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The New Conventional Wisdom?

| 16 Comments

Dear Deborah,

You raise important questions about the role of trust and community in schooling. Those issues should be front and center as part of the discussion of the future of public education. We should discuss further whether trust and community are advanced by preserving and strengthening neighborhood schools or by encouraging the growth of choice schools, by charters and vouchers. Certainly, a case can be made for both routes.

The neighborhood school has always been an important center of community. It brings together people from disparate walks of life who are neighbors and gives them a place in which to work together and debate their common concerns as a community. In some cities, the neighborhood school is the only effective community organization. For many people, it is their introduction to the give-and-take of democratic civic life.

Some of the same arguments have been made on behalf of choice schools; after all, if all the families are in a school that they have chosen, then they, too, are a community and they are there because of their active choice, rather than an accident of geography.

Maybe I shouldn’t, but I worry about the kids who are left behind, and also about the implications of the business model imposed on schools.

I just finished reading two books that shed some light on these questions. One is Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider’s "Trust in Schools." Bryk and Schneider document how important it is for teachers, principals, parents, students, and administrators to trust one another. Because each person or group is in some way dependent on the actions of the others, trust is a necessary component of school improvement. They do not account for the possibility of a political structure in which almost all power is concentrated in the hands of the mayor or his chancellor. They could not even imagine a school district in which the political leader unilaterally declares that 5-year-olds must take standardized tests, regardless of the views of parents, teachers, or administrators. The lesson to be taken away from this important book, it seems clear to me, is that schools function best when there is a high degree of trust among all those involved in the educational process.

The other book, which I finished just last night, is Paul Tough’s "Whatever It Takes." Tough is an accomplished journalist who writes for The New York Times Magazine; you may have seen his articles, one last year about successful charter schools like KIPP and Achievement First, the most recent about school reforms in New Orleans.

Tough’s new book is about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. The book takes on added significance because Barack Obama has said that he wants to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities. As Tough describes it, Canada has attempted to create an all-encompassing, interlinked set of programs that will deeply affect the lives of many people in Harlem and break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. His programs include a “Baby College,” where pregnant women (and their partners) learn important skills and information about prenatal care and baby care. Then there is a program for infants and a prekindergarten program, an elementary charter school, and a variety of programs for teens and adults. Much of the book focuses on the travails of the middle school, where educators struggled to raise test scores, in many cases unsuccessfully. The lesson that Canada drew from the poor results of the middle school was that he had to start with kids before they fell so far behind; in some cases, 6th grade students were reading at a 2nd grade level and that was a challenge that he and his school were unable to master.

Tough’s book is very hopeful. He cites a large body of evidence to argue that children will never fall behind cognitively if their parents and their environment provide them with enough stimulation and support from the beginning of their lives. This is the case, he says, no matter how poor their parents are, no matter how disadvantaged their circumstances. If we as a society do “whatever it takes,” we can close the achievement gaps and get every student ready for college or a good career.

However, and there is always a however, there is a depressing aspect to Tough’s book. As the author describes the situation, Canada is in complete sympathy with his powerful, wealthy board of directors, which includes hedge-fund billionaires. Not surprising. These directors care only for the numbers, and they don’t care how the schools get them. “The overall goal of the Zone might be liberal and idealistic—to educate and otherwise improve the lives of poor black children—but Canada believed the best way to achieve that goal was to act not like a bighearted altruist but like a ruthless capitalist, devoted to the bottom line.” (p.135).

The first principal of the middle school sounds like you, Deborah; she must have been reading your books. She is a progressive educator who worries about the whole child, about their social and emotional problems, and who wants the children to have a rounded education. But her school doesn’t get the test scores gains that the hedge-fund managers and the New York City Department of Education demand. She is removed and replaced by a KIPP-style principal. The wealthy men who run the board of the Zone are impressed by the KIPP model, which is described by one of them as “more of a military-style, real rote-learning, rote-behavior discipline thing,” because this model “delivered results.”

The new principal begins a regimen of test-prep, test-prep, test-prep, no-nonsense discipline. Drill, drill, drill. I won’t spoil the book for you by giving away the outcome, but I can only say that the school part of the book’s message was startling. Do poor black and Hispanic kids really need to be in “no excuses” schools that insist on rote learning and rote behavior? That take control of their lives and change their culture? Should this be the model for education for children of color in big cities? This was the message of Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom’s book "No Excuses," and it was echoed by a recent book by David Whitman, "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism."

I think this is becoming the new conventional wisdom. What do you think?

Diane

16 Comments

Powerful and compelling writing. Thanks Diane.

Perhaps we're focusing too much on the means described in these books and not enough at the ends. In other words, maybe it's not the rote learning and discipline that are important but, rather, the exposure to an orderly environment full of caring people that teach more constructive social and behavioral norms.

Whitman's book only discusses middle and high schools, so maybe different strategies would be more useful for elementary schools and those who left elementary school with the skills they needed.

Diane, It may be becoming convential wisdom but that does not mean that it will result in real improvements in our children's education.

Contrast your description of the "effective schools":

"more of a military-style, real rote-learning, rote-behavior discipline thing,”

with the Singapore approach to schooling:

"We are bringing greater choice and flexibility into education. New types of schools are being introduced to encourage those with special talents to go as far as they can. Existing schools have been provided with further autonomy and resources to develop their own distinct strengths and specific areas or niches of excellence. These could be either in a particular area of study or in co-curricular activities and character development. The different needs of students will thus be met through a wide range of school types and educational programmes."
www.moe.gov.sg/education/nurturing-students/

If the "the hedge-fund managers and the New York City Department of Education" really desire improvements in education why are they not looking at school system models, such as Singnapore, that have been successful at improving student learning?

I believe that only a "marketplace" of ideas can produce solutions for such intractable problems as the education of poor inner-city youth. Geoffrey Canada has come up with a solution that works, at least in some cases. The more different models that are created, by allowing many different stakeholders to create and run schools, the faster we'll find those solutions that work.

And the solutions will not be "one size fits all." We have a long way to go towards figuring out the best ways to educate our youth, but the solutions will not come from the top down.

Daniel,

Solutions to our educational woes will require both leadership from the top and new ideas from the bottom.

To assert that only a grass-roots effort will change schools is quite mistaken. This has been tried vigorously for the last 20+ years. Why haven't our schools suddently prospered and propelled our students to the best in the world?

Mostly because to educate each and every student well, there needs to be substantial coordination between teachers, curricula developers, and assessment makers.

We do not have a system where one teacher follows a group of students and is responsible for ensuring that those students thrive. Students move, teachers move, students take different classes and have different teachers. For a system to work well, this mobility needs to accomodated.

Systems that are as complex as education need great support from the leaders to work well. Relying too much upon the good-will and experience of teachers is not a path towards improvement. It is our status quo.

Diane,

Your excellent column raises all sorts of questions. First of all, what are the possiblilities between and besides the neighborhood school and the "choice" school? Of course there are other options, but what are they? Perhaps it is worth looking at schools like Murrow, which is zoned but also admits students from outside the neighborhood, competitively and by lottery.

Second, to what degree does the neighborhood/charter polarity correspond with the polarity of trusting one's instincts vs. trusting what others say is best? As Deborah pointed out, neither of those extremes is desirable; one must trust one's instinct while also considering the knowledge and findings of others. In certain kind of schools that base their methodology on "what works" (in terms of test scores), many instincts go out the window. By the same token, a neighborhood school could be resistant to curricular improvements that don't seem relevant to its needs.

Third, what happens to the students of "rote behavior" when they enter less structured environments? In my experience, students who are taught a strict set of codes (hand signals, specific ways of speaking and responding, specific group formats, etc.) have no idea what to do when those structures are not present. Are they really being educated for middle class society? Enter a middle-class private or public school, and you see students engaging in class discussion without "accountable talk," signals, or chants. These middle-class students will enter colleges and workplaces that expect and allow a certain kind of relaxed and respectful behavior. Where will the KIPP kids go? I imagine some workplaces will adopt the very structures and signals they learned in school. It sure would be convenient, wouldn't it?

Diana Senechal

Diane,

I think your question about conventional wisdom is the right one. Clearly, there is a conventional wisdom emerging, not only that a particular type of rote learning works best for poor children of color, but that teacher turnover does not matter for those kids, teachers' unions are wrong, and that charter schools work best.

I think that Diana raises some good concerns about the pedagogical assumptions here, but there is a clear KIPP answer: they have plenty of success stories to share about where their students have gone.

My concern is that when a bunch of wealthy white people make decisions about what's best for poor kids of color, I wonder if we are repeating many well-meaning but misguided efforts at reform that have taken place time and again.

(Have you seen "Rabbit Proof Fence"? One of my favorite movies, and an extreme example of where this type of a process has led before.)

I haven't read the Geoffrey Canada book, but it also reminds me of Booker T. Washington and the funding he received from the real "Eastern elite." Read the first hundred pages of "Invisible Man" for a fictional account.

Of course, there is still a debate today about whether Washington's approach was constructive or not. But the sad part is that it seems like it is being replicated today.

Do you see those historical parallels, or do you think I'm reaching?

I wish everyone would ask this question more often: are we (generally middle or upper class, often white) advocating the same things for poor kids of color as we would for our own? I think Deborah asks it often. I don't hear the strongest advocates of a KIPP approach asking this, and I wonder what they think of the question. If the answer is no, I can't imagine that we are doing the right thing.

Diane,

I think your question about conventional wisdom is the right one. Clearly, there is a conventional wisdom emerging, not only that a particular type of rote learning works best for poor children of color, but that teacher turnover does not matter for those kids, teachers' unions are wrong, and that charter schools work best.

I think that Diana raises some good concerns about the pedagogical assumptions here, but there is a clear KIPP answer: they have plenty of success stories to share about where their students have gone.

My concern is that when a bunch of wealthy white people make decisions about what's best for poor kids of color, I wonder if we are repeating many well-meaning but misguided efforts at reform that have taken place time and again.

(Have you seen "Rabbit Proof Fence"? One of my favorite movies, and an extreme example of where this type of a process has led before.)

I haven't read the Geoffrey Canada book, but it also reminds me of Booker T. Washington and the funding he received from the real "Eastern elite." Read the first hundred pages of "Invisible Man" for a fictional account.

Of course, there is still a debate today about whether Washington's approach was constructive or not. But the sad part is that it seems like it is being replicated today.

Do you see those historical parallels, or do you think I'm reaching?

I wish everyone would ask this question more often: are we (generally middle or upper class, often white) advocating the same things for poor kids of color as we would for our own? I think Deborah asks it often. I don't hear the strongest advocates of a KIPP approach asking this, and I wonder what they think of the question. If the answer is no, I can't imagine that we are doing the right thing.

Sam,

I think you are reaching. Read the book and you'll have to respect Canada's honesty. My complaint is that Canada should be a part of the Broader Bolder approach and working with the unions, and I have to wonder if we did something to drive him to the EEP. The EEP is not a monolith, though, and we should be able to work with many or most of them.

Everything in education involves tough calls. I don't want the panic induced by NCLB-type accountablity to distort the teaching in my school. So if some parents choose test prep or some charters don't want unions, that's fine. A much more promising approach is charters that work with unions. We bring them institutional and professional knowledge, and it puts pressure on unions to reform.

Speaking of reform, educational goals have been transformed dramatically in the last decade or so. Place the record of unions against any other flesh and blood people, and I'd say we've been very responsive.

But back to Canada. He needed to listen to the wisdom of educators. He was honestly conducting an experiment, and tried to avoid "creaming" the most motivated. He was creaming, of course, because 1/3rd of his students came up through the "conveyor belt." But the middle school was failing so badly that after two years they had to renege on promises to the kids going to high school, and retrench. Neighborhood schools don't get to say that we need a year off from socializing new students, and taking back the 1/3rd who had dropped out and want to return, any more than we can refuse to take the kids on parole with electronic braclets. At that point, the middle school experiment basically failed. (its doing well now, but eventually it should be based on the ultimate form of creaming, everyone coming from a conveyor belt like we in the Bolder Broader persuasion would want, but that's OK because that is what all kids deserve.) My complaint was the press did not report the experiment's failure.

Canada doesn't chant that absurd schools alone mantra. Now that its research has been discreditted, even the Ed Trust has backed off from their faith based policies.

By now, I think the main reason for this fight is that the accountability hawks punched us in the nose, we've retalitated, and they've gotten caught up in the scourched earth politics. I also think that many accountability hawks attacked us so that they can seem tough for political reasons. (Read the book and ask whether Canada sided with the EEP because the Broader Bolder message SOUNDED like wimpy liberalism. But his heart is in the right place, and he has a profund vision.) Its like Roe v Wade in that some antiabortion people are truly pro-life and some are just anti-choice, and some of them became anti-choice because pro-choice women were such an attractive target. Some in the EEP see a bargain, getting to attack teachers and liberal arts educational values at the same time you attack unions. But Sam, maybe I'm now agreeing with you. Often followers of of Booker T. Washington were just put off by the W.E.B. Dubois crowd being too smart. There is a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in the accountability movement.

Diane,
I'm just writing to offer a perspective from inside the "KIPP bubble". As someone in his fourth year teaching at a KIPP DC school, and someone who has read Deborah's work for years and recently presented with her (see her March article on her homepage) I have often come back to many of the questions being raised as a result of the most recent post.

First and foremost, one of KIPP's (the national organization's) most pressing issues to deal with is preparing students for life without the structure we provide. As the oldest KIPP schools (other than the two originals) are just now preparing their first class of college students, many lessons have been learned.

I think an important thing to realize is that KIPP was something started by two dedicated guys who basically made it up as they went along. Because they were so reflective of what was working and what wasn't (often with standardized tests being the measure), they were able to create a system that worked (as far as those tests are concerned).

The same was the case in DC. But once our 8th graders left us for high schools around the country, and in the city, we were able to see pretty clearly how the strict, regimented approach being used was hurting our students. For the first time, our schools were able to use a litmus test (the academic, emotional and social success/failures of our graduates) other than standardized tests to measure our success. And like before, the schools have adapted to fit this need.

Changes have been put into place quickly. For instance, the school I work at has a distinct Upper School (7th and 8th grades) and Lower School (5th and 6th grades). Because students come in reading at about a second grade level, and because they have not developed habits that will help them to be successful in academic situations, the lower school is very regimented, and sometimes very rote. The goal is to cultivate (or, some would say, drill into them) positive academic behaviors that will serve as a base for them. The Upper School, however, is designed to give the students far more agency, and prepare them for the academic, behavioral, and social expectations that will await them after they leave us. Although our experiment with this will no doubt be far from perfect, I am very hopeful.

In response to one of the posters questions, the first question our principal asked us when we started last school year was: Would you send your children to our school? It was a question that we debated quite a bit, and at that point in time (a crucial one with the formation of our upper school taking place), there were quite a few that said, “No.”

As Deborah’s March article on her webpage shows, the schools have also changed their pedagogy to meet a deficiency in practices designed to encourage critical thinking. That project was called the KIPP World Class Writing Project. I could go on about that for hours, but not here…

I guess what I want to get across is that KIPP is much more than the sound bites or video clips that the media is able to pick up on. MANY of the concerns raised here are valid, and true. I just want to get across that the community (at least, in the school I work in) is not turning a blind eye on these issues.

Brian Stoffel

Diane Ravitch,

"Do poor black and Hispanic kids really need to be in “no excuses” schools that insist on rote learning and rote behavior? That take control of their lives and change their culture? Should this be the model for education for children of color in big cities?"

It was usually my experience with this type of youngster that they were literally and figuratively screaming out for some degree of structure in their lives. Six hours of structure in their day was very comforting for most of these kids, a time when someone showed they actually cared enough about them to expect something of them. Most yearned for it and genuinely sought it out whenever possible.

I often believed it was something they rarely, if ever, got at home and therefore all the more rewarding and satisfying to them when the teacher "insisted" that they conform to this structure while they were in the classroom. For many, it also made them feel safe, safe from their outside world, the streets, their neighborhood, even their family.

There are some things here that make me uncomfortable. I don't like a dichotomy between what we might call progressive education and "a military-style, real rote-learning, rote-behavior discipline thing". I think that's a mostly false dichotomy. We can fall into the habit, if we are not careful, of thinking there are no other alternatives, that the dichotomy we are thinking about at the moment defines the poles of possibilities. We may think the truth must be somewhere between these two poles. Sometimes it is, but sometimes the truth is not between the two poles we have in mind. Sometimes the truth is somewhere way out in left field, and the two poles are a diversion.

A really pernicious, but empty, dichotomy, in my humble opinion, that has damaged our thinking for most of a hundred years is the student-centered versus teacher-centered idea.

If Plan A works better than Plan B, we may take note of that, but we should still investigate the parts of Plan A and the parts of Plan B if we possibly can. We may find that they have many elements in common, but possibly in different proportions, or different combinations, or possibly used in different ways. Some of these elements may make positive contributions to whatever goal is envisioned and some may make negative contributions. Some parts of both plans may be utterly irrelevant to the desired goals. In the dichotomy above, progressive versus rote-discipline, can we look no closer?

I have argued elsewhere that the field of education lacks a grounding in simple, but accurate, intensive, and extensive description of normal classroom phenomena. I have not had a chance to read the books relevant to this discussion. Maybe they give this type of description, but very few educational writings do.

I like Daniel Ascher's idea of a market place of ideas producing different models of schools, and different models of instruction. But I am not too confident that with our present expectations and standards of educational writing we'll have much of an idea of what actually happens in those various models. A lot of educational description sounds like mission statements, or goal statements, or even advertising. That type of language certainly has its place, but it is not really very informative. To expect to make progress on the basis of that kind of information is like expecting to make progress with the student-centered versus teacher-centered idea. That seems never to have happened.

I am not one to dismiss conventional wisdom too lightly, but I think it is often shallow.

Brian S.,

Thanks for your comments. It's helpful to hear from someone who can through some nuance on the KIPP approach, because in the absence of different perspectives some pretty narrow stereotypes emerge. I would be interested to know if, after reflecting and making changes, teachers changed their answer to the question about whether they'd send their own child to their school. But the most important thing, I think, is that they recognized the importance of asking the question in the first place.

John,

Thanks for weighing in. I'll have to read the book.

Brian R.,

Thanks for the reminder about false dichotomies. I think Lisa Delpit does a powerful job of making the same point.

Finally, Paul,

I have heard your argument about students lacking structure at home and needing it in schools. That language implies that there is some sort of deficiency in our students and it is our job to fix them. It's a problem when students hear this message, this idea that they are messed up and need fixing. This is not to gloss over the fact that many low-income students experience some degree social distress outside of school, and the implication is that they often are not prepared by their home environments for success in school.

So structure is important, as Brian R. and Delpit remind me. But it can be provided within a progressive model of education, without a pure emphasis on rote learning, and in a way that encourages critical and independent thinking.

I am enjoying this conversation. I agree with Brian that we need to be wary of false dichotomies. I personally tend to recoil from militarist styles of operation. I have worked with kids who grew up in highly punishment-oriented and controlling households and have generally observed that they fall apart when the control is missing.

But I believe that there is a distinction between supportive structure and militaristic control or rigidity. My son had a wonderful K/1 teacher who understood this. He was in a good school with a history of interdisciplinary thinking, whole language approach to reading, etc. Deb, I think you would have loved it. When we were there, however, the founding principal had recently retired and some of the original passion and understanding was gone. There was an emerging confusion between nurturing creativity and permissiveness--leading to an assumption that some kids just didn't belong, weren't ready, etc. There were teachers who were wedded to a no rules approach as fundamental to their teaching style and rejected anything that might be considered "structure." My son's teacher, who came there with a background in special education, was an excellent example of the application of sound structure that was also responsive to individual differences.

I recall visiting the classroom at the beginning of the day. The pattern was for students to enter the class and begin journal writing. That expectation was a part of the structure. In support of that structure, each child's journal was already in their place waiting for them. Now the classroom had tables, rather than desks, and they were frequently moved to suit the activity, but my son's journal was placed on the floor near the calendar, along with several other children. The teacher had structured according to his pre-writing needs to have a model to draw from (copying the date), and his unique physical need to have some wiggle room. The paper in the journals also had the familiar lines, but also room at the top of each page for illustration. My son's journal was heavy on illustration.

This to me is sound and responsive structure, and it made a difference in his classroom success (when he was moved on to another classroom, the lack of structure contributed to his being labelled unsuitable for the school and sent elsewhere for "special" education).

In the same way, I think it is necessary to be very careful in examining the experience of KIPP, DI and other approaches that seem to be resulting in growth for overlooked populations. Neither one are the kinds of experiences that I am drawn to, but I appreciate success. I have to wonder if there is something more essential going on than the sort of lock-step stuff that I react to. It seems to me that DI--along with providing a teacher-proof script--does a couple of things that we might want to look at in isolation. Certainly it over-teaches concepts (drill), which can have an effect. It also incorporates multiple sensory systems (finger-snaps, etc). Likewise, the KIPP hand signals and chanting are about communicating clear expectations. I suspect that these may be key components that could be lifted and applied in many creative ways. My point is, I think we need to get very specific about understanding why things work, and with whom.

I have to agree with Sam regarding the frequent assumption that minority and low-income students experience chaos at home and therefore need more "structure" at school. This assumption of blanket deficiencies doesn't match well with my experience and I wonder if the opposite might be true. I recall one educator, in a school in a changing neighborhood who had been able to respond well to student needs, who put it very positively, "we discovered that poor kids thrive on structure." I believe that some of the literature on parenting classes parents based on combinations of responsiveness and demandingness. The ideal melds them, neglect has neither. But if there can be generalizations constructed based on SES--lower income minority families tend towards the demandingness side, while middle class white families tend towards the responsiveness side. I believe that Ronald Ferguson has some actual data. My experience has been that classrooms frequently mismatch middle class experiences on the part of the teacher and lower income experiences on the part of the students and families. Hence, the teacher sees the students as lacking in discipline, while the student/family see the teacher as uncaring, afraid or wishy-washy.

I just got around to reading the above. Great discussion. Thanks Brian S.--I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to meet again in D.C. the other day. Soon! But PLEASE keep us updated on what you are learning.

1. Structure etc. The way I heard it was that poor kids are used to a lot of clear strict structure, ryes, punishments--and thus they only respect them and we must do so. There's also the opposite one: they live lives without structure and consequences so that we must provide this. I say humbug to both. (Read the Power of Their ideas for more, or Rose's lives Across the Boundary). Yes, kids need to know "we care"--and we need to exhibit that care in ways that the kids make sense of. It's in the translation that the problems often lie.

There is far MORE structure in a "progressive" classroom precisely because more is needed. Can there be overload?

2. Kipp's idea is interesting as a bridge not between home and school, but school and school.

3. Alas, Canada's approach didn't work. Because? Maybe because he didn't stick with any approach long enough? Maybe because he was focusing only on one single too to measure his work? he proof may come more slowly than he expected, and may require a lot more feedback between the parties involved--kids, teachers, families - so that changes were empowering to all, not still another top-down "fits? by well-meaning people of all colors.

Thanks! This has been interesting.

Deb


Check out the book "Between the Rhetoric and Reality",'Dorrance Publishing':9-2009. It may, quite possibly, hold the clue towards effectively decreasing the country's horrendous, Black/White Academic- Achievement Gap!

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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