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The Promises That Count


Dear Diane,

What a week we’ve been through—full of lessons about accountability as it’s practiced in the world of high finance.

NYC’s grading policy is indeed embarrassing, Diane. Had they used test experts—like Daniel Koretz—they might have invented something better. But no single grade, even a smart one, can avoid giving data a bad name. Even in the hands of wise and knowledgeable teachers, summing up an individual kid by an A-F never works well, for many of the same reasons. It’s why schools like ours—CPE, Mission Hill—develop tools of assessment that don’t try to combine apples and oranges, and include external and internal assessors.

More shocking than these grades, however, is the grade NYC’s mayor gives himself. Did you read Bloomberg’s sharp condemnation of The New York Times’ editorial, which recommended “minor” changes in mayoral control? (Readers: The NY Times has been consistently for mayoral control, and for Bloomberg).

Bloomberg: “The idea that a mayor’s authority over schools should be checked by an independent board” (as the Times suggested) “threatens to return the schools system to the bad old days.” Without total control, he goes on, “we would never have been able to end the shameful practice of social promotion….” Good example. The lay panel he appointed was poised to vote “no” on his plan to automatically hold over 4th graders with low test scores. So he got rid of the majority. Since then they’ve been compliant—i.e. not independent. But, of course, so has the data about “social promotion” been “compliant”—i.e. dishonest. To begin with, before Bloomberg rode into town to save us at least half the kids entered high school at least one year over age—all hold-overs. Many were 2-3 years over-age! The hard data demonstrated that holding kids over was a sure fire way to increase drop-outs. Kids who entered high school at 16 or older almost certainly drop out. They still do. The bad old and “good” new look remarkably alike.

Bloomberg: The times we live in “demand full accountability to one person.” Oversight by independent bodies is a “recipe for failure.” How is that for a civics lesson?

I read Paul Tough’s book about the Promise Academy in Harlem. You are right, Diane, it’s fascinating. Paul Tough is able to see complexity the way Bloomberg can’t. Tough gives us a rare blow-by-blow account of Geoffrey Canada’s struggle to prove a point (including a comparison to the KIPP schools). Canada was determined not to be choosy about whom he accepted at his secondary school that he started with 6th graders at the bottom of the academic barrel. He also decided not to fall into the boot camp trap. But he was so focused on math and reading test scores that over time he felt he had no choice but (1) to move more and more toward being a test-prep boot camp, and then (2) to close the school when that didn’t produce the scores he dreamed of either. He felt he couldn’t compromise about being choosier re. students (as KIPP is, Tough claims) or less dependent on test scores. Instead, he broke his promise to the students and families of the Promise Academy by announcing the closure of the school in March of the school’s third year. “You promised,” they said angrily. "It’s now too late for the 8th graders to find good alternatives for high school," the children’s families cried. It was either breaking his promise to them, or breaking his promise to himself, he says. He hasn’t abandoned the project, or the dream, but….

I think he worried about the wrong promise. Our promise to ourselves is often vanity speaking; the promises that count are the ones we make to others.

I was also curious about the fact that a third of the 6th graders who came to the school—all kids in serious trouble—had left by the 8th grade. Tough doesn’t tell us a lot about that. (It might have been typical school mobility?) Nor does Canada seem to wonder what impact the three years at Promise Academy had on the kids who stayed—other than their test scores. I found that puzzling. Maybe the school had an enormous impact, and would over time have been transformative in real-life ways?

Tough’s posing of Canada’s dilemma—as between the “no excuses” camp and what he calls “Rothstein’s” Big, Bold camp—is a false dichotomy.

There’s no reason we have to put all our eggs in any one basket just to prove our point. Do Tough or Canada doubt that having better jobs, better housing, better medical care, and not having a father in jail makes it easier to do well in life—and get higher test scores along the way? Nor does Richard Rothstein doubt that a school that helps kids build their skills makes a difference. The hard data is clear about this. When it comes to test scores, just having a higher family income “works” for almost all kids. That we can also get higher test scores, and better futures, for many without improving the family’s resources, is also true. How about doing both?

More on the Tough book (“Whatever It Takes”) in weeks to come, as I begin to tackle Tony Bryk’s book, "Trust In Schools." I’m also hoping to send Canada some of the follow-up studies on Central Park East’s work, which tried to look more broadly at the impact of schooling on young people’s futures.

Meanwhile, we have a lot of thinking to do about Bloomberg’s stunning declaration in favor of autocracy. The idea of a balance of power has always applied to the U.S. Army, even in times of war, but apparently not to educating our children? (There’s one risk when we choose politicians from the business world to lead us—they have a limited understanding of accountability, although even they have boards.)




Thank you for a very interesting column--it sent me to the bookstore for Tough's book! I question the distinction you draw between promises to self and promises to others, both in relation to Canada and in general.

It seems Canada's promise of success was a promise to others as well as to himself. According to Tough (p. 135), Canada was "heavily influenced by Stanley Druckenmiller, and not just because Druckenmiller was providing so much of its funding. Canada had come to agree with Druckenmiller that a business model was exactly the right approach for Promise Academy, and for his entire organization."

I doubt that Druckenmiller and the board were indifferent to the school's test results, or that Canada was indifferent to their reactions. I suspect he had made quite a few promises to them and was under considerable pressure to live up to his words.

Nor can one say that he promised "results" to the board and "continuity" to the parents. It appears that he promised the parents both results and continuity. When he spoke to the parents about the closing of the school (p. 239), he said, "When we first talked about opening this school, I made one promise, that we would not have a lousy school."

However one might dispute his definition of "lousy," however one might criticize his decision to let the students and parents down by closing the school, it seems that he was caught between two conflicting promises to others--not between promises to self and promises to others.

That's the Canada part. Beyond that, I have to challenge your statement that "Our promise to ourselves is often vanity speaking; the promises that count are the ones we make to others." Yes, there is often vanity or frivolity in the promises we make to ourselves. But there can also be solemnity. The promises we make to ourselves can be among the most important, and the most difficult to keep.

Diana Senechal

Correction to the above comment: "partial closing," not "closing."

Deb, Is Bloomberg too personally involved in education?

NY is not interesting to me because it is so unlike any of the rest of America as to be non-instructive. One mayor for eight million people is ridiculous on its face; there is no need to add any further detail.

Still, if you insist on a district with a million plus students, at least the mayor should completely delegate everything educational to a superintendant. 'Tis enough that he backs him with the police, fire, sanitation, and other services, that's enough for any one man.

A few afterthoughts. Ed--unfortunately everyone around the country is being old about the success of the NYC form of Mayoral takever. The point, however, is that it's not just Bloomber's involvement. It's his chancellor who is calling the shots (I assume?). But there is no place in the process for external review--even of financial matter

Diane. Of course, it's more conplex than I may have suggested. But if I look someone else in the eye and promise them I will do something I don't think I can claim the fact that I've made a promise to myself that has to be honored first. I recall that when the NYC Board of Ed threatened to renege on some of the commitments they made to our new high school (CPESS in 1987 ) as our 8th graders were moving into 9th, I told them that if that were the case we would keep our 9th graders--since it was too late to get them into a good high school, but would henceforth pull back to just being a junior high or middle school. Fortunately 1987 was the year I won the MacArthur award, and perhaps for that reason they caved. I'll never know. But what I did know was that I had made a promise; kids and families had taken a gamble with us--and I couldn't let them down in that way. Like, Canada, I had also promised myself that I wouldn't pretend I could produce graduates I was proud of unless the city agreed to provide certain services. What we were trying was too bold to be carried out on a shoestring. (What the Board had promised was that we could hire some of the next year's staff ahead of time so that they had time to really buy in, and also so that existing staff could have the additional time to analyze and review our work, and revise as needed.) I wish Canada had found such a 3rd path--keeping his promise to himself and the kids.

Of course, Canada (whose work I have learned a lot from) was, in my view, plain wrong to have bought into the "business model". It's not a model working so splendidly for business. Business and school have some things in common, but a whole lot that is not. It's not easy to translate profits into learning results; and alas like business it is too easy to game both if we want a simple system to report to Boards inexperienced in reading the most important data (kids, classrooms, etc).

It would have been interesting to survey the kids and parents and see what they thought the evidence was for success or failure--they were, after all, in a position to judge the real hard direct data.

Thanks Diana for pushing my thinking.



"The hard data demonstrated that holding kids over was a sure fire way to increase drop-outs." I know retention is a catch-22. If you retain them it increases the possibility of dropping out, BUT isn't promoting kids, when they cannot demonstrate grade level work, also harmful?

To me, this entire discussion corroborates the need for quality pre-school and all day kindergarten programs, especially in urban school districts. It was always my experience with kids experiencing academic problems, the earlier they can be identified the better the chance for remediation and the better possibility of getting them back to grade level before too much of their formative development is stymied.

Good questions. But we ow know that the answer to it is not holding kids over. So continuing to practice it, nd even brag about it is shameful.

How else might we look at it.

The question eventually arises about when kids get particular "certificates"--like diplomas. What should the certificate indicate--and for what purpose is it being used. If a h.s. diploma is a certification that you are fit to enter college, that's one thing; that you are fit for a starting jo as a bus driver, that's another. But from the age of 4 to 18, we are interesting in moving kids along. Thus hey should be learning in the setting most likely to help them succeed--probably with kids their own age, probably not by repeating anything but by approaching things differently, or shifting focus for a while, etc.

I took piano lessons and had this been a school I might have bee "held-over"--and decided to quit. I was certainly slow at being able to read and play music than most of her other students (I noticed that at our annual concerts.) Instead, my teacher kept me moving, and figuring out where and how I needed support. At one point my parents changed teachers. And even today I wish I were better--but I still love it --both playing and listening--and struggle over my playing in ways many peers with as many years of instruction behind them don't. That's "doing no harm"--and I wish, at the very least schools would learn how to do that.



This sounds like a call for the return of the comprehensive high school. I would concur completely.

The contemporary compulsion in this country that every student MUST have a college degree to succeed is mind-boggling. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, beauticians, etc., are all reputable vocations. These jobs are in no immediate danger of being outsourced. None of them require a college degree. They all pay equal to or greater than what a public school teacher makes. They can all sustain a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Someone will always have to perform these mandatory tasks.

So why not plug all the non-college candidates into these career paths? The primary hesitation will come from parents, probably. Many middle class and upper middle class communities will also balk at steering their children into blue collar careers and away from college, even if it’s the pragmatic solution.

Somehow this insane mindset must change. Politicians, the educational establishment, the media, parents, etc., have to face facts about the way most of the rest of the world educates its students.

In the educational timeline of our citizenry, there needs to be a designated point at which a decision is made about the future of each student. Based on the first x number of years of school these kids should be placed in the academic tract and these kids should be placed in the career tract.

It may sound cold, inflexible, and insensitive but it’s a realistic solution to the elitist notion that because our kids are American, they’re all entitled to a college degree. THEY’RE NOT, and we should not be ashamed to pursue this real reform in our public schools.

As an amendment, there should be nothing preventing an individual from pursuing a college education after they've left the public school paradigm and found themselves in a job they're not satisfied with.


Thank you for the clarification, and thank you for pushing my thinking as well. I probably have never made promises to others of the magnitude that you and Canada have made. For a teacher, promises to oneself and promises to others are closely intertwined, and many of them are implicit rather than explicit.

I make an implicit promise to others that I will prepare for my lessons. But in order to accomplish this, I must make many promises to myself. For example, I might promise to plan my lessons well in advance; to do research that might be relevant; to gather and prepare the supplies that I will need; to take care my health and sleep at least six hours; to think about what went well and not so well over the course of any given day; to consult with other teachers about certain students; and so forth.

Or take the promise of completion. I know teachers who have considered quitting mid-year. They ended up completing the year, out of an inner sense of responsibility as well as a sense of commitment to their students. Were they keeping a promise to themselves or to others? I would say both.

Thus it is not always so easy to separate internal and external promises, or to hold one kind of promise in higher esteem than the other. I agree that when one has made a promise to children and parents--a promise that affects their planning as well as their daily lives--one should keep that promise unless there are overwhelming reasons to break it.

Canada's case seems particularly complex--not excusable--in that the very principles that brought the Promise Academy into being (and secured its funding and governance) ended up threatening its continuation. Why does this happen? I don't know. I imagine it takes a combination of optimism and pessimism to see a good plan through.

Diana Senechal


Thanks for writing about my book; I found your comments very thought-provoking.

I write only to correct one misstatement, one I think is significant: Geoffrey Canada did not close the Promise Academy middle school. As I wrote in "Whatever It Takes," Canada decided in the spring of 2007 to suspend admissions at Promise Academy middle school and to postpone expansion into a high school until he felt more confident about the success of his model. The middle school continued to serve two grades during the 2007-2008 school year.

As I explained here, Canada's suspension of admissions lasted for one academic year. By the fall of 2008, test scores were up at the middle school, and the atmosphere had improved. So last month, Canada admitted a new fifth-grade class to the middle school, and the eighth-grade class moved on to become the inaugural ninth-grade class at Promise Academy high school. The two Promise Academies are now educating 1,000 children in elementary, middle and high school, with evident success.

As he pledged to do in the scene in my book where he announces his decision, Canada has also continued, through the Harlem Children's Zone, to provide after-school tutoring, extra-curricular activities and counseling services to the students (in eighth grade in 2006-07) who were forced by his decision to leave Promise Academy and attend school elsewhere in the city.

I think it's fine to judge Canada for his decision to reduce the size of the school for a year -- as you know from reading the book, he certainly judged himself harshly -- but I think it's important to be clear and accurate about just what it was that he decided.

Again, thanks for your comments, and for helping to further this debate.

Paul Tough

Ed’s comments were suggestive. In law they say, “tough cases make bad law.” We could say that the toughest school systems set the worst educational precedents. Whether it’s the size of NYC or the deep failure of D.C., its not a good idea to extrapolate solutions for our entire diverse nation based on extreme cases. Especially in education where trusting relationships are the key, the Machiavellian approaches that some would prescribe for to beat down problems are not appropriate for sustainable reform.

Similarly, BloomKlein may have plenty of personal experience fighting fires in high rise towers, negotiating family abuse cases, and/or addressing child abuse. But would they say that they are angry at the firefighters, police, and social workers unions, so now they are going to appoint novice administrators who will demand new untested methods? Well OK, they might do that. Would they tell the traffic department that we have experience with computers so now they must redo their methods of planning, making their models operate like the financial programs on Wall Street? Would they tell the Port Authority that they are wasting too much time waiting for concrete to dry and arbitrarily demand they speed up the process of laying foundations for their construction projects? Of course, I’m exaggerating - a little. But these so-called “reformers” come to education with minimal knowledge and confidently reject the professional judgments of veteran educators, and then they try to impose their hypotheses on the rest of the country through NCLB.

When we are talking education, I think of Canada as being like a great educator with which I disagree on virtually everything, but I’d respect his beliefs. When it comes to educational politics, my feelings are more mixed. I’m sure Canada was influenced by his billionaire and all of those accountability hawks who reinforce each others hypotheses. But Canada needed to keep his promise of proving that his approach is replicable.

As Tough noted, he didn’t pull the plug on the middle school. But he did pull the plug on that particular middle school experiment on whether his approach was replicable. Canada was brutally honest with himself and others, and Tough did a great job of reporting the rest of the story this summer. But, why didn’t the NYT report this story 1&1/2 years ago? I can understand why the NYT editors continued to support the billionaires’ argument that “schools alone” could close the achievement gap, but why didn’t the Times have reporters check into the middle school’s fate and why wasn’t it reported in a timely manner? Why did newspaper readers have to wait for Tough’s book?

For what its worth, a key to understanding the problem with the BloomKlein approach can be found in Canada’s response to the problems of the first year. “I want to fire someone” Canada said, but he had already fired everyone.

No matter how sincere a person is, we all need the checks and balances that are the foundation of American constitutional democracy. When I read about Klein’s reading list, I get more respect for the man. But power corrupts.

And Deb, you last post was brilliant. Teachers can not be afraid. Without unions, though, who will dare to speak truth to power?

By the way, it sounds like Randi Weingarten is suggesting a way to take Canada's principles and implement them imperfectly, but in a much more sustainable manner.

I'm less concerned with replicability--but what we can learn from each other. My criticism of Canada was simply with respect to that one particular group of 8th graders whom he let down--and did so after they could find suitable alternatives.

I disagree with him on his narrow focus (test scores), but that's a disagreement that we need to explore. Does he defend it on the grounds that they may be unworthy definitions of a well-educated person, but they are the way our kids will be sorted. Period.

Thanks, John. This is a kind of fun.

And I hope everyone read Tough's comments. I'll get back to them later, but it's important to note his clarifications. Thanks, Paul.

And made a sloppy error--it was always only the 8th graders who got closed out.


I rushed to conclusions after very quick reading, not a good thing. Realizing later in a fit of lucidity that Canada hadn't actually closed the school, I made a correction, but not clearly enough.

I see that it will take me much more time for me to understand Canada's predicament. I have many questions but need not rush to answers. I appreciate Tough's clarifications, and find this a very interesting topic.

Diana Senechal

P.S. Deborah, didn't he effectively close two grades, the current eighth and the incoming sixth? He cancelled plans for the ninth grade, and froze admissions into the sixth. In 2007-2008 there were two grades in the middle school: seventh and eighth.


I read and reread those passages about the closing decision, and I suspect that we teachers are reading it differently because we are reading between the lines. In most schools, we get a new bunch of students to socialize every year. We also get a number of the kids who dropped out and are returning. The attrition at the HCZ middle school was 1/3rd. I'm assuming that they weren't readmitted either.

So, the middle school did something that a neighborhood school could never contemplate. They excluded the two most challenging groups of students for a year, so they could concentrate on their returning students.

But we shouldn't have to be doing all of this speculation. The New York Times should have reported it 1&1/2 years ago.

What Prohibition Has Done to America

Intro page quote:

In What Prohibition Has Done to America, Fabian Franklin presents a concise but forceful argument against the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Beginning in 1920, this Amendment prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages in the United States, until it was repealed in 1933. Franklin contends that the Amendment “is not only a crime against the Constitution of the United States, and not only a crime against the whole spirit of our Federal system, but a crime against the first principles of rational government.” Writing only two years after Prohibition began, he correctly predicts many of its disastrous consequences, such as runaway bootlegging and organized crime. The book is both a passionate defense of liberty, and a reminder to Americans of the perils of surrendering it. (Summary by Leon Mire)

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