In this op-ed on the74 from a charter management operator and private school choice program director in Florida, their argument for the supremacy of school choice hinges on this tautological formula:
“We don’t think one option is necessarily better than another. Every child is different. Therefore, we need a diverse set of learning options to meet the needs of every child.”
I had to stop and read that seemingly indefensible and pithy line.
“Every child is different.”
What does this really mean? Every child is different in what sense?
Of course, every child is not the same person, therefore each one is a distinct human being. Each has their own set of fingerprints, their own personality, and so on. But one would assume that what the authors really mean here is that every child LEARNS differently. Therefore, apparently, that means different types of schools can address different types of learners.
I’ve been a teacher of special education for 7 years, so I think I have some sense of a few of the differences and challenges that some kids can face in learning. But I would not go so far as to claim that every child learns differently. In fact, I would rather claim that most kids learn far more similarly than they do differently, in whatever way you construct the meaning of “different.”
The authors seem to agree with this in the end, as they close their piece with a call to unity:
“Let’s continue to have healthy debates about choice, accountability, and everything else in our space. But let’s also remember that our common goals far outweigh whatever differences we may have.”
The primary difference between children seems to lie in the levels of pre-existing and acculturated knowledge and skills that they bring to a classroom. But that doesn’t mean they learn differently. It just means they come to a school at different levels of academic performance, language, and ability.
Some schools do a better job at meeting kids where they are and educating them (some charters, some district, some private). Some schools do a great job at weeding out kids with lower skills and knowledge so they can maintain the appearance of high performance (Ahem, probably quite a few private schools).
So the issue may really be more about quality (regulations) and admissions policies than it is about choice.
I know I sound pretty nit-picky here, but I think it’s important to call out fallacious statements like this. I’m totally on board with increasing the diversity of QUALITY options for low-income parents. But I’m not on board with increasing school choice just because “choice.” Nor am I on board with the idea that different kids need different schools.
There’s a name for that. It’s called “segregation.”
There’s a whole lot of processed food in our grocery stores. Tons of options for how to increase our obesity rates and decrease our life spans. Every human being is different! Different cookies for every person!
In case you’ve missed it, the Baltimore Sun has run an excellent series on segregated schools in Baltimore County: Bridging the Divide
Part 1: The struggle to move past segregated schools
“You are potentially causing our property values in Academy Heights to plummet!”
Part 2: Struggles of new East Baltimore school show challenges of integration
“Schools filled with students living in high concentrations of poverty are like boats going against a strong tide.”
Part 3: Within integrated schools, de facto segregation persists
“Victoria Howard said being in classes with black students made her feel more at ease, but she believes “nothing changes if everyone’s just too comfortable.”
“Exposing people to being around different kinds of people is how we acclimate and how we change,” she said. “And that’s important when we leave high school. Because out in the world, you don’t get to pick who you’re around.”
And The Grade has a behind-the-scenes take on the creation of the series.
“If I had covered it with someone who thought the same way as I did, it probably wouldn’t have been as strong,” says Green.
And here’s another comprehensive piece on integrating schools from City Limits
To increase diversity Goldsmith says, “You need middle class families that have some commitment to public education and are willing to vote with their child.” You can attract such families, he says, with schools that offer a quality education, have inspired leadership and can “create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive to all.”
This is from an older piece about the Upper West Side squabbles over rezoning. Worth bringing back up here.
. . .”We moved here basically for that school, and that school is kind of like our right.”
Because apparently “public” is now synonymous with “private.”
Public service over property value: Ann Holton suggests how white parents can make integration a value
“My parents did a good job of helping us feel like we were part of something bigger than ourselves, something that really mattered. That influenced me in all kinds of ways.
“It influenced me toward a career in public service, and more immediately, the experience of going to school with people who were from different backgrounds. My background was not only white, but homogenous: Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, upper middle class. I didn’t know much of anybody who came from different backgrounds, and that experience of being with folks who were different, and yet discovering how much similarity we had across differences, it was a very important part of my education, and I have valued that throughout and including in my role as secretary of education.”
“In the school districts of the rich and the ruling, this equilibrium between voluntary participation and the ability to exit is the essential tension that drives performance. It’s a game for the privileged, but it’s a game they win.”
Bradford’s assertion here is interesting. But should individuals be able to wield “equivalent force” against public institutions? The “public” is by definition an aggregate of individuals—the people as a whole—and an institution that is a “public” institution therefore serves the interests of the many, rather than that of the individual.
Yes, it is true that those with wealth and power are not reliant upon public institutions. But however much those institutions have failed over the years, as Bradford rightly points to, I’m highly skeptical that in the absence of those institutions things would be better.
Public institutions, however problematic, get better through greater civic engagement, not the reverse. I would propose that if those that are better off chose to get more involved in those institutions–as Nikole Hannah Jones has suggested we do–than maybe we’d all be better off.
There was an interesting recent the74 piece on a Philadelphia charter organization, Mastery, which takes low performing schools and works to “turn them around.”
Embedded within this article is the implication that a shift to a focus on the teaching of conceptual math, rather than “rote” procedural teaching, led to a swift downturn in math scores.
“So this year, the network began reintroducing teaching techniques that had been a staple at Mastery schools for years, while seeking a middle ground between no excuses and restorative practices. It’s a ‘journey of trying to find out what’s the right mix,’ Gordon said.
Specifically, the network is reintroducing procedural math instruction, which focuses on rote instruction like memorization and repetition.”
It seems worth digging into this supposition a bit more.
Is Mastery’s downturn in math scores due to the failure of conceptual math in general as a pedagogical approach? Or is it a failure of the network to attract and train teachers who can teach this type of math more effectively?
Or is it a failure in the assessments that were used as a reference? Or was it that conceptual math takes longer to “stick” and pay dividends? Or was it a failure of the curriculum they used to move in a more conceptual direction? . . .
I know, I’ve mostly stopped posting. A conflux of being-really-busy at work, getting-really-sick (turns out I’m allergic to a certain type of antibiotic), and being-overwhelmed-with-information (I get way too many newsletters) and needing to just kind of hit the pause button on everything. And winter.
I guess there’s some kind of game going on, but I’m not a football person, so I’m posting this instead. So here you go:
Former Secretary of Education John King is moving to CEO of Education Trust. But before doing so, his federal office created a great guide to increasing student diversity: Improving Outcomes for All Students: Strategies and Considerations to Increase Student Diversity. NCSD: http://school-diversity.org/pdf/improving-outcomes-diversity.pdf
I’ve always felt like we have a tendency in the world of education to over-emphasize differences between kids rather than focus on what is relatively similar. Similarly, in the world of science there’s often an outsized focus on gender differences. A recent book pushes against this narrative and stresses the social, environmental, contextual impact on creating those differences: “It’s the social circumstances that the fish find themselves in that sculpt their anatomies and their behaviors.” NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/01/26/511734926/the-science-of-gender-no-men-arent-from-mars-and-women-from-venus
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.
There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.
In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.
Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”
Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.
. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?
Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .
. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”
This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.
But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:
. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”
A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.
…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.
. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.
Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.
But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:
Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.
. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.
So the solution? Software!
Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!
But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:
We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.
I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.
The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):
The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.
. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.
I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.
. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.
A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.
And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.
I’ve been moving apartments this week, so I haven’t been as closely attuned to all things ED, but here’s a few links worth reviewing when you take a break from admiring the swiftly changing color of the leaves on this lovely autumnal weekend.
There’s a school entitled Michaela that has apparently been getting some guff in the UK reminiscent of the strong debate that Success Academy engenders here in NYC.
Tom Bennett, the founder of ResearchED (coming to a D.C. near you in a couple of weekends), writes a defense of the school, noting that while it’s intense structure and discipline are not for everyone, critics need to get off their high horses.
Doug Lemov has also taken a gander, and he challenges educators to learn from innovations that are worth emulating, rather than merely criticize from afar. In that spirit, he is exploring some of the practices he finds worthy of stealing in a series of blogs, beginning with this one on Michaela’s “maximum impact, minimum effort” grading policy. Schools renowned for sucking the pith out of young teachers (like, ahem, Success Academy) would do well to consider it. Teaching is a demanding profession, and the more we can reduce paperwork that bears little impact, the better.
I haven’t been much aware of any controversy around Michaela, but I have been very aware of it’s innovative and research-based approach to instruction and curriculum design, thanks to the consistently trenchant writing of Joe Kirby. This summer I switched to an out-of-classroom role designing professional development, and I’ve found myself continually revisiting some of his posts, as well as blogs of other UK educators such as Daisy Christodoulou, Alex Quigley, David Didau, David Fawcett, and many others. I don’t know what’s in the water over there, but UK educators seem to spend a lot more time blogging about practice and research, rather than politics, and it’s refreshing.
Speaking of Research
Deans for Impact founder Benjamin Riley penned a piece for Kappan presenting the case for educator practice to be informed by principles from cognitive science research. And if you haven’t read Deans for Impact’s The Science of Learning, you should probably make that priority number one. Another resource I’ve found myself continually revisiting when designing professional learning.
The Movement for Increasing School Diversity is Growing
The Hechinger Report took a deep dive in an analysis of the desegregation and resegregation of Greenville, Mississippi. Many insights and lessons to heed here.
The Century Foundation released a report on the increasing efforts at school integration, while highlighting the dinosaur progress occurring in NYC.
And Nautil.us magazine highlights research from MIT that “has shown that in both the U.S. and European Union, wealth is predicted by the diversity of face-to-face communication and that both poverty and crime levels are predicted by the isolation of a community.” This confirms my premise for increasing school and neighborhood diversity: we can only really fight discrimination and bias, and improve long-term outcomes, when we interact daily, face-to-face, with others who are different than us.
I’m playing around with the formatting of these weekly roundups. Let me know what works or doesn’t work for you. UPDATE: looks like links in pictures weren’t working, so I added embedded links to each article.
A nice overview of the relationship between architectural design and well-being from The Guardian’s Cities.
“One, two, three, four!” they counted in Finnish. (For good measure, I jumped into the ditch, too.) The teacher, Pelo, explained that this experience represented how she and the two aides aspire to teach the kindergartners in the woods. She described this approach as “secret” learning, when children are unaware that they’re learning academic content. In the forest, these Finnish educators might lead the children to find sticks of varying lengths and organize them from shortest to longest, form letters out of natural materials, or count mushrooms.
It’s likely that as long as humans and their institutions hold prejudices and bias, their designs will reflect them. But some progress is possible. Two decades ago architect Ronald Mace imagined a new standard, in which anything humans make — a new piece of technology, a public park, a household product — is usable by everyone. He called this idea “universal design.” Today it’s an enforceable legal standard in Norway. One way to help us get there? Make sure the design process itself is also accessible to all.
“All of the choice-based reform efforts that they’ve come up with over the last 20 years have been designed to bring back all the white people who left after Brown v. Board. But the irony is that, if [districts] keep relying on choice, they’re going to be set up for failure because white people will not enroll their children in schools unless they’re already [predominantly] white,” said Natalie Hopkinson, a black parent and journalist, referring to extensive research showing privileged, white parents tend to send their kids to schools that they perceive as “high status.” “So the segregation keeps repeating itself as long as you rely on choice as a way to make the change.”
In the Philadelphia school district, 37 percent of the system’s 144,000 are chronically absent. Among high-school students, the figure shoots up to 51 percent. The districts in Baltimore and Milwaukee have similar numbers. For Cleveland and Detroit, the chronic absenteeism rates are around 50 percent, and more than 60 percent of Cleveland’s high-schoolers missed more than three weeks of school a year.
The report’s authors write that one common denominator linking these cities is the “nearly 100 years of historical actions that aimed to segregate African American populations in sections of the city with the poorest housing, greatest proximity to industrial pollutants, greatest exposure to violence, and highest unemployment rates, resulting in widespread inter-generational poverty.”
EdBuild has released a damning indictment of economic segregation in the United States. The report and interactive sheds much-needed light upon an illogical system that ensures poor kids are kept segregated by arbitrary district lines and confined to poorly resourced schools.
I urge you to read EdBuild’s full report. There’s a scathing resonance to the sentences that helps to convey how cruelly unjust and unnecessary school district lines are. Here’s one example:
“The fact, too seldom acknowledged, is that district boundaries themselves compound the inequalities that our public schools were intended to conquer. In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”
“Our wealthy are consigning lower-income students to a lesser caste by cordoning off their wealth and hiding behind the notion of ‘local control’.”
Reading this report, I couldn’t help but think of parallels to the current political battle on NYC’s Upper West Side over potential rezoning of a school district. The rezoning would place a well-off segregated school in the same zone as a segregated school that serves the projects just down the street.
“. . . families who have made a decision to live in a certain area . . . made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”
Our public schools have become de facto private schools for those with money and means. Such parents can “invest” in the property that allows them to live within the district boundaries of their chosen school. They then can rely upon hale and hardy school district boundaries to keep less fortunate kids out. In this dismal reality of the US education system, instead of a Game of Thrones, it’s the Game of School Zones. This cut throat game determines the fate of our nation, and we play it with our children.
What does a public school really stand for in this country?
Must providing a quality education for some students mean denying a quality education to others?
Does ownership of property entitle you to be relieved of any commitment to the common good?
We’ve questioned Success Academy’s “success” on this blog before. These statisticians bring a new lens to that question.
I don’t want to denigrate the good work that Success Academy teachers and students are doing. There are practices and systems well worth replicating and investigating in these schools. But Eva Moskowitz’s political framing and marketing of her schools as the solution to poverty is problematic.