Rebuttals to the Criticisms Against Reformers and HPSs
At my presentation to DonorsChoose last week, I was asked, “What are the major criticisms leveled against reformers, and what’s your response?” It’s an outstanding question, and I don’t feel like I gave a great answer because I didn’t have much time and the topic is so vast (given how ill-informed, clever (disingenuous?), and/or motivated our opponents are). So I’d like to start addressing some of the criticisms in this email and also begin compiling the many rebuttals I’ve written in the past (I’ve posted some of them at here).
Let’s start with a very common one, captured in an email someone on my email list send me, asking where a particular school reform leader’s kids went to school and, if it wasn’t one of his/her schools, why not? She continued: “It doesn’t look too good. Good for other people’s children but not good enough for [his/hers]??”
I’m not going to go through the decisions particular ed reformers make about where they send their kids to school – I think it’s an invasion of privacy (though I do have to correct a lie that’s out there about where the two children of Michelle Rhee and Kevin Huffman (state super in TN) go school: they go to a regular public school). But I hear this question enough that I’m going to address it:
a) The irony of this critique is so rich. Many of the best-known defenders of the status quo send their kids to private schools (Ravitch sent her kids to Dalton, one of the most expensive, selective schools in the country, for example), and from the statistics I’ve seen from a handful of cities, the majority of unionized teachers and union leaders in inner-city public schools (I recall Newark specifically) don’t live in the city – and they certainly don’t send their kids to their very own schools. And ask any principal of a top charter school about politicians and others in the community who, by day, fight fiercely to kill charter schools and then, quietly, at night, call the principal to see if their kids (or nieces/nephews, etc.) can get special preference to bypass the lottery to get into the school – I kid you not! So be careful about throwing rocks when you live in a glass house…
b) We reformers want all kids to attend a great school – including our own. If, for whatever reason, reformer parents send their kid to a great school that’s not the one they are associated with, there are many good reasons for this:
c) One reason is that it would take away a seat from another child who doesn't have more options for great schools. (Personally, I would never send my kid to a high-performing school serving predominantly poor kids that has a lottery because my kids are 99.9% certain to earn a college degree – and their winning the lottery to attend such a school would deny a seat to a kid with a less than 10% chance of earning a college.)
d) Another reason I’ve seen is that some reformers think it would be hard on their kids to go to a school that their mom or dad runs, where they would always be known as “so-and-so’s kid”.
e) A final reason I’ve seen is purely practical: the reformer doesn’t live near his/her school and doesn’t want the children to have a long commute.
If these reasons aren’t enough, one person I spoke with said: “If someone wants to make an issue of what we do with our kids, they can go f*ck themselves:).” Well said!
Another common critique is that reformers are obsessed with testing and our high-performing (mostly charter, mostly inner city) schools (HPSs) are just drill-and-kill test-prep factories. Like every critique, there’s a thin veneer of truth, so let me say right up front that I have observed significantly more testing at every HPS I’ve seen than at my daughters’ school. “Ooooh!” the anti-testing zealots will exclaim, “You’re fine with testing other kids, but not your own – gotcha!”
Wrong! Yes, some tests are bad and, yes, there’s too much teaching to the test going on in (mostly crappy) schools, but it’s not a testing-is-all-good-or-bad issue; rather, it’s subtle and nuanced. Overall, we have a long ways to go to improve both tests and how they’re used. But that doesn’t mean that we should throw them out just because they’re not perfect.
It’s also important to consider what types of students a school is serving. One serving all rich kids who are academically well above grade level doesn’t have to worry about testing kids so regularly. But it’s a different story for HPSs, which must confront enormous challenges due to the fact that they serve a high percentage of students who are coming into school from troubled communities and families, in which few people have completed high school, much less college (this is not a racial thing, by the way – the challenges are the same for poor white kids in Appalachia). I have no doubt that you would be horrified if you were to look at how common it is among these students to see a single parent; deep poverty; frequent moves and/or homelessness; if adults read or spoke frequently (and gently) to the child; if the child was well nourished in utero and throughout life (vs. being exposed to various toxins); if the child had seen (or been the victim of) violence, abuse, crime and/or drug use; and was suffering from learning disabilities, perhaps caused by lead or other poisoning.
Obviously children facing many of these horrible issues are very likely to be struggling academically (and, often, behaviorally – see below), so schools that serve a high percentage of such students must do many things differently – including frequent testing to make sure the children don’t fall further and further behind. I’m not talking high-stakes state tests at the end of the year – by then it’s way too late. I’m talking about regular (often weekly) quizzes developed internally by the teachers at the school in each subject area to make sure that every kid is progressing at a satisfactory rate. Without this critical information, how is a teacher (and how is the principal) supposed to know which kids have learned the material that’s being taught?
To see what I’m talking about, check out these pictures from my visit in October 2009 to KIPP Raices elementary school in LA, which serves Latino children, almost all of whom are English Language Learners. In the third picture, you see the 1st graders taking their weekly test (on a Friday so the teachers will know if every student learned what they taught that week). In the fourth picture, the teacher gives the test one-on-one to a kindergartener (they’re too young to take a written test), covering the vocabulary words learned that week. In the fifth picture is the report card sent home to parents every single day (which must be signed by them and returned the next day).
To understand what good, smart testing is all about, check out this email I just received. It was written a year ago by Alexandra Pardo, the Executive Director of an HPS, Thurgood Marshall Academy PCHS in Washington DC, to Rick Roe, a TMA founder and Trustee. In it, she explains how and why the students at her school did so well on the recently released DC CAS test (in which TMA was the highest performing non-selective high school in the city):
I think the first thing that comes into play is culture. We’ve been able to build a culture where our kids are excited about taking the DC CAS (and other exams like AP, SAT) because they want to see how well they can do. The kids don’t fear the tests and feel confident that they can do well. As a result, they are positive and excited (as much as one can be) for standardized assessments.
Our teachers do an amazing job of demystifying the test. Tenth grade does not become all about the “DC CAS.” Instead, the teachers focus on teaching. We celebrate the kids’ success on the benchmarks each time we take them. We reward individual kids for high scores but also for growth. We recognize the class with the highest score for each subject. Every year I go into every 10th grade class and speak to the kids about the DC CAS about a month before the test. This isn’t done in a large setting, but each class, class by class. It becomes very intimate. We graph the kids’ benchmark scores and talk about testing in general and the DC CAS. The kids ask insightful questions, share their anxieties and success. The teacher and I individually talk with each student about what his/her goals should be for the DC CAS. We don’t focus on “passing” vs. not “passing” but on how each student does, which changes how the kids feel about the test. Further, we’ve made the benchmarks a part of that culture. All the kids know how they did on each benchmark. They know that the tests are not the be all and end all. The teachers focus on growth for each student rather than a concrete passing score. Teachers go over each benchmark in class and the kids embrace the process.
We don’t do any drill and kill. We really focus on teaching content. This year’s test was aligned to the Common Core standards which focus on critical thinking, synthesis and analysis – higher order concepts. This is the crux of our classroom teaching. I think this is why our kids were able to outperform so much this year. As the test changed, the drill and kill method no longer worked on a test that requires thinking.
Lastly, we focus on the student. Over the past week as scores have come out, I’ve received a lot of calls from colleagues who want to know what “product”, “curriculum”, or “intervention” we use. The simple/hard answer is teachers. We write the curriculum in-house based on where the kids are. We write all the benchmark exams each year. We focus on what the kids need, not on a product. This last part is what makes TMA stand out. Some charters in DC spend thousands of dollars on curriculum, assessments, intervention tools, and various other means to raise scores. What they seem to forget is that nothing works unless you have amazing teachers.
All this to say, we still have work to do. Each year we have a new set of 10th grade students so we continuously go back to the drawing board.
For more on testing, my friend Dai Ellis, who used to run the excellent Excel charter network in Boston, wrote a fascinating article that compares and contrasts two types of reformers, “Testers” and “Zesters” (sort of reminds me of “relinquishers” and “reformers”), and how we need to marry the best of both:
One side is basically the same: “corporate reformers” in favor of accountability and standardized testing. Vouchers are going nowhere, while charter schools are becoming more mainstream and the evidence on their impact (especially in well-regulated states and for low-income urban students) is improving. So the choice strand is fading slowly. But testing and accountability is only heating up with the Common Core coming to (er, slouching toward) town and test-score-incorporating teacher evaluation systems going live after a few years of incubation. So in one corner: the Testers.
Meanwhile, that same acute prominence of testing and accountability seems to have teachers’ unions enlisting progressive-educator allies to recall and renew a longstanding line of argument — and a more powerful, fundamental one about how learning happens. The case goes something like this. Attaching high stakes to standardized testing skews instruction and education. It makes teachers and kids all stressed about test scores, and puts all the focus on drill-and-kill test prep. Teachers cram kids’ heads full of facts and knowledge that will be tested, and students become mere vessels for that knowledge. There is a right answer to every question on the test — so kids are taught to think in a convergent rather than divergent manner. We take a outmoded and “batched” factory approach to education (25-30 kids per class, 13 successive grades with lockstep advancement) that de-personalizes instruction. Kids are bored as hell, where they’re not stressed and over-medicated.
Another critique of HPSs is that the disciplinary systems are needlessly harsh and militaristic. The veneer of truth here is that, yes, every HPS I’ve seen has an extremely well-thought-out and rigorously implemented system of order and discipline. But this isn’t harsh or cruel – rather, it’s an absolutely necessary foundation upon which a climate of learning and love can be built. Consider my visit a year ago to a wonderful elementary school that, trust me, is filled with incredible love and joy – the kind of school I’d be delighted to have one of my children attend.
Yet what I observed that day might give some folks pause: I watched as the new kindergarteners, during the orientation week in August, were taught to march quickly and quietly in the hallways. This went on for quite a while because some of the youngsters would invariably goof off, so the teachers, while infinitely patient and kind, made everyone do it again and again. As I watched this, I whispered to the superstar principal of the school: “You know, a lot of folks would look at this and be horrified by it – they’d say it was cruel or militaristic.” She laughed and said, “That’s what I thought as well when I first saw it when I was an intern teacher while at ed school. But then I became a teacher and reality hit me. If we didn’t teach our students to do this, it would be chaos in the hallways between every class period, and we’d lose at least a half hour of instructional time every day. We – and these kids – can’t afford that.”
Another critique of HPSs is that it smacks of paternalism to spend so much time teaching kids non-academic things – for example, plastering the walls with slogans like “Work hard. Be nice.” and “We’re climbing the mountain to college.” In contrast, I’ve never once in 17 years talked to my daughters about climbing the mountain to college, nor have I ever seen slogans like this at my daughters’ school. Why do HPSs do this, but my wife and I and my daughters’ school doesn’t? Because it’s not necessary!
In my daughters’ entire lives, nearly every adult with whom they’ve come into contact has a college degree (most from elite institutions, and most with graduate degrees as well). The idea of telling my rising 12th grader that she should go to college next year – and, it goes without saying, earn her degree on time – would be as absurd as telling my rising 9th grader last spring that she should go to high school. It’s just a given – as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.
I was fortunate to have had a similar experience. I recall being shocked when I learned about the college dropout crisis (which I document on pages 38 and 59-71 of my slide presentation; nearly half of all students who start college never earn a degree, making the college dropout crisis twice as bad as the high school dropout crisis). It had never occurred to me that anyone might go to college but not finish because I'd never known or heard of anyone who had ever dropped out.
Working hard, being nice, graduating from a top college – these of things are all in the air my daughters (and their peers) have been breathing from the day they were born. Thus, it would be a complete waste of time for my daughters’ school to invest much time and energy into this – but it’s absolutely necessary for HPSs to do this. To see what I mean, go back and watch Marcos’s speech that I linked in one of my last posts. None of this was in the air he breathed – until he went to KIPP.
Another critique is that HPSs do too much remedial work, especially for kids entering in fifth grade. It’s true: HPSs taking in new kids in fifth grade do a lot of remedial work that year – but not by choice. The average kid is coming in 1-2 years below grade level – some are barely reading – so the HPSs (and the students) have to bust their butts to catch the kids up so they can start doing grade-level work. It’s incredibly hard work and contributes to both teacher and student burnout and attrition.
Things are changing dramatically for the better, however. More and more HPSs are starting in kindergarten (even pre-K), and it makes all the difference in the world when HPSs get kids 4-5 years earlier and have them for 13 years, not four.
Mark my words: the elite colleges and universities of this country had better brace themselves for an incredibly exciting tidal wave that’s going to start to hit them in about four years, when the first KIPP kindergarteners, who started at KIPP Shine in Houston and who are rockin’ it, graduate from high school. And it’s not just KIPP – many other HPSs and HPS networks have similar pipelines.
A final critique I’ll address in this post is that HPSs cheat by “creaming” the easiest-to-educate kids. As I discussed in my last email, some schools do this and they shouldn’t, but that’s not really how they cheat. Yes, they cheat – but not the way you think. They “cheat” by recruiting the best teachers.
Every principal of a HPS that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot) has basically full power to hire, train, evaluate and, yes, dismiss any teacher (and any other adult in the building) (subject to an appeals process to the school’s board and, of course, anti-discrimination laws, just like every business/organization in the country). And, to be sure, every such principal views it as his/her foremost job to build a team of superstar teachers.
Obviously there aren’t enough superstar teachers in the country to fill every classroom (news flash: only 1% of teachers are in the top 1%, and only 50% are above average), so every smart principal recognizes that he/she is in a huge talent war and works really hard to make sure his/her school has a team of great teachers, organized and motivated to act like a high-performing team (the individual superstar teacher – the heroic loner – is not the unit of change; it’s a winningteam of teachers filling a school that really drives success).
Sadly, however, for the 95% of principals in this country whose teachers are unionized, one or both hands are tied behind their backs. Seniority, certification, and lockstep pay rules and other union-dictated nonsense make it extremely difficult to, over time, build and maintain a winning team in dozens of ways.
The answer here, of course, isn’t to make the HPSs stop “cheating”, but rather to remove the straightjackets and allow every school to compete.
10) The differences among schools that should and must exist, depending on who the students are, have profound implications for reform broadly. The techniques that are necessary to fix catastrophically failing schools (almost always serving the poorest black and brown children, usually in inner cities – exactly the ones, of course, who most need the best schools and teachers to have any chance in life) are very different from the techniques necessary to improve the middle (say, 60%) of schools, which aren’t failing, but rather are mediocre (but the students and parents think they’re fine – until it’s too late, generally when they show up to college and realize they’re not prepared to do college level work).
It’s an interesting question: which is the bigger problem: the worst 20% of our K-12 schools or the three-times-larger-but-not-as-
bad middle 60%? I honestly don’t know the answer to this question, but I hope to explore this in future emails… But I do know that the action plan for reform – and the political plan to support it – are very different.
As one example, I think setting up achievement school districts like the one in TN that Chris Barbic runs are very smart. The ASD in TN only covers 5% of the schools (going to 10% soon) in the state (nearly all of which are in Memphis) and does lots of things what would be very hard for middle-of-the-pack schools: it removes the worst schools from the local district and puts them under total control of Chris and the ASD. He can take the building, turn a school over to another operator (like a high-performing charter network), remove every adult in the building, etc. – just the kind of drastic (and, needless to say, politically unpopular) steps that are required to turn around the very worst, chronically failing schools. (This is what Gov. Christie and Supt. Cerf are doing in Camden as well, by the way – keep your eye on this city, one of the very poorest in the country. KIPP is taking 25% of Camden’s 13,000 students in the next few years and other top charter networks are taking the rest; it’s like New Orleans, but a lot smaller.) In contrast, consider the complete sh*t show that erupted in NYC every time Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein tried to close even the most notorious dropout factory. Grrrrrr!