teachers might also be attracted if they were guaranteed lower class sizes or lighter class loads. That’s why I would love to see a bonus system that allows teachers flexibility on three measures: salary, class size, and planning time.  In other words, a teacher could receive a higher bonus by accepting a higher class size or could get a lower class size by taking less planning time, or a smaller bonus for a teaching fewer classes. Of course, ideally a teacher would have small class sizes, plenty of planning time and a generous salary, but time and money are finite resources, and I think it would be awesome to give teachers this autonomy. This could even be applied outside of a bonus system to the regular salary schedule. Admittedly, a program like this may never be logistically possible – and would probably not be legally possible the way most contracts are currently written – but I think in theory at least, it would be a neat way to give teachers more flexibility.
  • School discipline is an issue I’m very passionate about, and it’s one that I wish was given more attention. I was disappointed to see Eva Moskovitz pen an op-ed in defense of school suspensions, but glad to see some reformer push back. I hope that those on both sides can come together to work on solutions regarding school discipline.
  • As I wrote in my last letter, I hope that traditionalists and reformers can work together on charter school accountability. As Diane Ravitch rightly puts it, charter schools are given increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability.
  • Finally, both of us have been very critical of Teach For America. I liked your recent blog post offering some ideas on how TFA can improve, many of which I agreed with. I’d also add two of my own: stop spending so much money on things that have no connection to student outcomes (such as on MTLDs or the alumni affairs team) and make Institute much more like a real classroom experience. I think reformers have given TFA a free pass because it’s so associated with the reform movements and because many reformers are themselves TFA alumni. No matter, reformers should hold TFA ‘accountable’ and ought to continuously question whether it is a good use of the scarce education dollar.

Ultimately, though, the two sides of this debate will never be able to work together so long as one side continues to viciously demonize the other. Examples are numerous. Consider Diane Ravitch’s two minutes’ hate against Ben Austin or savage name calling against Michelle Rhee or Karen Lewis’ constant suggestion that anyone who favors school closings is a racist.

I realize that there are also instances of inexcusable rhetoric from the reform side, but in my view they’re much more rare. The leaders of the reform movement – Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Jeb Bush, etc – have never, that I’m aware of, attacked an individual personally. Perhaps you’re right, Gary, that the reform movement will crumble in a couple years. But if you’re wrong – and I think you are – then perhaps the traditionalists like Ravitch and Lewis should stop demonizing those they disagree with.



Dear Matt,

Thank you, too, for all the letters over the past few months.  Perhaps I was a bit harsh at the end of my last letter, maybe even influenced a bit by the commenters who wanted the big cane to pull you away, but I do want you to know that although this dialogue won’t continue in this public forum, you are very welcome and encouraged to keep writing to me and we can continue privately.

As part of my debate strategy with you, as the ‘receiver,’ was to write responses at least three times as long as what you sent each time, I was thinking about just giving you the ‘last word’ this time, which I would have had it not been for your last two paragraphs.

To say “the two sides of this debate will never be able to work together so long as one side continues to viciously demonize the other.” implying that the ‘reformers’ are much more civil than the ‘traditionalists,’ as you refer to us.  Diane Ravitch is a saint in my book (or whatever the equivalent would be in The Old Testament).  Does she get angry when someone dupes a bunch of parents into signing away their school?  Of course.  The fact that Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein don’t get ‘personal’ as often (if this is even true — is there a way to count this?) comes, in part, from their position of power.  They have all the money and all the politicians.  Duncan has The President on his side.  Rhee has Oprah.  They don’t need to get personal.  It would actually be a tactical error for the to do so.  Someone like Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Jersey Jazzman, EduShyster, Katie Osgood, and, me, well we don’t have that same kind of power or money.  All we have is our words.  (I suppose you could argue that ‘The Union’ has the money and the power, but from what I’ve seen from ‘The Union’ at least in New York City and also the national AFT, is ‘with friends like that, who needs enemies.’)

I try to be diplomatic and not do a lot of name calling.  I don’t have any respect for the ‘reform’ leaders.  It is hard to temper my words sometimes, but the whole lot of them sicken me, even the people who I was once friends with (especially the ones I was once friends with!)  To not acknowledge the harmful side effects, even if they are unintentional, of their policies is very irresponsible and arrogant.

I will be interested to follow your career trajectory.  Maybe you will be a leader in a new brand of ‘reformers’ who are a bit more thoughtful and self-reflective.  Good luck, and stay in touch.


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23 Responses to My Discussion with Matt Barnum Part 6 (and final)

  1. Michael Fiorillo says:


    You are repelled by what you claim is the vituperative language of opponents of so-called education reform.

    What you neglect to mention is that the language you refer to is in response to policies and actions that often manifest themselves in pernicious ways, such as parent/citizen disenfranchisement, the targeting of the neighborhood school, and attacks on teachers.

    Do you really think it’s a fair comparison to place impassioned language on the same level as an aggressive national project to control the public education budget and re-configure teaching?

    Would you honestly compare criticism of Michelle Rhee, however vituperative, to the actual behavior of Michelle Rhee, as when for example she falsely accused DC teachers she’d targeted for dismissal of sexually assaulting students, among her many other public departures from basic human decency.

    Your back-and-forth with Gary in this forum is admirable, but there’s a false equivalency at the root of your concern for the potential hurt feelings of public figures with sharp claws and eagerness to use them.

  2. Karen Lewis says:

    I live in Chicago, the most segregated city in America. This is not my opinion, but fact as determined by demographics gathered by the federal government. Any policy, such as school closings that disparately impact African American communities is racist. That is an EEOC definition. It does not have to be intentional, but I will continue to call the policies racist because they are.

    I have been called a racist because I point out these facts. That is also because most people want to pretend they don’t know what racism is. It requires the power of institutions to back up notions of white supremacy. There is not one Black institution in America that can deprive white people of jobs, services or their “rightful place in society”. So Matt Barnum needs to stop using the editorial pages of the Chicago Tribune to verify his claims of false outrage.

    I have to agree with Michael Fiorello:
    “Do you really think it’s a fair comparison to place impassioned language on the same level as an aggressive national project to control the public education budget and re-configure teaching?” That’s deserving of impassioned speech.

    And lastly, in the “children/student’s first pseudo-theology”, how is a teaching taking a higher bonus for higher class-size good for children? It’s simply not. The disingenuous exacerbaters of the status quo rears it’s ugly head here. They really aren’t about the kids. They’re about de-professionalization, transferral of public assets into private coffers and the destruction of public education. That is not reform. That’s annihilation. And for the record, I am not a traditionalist. Who put these folks in charge of naming us?

    Karen Lewis

    • Matt Barnum says:

      Ms. Lewis,

      Thanks for responding. I’ll just make three brief points.

      The question, in my view, isn’t whether school closing have a disparate impact on African-Americans – you’re right: they do. The question is whether the impact is positive or negative. You and many others believe it’s negative; others believe it’s positive. What you’re arguing – as I understand it – is that those who believe that school closing have a positive impact are racist. I don’t agree with that.

      Second, by using the term ‘traditionalist’, I was not trying to label you or Gary or Diane Ravitch as something you’re not. I simply wanted to avoid the term ‘anti-reformer,’ which I thought was perhaps unfair.

      Last, I think your suggestion that I’m ‘disingenuous’ proves the point I’m trying to make in my post – that there is a consistent attempt to belittle those who you disagree with.

      • Michael Fiorillo says:

        You are disingenuous, since you made no effort to refute my claim that you use false equivalency as a fallacious rhetorical device.

        Or was it simply because you cannot refute the charge?

      • Stephanie says:

        Matt, why can’t you call both camps “reformers” and recognize that they want different types of reforms? If I had to try to narrow it down to a few modifiers, I would probably go with “community-based reformers” and “school-based reformers”; and while those terms don’t fully acknowledge the beliefs of either side, they acknowledge that both sides are fighting for changes.

      • Educator says:

        Agreed. There are two vastly differing ideas about reforming schools. Another term I’ve seen is “whole child based reformers”

        But I’ve also heard the phrase traditionalists a lot, even by community based reformers, so I don’t know if I’d call Matt out on that too harshly.

      • CarolineSF says:

        One of them is in it for the money. Period. Let’s not feed the delusion that there is any sincerity in Barnum’s and his allies’ position.

      • Linda says:

        What’s your proof that closing 50 schools will even have a positive impact and who will benefit?

        Kids or privatizers?

        Just because YOU think anti reformer is unfair doesn’t mean you get to pick a new term. I find calling you and your ilk “reformers” to be extremely inaccurate.

        The word has been hijacked and is used to trick the public.

      • CarolineSF says:

        The forces who razed San Francisco’s Fillmore district — a poor but vibrant African-American hub of the city — in the 1950s-70s I guess thought it was positive too. (It is now universally agreed that that was a mistake.)

        The similarities are that this was elite whites doing something TO the black community “for its own good” and refusing to listen to protest from the community. How is that not racist, especially when it’s done over and over and over?

  3. Dina says:

    “[A] teacher could receive a higher bonus by accepting a higher class size or could get a lower class size by taking less planning time, or a smaller bonus for a teaching fewer classes…. I think in theory at least, it would be a neat way to give teachers more flexibility.” Are you kidding me? Is this what goes under the name of reform? The number of students in a class, the amount of planning time, and the number of classes a teacher has should be about the quality of education. This is NOT about “bonus’.” The rich guys who support Rhee and others send their kids to schools where teachers have smaller classes, more planning time, and fewer classes. If that’s what the rich want…well then, other kids deserve it too.

  4. David Shulman says:

    Here my 2 cents worth: a country that wants a great education system PAYS for it. That’s seemingly a universal axiom. Good stuff mostly costs more, great stuff costs a lot. What has recently happened in this country is a dumbing down of requirements for educators, and a pitting of taxpayers against government. The orchestrators have been the vastly wealthy, who seek to turn the USA into an oligarchy in which they benefit greatly while contributing less and less. Ownership of the media has turned it into a propaganda machine. Woe be to us if not for the Internet! Want a great education for all? It’s a societal obligation. Support Public Free Education and support each individual child to learn at HIS/HER potential. Stop spreading falsehoods about the “poor quality” of US Public Schools. Reestablish real standards for a diploma, and continue to support those who can’t achieve that in 12 years. Recognize that each human is unique and educate adjusting for that.

  5. Pingback: My Discussion with Matt Barnum Part 6 (and final) | Teach for Us ← NPE News Briefs

  6. Educator says:

    I do want to thank both Gary and Matt for having this public letter discussion. At least Matt wrote back, unlike some of the other reformers that Gary wrote to (maybe they were too busy) in his Open Letters to Reformers I Know series.

    I hear what Matt is saying – that the reformers aren’t all as evil as many think they might be. I DO want to believe that, and at times, I do believe that. But then there’s a lot of things that happen that confuse me. For example, I am open to the idea of charters, as I think they do have some good things to them. But I’m not convinced they are doing as great a job as pro-charter folks claim them to be. So you have to ask yourself why. Well, I think it’s because they have something to lose if people know the truth about their “performance.” So it’s funny, many charter advocates claim to put students first, but when confronted about their faults and false claims, it’s suddenly a PR spin game.

    So now that charters aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, why is it that charters are opening in these cities when neighborhood schools are closing? If it’s really students first, then why is this happening? So this makes me question reformers when they back these policies. Maybe some of them do have bad motivations. If this is the case, then you have to ask yourself, what policies would these folks push in order to advance their agenda? A lot of the reform narrative fits the privatization narrative in my humble opinion.

    • Michael Fiorillo says:


      In reality, the so-called reformers are more evil than you could imagine in your most cynical moments.

  7. 2012er says:

    Really appreciative of the back-and-forth that took place in this series of posts, and especially of both individuals who contributed. It is not a small thing, especially in these vitriolic times, to see dialogue with this amount of thought and conviction. We need more of this.

    • Educator says:

      Agreed. But it’s so hard. Just look at our U.S. Congress! I hope those in education don’t have to be the same way, but the stakes are so high I can see why it gets so emotional.

  8. Steve M says:

    Questions for Gary’s readers:

    Reflecting upon Matt’s posts, what (if anything) did he post that brought added understanding/clarity to the subjects at hand?

    Upon reflection, do you feel that Matt’s arguments or citations were reaonable enough to cause you to reconsider any of your stances?

    Did Matt demonstrate, at any time, that he actively reflected upon/reconsidered any of his views?

    As the series went on, do you feel that Matt become more apologetic of the “reformers” he champions…and less substantive, overall?

  9. KrazyTA says:

    First, I thank the owner of this blog for going above and beyond in order to shine much needed light on critical issues.

    Second, by this time I am somewhat flabbergasted by the lack of substance in the arguments made by the defenders of the education status quo. For example, dismissing Diane Ravitch’s outrage at the noxious behavior of Ben Austin and Parent Revolution as mere name-calling studiously avoids having to take a stand on whether or not Parent Revolution, Parent Trigger Laws, and education malanthropies do more harm than good, or even whether they do any good at all.

    It’s not just a debater’s trick to score points and avoid showing weakness. It seeks to win a argument by refusing to deal with the substantive issues that need to be discussed.

    One of the most astonishing points is that each of the defenders of the education establishment that Gary R. has engaged with demonstrates a lack of understanding of the inherent weaknesses of high-stakes standardized tests. Even more astounding is their lack of interest in furthering their own understanding of this essential component of their radical reshaping of public education. Although never explicitly and honestly stated, their excuse or substitute for not taking the time and effort to educate themselves seems to be: they have their experts, the ‘other side’ has their experts, hence there is a false equivalency between the merits of ‘both’ sides because their is ‘disagreement’ among the ‘folks in the know.’

    It obviously doesn’t occur to them that—arcane mathematical formulae aside—they themselves should be extremely well informed about the design, production, testing, administration, and scoring of their [it must be said with clarity] Holy EduMetrics. Other considerations aside, that is their duty as citizens and as ethical people. No exceptions. “No excuses.”

    That’s what it means to be a real leader. You don’t just talk the talk, you walk the talk. If high-stakes testing and the related VAM foolishness is so important, the proponents of charters and privatization—self-styled “education reformers”—should be able to exercise sound judgment of their own about these matters. You don’t outsource that judgment to others. You can’t. You are morally bound to have your OWN opinion.

    IMHO, that is what the owner of this blog did. He used his own expertise and experience to come to his own conclusions, some of which are uncomfortably not a good fit with some of his previous opinions. It’s not without risks; standing on your own two feet never is.

    But that’s what setting a good example means in practice.

    Krazy props to an ethical numbers/stat person who—like Dr. Mercedes Schneider, aka KrazyMathLady, and others—uses his powers for good.

    “Statistics are no substitute for judgment.” [Henry Clay]


  10. Ani says:


    A brief response to your suggestion that “inexcusable rhetoric” from reformers is more rare than it is from those you label as “traditionalists”:

    As I see it, people like Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, Arne Duncan, and Joel Klein use generalized rhetoric to commit a much greater and more dangerous offense than anyone (you cite Diane Ravitch and Karen Lewis) whose criticisms are directed at individuals.

    Reformers recognize the contempt much of the general public (many of whom know nothing about education but are quick to attack teachers) has for the institution of public education to subversively–yet deliberately–promote the commonly-accepted stereotype that teachers are lazy, overpaid, greedy, and underworked. They are careful to qualify their statements to acknowledge that great teachers do exist, but the underlying and widely-received message they send by claiming that public schools and teachers are failing does more damage to the institution of public education, to the teaching profession, and to the climate in which our children need to learn than any specific examples of name-calling possibly could.

  11. Pingback: The Rubinstein-Barnum discussion and the language of ‘reform’ | Education Thinker

  12. Jack says:


    Perhaps you can start a new article with the following.

    This article, calling Chicago-area TFA’s “scabs, just came out:

    Here’s the quote:

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    “Teach for America’s ‘Scabs’ and Principal (CEO) Development

    “Just over a month after the 50 CPS school closings and firing of 550 teachers, the Chicago Board of Education announced an increase from $600,000 to $1.58 million in spending to hire 570 Teach for America teachers.

    “Klonsky told Mint Press News that Teach for America contractors serve as de facto strike-breaking ‘scabs’ – usually unknowingly.

    “ ‘They’re providing the non-union teachers for the charter schools and they’re almost like a scab organization,’ he said. ‘What you do is you close public schools and fire hundreds of teachers like we’re doing here, then you open neighborhood
    charter schools and bring in Teach for America 5-week wonders who work cheap and last for about two or three years.’

    ” ‘Then they’re gone and another batch comes in. ‘

    “The Joyce Foundation gave $23.77 million to Teach for America in its first 20 years in existence, according to The Washington Post. It is one of 10 foundations whose funding accounted for over half of Teach for America’s budget during that time
    period. Joyce gave Teach for America another $400,000 grant in 2012.

    “The Chicago Public Education Fund also has lended a modest amount of money to Teach for America. Between 2000 and 2005, the fund gave just under $400,000 to the organization, tax filings reveal.

    “Since 2001, the Chicago Board of Education has doled out close to $6.6 million in contracts and hired 1,931 teachers from Teach for America, Board of Education contract records show. During that same period, thousands of CPS teachers got pink slips.

    “The rubber meets the road in the relationship between the Chicago school restructuring movement’s goal of creating CEO-type school principals and Teach for America’s Principal Leadership Pipeline, which was launched in September 2007. The Principal Leadership

    “Pipeline was a collaboration between CPS and Teach for America, financed by the Chicago Public Education Fund and the Pritzker Family Foundation.”

    “CPS will recruit high-performing Teach For America alumni to attend a school leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and then enter into a one-year residency under the tutelage of a principal at a Chicago elementary or high school,” a press release announcing the program’s launch explains.

    “After the residency, the new principals will then take the helm of some of Chicago’s most challenged schools… Over the next five years, Teach For America could have as many as 50 school leaders in the pipeline, a group that would reach some 15,000 Chicago children a year.”

    “The program arose out of the Public Education Fund’s “Great Principals Blue Ribbon Task Force,’ formed in 2005. Its members included Pritzker and Duncan.

    “ ‘A consensus has developed over the last few years that a principal is the most important person in the school building,’ Pritzker said. ‘ Just like a [CEO], the principal sets the tone, creates the culture, manages the team and ties it all together by articulating a shared vision for what the organization ought to be. So if we get the principal right, other things can fall into place.’ “

  13. Pingback: My Discussion with Matt Barnum Part 5 | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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