Monday, July 11, 2011

No, Seriously: No Excuses

Another day, another article in the NY Times that misrepresents reformers…  I don't know what's worse: malicious hatchet jobs like Ravitch's, or articles by thoughtful friends like Joe Nocera or, in this case, Paul Tough, that are well-intentioned nevertheless manage to misrepresent reformers.  I'm a fan of Tough and highly recommend his book about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America (, but am not as big of a fan of his article in today's NYT Magazine.  In it, he makes some fair points, but also some unfair ones, in particular his assertion that reformers are satisfied with (and make excuses for) low levels of success such as the fact that only 17% of Chicago's Urban Prep Charter School's 11th graders passed the state exam.  Here's an excerpt from his article and below are my responses and Jonathan Alter's:

a more productive response would be to recommit to the principle that 15 (or 17) percent proficiency just isn't good enough, no matter where you live. To acknowledge this fact is not to say that reform is doomed; it is not blaming students or insulting teachers. It is merely reminding ourselves that the 83 percent of 11th-grade students at Urban Prep who didn't pass the state exam, and the 85 percent of 9th-grade students at Bruce Randolph who didn't pass the state writing test, deserve better.

So why are some reformers resorting to excuses­? Most likely for the same reason that urban educators from an earlier generation made excuses: successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard. But it is not impossible, as reformers have repeatedly demonstrated on a small scale. To achieve systemwide success, though, we need a shift in strategy.

First, here's Alter's response (shared with his permission):


Hi Paul:


As I told you ahead of time, any comment from you is almost certain to be fair comment. And like all of your work, your piece was thoughtful and welcome.  I agree with the basic point that reformers need to broaden their agenda to family support and not mimic the excuse-making of the Diane Ravitches of the world. Their entire argument is built around excusing poor performance because of poverty; ours must not be.


If I had to do it over again, I would leave the comparison to affluent Denver-area schools (one sentence in a broader critique of Ravitch) out of my piece. 


My only issue with your article was your use of the word "motive" as obliquely ascribed to me. My motive was not to offer excuses; it was to send a shot across the bow of those who would advance their anti-reform agenda by running down (ok, not sliming) year-over-year success. One of the great reform successes of recent months has been to move the student and teacher evaluation debate from apples and oranges (as applied by NCLB) to in-school, September-to-June assessments of IMPROVEMENT.


This is, I agree, not the only standard; there should be a core standard against which all performance must be measured. Thats a central reform tenet and one I've long endorsed. And you're right that 15 percent proficiency against that standard isn't nearly good enough.


But I never wrote on Bloomberg View or said on the radio that it was. My point was to keep steady improvement as part of the conversation and to raise a tonal question: Should the reward for tripling proficiency over three years be the chance to see your improvements, insufficient as they are,  run down in the NY Times?


I can agree that Obama and Duncan might have chosen other schools to cite. But put yourself in the shoes of teachers at Bruce Randolph, which you neglected to mention, sits, literally, in disputed Denver Latino gang territory. After years of utter failure, you've got things moving in the right direction. And suddenly because you operate under waivers from union rules (let's face it: if this were a traditional union school Ravitch would not be going after it), your  improvements are being derided.


So, yes, we shouldn't excuse 15 percent proficiency. But we also shouldn't run down year-to-year improvement. After all, that's what we want, isn't it?


With warm regards,


Jonathan Alter 


Here's my first response:


Hi Paul,


I, too, am a fan of your work, but was disappointed with your recent piece for the reasons Jonathan outlined.  It unfortunately echoed Joe Nocera's piece, making we reformers out to be naïve zealots who dismiss the importance of outside-of-school factors.  We don't!  (see my response to Nocera's op ed, below)


Nor are we satisfied with, for example, only 17% of Urban Prep's 11th graders passing the state tests – but Tim King isn't either!  You completely misrepresent his HuffPo column, selecting a few words to make it seem like he's making excuses when, in fact he wrote the following: "To be sure, the test scores of our students still have plenty of room for improvement." 


King then goes on to present very compelling data that the Black male students at his school are doing MUCH better in terms of test scores (as low as they are), attrition/dropout, and college attendance/dropout than Black male students in Chicago and at the nearest regular public school, and, equally importantly, the trends are all strongly moving in the right direction.  Isn't this something to be celebrated, even as we all recognize the huge amount of work still to be done?  Obviously, schools don't go from 10% to 90% overnight: they go from 10% to 15% to 20%, etc. 


By the way, how could you fail to mention that Ravitch included completely wrong information in her NYT op ed (apparently from a blogger – that's the level of "research" she does these days in her jihad against any type of reform) – here's King:


Ravitch cites a blogger's reporting that "only 17 percent passed state tests, compared to 64 percent in the low-performing Chicago public school district." Neither Ravitch nor the blogger she credits managed to get their facts straight; the district average on the 11th grade state test for the percent of students meeting/exceeding state standards is 29 percent, not 64 percent.


Below are my further thoughts, plus an article by Kevin Carey pointing out Ravitch's inconsistencies.


Best regards,




And here's my response to Tough's reply:


Hi Paul,


Thanks for your reply.


To your email and article, you should know that I first heard of it from a friend (I'm in Istanbul) who emailed me saying, "Did you read the article in the NYT Magazine slamming reformers?"  You might say that's not fair, but if one were to summarize your article in one sentence, it would be, "Ed reformers are wrong/disingenuous/hypocritical to celebrate progress at a school like Urban Prep because, while the relative performance and gains might be ok, the absolute level of knowledge is still poor." 


I don't think that's right.  Of course any of us would be horrified at the prospect of sending our kids to any school that had anything close to 17% of kids passing any kind of test (except, perhaps, BC Calculus!).  We want KIPP-like results at EVERY school in America and won't stop fighting until every school (or at least the ones serving the most vulnerable/disadvantaged kids) has a great leader and teachers, extended school day, high expectations, a rich, robust, rigorous curriculum, early childhood education (KIPP does this in Texas, for example, where charters can get funding for it), interventions with parents (I'm sure you're aware of this – Jay Mathews has a lot of great stories about this in Work Hard, Be Nice), etc. 


But we reformers are also realistic – this is a journey of 1,000 miles and we need to celebrate small victories and modest gains as they occur, not withhold all applause until the journey is finished (let's be honest, that journey will almost certainly not be finished within our lifetimes) – so it doesn't help the cause when a thoughtful, informed, knowledgeable friend like you makes us look clueless (or like jerks) for celebrating one of those bits of progress. 


While there's still a LOT of room for improvement at Urban Prep, if I could push a button and convert every one of the 2,000 or so dropout factories in the U.S. to where Urban Prep is today, with the positive momentum that it has, I'd do so in a heartbeat.


Best regards,




No, Seriously: No Excuses

Published: July 7, 2011

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