Thursday, July 28, 2011

Another day, another email exchange with my new pen pal, Gary Rubenstein

Another day, another email exchange with my new pen pal, Gary Rubenstein, that covers the most interesting (to me, anyway!) debates in ed reform.  In the first, Gary uses the old doctor-teacher spurious analogy:


I think I'll use an analogy, believe it or not.  (Only in these discussions with you do I use so many analogies.)

One day, a news report comes out that there's a major epidemic known as 'old age' which will kill everyone on the planet, eventually.  Ravitch, the historian of medicine, says this is not a big of a crisis as the media is painting -- it's just the way things are.

Reformers say this is a crisis and a big one.  How can we stand by and do nothing while every human being on this Earth is going to die within 100 years?  They move into action.  Since this is such a crisis, they don't have time to do proper experiments to check if different solutions are viable.

They decide that if we make robotic hearts and brains for everyone, that will surely fix the problem.  Ravitch says that it won't fix the problem and it will actually make things worse as people die from rejecting the artificial hearts and brains.

They ask Ravitch what she thinks will cure this crisis and she says she doesn't know how to fix it, isn't even sure it qualifies as a 'crisis,' and that we'd be better off just doing what we were doing than the radical unfounded solutions that reformers are proposing.  Reformers say that she is a defender of the status quo.

Ravitch says that people can live a little longer with exercise and healthy eating.  Perhaps we can get life-span up by five years with that solution.  Reformers say that this is unacceptable.  Life expectancy of 88 is too low.

Another reform is to shut down 'death factory' hospitals.  Replace with smaller charter hospitals that don't treat people who are very ill.

Something like that ...


I and some of my readers addressed this issue in Sept. 2007 in response to something Randi said.  Here's what I wrote at the time ( 

In an interview last weekend, Randi used the flawed analogy that holding teachers accountable for student performance would be as unfair as holding oncologists accountable for the mortality rate of their cancer patients.  She is correct that teachers are not solely (or even primarily) responsible for where children end up in life -- that's principally the job of parents -- but they absolutely should be held accountable for the gain in student learning while in their classrooms.  The NY Sun editorialized about this on Monday:

No one would suggest the doctors be fired for each death, but certainly  they should be, and are, held accountable for performance. This is the role of  hospital internships, strict board examinations, and discriminating patients.  Would that teachers were held to such standards as exist in the oncology ward.

I also wrote something about it in response to a letter to the editor in March ( [The] analogy of "blaming doctors for the cancer  rate" is SO wrong! The proper analogy would be if a patient showed up  at a hospital with symptoms of early-stage cancer and then the doctors: a)  failed to do the proper tests to determine what was wrong; and b) once  determining it was cancer, failed to treat it quickly and properly, allowing it to metastasize into something fatal. If this type of criminal negligence  were being practiced in our hospitals, resulting in uncared-for patients dying left and right, there would be a justifiable hue and cry, yet this is precisely what is happening to millions of children in our school RIGHT  NOW!


And here are three spot-on comments by my friends ( and

A) From Mike Goldstein, founder of MATCH charter schools:

Whitney, there's another strand of the medical analogy. My  wife is an oncologist. She likes her job a lot.

Each day, she's put in a position to succeed. If she does what she's been trained to do on nuts-and-bolts medical issues, she gets to do the  "art" -- which for her is helping families deal with the intersection of health and emotion.

At No Excuses charter schools, teachers are put in a position to succeed, too. If a No Excuses teacher does what she's been trained to do --  phone parents to build relationships; start the class with a written do-now;  handle disruptions in a prescribed manner; etc etc -- he/she gets to do the "art"  of teaching, which is to make science or math or English "come  alive."

At many traditional urban schools, teachers are put in a position to fail. That's in part because teachers are taught in Ed School,  then again by the union, to FIGHT any school-wide methodology on how to handle nuts-and-bolts classroom culture issues.

While a doctor accepts that she will learn EXACTLY what to do on many matters (the science), before dealing with the nuance (the art),  teachers are taught that this means "their professional judgment, and  autonomy, is being questioned."

Funny, my wife pores over journals which tell her EXACTLY what  to do in a million different situations, and never feels her professional judgment under siege. (She only feels that way when insurers block her  preventive medicine efforts, particularly Medicaid/Medicare).

This dynamic gets exacerbated because traditional school leaders, when they do assert control, do it over the wrong thing -- curriculum. That's precisely BACKWARDS, the worst of both worlds.

Now teachers who are frustrated by behavior issues (since nobody is telling them to sacrifice their autonomy to follow a schoolwide approach) are getting curriculum that, no matter how "good" in theory, will necessarily be ineffective b/c the class will still be chaotic.

Many No Excuses schools go the other direction. They prescribe in great detail how teachers must develop and maintain classroom culture, then decentralize some/many curriculum decisions to individual teachers or small  groups of them.


B) From another friend:

Randi  gave a speech to incoming TFA corps members this summer during which she also used the cancer doctor analogy.  Arguments by analogy are dubious by definition, but this one really takes the cake.  I sat in on a small group debrief of Randi's speech to the corps members and everyone there was  extremely confused.  Of course strange analogies, confusing logic, and stonewalling are all key components of the union's arsenal.  It  would be interesting if someone wrote an article comparing the union's use of logic, critical thinking, and transparency to the basic lessons on logic, critical thinking, and rhetoric that are taught in middle school and high school English and Social Studies classes.

C) And a final comment from a retired NYC principal:

Everything you stated  today is right on the money. The UFT and its leader have non-harmonious objectives. As teachers they want to be treated and respected as professionals. As unionists they are concerned with workplace issues of more pay and less work. There can never be congruity between these goals.  Unfortunately, as an elected leadership with the need to respond to membership to stay in their jobs, the tendency is to focus more on the union needs.  However, to the union's credit, the UFT has a first-rate professional development program headed by Aminda Gentile.

Rather than take the stand that "Teachers know what children need," it would help all to make their conflicting dichotomy more visible and public.

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