Open Letters To ‘B-List’ Reformers I Know. Part 1: Joel Rose

After two days of pursuit, I finally found him.  I had never visited anyone in jail before – had never known anyone in jail before.  Most of the people that waited on the visitor’s line with me appeared to be family.  Many were children.  The children didn’t seem to grasp where they were.  Maybe they were just used to it.  They played with each other so enthusiastically that their mothers demanded that they settle down.  This was a happy place, this prison.

On line with the families, I seemed out of place.  As a young Jewish man in khakis and a button-down shirt, I looked like I must be a lawyer, which I was, though not the lawyer of the person I was visiting.  An obvious rookie at this, I hadn’t even filled out the visit request slip properly.  I then nearly found myself in the holding room when I set off the metal detector, accidentally attempting to smuggle in my cell phone.

Finally permitted onto the elevator, I ascended to the fourth floor.  The glass holding cage in the center of the visiting room was similar to ones I had seen in the movies except that instead of using telephones, prisoners and visitors communicated through a small tin grating that they both talked and listened through, making for awkward conversation as each person had to constantly alternate between having his ear or mouth pressed against the opening.

An attractive woman in pink exchanged sweet nothings with her boyfriend.  Another woman visited her man in the neighboring position.  “Have you seen your other girlfriend?” she asked, as he clenched his lips and shook his head.  Some visits were more fun than others.

As I waited for him to enter the glass-enclosed room, I braced myself for the shock of seeing him, so different, after seven years.  The last time I saw Victor Medez was at his fifth grade graduation.  He was my student – one of seventy-five students I taught in my three years as a public school teacher in Houston.  Part of the reason I was at the jail that day was to fulfill a promise.

My first year as a teacher, I made a lot of promises to my fifth grade class.  I promised to teach them fractions.  I promised to take them on a field trip to the IMAX.  I promised to keep the class under control.  After hundreds of broken promises like these, I could understand why the kids would be skeptical when, at the end of the year, I promised to see each of them again in seven years at, I presumed, their high school graduation.

During my tenure in Houston from 1992 to 1995, The Houston Chronicle continually reminded me that the students I taught, inner city students, were, statistically speaking, not expected to succeed.  When I taught my class elementary statistics and probability, I included a lesson on how numbers can be manipulated to misrepresent data.  The numbers that condemned my class, I assumed, was a stirring example of this distortion through a statistical, and political lens.  The newspapers predicted that my kids would not graduate.  I predicted that they would.  By keeping the promise I had made seven years earlier, I would find out, first-hand, who was right.

–Opening to “Going Back” (unpublished) by Gary Rubinstein and Joel Rose (2000)

A year ago I wrote a series of eight letters I called ‘Open Letters To Reformers I know’ which got a lot of attention, though just two responses.  Nowadays I’m hearing a lot about how the disagreeing ‘sides’ in the ed reform debate need to be communicate more.  Maybe I will get more responses from some of those big names in education reform who I’ve known, some of them well, some of them just a little.  There is a second ‘tier’ of reformers however and though they will probably see the ‘B-List’ as some kind of insult, I think it’s way better to be an ‘B-List’ reformer than an ‘A-List’ one.

Joel Rose is the co-CEO of New Classrooms, and education ‘non-profit’ that designs and consults on how to use technology to personalize math learning.  Formerly called ‘School of One’ when Rose created it as an employee of the NYC DOE, the new program is called ‘Teach to One,’ and is being piloted in three cities, New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C..

I have known Joel for longer than I have known any of my reformer acquaintances.  Our lives have also run mainly parallel in many ways except one.  We met in the fall of 1988 when I was a sophomore at Tufts and he was a freshman.  One of the initial founders of Tufts was P.T. Barnum, which is why our mascot is ‘The Jumbo’ named after Barnum’s favorite elephant.  By chance, Joel and I both lived in the same dorm, Stratton hall.  We were friendly, though of course I was a big shot sophomore so we didn’t spend a lot of time together but still I got along well with him even back then.  When I graduated in 1991, I joined the Houston corps of Teach For America.  A year later, Joel graduated and he joined the 1992 Houston corps of Teach For America, where we re-acquainted and had a lot of mutual friends.  Fast forward twenty-one years and currently Joel and I live less than a block away from each other.

When I moved back to New York in the spring of 2000, I ran into Joel at a Teach For America alumni event.  At the time I was ‘between jobs’ and he said he had a project he thought we could team up on.  Joel had taught fifth grade seven years earlier.  He has promised his students that wherever he was living when they were scheduled to graduate high school, he would attend their high school graduations.  He was planning to go to Houston in a few months and he wanted to turn the experience into a book.  He asked if I would be interested in writing the story in an ‘as told to’ fashion.  I agreed.

I followed him around with a tape recorder and witnessed the reunions he had with his former students, some sweet and some bittersweet.  It was actually quite an adventure as we went to five graduations, several homes, a school for pregnant girls, and of course the prison.  The result of this trip was a sixty page manuscript and book proposal which I’m pretty proud of, probably the best ‘prose’ I’ve written, but which never got picked up by an agent or a publisher.

On that trip I got to see what a great teacher Joel was.  Not for the ‘achievement levels’ of his former students, but for the personal and permanent connections that he had made with his former students.

But some of Rose’s life trajectory is very different than mine.  Rose is a graduate of the Broad superintendent’s academy, which has produced some of the most dangerous figures in education today.  Rose also worked for the for-profit (and failed) Edison schools, and was a high level employee in Joel Klein’s New York City DOE.  While at the DOE, Rose invited me to see his work in progress, the ‘School of One,’ which I visited for several hours and was truly horrified by.  I even wrote a blog post about it which generated a lot of emails from reporters wanting to write their own stories about this mysterious program.  Joel frequently speaks at ‘reform-minded’ conferences including the recent Education Nation.

I’ve emailed Joel from time to time over the years, and he’s always gotten back to me.  The reason I’m writing this letter to him publicly now is that I read an article in GothamSchools about a new research report claiming that students in the ‘Teach to One’ program had seen big gains in their math scores.

They held a press conference touting these results which prompted me to download the actual report on which these statistics were based and to compose this open letter which I’m hoping Joel is willing to respond to.

November 19th 2013

Dear Joel,

I know receiving one of my famous ‘open letters’ isn’t the ideal way for you to hear from me, but since we go way back to the days in Stratton Hall, and have been in touch, off and on, for the past twenty-five years, I’m hoping you’ll be willing to offer a public response which I will post on my blog.  In the over-simplified world in which there are ‘reformers’ and ‘anti-reformers,’ I’m hearing a lot, mainly from the ‘reformer’ side, about how the sides need to communicate more and be more civil.  I’m hoping that this latest letter will serve as an example of this.

Joel, who would have figured twenty-five years ago when we met at Tufts University — home of The Jumbos — that we’d have such parallel lives, teaching in Houston and ending up in math education while living so close to each another.  But even if someone could have figured this out, they would be shocked to find that I was bitterly opposed to the marketing of an educational technology that may have the potential to do some good.

As you remember I came to visit the ‘School of One’ a few years back and was not impressed by what I saw.  There were so many issues I had that it was tough to figure out if the program was salvageable by addressing some of those issues or if each of the issues was, by itself, some kid of ‘deal breaker.’  From what I’ve read you’ve worked to improve the program, but there remain some fundamental issues that I have with the program which I will describe in more detail at the end of this letter.

I love technology.  Ever since I got my first Mattel Football electronic game some time in the late 1970s, I was hooked on gadgets and gizmos.  When I got my first computer, an Atari 800, for my Bar Mitzvah in December of 1982 I learned to program in BASIC which eventually led to me, nearly twenty years later, getting a master’s degree in computer science and even working as a programmer for the six years before I moved back to New York and started teaching math again.  I know that technology, when used appropriately, can help people be considerably more productive and that teachers struggle, even me, to make the most use of very limited time.  As a teacher I use technology all the time for administrative and for pedagogical reasons.  I keep my grades on my computer and I make my materials on it too.  I maintain my class websites where I update each day with lesson notes and homework assignments for kids who are absent.  I also have my own YouTube channel where I have posted about 100 math videos, some of which have gone ‘viral’ getting over 20,000 views for a lesson on ‘The Extended Euclidean Algorithm,’ for example.  My favorite use of technology in the classroom, though, is when I take my students to the computer lab to use the absolute best math education software ever created, The Geometer’s Sketchpad, which enables students to ‘explore’ Geometry and figure out their own conjectures and interact with the figures to learn about their mysteries.  So I have nothing against technology, I hope you’ll agree.

A few days ago I read about a press conference in which you presented the results of a newly released research paper about Teach to One produced by some professors at Columbia Teacher’s College.  The results, they said, were ‘encouraging,’ showing that the ‘gains’ of Teach to One students exceeded the national average gain on the MAP test.  This is a report that I have a feeling you will be quoting for years to come as you pitch your program to districts around the country, and even the world.

So I downloaded the twenty-five page paper and read it carefully and need to report to you some bad news and some good news.

The bad news is that this paper is the most amateurish piece of Jumbo the Elephant poop I’ve seen in all my years of reading these kinds of reports.  It just isn’t up to the Tufts standard that Sol Gittleman would have accepted in Yid Lit.  The methodology of the study renders it completely invalid which is why they admit in the executive summary and elsewhere throughout the paper, “Please note that these analyses cannot attribute TtO student results to the TtO model: the data available did not permit the use of an experimental design, which would be necessary to establish a link between the implementation of the program and the student test results.”  They are keeping this paper away from Nate Silver as they are concerned that if he sees this ‘research’ he may lapse into a stress-induced coma.  The issue is that there there is no way to draw any conclusion from comparing the average MAP gain of the students in Teach to One to the national average gain since they are not similar demographics.  If lower performing students generally get larger gains than average students and the students in Teach to One are lower performing students then it should be expected for them to get larger gains than the national average, which they do.  Why these researchers didn’t get more relevant data, only they can know for sure, but this detail does truly invalidate any of their conclusions, which is something I want you to remember any time you tout their conclusions.

So yes, this is bad news that I will advise you to tout the results of this paper since it was the thing that you really seem to have needed after not releasing any really good news about the program in several years.  But I did mention that I had good news too.  And the good news is actually the same as the bad news since much of what they conclude in that paper is actually very negative and discouraging about your program.  For example, when they broke the gains down by race, it turned out that black students actually underperformed against the national average for black students.  This is not something that you would want a district that serves predominantly black students to know about.  But now that you’ve heard about how terrible that study was the good news is that you will be able to dismiss critics, even critics like me, who might hold statistics like that up as some kind of ‘proof’ that the program isn’t working as well as advertised, that no conclusions drawn from this paper can be taken seriously.

Another conclusion from the paper is that it only produced gains for below average students.  For average and for above average students, the program, this study says, did not really accomplish much.  If, as ‘reformers’ believe, our country is threatened by our weak academic scores in comparison to other countries, this paper would lead us to not invest more in Teach to One.  Our national academic strength is not going to come from must making the below average students a bit less below average.  Fortunately you will also be able to say, now, that this paper can be pretty much ignored any time critics try to trot out statistics from it which paint your program in a bad light.

There are some things I like about computer assisted learning.  As a teacher it is a challenge to assess whether all the students are learning and even whether all students who look like they are working are truly working.  Having students enter their answers into some kind of system, like clickers, for instance, or even by texting them somewhere for schools that allow cell phones, is something I’d like to incorporate into my own class.

But there are some big issues I have with computerized learning, particularly the setup of Teach to One.  For one, I think there is just way too much going on in that big room for people to concentrate.  You’ve compared Tt1 to an airport and I don’t think the hustle of an airport is very conducive to learning.  Also, I’m not so sure that ‘self pacing’ is always a good thing.  When students choose their own pace, they might go deliberately slow though the topics, taking the path of least resistance.  I feel like the ‘personalized’ learning programs enable them to do so.  I also don’t think that the type of math that you can learn on a computer is really the kind of math that is actually worth learning.  In a post I recently wrote which got over 10,000 views called ‘The Death of math’ I explained a bit more about what I mean by this.

On another level, I guess I see the ed tech industry as an arm of the ‘reform’ industry in general.  I suppose it doesn’t have to be this way.  When I think about Texas Instruments calculators, for example, I always see them as something that assists teaching and learning and isn’t seen by ‘reformers’ as a way to prove that education is completely antiquated.  When technology is framed that way, I’m much less resistant to it.  As I mentioned before, I think The Geometer’s Sketchpad offers an authentic learning experience, when done right, which has helped me create some of my most meaningful lessons.  But in my experience, most education technology is a waste of money.  I also disagree very much with your promotional materials that present your program as the only alternative to a 1950s style classroom for which you use this image:

I do think that this is a stretch.  In your own classroom, this is not how your math instruction looked and as a NYC DOE executive, I’m sure that a lot of the math instruction you observed did not resemble this either.

I guess the big issue, though, is the fact that the two of us can have such similar backgrounds and life paths and yet end up on such opposite sides when it comes to what we have learned about what will improve schools and what won’t.  When I think of the trip we took to Houston, I got to see you as a true educator who thrived on the relationships you built with your class.  When I contrast this priority with the modern ‘reform’ concept of data and measuring ‘gains’ and proficiency percents, the two concepts just seem so incongruous.

Well, that’s it for now.  I know that getting an ‘open letter’ like this is pretty strange, but this is my way of personalizing the difficult very public debate about education that is going on nowadays.  Very few people have written back to me, you might know.  My thought is that people don’t want to put much into writing which might somehow come back to haunt them later.  Or maybe they don’t want their new buddies to believe that they have known an outspoken ‘reform’ critic like me for twenty years.  I don’t know, but hopefully you’ll be one of the few who does.



“I worry about what will happen to me.  I don’t want to do more than five years.  Some guys here get twenty-five to thirty-five years.  These judges.  They just flip a coin and give whatever they want.”

I decided to change the subject.

“Do you remember anything about fifth grade?”

“Doing work.  The times tables.  You used to play the guitar while we sang those math songs.  I used to love that.  I remember getting hit with a ruler by some teacher.  Was that you?”

“No.  I never did that.”

“I went to visit on Ms. Branch last year,” he noted, “She got skinny.”

“Do you know what happened with any of the other students from the class?”

“Yeah.  Melissa Garcia.  She got three or four babies.  She got babies everywhere.”

My time was running out, the guard indicated.  I asked Victor what he’ll do if he wins his cases and gets released.

“I’m gonna move on.  I’ll leave my friends behind.  The truth is, I don’t have any friends.  They told on me so I can’t trust nobody.”

It was time for me to say goodbye to my former student.  This kid that had never been kept for detention was now serving the ultimate detention.  The way he explained the slow decline, it didn’t seem that surprising anymore.  How he could just say “I fell into the wrong crowd,” and I simply nodded my head.  I didn’t have time to really get into what that meant.  I had a feeling that there were probably some other students that had similar experiences who I could talk to for more than twenty minutes.

“Victor.  If I had to make a bet of which kid from our class would have ended up here, you would have been the last person I picked.  But if I have to make a bet about whose going to turn it around, I’d bet on you.”

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3 Responses to Open Letters To ‘B-List’ Reformers I Know. Part 1: Joel Rose

  1. skepticnotcynic says:

    Does Joe realize that very few kids like learning from a computer? In general, and from my experience they tend to like it for the first 10 minutes and then they get bored. They also end up going through the motions, since I’m not pushing them. As an educated adult, it’s difficult for me to focus and learn from computer simulated programs online, so I can only imagine how bad it is for kids. It’s a very stale learning environment.

    The reason it’s so difficult to supplant the teacher with technology is that human beings in general learn best through human interaction. It’s just so much more inspiring. Secondly, why do we want to personalize everything for every kid? We already have enough problems with entitlement. Part of the reason why people become successful is because they had to overcome obstacles or very difficult challenges that prepared them for the messiness of life. The challenge in learning and in life is that it’s messy and always will be. There is no linear path to teaching and learning. I’m tired of people trying to find the get smart quick scheme. It just doesn’t work this way.

    The difference between you and Joel is that you’re a real teacher, and he is not. You add value, while his program pretends to. People will convince themselves of anything for a better paycheck and validation from their peer group.

    I’m all for efficiency tools to help us be more productive but these adaptive learning programs tend to be a big waste of money, since they are way too resource intensive and not the type of learning exercises that we should be emphasizing with our kids.

  2. edharris says:

    Sounds like the former student of my wife and our daughter’s classmate.
    Atleast your fellow realized he needed to get away from his “friends.”
    Our guy hasn’t yet.

  3. Pingback: Teach To None | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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