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Questions for Deborah


Dear Deborah,

I am still somewhat unsure about the difference between your small schools and the small schools created by various school districts, or your small schools and the charter schools that are popping up in many districts.

I just read in the LA Daily News that Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, has asked voters to approve a new multi-billion-dollar bond issue to support new charter schools and "small learning communities." Not long ago, the Broad Foundation (and Eli Broad himself) committed $23 million to create many new charter schools in Los Angeles.

How will these schools differ from what you did at Central Park East? Will they replicate the promise of the Annenberg Challenge? Are they designed to achieve what you tried to do in the early 1990s? What are the similarities, what are the differences?

How do you feel about the dramatic expansion of KIPP charters? Soon KIPP will have 40-plus charters in Houston, and a growing number in many other cities. KIPP boasts a high graduation rate and unusually high test scores. How do you feel about their methods and their success?

Does the charter movement promote the privatization of public education? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

And last, why do you think so many super-wealthy individuals are so deeply interested in starting charter schools? Do they see public education as a government bureaucracy in need of an injection of private enterprise? In New York City recently, we have seen an upsurge of hedge fund managers and others with vast resources choosing to start charter schools, in some cases actually getting set up in a public school building. For example, Courtney Sale Ross operates a charter school in the ground floor of the Department of Education's headquarters. So, when people come to visit the school system's headquarters, the school on display is a charter school. This was supposed to be a showcase school, but it has run through a string of principals and teachers in its short life (see article in New York Sun detailing problems in Ross Global Academy Charter School). Another charter school is supposed to be inserted into P.S. 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, by one Spencer Robertson, son of billionaire Julian Robertson. I wonder why the billionaires don't buy their own space instead of taking it away from regular public schools that lack their deep pockets. In NYC, nearly three dozen charter schools have been wedged into public school buildings, and you can imagine the culture clash between the two schools in the same space, which is accentuated when the charter students—with private funding—have smaller classes, more technology, etc. A group called Democrats for Education Reform, run by wealthy hedge fund managers and other zillionaires, has the primary goal of creating more charter schools.

So, what gives here? How did some of your ideas migrate to become the plaything of the super-rich?



Good questions. I think they fit into the Big Sort - from Bill Bishops book by the same title. The subtitle is "Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart". As we break away from a school system that should keep us together and instead form schools/systems that only reflect our own beliefs, we get further and further away from "one nation, indivisible" I think the charter school movement is part of this.

Bill Clinton brought up The Big Sort in his speech at the National Governors Association semiannual meeting on July 12. He commented, "Underneath this apparent accommodation to our diversity, we are in fact hunkering down in communities of like-mindedness, and it affects our ability to manage difference." I have had his words on my mind since I first read them, and look forward to reading the Bill Bishops book.

I am in a small library in Hardin, Montana. A small library has some of the qualities of a small school: you can get to know everyone and everything there, and if it's a friendly place, you may feel quite comfortable. On the downside, they don't have what I was looking for: the Federalist Papers. I found the first two articles in an anthology of American historical documents, but that's it.

The most glaring problems with smallness (of library and school) are perhaps paucity of resources and uniformity of thought. This, to me, is a danger no matter what the source of funding. That doesn't mean small schools can't be wonderful places. Of course they can. But I am wary of adopting the "small school solution" (or "approach").

Is the local community really closer to the truth than the national (or city, or state) leadership? It seems self-governed schools can go astray under certain conditions, for instance:

1. when the local community has ingrained prejudices. For instance, here in Hardin, where I am visiting, many of the white residents would rather not have the Native American kids in "their" schools at all. Some of the teachers share this attitude.

2. when the local community is hostile to certain subjects (such as evolution or literature). Even in Brooklyn, I met teachers who said Pushkin's stories were too disturbing for anyone under 18--same with the writings of Dostoevsky.

3. when parents care more about their children's "success" on paper than about their actual education (horrors if little Buffy gets a B).

4. when parents are too busy or overwhelmed to take part in PTA meetings or other events intended for them.

5. when the push for "consensus" (among teachers and students) makes no room for those who offer a well-considered and unpopular perspective.

Perhaps the wealthy enjoy funding small schools for the very reasons listed above. They can realize their own visions and take pride in helping children of many backgrounds. Part of this is laudable, but part depends on a certain exclusivity, no matter how it is framed. How can one create a small school that fosters largeness of mind? Surely it is possible, but could it ever be the norm?

Diana Senechal

In this post from Diane, and the previous post for Deb, the issue of class size is mentioned, and then quickly passed over. But to the extent that a small or big school works well, it is dependent on class size. In general, the smaller the class size, the more likely students are to feel a connection with the teacher.

There is an anthropological principle that any one person has a tough time relating to more than 150 people at one time, but in scheduling public high school teachers, this is routinely ignored when they face 160 or more students per day. And this does not even get to the heart of good teaching, which also involves grading papers of 160 (or more) students, particularly those teachers who are ambitious enough to make writing assignments requiring 5-10 minutes each to grade well. Private schools, such as those attended by billionaires’ children, routinely have small classes, and select those students they get. I am befuddled that teachers do not point to such workload demands more routinely.

Perhaps I have a bias, having just finished Larry Cuban’s excellent book The Blackboard and the Bottom Line. One of Cuban’s points is that business people have tried to shape up the schools before (in the early twentieth century), but effectively gave up by 1930 when it was concluded that the logic of K-12 education is fundamentally different than businesses, and should be managed with this in mind.

But historical memories are short. There have been more efforts undertaken since 1970 (and particularly 1980) when business management models were again adopted as a means to fix the school system. NCLB of course is one of the more ambitious expression of this movement.

The good news is that as in the early twentieth century, the logic of schooling, which is inherently different than business, is perhaps finally reasserting itself as policies designed to create a more educated public do not do so. As perhaps the winds change, I hope that, the education community will point out that small class size, intimate groups (whether in the context of large or small schools), is at the heart of what makes a good school, and not the latest assessment fad. After all, small class size is what rich people give their own children at private schools, and apparently, as Diane notes, in the public charter schools that they themselves subsidize.

Great questions Diane,

The reason wealthy people try to improve education is not a big mystery to me. It is not much different for many people like me who are not wealthy but are usually termed as “activists”. We see teachers, schools and even whole countries that teach their kids much better than we do. You do not have to ask the successful why they are better. They tell anyone who will listen. Browse the Achievement First web site. They spell out 12 lessons they learned in reforming schools.

The wealthy try to take some of what the successful educators say and apply it. You can not do that in public education. Education schools and public education systems for the most part think they are doing just fine. Educators dismiss any suggestion that our kids and the public disserves better. We keep pouring money into public education at a rate of about 2 and a half times the rate of inflation. And we get no results.

That leaves people like me with no where to go. The wealthy tell us that they feel the same as people like me do if you listen to them.

Tom Linehan


Well stated.

Why do you think the reasons that schools do not adopt quality reforms (such as those stated on Achievement First)?

Erin Johnson

Erin Johnson said:
Well stated.
Why do you think the reasons that schools do not adopt quality reforms (such as those stated on Achievement First)?
Erin Johnson

I think there are three reasons. First of all, education attracts far too many people who do not handle questioning well. There is actually hard evidence for this. Secondly, education schools, administrators, unions and many long time educators have a vested interest in the status quo. For instance, what if we hired teachers on their demonstrated ability to teach and made all public schools stand alone facilities without central administrations? Denmark has done the latter for more than a century and a half. A Brookings study recently recommended the former. Thirdly among the leadership and among much of the rank and file educators there is a Constructivist/Progressive/Socialist dogma that is inviolable and absolute. Nonbelievers and nonconformist are often drummed out of education. It even prevents them from using their own studies that contradict this dogma. Diane’s book, Left Back, contains several good examples of this.


I was with you up until "Constructivist/Progressive/Socialist dogma." I looked at the Achievement First website to see what kind of right wing kind of thing you might be selling to respond in that way to what goes on in most schools. I didn't see it.

It would appear that Achievement First has compiled the same kind of solid list that many entities have come up with when examining commonalities among successful schools. They are well run places where teachers are selected for their ability to teach; staff collaborate to develop solid instruction based on a clear set of curricular guidelines; they use data to determine what works and what needs work; they plan for improvement.

I agree that this is not the norm--and that you have hit on some of the biggest barriers to any kinds of change. But constructivist/progressive/socialist dogma? Is it the I/We You progression that you believe runs counter to constructivist teaching? i can buy that, perhaps. But where are you perceiving any socialist leanings? And how do they interfere with any goal of improved education for all students? There are a few socialist examples (Denmark, for instance) that we could learn from, if we were of a mind to, I think.


Going with your thought experiment:

How would you measure how well a teacher can teach?

What benefits do you foresee with making every school a stand alone facility?

How would you change the leadership of school, particularly if you made every school a stand alone facility?

Erin Johnson

Deborah wrote:

“But constructivist/progressive/socialist dogma? Is it the I/We You progression that you believe runs counter to constructivist teaching? i can buy that, perhaps. But where are you perceiving any socialist leanings? And how do they interfere with any goal of improved education for all students? There are a few socialist examples (Denmark, for instance) that we could learn from, if we were of a mind to, I think.”

I see Socialist leanings throughout the history of education. Dewey, Count and many of the other early constructivists expressed gushed praise onto Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin even as Stalin purged constructivists in the Soviet Union in the 30s. Albert Shanker proposed to have wages based on grades. Weingarten’s inaugural address proposes as did Dewey to make public schools the center of the indoctrination and community services.

We do not teach our kids to read in part because so many educators are busy indoctrinating our kids. My daughter when in High School discussed with me a project for Martin Luther King’s Birthday. The material she showed me had liberal Democrats responsible for the civil rights legislation that Johnson pushed through Congress. I brought out my copy of Vantage Point. In it I showed her President Johnson’s account, which gave much of the credit to Everett Dirksen and other Republicans. The makeup of Congress at the time made the teacher’s account impossible. The teacher distorted the history to suit her own political views. The facts meant nothing. When I brought this matter up to the local Superintendent he just laughed saying that he knew of many cases that were much worse. The Assistant Superintendent piped in that his college teachers still worse.

Project Star is often cited as showing an effect size of 0.2 for lowering class size for k-2. You never hear from educators that the same data show an effect size of over 0.6 for all grades if you improve the quality of the teacher. Dogma again is getting in the way of not only the truth but also of good education policy. Educators should work three times as hard to purge their ranks of the bottom third of the teaching corps as they do to reduce class size.

If the teachers were teaching Von Mises I would feel the same. We are paying public educators to teach our kids as described in the Achievement First web site. Not to social engineer the world.

Tom Linehan

Dewey was a supporter of Mussolini and Stalin? I don't particularly care what your ideological take, but at a minimum you can accurately render other's real views. What you are suggesting is the polar opposite of what he actually thought and said.

I shall defer to you on Dewey’s views on his opinion of Stalin. I am sure you are right in his specific case. Sorry about over playing my hand.

But if I got anything from your book, Left Back, it was that many, if not most, of the education gurus and pundits over the years were blinded by their own left wing ideology. Dewey was one of them. In your book, as I recall, you state at least a couple of times something to the effect that Dewey was reticent to criticize his fellow left wingers. Dewey also clearly stated his preference for the planned society in many instances.

In planned endeavors you have to have a feedback mechanism such as the one in Achievement First. Educators oppose it on ideological grounds. Bartlett’s theory of schemata lacked this feedback mechanism which others later added. Constructivists embraced Bartlett, but ignored the feedback loop to the detriment of our kids. That would involve parents. The Socialist perspective is to replace parents, churches and most other institutions with public education. That is what they say over and over again. Basically that is Weingarten’s message.

As for my political views, I am a Classical Liberal. Both left and right wing extremes are nutty in my view. But in politics you can put people with my views in most any town in the proverbial phone booth. I try to look strictly at the hard facts as I can find them. And it seems to me undeniable from their own words that most educators are far left. And much of the added burden on public education in this country comes as a consequence of that bias. I have attended countless school board meetings over the years. Seldom is learning or achievement ever mentioned. But these same boards discuss an endless stream of programs that have little or nothing to do with education and everything to do with social engineering.

I don't know a lot about history, but I don't think it's an insult to someone to say that very early in the 20th century he or she was an admirer, even a supporter of Stalin and Mussolini. What is obvious to us today about Communism and fascism was not at all obvious a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago. And, as I recall from Diane's book, there was quite an infatuation with the wonderful Russian educational adventure by some educational leaders in America. To their credit they were able to see the handwriting on the wall by the middle of the 1930's.

Indeed it was a lot more than educational leaders who felt the appeal of Marxism. The idea of making a "workers' paradise" as a result of simply working and planning together was not only emotionally appealing, it also seemed pretty sensible, and the depression of the thirties seemed to give strong confirmation of all that. The appeal remains for many people even today. Some people who feel this appeal will claim that Communism and Marxism have not been disproven, they have never been tried, and they have a point. And many other people, I think, feel the appeal of some part of Marxism, the idealistic part.

So I have no idea whether it is accurate or not to say that Dewey was an admirer or supporter of Mussolini and Stalin. As has been discussed before, he said a lot, and a lot of what he said is subject to various interpretations.

Like Tom Linehan I call myself a "classical liberal", and I also call myself a "Jeffersonian liberal". Of course terms like this are subject to multiple meanings. People who know me simply call me a conservative. And I agree with Tom that most educators have a left-wing ideology, but again the terms are so subject to varying interpretations that it doesn't seem worthwhile to argue about it.

But I don't want to leave it at that. Tom used the phrase "Constructivist/Progressive/Socialist dogma", as well as "left wing ideology". I can understand that many people wouldn't get to much out of this phrases, or might react negatively to them. However I think these terms describe, or refer to, something that I recognize and think is important. It explains why Marxism is far from dead even today. But that something is hard to define, and I don't think anything in our usual political or psychological vocabulary pins it down very well. I have struggled in the past to try to define and analyze it, to conceptualize it if you will. I'm not sure I've been very successful, but I do have two articles on my website that I think are relevant here. So, if I may be so bold, here are links. Let's Do It Together , which presents the basic idea, and A Personal Indictment Of Ed School which implicitly applies the idea. Unfortunately they are both very long, but perhaps some would like to take a look.


You wrote: "First of all, education attracts far too many people who do not handle questioning well. There is actually hard evidence for this."

Could you point to the evidence? I would be very interested in reading more about this. I suspect you are right, and would like to learn more.


Diana Senechal

Constructivism is a fancy name for the claim that human beings construct their ideas about what the world looks like, how it works, etc. out of a complex of individual decisions based on idiocyncratic experiences. That doesn't undermine or confirm the idea that there is something called "the truth" or "the facts", but helps us see how come we disagree so much! By itself it needn't be a right or left theory of human knowledge. One can agree and work hard to manipulate either the experiences or the interpretations by presenting different facts etc, or one can use it as a challenge. I find it a provocative idea that can promote the kind of intellectual skill that I seek in my students. I nlow people of the left who primarily seek kids who are replicas of themselves and right wingers who love a good challenge. And vice versa.

It's always amazing to me, as one who has spent 45 years in public schools and educated three children and as of now 4 grandchildren in them how rarely I run into a teacher with the kind of leftwing biases some of you apparently have run into. Are we running into different people or interpreting them differently? That's a challenge for us too.

It's this kind of challenge that I'm delighted to see that we've provoked. I'm also intrigued by the fact that the commenters to each of our columns are often quite different.

Have a wondrful month of August without us.


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