Monday, March 03, 2008

Why I Resigned

An article in the latest issue of Education Next ("New York City's Education Battles", below) has been stirring up some controversy thanks to -- surprise! -- Diane Ravitch, who was so upset by it that she resigned from the editorial board of Education Next in a petulant snit.
If you were questioning whether Ravitch has gone off the deep end in a personal vendetta, this Op Ed she published in the NY Sun a couple of weeks ago (below) should remove all doubt.  In it, she calls the thoughtful, balanced article in Education Next "a deeply flawed account of Mayor Bloomberg's school reforms" and "a thinly veiled puff piece for reforms that have been both costly and ineffectual", and asserts that 100% of the facts are on her side and that anyone with contrary opinions (naming me) is wrong, writing: "If facts matter, Mr. Tilson's opinion is wrong.
Oh puh-leeeeeze!  This is a massively large and complex school system -- by far the largest in the country -- and the data is equally massive and complex.  As I note in my letter to the editor (below) and as any reader of the article will see, the data is mixed and reasonable people can come to differing conclusions.  I'm willing to acknowledge that, but Ms. Ravitch is obviously not.  Given her illustrious career -- she's no Linda Darling-Hammond hack -- it's sad to see her undermine her own credibility -- and, worse yet, reform in general -- with her rabid, out-of-control attacks.
Here's the beginning of Ravitch's NY Sun article:

A story on Wednesday in the The New York Sun reported that I resigned from the editorial board of Education Next. I resigned because Education Next published a deeply flawed account of Mayor Bloomberg's school reforms. I resigned with regret because I admire Education Next. I have found it to be the most consistently interesting and lively publication about American education currently available.

That is all the more reason why I was surprised to read Peter Meyer's article, "New York City's Education Battles," which is a thinly veiled puff piece for reforms that have been both costly and ineffectual. As a member of the editorial board of Education Next and as someone who has written extensively about education in New York City, I was stunned that I did not see the article until after it was published.

The article treats school reform in New York City as a matter of conflicting opinions, of "he-said, she-said," rather than as a matter of verifiable fact, even when facts are available.


Why I Resigned

February 15, 2008

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My letter to the editor of Education Next

Here's my letter to the editor:

March 3, 2008


To Education Next:


As someone who has both observed and been deeply involved with efforts to improve public schools in New York City, I read “New York City’s Education Battles” with great interest.  Overall, I thought it was an excellent article that fairly presented both the successes and hiccups of the reform efforts led by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein.


In their efforts to do what is best for children, Bloomberg and Klein have been willing to take on powerful entrenched interests that are happy with the status quo and fight to maintain it.  To cite only a few examples, Bloomberg and Klein:

-         Have embraced charter schools, often paying a big political price to provide much-needed facilities, with the result that the top charter school operators in the country, such as Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and KIPP (of which I am a board member) are flocking to New York City and expanding rapidly.

-         Refused for years to sign a contract with the principals union, holding out for (and eventually getting) sorely needed changes in accountability, pay for performance and the ability to remove ineffective principals.  In return, the principals got a big bump in salary, a lot more money for their schools and greater autonomy to manage them.

-         Have been willing, again and again, to do battle with the city’s powerful teachers union to introduce performance measurement systems and accountability, prevent seniority transfers, extend the school day, remove ineffective teachers and make tenure decisions meaningful.

-         Slashed the DOE’s notorious bureaucracy (though there’s still much work to do here).

-         Have embraced countless innovative new ideas.  For example, last summer I raised $1 million of seed funding for a new idea I’d developed for a program called Rewarding Achievement (REACH), which aims to improve the college readiness of low-income students by paying them up to $1,000 for each Advanced Placement exams they pass, with matching grants to schools.  While it’s a private initiative, we would not have proceeded without Chancellor Klein’s support.  In a very short period of time, he reviewed the REACH program and said he would be delighted if we launched it in New York City.  Because he acted so quickly, we were able to launch REACH at 31 inner-city high schools and expect to distribute over $2 million this summer to deserving students and schools.


The result of Bloomberg and Klein’s unprecedented vision, boldness and political courage is that New York City has become the most exciting laboratory for education reform in the United States – a status recently recognized by the Broad Foundation when it awarded New York City the prestigious Broad Prize. 


It’s not surprising that the entrenched forces of the status quo are fighting Bloomberg and Klein every step of the way, whereas the great majority of school reformers are celebrating what’s happening in New York.  What’s puzzling to me is that a few reformers, having come to the opposite conclusion, have chosen to go out of their way to attack Bloomberg and Klein’s education reform efforts at every opportunity, to the point where it looks to me like a personal vendetta rather than rational and constructive criticism.  This behavior is damaging and counterproductive because it undermines support for reform and plays right into the hands of opponents.


These critics, as your article notes, raise some legitimate issues, but I believe take their criticisms much too far and reach a completely wrong-headed conclusion that Bloomberg and Klein’s reforms are misguided and doing little, if any, good.  I believe they are missing the forest for the trees, loudly proclaiming each discovery of a rotting tree and missing the reality that the forest is getting stronger every day – and that we are tremendously fortunate in New York City to have a mayor and Chancellor who have both political courage and the willingness to be bold and innovative.


To support their contention that little or no progress is being made, critics point to certain statistics such as the NAEP scores discussed in your article.  Before I address this, it’s important to keep two things in mind:


1) NAEP scores are not the only nor even the primary way to evaluate a school system.  There are many other tests such as state tests, Regents and AP exams, other quantitative academic measures, such as graduation rates (see this presentation, which documents the remarkable rise of NYC graduation rates:, and numerous non-academic or qualitative measures such as incidents of violence, student, parent, teacher and principal satisfaction, etc.  Overall, my assessment is that the trends are positive, but there is much work to be done – and there are no doubt ample statistics that can make a case for those inclined to criticize.


2) New York City’s school system is an enormous entity, with a budget that will soon approach $20 billion, 77,000 teachers, thousands of bureaucrats and more than 1.1 million students, representing roughly 2% of all U.S. schoolchildren.  Reforming such a monstrosity – especially one so resistant to change – is extraordinarily difficult and time consuming, and quantitative evidence of change can often lag behind the reality of what’s happening on the ground.  Thus, it’s not surprising that just over five years into the reform effort, the statistical evidence, which positive overall, is still mixed.


There are many parallels here with what I do as a professional value investor.  In that realm, each year I look at hundreds of big, bloated companies that had been poorly managed for years.  My success depends on correctly identifying the handful that, usually under new management, are in the process of turning around, even if the results aren’t yet obvious in the numbers.  I think New York City’s public school system is one such situation.


With respect to the much-discussed NAEP scores, Diane Ravitch asserts that my analysis of the data is incorrect, so allow me to demonstrate why I believe she is mistaken (to see the numbers I’m using, see the 47-page presentation posted on the DOE’s web site at:; also, the DOE's press release is at:  The NAEP scores cover four areas: 4th grade math, 4th grade reading, 8th grade math and 8th grade reading.  Here's how I'd score it (note that I exclude the gains from 2002-2003, since critics claim that because Klein only became Chancellor in July 2002, he doesn’t deserve the credit for these first-year gains):


-         4th grade math: Students at or above basic rose from 67% in 2003 to 73% in 2005 to 79% in 2007, far bigger gains than for other large cities and the nation as a whole.  Notably, New York City’s biggest gains were by black and Hispanic students, who are now exceeding both the national and big-city averages.  There was an even bigger gain for students at or above proficient, from 21% in 2003 to 26% in 2005 to 34% in 2007 – a 62% increase (from 21% to 34%) in four years.  These are exceptionally strong results. 


-         4t  grade reading: the key to making fair comparisons here is to adjust for the fact that nearly double the number of English Language Learners (ELL) took the test in 2007 vs. 2005 (8% of all test takers to 15%; see slide 19).  Without adjusting, the scores are flat; with the adjustment (looking only at English proficient students), the students at or above basic rose from 55% in 2003 to 60% in 2005 to 63% in 2007, a strong positive trend (see slide 26).  And for English proficient students at or above proficient, the increase has also been strong: 23% in 2003, 24% in 2005 and 28% in 2007 (slide 27).  Again, black and Hispanic students showed the largest gains.  Overall, this is good performance.


-         8th grade math: Students at or above basic rose from 54% in 2003 and 2005 to 57% in 2007 – OK performance.


-         8th grade reading: At or above basic declined from 62% in 2003 to 61% in 2005 to 59% in 2007.  These numbers are weak, but keep in mind that they are also impacted by the greater number of  ELL students, though not as much as the 4th graders.


In summary, there is progress in three of four areas, with especially notable progress among 4th graders.  If I were to give letter grades, they would be an A, a B+, a B- and a D.  Though there is certainly plenty of room for improvement, this is a respectable report card and, when considered in the context of other evidence, reinforces my belief that Bloomberg and Klein’s reforms are showing positive results, which I believe will accelerate over time.


Sincerely yours,


Whitney Tilson

Co-Founder, Democrats for Education Reform

Vice Chairman, KIPP New York

Founder, Rewarding Achievement (REACH)

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New York City's Education Battles

Here's the article itself.  This seems pretty balanced to me!

Once elected, Bloomberg captured control of New York’s schools and introduced sweeping changes to the nation’s largest public school district, a huge, bumbling, and seemingly uncontrollable education bureaucracy of over 1,400 schools, some 80,000 teachers, 6,000 central office and regional staff, and 1.1 million students. And in 2007 the city won the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education (worth $500,000) for raising student achievement, reducing the achievement gap, and helping greater proportions of African American and Hispanic students achieve at high levels.

Former Mayor Ed Koch calls Bloomberg “a colossus” for what he has done for the city’s schools.

Poppycock, say Bloomberg’s critics, a crew of education insiders, parents, and an assortment of others, including Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s elected public advocate. Despite massive increases in annual education expenditures, they say, improvements in student achievement have been modest at best. And they accuse the Bloomberg team of, among other things, cooking the test score books, flooding the system with inexperienced educators, handing out millions of dollars in no-bid contracts, shutting parents out of the school reform effort, spinning the facts, not caring about curriculum, and creating such constant institutional disarray that things may just be getting worse.

Indeed, since Bloomberg took the reins of the city’s school district in 2002, there have been two major organizational realignments and dozens of minor ones. One side calls this flip-flop; the other sees inspired mid-course corrections that ensure deep and systemic change.


New York City's Education Battles

By Peter Meyer, Education Next, Spring 2008

The mayor, the schools, and the "rinky-dink candy store"

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Teaching Boys and Girls Separately

A very interesting and important article about single-sex education from the cover story in today's NYT Magazine.  I attended an all-boys school (Eaglebrook, in Deerfield, MA) for 7th and 8th grade and thrived there, and my three daughters all attend the Nightingale-Bamford all-girls school.  When choosing schools, my wife and I mostly wanted the best school, but had a moderate bias towards all-girls schools because our gut instinct and person experience, combined with this evidence, led us to believe that an all-girls environment might be beneficial and certainly wouldn't do any harm:
Education scholarship has contributed surprisingly little to the debate over single-sex public education. In 2005, the United States Department of Education, along with the American Institute for Research, tried to weigh in, publishing a meta-analysis comparing single-sex and coed schooling. The authors started out with 2,221 citations on the subject that they then whittled down to 40 usable studies. Yet even those 40 studies did not yield strong results: 41 percent favored single-sex schools, 45 percent found no positive or negative effects for either single-sex or coed schools, 6 percent were mixed (meaning they found positive results for one gender but not the other) and 8 percent favored coed schools.
Truthfully, though, reducing the odds of this happening to my girls was my main concern -- LOL!
after a nearly-two-hour conversation filled with scientific jargon and brains, he told me, perhaps wishfully, that really the most important reason to send a child to a single-sex high school was that those kids still go on dates. “Boys at boys’ schools like Old Farms in Connecticut, or Saint Albans in Washington, D. C., will call up girls at Miss Porter’s in Connecticut, at Stone Ridge in Maryland, and they will ask the girl out, and the boy will drive to the girl’s house to pick her up and meet her parents. You tell kids at a coed school to do this, and they’ll fall on the floor laughing. But the culture of dating is much healthier than the culture of the hookup, in which the primary form of sexual intimacy is a girl on her knees servicing a boy.”
Finally, it was great to see this article focus so much positive attention on two great schools in NYC.  Here's the first, about a charter school:

One of Sax’s core arguments is that trying to teach a 5-year-old boy to read is as developmentally fraught as trying to teach a 3 1/2-year-old girl and that such an exercise often leads to a kid hating school. This argument resonates with many teachers and parents, who long for the days when kindergarten meant learning how to stand in line for recess, not needing to complete phonics homework. Yet public schools are beholden to state standards, and those standards require kindergartners to learn to read. As a result, even leaders of single-sex public schools, like Jabali Sawicki, the principal of the all-boys Excellence Charter School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, are using some of what Sax has to offer while quietly refuting other claims.

Sawicki is 30, lanky and mocha-skinned, with an infectious energy. He grew up in a tough part of San Francisco with a single mother who managed to get her son a scholarship for middle school at a private all-boys school. From there he went to a private high school and then on to Oberlin College. The Excellence School is part of Uncommon Schools, a small network of charter schools. Housed in a gracious building on a modest street, Excellence currently teaches children in kindergarten through Grade 4, and will add a grade each year for the next four years, up to Grade 8. Sawicki’s office occupies an empty classroom slated to be overtaken by students as the school grows. There, he told me that educating lower-class black boys is “the new civil rights movement.”

And here's the second:

The Young Women’s Leadership School in Harlem is widely considered the birthplace of the current single-sex public school movement. This position of eminence stems from both its early beginnings and its success: since opening in 1996, every girl in every senior class at T.Y.W.L.S. has graduated and been accepted at a four-year college.

T.Y.W.L.S. occupies the top five floors of a commercial building in Harlem, on 106th Street near Lexington Avenue. Most of the girls come from the neighborhood, where they walk home so quickly that they often breeze by their own mothers before registering whom they’ve passed. One afternoon in January, Dalibell Ferreira, a senior, sat drinking a soda in the college counselor’s office, where she sometimes stays until 8 p.m. because she finds her own home distracting. Ferreira is tall, poised, with wide-set eyes and her hair neatly pulled back around her fine Dominican face. When she graduates, she wants “to go to Wesleyan and study abroad, then travel, and then work for Unicef.” When she entered T.Y.W.L.S. in the seventh grade, she mostly liked that the linoleum floor was so clean she could see her own face reflected on it. Then she started appreciating that people wouldn’t snicker, “Oh, she thinks she’s so smart” when she raised her hand in class. Then one day last spring, on the way home from a friend’s house, Ferreira ran into a classmate from elementary school who was pushing a stroller and also pregnant. “I know that girl is smart, very smart, but now she just hangs around the block,” Ferreira told me. “I want to be bigger in life. Maybe that girl had dreams, too, but you can just see: the lights have gone out in her face.”

T.Y.W.L.S. was founded by Ann Rubenstein Tisch, wife of Andrew Tisch, the co-chairman of the Loews Corporation.


Teaching Boys and Girls Separately

Published: March 2, 2008

On an unseasonably cold day last November in Foley, Ala., Colby Royster and Michael Peterson, two students in William Bender’s fourth-grade public-school class, informed me that the class corn snake could eat a rat faster than the class boa constrictor. Bender teaches 26 fourth graders, all boys. Down the hall and around the corner, Michelle Gay teaches 26 fourth-grade girls. The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes. The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer, as per the instructions of Leonard Sax, a family physician turned author and advocate who this May will quit his medical practice to devote himself full time to promoting single-sex public education.

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Comments on single sex schools and incentives

A friend with some interesting comments on my last email:
I hate to dispel the scientific justification of single sex schools but as a mother of a Collegiate School graduate I can assure you that the culture of “hooking up” is alive and thriving at Collegiate, Nightingale, and Spence as much as it was at Horace Mann (from which my daughter graduated) and Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem (where I currently work). I actually found the single sex environment to be wonderful for my son and a disaster for my daughter (she hated Spence). In short, there is no one optimal solution. Just the option of giving families choices.

On this issue of cell phones as incentives, I find it ironic that we have to spend our energies chasing kids around the building confiscating cell phones because they are illegal in the building pursuant to DOE regulations but DOE uses them as an incentive to encourage academic excellence!!! I am weary of “incentives” and find that they have created an environment where students feel we have to pay them to do everything and do not want to make a personal investment in their education. My seniors expect waivers for all of their college applications at the same time they and their families are planning on spending hundreds of dollars on limos for their prom. Frankly as a CUNY trustee I refuse to help them get waivers because they have come to feel a sense of entitlement rather than an appreciation of the “incentives” provided.

My thoughts on the first paragraph: I'm still going to remain in denial about Nightingale, however.  Don't confuse me with the facts -- my mind's made up! ;-)
Regarding incentives, I don't know what you mean by being weary of them.  Even looking nationwide, here have been very few experiments with incentive systems.  I share your concerns about them, but I think we have to be willing to experiment with just about anything given the dismal track record of everything that's been tried to date to raise achievement, esp. among low-income students, and close the achievement gap.

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For 'A' Students in Some Brooklyn Schools, a Cellphone and 130 Free Minutes

I think this is a great experiment (and not just because the KIPP schools in NYC are participating)!

Education officials began doling out cellphones to 2,500 students on Wednesday as part of a closely watched experiment to try to change the way teenagers think about doing well in school. The pilot program, at three Brooklyn middle schools and four charter schools, is part of an effort by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to motivate students to perform better academically — and reward them when they do.

Each student is receiving a Samsung flip-phone in a package specially designed with the program’s logo. The phones come loaded with 130 prepaid minutes. Good behavior, attendance, homework and test scores will be rewarded with additional minutes. Teachers and administrators will also be able to use a system to send text messages to several students at a time, to remind them, say, of upcoming tests and other school information.


February 28, 2008

For ‘A’ Students in Some Brooklyn Schools, a Cellphone and 130 Free Minutes

What’s the cheapest way to text message your friends? For thousands of the city’s middle school students, the answer now is to earn an “A.”

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What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?

I found this article about the extraordinary success of Finland's schools interesting...

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don't start school until age 7.

Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world's C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they're way ahead in math, science and reading -- on track to keeping Finns among the world's most productive workers.

...but also frustrating because it left so many questions unanswered: Can parents choose which school to send their child to?  Is there competition from private schools and does public money follow the student?  How are principals and teachers evaluated?  Are they unionized?  Is there tenure?  Is there differential pay or is it all seniority driven?  Are good teachers paid more?  Are certain types of teachers (such as math or science) paid more?  How hard is it to identify and remove an ineffective principal or teacher?  Is there good professional development?  What do schools look like in poor or remote areas?  How does Finland attract good teachers to remote areas?
Attached are a few sample questions from the PISA science test.

What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?

Finland's teens score extraordinarily high on an international test. American educators are trying to figure out why.
February 29, 2008; Page W1

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Free Lunch Isn't Cool, So Some Students Go Hungry

This is really sad -- I totally understand why kids feel this way, so it's incumbent upon school systems to design a system that doesn't stigmatize low-income kids.
Although Francisco Velazquez, a 14-year-old freshman with spiky hair and sunglasses, qualifies for a free lunch at Balboa High School here, he was not eating.

He scanned the picnic table full of his friends in a school courtyard one day a few weeks ago, and said, “I’m not hungry.”

On another day, a group of classmates who also qualify for federally subsidized lunches sat on a bench. One ate a slice of pizza from the line where students pay for food; the rest went without.

Lunchtime “is the best time to impress your peers,” said Lewis Geist, a senior at Balboa and its student body president. Being seen with a subsidized meal, he said, “lowers your status.”

San Francisco school officials are looking at ways to encourage more poor students to accept government-financed meals, including the possibility of introducing cashless cafeterias where all students are offered the same food choices and use debit cards or punch in codes on a keypad so that all students check out at the cashier in the same manner.


Free Lunch Isn’t Cool, So Some Students Go Hungry

Published: March 1, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — Although Francisco Velazquez, a 14-year-old freshman with spiky hair and sunglasses, qualifies for a free lunch at Balboa High School here, he was not eating.

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