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If We Want Schools for the Future, not the Past...


Dear Diane,

My head and heart are in a muddle—politically. I enjoyed your letter, Diane, and realized our mutual support for teachers’ unions may have something to do with the degree of our rapprochement. It’s not a coincidence that it was the late AFT leader Al Shanker who suggested you come visit Central Park East Secondary School. I’ve just been rereading our prior exchanges in Dissent magazine. They were tough. Some of those differences still exist, but in a softer form.

As I noted in my response to some of our readers, the idea that there would be more inventiveness in the states which have no collective bargaining just isn’t so. There are a host of such states and they haven’t used the absence of contracts to launch anything better, and (in fact) those states’ schools are among the least promising in the nation.

Nor are private schools often innovative. Most experiment only with who they accept, and then are pretty conventional. (There are exceptions: Both Chicago’s Lab School and Sidwell—where the Obama girls go—are examples, although of limited use since they “experiment” only on pretty proven winners.)

In every place I’ve worked I’ve found the union an ally—even if covertly. They are braver where they feel secure, and/or where they avoid the lawyer-like mindset typical of all American institutions. Example: Rochester. In Boston, they even offered to waive everything but salary and benefits to match charter-like conditions. It was harder getting the central board to do the same. And it was the central board that went back on the deal by misusing the Pilots (the name for the innovators) in a really dumb and/or shameful way. Of course, changes in leadership may be partially responsible, too.

The notion that, without contracts, “bad teachers” would be easier to fire, is true. But it’s equally true that “good teachers” would be easier to fire. I have very close personal ties to many a teacher caught in that situation—being too outspoken, being unpopular with the board for his beliefs, or just too expensive, etc.

Public unions do pose different issues. The old USSR argued, for example, that when everything was public, to strike was treason. In many states (like New York), teachers pay a huge price if they strike—it’s against the law. But in fact, public bodies are just as prone to “exploit” their workers as private firms. Why? The lower the wages, etc., the further the money will go; managers often are control freaks, etc.…

If we want schools for the future, unlike the past, that truly “produce” graduates with a much higher level of intellectual curiosity, perseverance, and inventiveness, we’ll need schools in which the kids are surrounded by the kind of adults that represent such a future. They need to witness the power of ideas in the hands of smart adults. Schools can only get from here to there if we create structures that enable them to be learning labs, for young and old alike. Even if we got it right the first time it would take a generation to turn this huge, labor-intensive “industry” around. You can’t close these “plants” and retool: unless we see our fellow human beings as machines, tools, appliances. We can’t have it both ways. Not only do teachers burn out fast, but so do kids, and in the end so will America.

There is nothing about human learning that suggests this approach is a good one. But if those designing the schools of the future consist of plant managers, or worse still, experts in banking, stock markets, mergers, and money management, they’ll do to our schools what they’ve done to the American economy.

Re.: your most recent letter, Diane. I’ve had a soft spot for KIPP schools—which are the latest “wave of the future”—despite the fact that they are so fundamentally in conflict with my progressive ideas. Their founders were teachers! But I’m leery partly because the “results” are not in. Partly because we don’t have full disclosure—about who they accept and how many drop out along the way, nor what the graduates are like in high school and then in college. I suspect—no data yet—their graduates may be like the “successful” under-prepared students Mike Rose wrote about many years ago in "Lives On the Boundary." Everyone should read that book!

I thought about Mike and KIPP when watching an amazing new movie called "The Class." It’s a French film with English subtitles. It helps us understand the dilemmas facing not just French inner-city schools (which are located in the suburbs in France) but my schools and KIPP’s, too, when we have too much of the wrong data.

It reinforces my support for the folks who have their eyes on what kind of “system” might accommodate schools that—each in different ways—simultaneously educated a generation of teachers and kids; schools which rethought the roles of teachers, parents, head teachers, and the State. Imagine my delight then in discovering that two KIPP schools in NYC have opted to become AFT (union) schools because they want a voice in building KIPP that can be sustained for kids and teachers alike, to remain mutually innovative for the long run.

I’m off to Boston as I write this. The Central Board (which really means the mayor and superintendent) has decided to save money by changing my old school from a city-wide school to a neighborhood school, starting next fall. It will produce a different mix of kids and much rethinking. But above all it’s a blow to that precious sense of ownership and empowerment that our little school has thrived on.

It’s a tricky moment in the history of Mission Hill. Keep your fingers crossed for us.


P.S. Thanks to several readers for providing the source of the Standards quote in my piece last week, including my friend Leslie Siskin who probably first alerted me to the book in which it appeared.



Will the students at your school who currently come from outside the neighborhood be reassigned to another school?


Will the students at your school who currently come from outside the neighborhood be reassigned to another school?

I don't think so--but it puzzles me since the explanation for the change was to eliminate busing costs. It's likely impact will take a year or two we think--based on current rumor. (The superintendent wouldn't come out to speak to the school's board or parents.) But over time it will turn an integrated school (about 25& white, and the rest African American and Latino, and about 50% free lunch) into an all "minority" school. It's original location was intended to support racial and class integration although at the time Boston was still under a decree to try to insure racial integration.

Thanks for asking.


Deb wrote:

Schools can only get from here to there if we create structures that enable them to be learning labs, for young and old alike.

And we're to do that by following the model of the Teamsters, 1930's steel plants, and the like.

One wonders why all the nation's scientists, biotech workers, Apple Inc. talent, and the like don't jump to get on board such organizational structures?

One would think that they would certainly want to emulate such an empowering model of work.

Wouldn't they?

Sarcasm is a difficult medium, but I think I detect it in your response, Ed.

Yes, it's an interesting question. But some of the same issues arise in all the institutions you describe. Thus doctors and nurses organize. And, in their way, scientists do too, but especially lower levels of employees in those institutions. And, in fact, for much the same reasons as teachers do. We are, in fact, "lower levels". So--how do we go from treating teachers (and nurses) as though they were "mere" technicians to where their voices count, as if we respected their roles, etc, etc. Unions didn't invent the disrespect. In fact, unions are a recent vintage and were formed by people like me who felt humiliated and degraded by the institutional culture of schools. I'd not have dreamed of being a teacher in the good old pre-union days (above all in grade schools). Ugh. They were factories in the worst sense of the word--and little solidarity between colleagues relieved their infantilizing culture.

It's the impact of that culture which still predominates that I have been fighting about. It makes teachers childish themselves, and often paranoiac. I wan grown-ups in the best sense in daily contact with the next generation of adults.


On Thu, Jan 29, 2009 at 2:00 PM


I agree with you on KIPP as with the rest. One of the founders (I don't remember which) impressed me with the honest statement that he was searching for qualified principal candidates and dealing with an infant. It was a close race over who woke up crying more. That sort of honest is rare among "reformers" who believe that expactations and accountability are enough - or at least they claim to believe it.

The spam catcher didn't let me comment on Diane Rs last post, but many of my thoughts apply equally here.

But first I'd like to relay a "who would have thunk it?" thought. Though I'm digital incompetent, the eduspehere introduced me to Facebook this week. Due to the ice storm, I could wake up to read in Edweek a story in California on the proposed testing boycott, deal with two computer problems, let my wife check with Fed Ex over the arrival of our new computer, check out two new journalists who agreed to be my "friends" on Facebook, check Google Image, (which reminds me of how many boycotts have occurred before) and publish a blog, and it took one hour! Think of the digital miracles we are producing. Think of the communication opportunities. Think of what we will accomplish WHEN we move past the slash and burn politics of NCLB.

At any rate, I hope I can post the following comment.

As usual, Diane S. hit the perfect issue by stressing priorities.

Yes, unions MUST MUST MUST change. And change isn't easy. Fortunately union leaders have experience with the people side of education, and they will need all of those skills to bring along the membership. Morgo/mom who cited the excellent Koppich report makes an equally good point today in Leader Talk in stressing the role of secretaries and bus drivers.

The priority is treat people the way we would want to be treated. Yes, our union contracts, like everything in education and like everything in life, are full of absurdities. We can't change without a lot of distributed leadership, and a lot of hand-holding and reassurance for all types of people of all ages in schools. (Which reminds me, the rate at which we increase student performance is determined in part by the success of adults in helping motivate and reassure students as we raise the bar. Isn't that true of all of us?)

Take one example of looking at the big picture and the rationale for community schools, as advocated by unions. How much easier would would it be to remove grossly ineffective teachers in their 40s, 50s, and older who hate their jobs but who are trapped by the lack of a rational social safety net? How much easier would it be to counsel out/terminate those teachers if educators and/or union agents could get on the phone to service providers at the State and put together a package where a teacher who might be in ill health would not be put on the street with no insurance? How much easier would it be if various social providers were in the schools and educators and other providers had ongoing personal and professional relationships? (The same dynamic would apply to struggling students.)

But, today that is impossible because until we renegotiate procedures both the schools and the unions would be legally liable if they worked collaboratively to address these problems.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I unsuccessfully tried to post yesterday. Today a new divisive issue has arisen, which I blogged on at thisweekineducation.com. The proposed LA test boycott is NOT anti-accountability. This is not a "which side are you on?" moment. This is a "I refute it thus" moment. The excessive testing brings out the worst in ALL OF US. If we want secretaries, bus driver, and teachers and other educators to create a nurturing educational climate, we need to listen to the accounts (like those in this thread) of what is actually happening in schools to poison the well.

Hi Diane. You wrote "They, too, thought it bizarre that the government would publish a set of recommendations for which there was admittedly no evidence." The reason is the same as President Clinton’s National Reading Panel had when it threw out most of the research on reading that it could find. There is very little research coming out of education schools that is both scientific and useful to educators. Another document on the same web site lists two teaching strategies that do have evidence behind them: asking questions in depth and frequent quizzes. I see no rush in public education to adopt those strategies. At least this web site, What Works Clearinghouse, is trying to show what we really know about education. Most education websites provide little other than excuses for the chronic failure and mediocrity in education, along with baseless denigration of those such as Bill Gates who are trying to find ways of improving k-12 education in this country. At least Bill Gates admits his failures. Most educators in this country are under the self-delusion that all is well. When others point out the shortcomings of k-12 education in this country the defenders instead of looking in the mirror, as does Bill Gates, they throw up their hands and blame someone else.

Hi Diane. You wrote "They, too, thought it bizarre that the government would publish a set of recommendations for which there was admittedly no evidence." The reason is the same as President Clinton’s National Reading Panel had when it threw out most of the research on reading that it could find. There is very little research coming out of education schools that is both scientific and useful to educators. Another document on the same web site lists two teaching strategies that do have evidence behind them: asking questions in depth and frequent quizzes. I see no rush in public education to adopt those strategies. At least this web site, What Works Clearinghouse, is trying to show what we really know about education. Most education websites provide little other than excuses for the chronic failure and mediocrity in education, along with baseless denigration of those such as Bill Gates who are trying to find ways of improving k-12 education in this country. At least Bill Gates admits his failures. Most educators in this country are under the self-delusion that all is well. When others point out the shortcomings of k-12 education in this country the defenders instead of looking in the mirror, as does Bill Gates, they throw up their hands and blame someone else.

Deb, all, TGIF!

Sarcasm was not my intent above.

As I wrote Wednesday, the vast majority of American workers follow a different path; it seems fair, I think, to ask 'Why?'

Many here want for teachers (as I do) the respect, pay, resources, tools, and results of other professions.

Yet they expect to get there via a path that has never worked for any of those professions.

Hi Deb. You may have already seen this discussed on the Small Schools listserve, but there IS some info about how many students "drop out" (voluntarily? Who knows?) of KIPP schools in my area, research that I initially did. The number is staggering, especially among African-American boys, with one KIPP school "losing" nearly 80% of the African-American boys who started grade 5 there by the BEGINNING (not even the end) of grade 8. Here's the info.





I'm wondering if there are other professionals who "serve" or work with poorer people, as do teachers, but who gain the sort of status, however measured, of those such as biotech workers, software engineers, etc. --with or without a union?

My wife, for example, is an attorney for people who cannot afford attorneys. Guess whether she makes much money? The stereotype of attorneys is that they make a lot of money--but not when they don't have rich clients!

Teachers have been able to approach middle class salaries and benefits because of their unions. Now the question is how do they also now have a seat at the table to help create policies at their schools that will enhance both the learning of their students and improve working conditions. Julia Koppich, and others writing about the "new unionism" will agree with you--it's probably not with 1930's style bargaining. But it's also not by doing away with unions altogether.

Caroline is right, the numbers at the KIPP SF schools are embarrassing at best, signs of neglect at worst. They are not, I believe, representative of the system.

Again, I can only comment on how things work in DC. Our schools do not test any incoming fifth graders in any way at all. And contrary to the popular press, now that we have three middle schools, we do not having waiting lists that go on and on and on. This past summer, teachers at my school had to spend two days going door to door, salon to salon, church to church trying to sign students up.

In the past we have (though not any more) tested the very few students who join us in 6th, 7th or 8th grades (since most of the spots are already occupied by those who joined in 5th). If a student comes to us to join in 6th, but tests with a third grade reading level, we would suggest that they start in the fifth to give them the foundation that they need to be successful. That's the only type of "screening" I've ever been aware of and, again, even that no longer takes place.

As far as students leaving the school, to the best of my knowledge, KIPP schools have on par with or slightly below the mobility rate of the schools in surrounding neighborhoods. It's one thing to say that 20% of students leave in a given year, but it's quite another when you find out that the rate for a traditional school in the same neighborhood is 30% (arbitrary numbers).

To be sure, though, the numbers that have come out of SF have been very discouraging.

Teacher unions raise the salaries and provide other benefits to the teachers they represent, but they also raise the salaries and improve the benefits for teachers in those states that don't have unions. This happens because of the laws of supply and demand, because of the increasing mobility of families, and because of the increasing portability of teaching credentials.

If a non-union state or district offers teaching salaries and working conditions that do not approach the standard set in unionized states or districts, they will have a hard time finding and retaining quality teachers.

In order to compete, the non-union areas absolutely must offer teachers pay packages that approach or equal the packages in adjacent states which, in turn, have to offer packages similar to those in their adjacent states, and so on. It is sort of like a game of "six degrees of separation," except that it is more like three degrees of separation before just about every non-union state has to compete with a unionized one.

Because of this, the prime benefit of being in a union is not so much a higher pay package as it is, as Deborah points out, the safety of being able to speak one's mind, try something different, or otherwise separate from the prevailing municipal/corporate dogma.


You might want to revisit Diana S's post in the previous BD's blog. She teaches in Brooklyn and things don't sound very rosy for teachers there.

But Brian, the difference between KIPP schools' mobility and other schools' mobility is that KIPP schools DON'T REPLACE the students who leave, while the traditional public school down the street DOES replace its students who leave -- with other high-mobility students, who tend to be the more-troubled students. The numbers for most of the California KIPP schools (those being the ones I know how to look up) show steady drops in enrollment, grade by grade. And a recent study confirmed that it's overwhelmingly the lower-performing students who leave. Are you honestly not aware of that difference?

So, in case this isn't clear, KIPP schools wind up with the lower performers gone and not replaced, thus leaving the higher performers. This is not the case with the traditional public school down the street.

I mentioned this to a charter school insider who had just visited KIPP SF Bay Academy, and he said "oh, I wondered why the 8th grade was so much smaller than the 5th," or words to that effect.

KIPP schools also DO impose required commitments on families that inherently self-screen out children from unmotivated and low-functioning families. Of course they do -- no honest person can deny that.

Thank you for acknowledging that KIPP schools were (perhaps some are?) testing incoming 6th- and 7th-graders (the SF Bay Area schools don't accept incoming 8th-graders, I'm told). Other KIPP spokespeople have roundly denied that.

It may be that there are valuable innovations being pioneered at KIPP schools, and that they hold lessons that will benefit all public schools. But the KIPP folks have to stop being so dishonest before we can get to the reality of what they're doing! I understand that the dishonesty is aimed at snaring more private philanthropy -- of course it is -- but they just have to cut it out. It's really wrong.

That is great, Caroline! "I understand that the dishonesty is aimed at snaring more private philanthropy -- of course it is -- but they just have to cut it out. It's really wrong."

I would apply that to the NYC schools too, with their mandates and silly adherence to Balanced Literacy and such. "They just have to cut it out. It's really wrong."

But Paul, the things I brought up do not negate the value of a union. Our union has stepped in to fight some of the micromanagement. Why doesn't it do so more often? Well, that is an action I would support. But we would have to address the causes of the problem, not just the overt manifestations.

Deborah, I love the idea of a school where children are surrounded by intelligent people who work with ideas. I wouldn't necessarily call this a school of the future--such schools have existed in the past. But yes, when adults use their minds well, children do see reason to want to be adults. When adults are treated like oxen, children naturally conclude that adulthood is a dead end.

Thus the best way to make the schools primarily "for the children" is to make them a place for everybody: a place for learning and thinking, for works that fire up the mind. I cringe a little at the thought of a school that "educates a generation of teachers and kids," but only because of what the words mean right now. It would have to be true education, not "professional development." I still like the idea of teachers holding seminars for each other on works of literature, topics in history, etc.

Somehow I posted before finishing! It is difficult to fight as a group for subtle things. Group battles are rarely subtle. We can certainly fight back some of the egregious nonsense through protests, campaigns, and such. But then, to put something better in its place, we would need the knowledge and thoughts of individuals.

And Paul, speaking of the knowledge and thoughts of individuals, I applaud what you said earlier. We are indeed fortunate to have such lively and informed dialogue here.

Diana Senechal

Again, I can only speak for the schools that I am at, but some of what you are saying is simply not true in DC. We replace students when we lose them. And usually, when we lose a student, the one who comes in to replace them is far behind. In fact, this past year, we moved where our school is located because we ran out of room at our old site, and a large portion of the seventh grade had to be replaced. Every spot available is filled.

Maybe things are simply done differently in SF than they are in DC, I really don't know. One thing to realize about KIPP schools is that they are supported by the national foundation, but they actually run very independently of one another, so major differences may exist.

And as far as testing goes, I have seen KIPP deny that they are used as screening devices, which is true (as far as I am aware). 90% of KIPP students enter in the 5th grade (an estimate, not a fact) and are given no test of any kind. Before (not any more) when students did enter in 6th 7th or 8th, they were placed in the grade that was believed would be best for them based on some rough numbers. NEVER has a child been denied joining the school based on test scores.

That being said, I think that there are some serious things upon which you and I agree. Two or three years ago KIPP closed down in Asheville, NC. The reason? Attendance numbers were so low because most parents were confident in the local traditional school that they didn't see the need for the extra hours or different program. I thought that that was GREAT! I think the day that KIPP (or Green Dot, or Achievement First) is no longer needed, when these schools become obsolete is what we're shooting for. There's a partnership here in DC between one of the KIPP schools and the local neighborhood school where there are shared PD sessions throughout the year so that both groups can benefit from the other's experiences. I'll be honest, I'm not sure when the day when these schools are unnecessary will come, or if it will, but I think it's what we should be striving towards.


I was not negating the value of your local union. I was simply wondering how the teachers in your school or the local union could tolerate the administrative minutia that was being forced down their throats.

If Klein and Bloomberg are the problem then perhaps it's time for your state union to step up to the plate. That type of mindless dictatorship has no place in twenty-first century American schools.


Thank you for the clarification. Yes, it is time to do something about the mindless dictatorship of Bloomberg and Klein. It is also time to end the hegemony of programs and mandates that condescend to teachers and students alike, and to put something much sounder in their place.

It is not about one school in particular. These practices affect many schools. Nor is it a personal complaint on my part. I have been treated well since I began teaching. These mandates affect the climate of the schools at large. The lingo is like anthracnose on leaves.

Take Balanced Literacy. There is much to tackle and enjoy in a work of literature--but under Balanced Literacy (mandated citywide), you are not supposed to teach works of literature. You are supposed to teach a strategy and then send the children into their little groups to practice it. Then you "circulate" and take notes on their "reading behaviors." Also, many of the mandated wall items are related to Balanced Literacy. The program is cumbersome and misguided in more ways than I can detail here.

Or take Everyday Math. It treats many topics superficially, yet emphasizes comprehension to the point of incomprehensibility. Every problem is belabored and explained in multiple ways; everything is up for discussion through "Accountable Talk." Now, it is good for children to understand what they're doing and to see multiple approaches to a problem, but they also need to learn to do certain things automatically, quickly, and well. That is not a strength of Everyday Math, to put it mildly.

What would I like to see in their place? For literature: the study of both concrete skills (phonics, grammar, spelling, etymology) and of specific works of literature through close study, discussion, enactment, and lots of reading out loud. For math: fewer topics, developed in greater depth and complexity, and a combination of concepts and drill. For all subjects, teachers should plan their own lessons around a common curriculum (e.g., Core Knowledge or similar). There should be some room for teachers to bring in additional materials and topics, or, in high school, to devise certain courses themselves (for instance, a course on epic poetry or ancient drama).

Diana Senechal


We used to call Everyday Math, “every minute math.” It drove teachers crazy with the amount of time it seemed to demand. Many thought it was the epitome of a mile long and an inch deep. I didn't mind it too much. I thought it gave kids a multiple exposure to numbers and their various manipulations. I also taught my own program of arithmetic (add, subtract, multiply, divide, etc.) in conjunction with EDM. The two together were a nice compliment and again, it allowed kids to see numbers from more than one perspective.

For language arts I taught reading, spelling, grammar, writing, most often in conjunction with a story, but not always. Depending on the individual I used either a phonetic or a sight series. We had a basil reader(s) but were not locked into it exclusively. I tried to use a lot of “trade” books as much as possible. Whether it was Robinson Crusoe, Stone Fox, Bridge to Terabithia, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Legend of Sleepy Hollow, whatever. They seemed to really enjoy most of these classics. The kids also seemed to enjoy the longer engagement in a story over several weeks as opposed to a short story from the book.

Mind boggling to me was how teachers could teach writing without teaching grammar. How do you tell a nine year old the subject and verb must agree in number if they don't know what constitutes a subject or a predicate? How do you encourage them not to end a sentence with a preposition or begin one with a conjunction if they’ve never been exposed to either of these parts of speech? I couldn't pay that much attention to what they were doing as I was busy enough with my own class.

I know that KIPP schools don't have an official policy of not replacing the students who leave (except that I'm told they don't enroll new 8th-graders, and I'm not sure if that info was definitive). But the numbers conclusively prove that they DON'T replace the students who leave, at least in the Bay Area KIPP schools.

I got interested in this issue originally when a KIPP dad posted proudly on a San Francisco e-discussion list that his daughter had "tested into" KIPP SF Bay Academy.

I was interested enough to take my daughter (then just after her 7th-grade school year in a traditional public San Francisco middle school had started) to KIPP SF Bay to see if they'd say she had to be tested. The results of my amateur undercover investigation were inconclusive. They did say she had to be tested to determine her academic grade level, but I didn't get to the point of finding out what that would mean.

I'm told that in the low-income communities that are KIPP's target communities, the universal belief among those who've heard of KIPP is that the tests are admission tests that students must pass to get in.

We also have a community member who is the mother of a child with autism. She tried to enroll him in San Franciso's KIPP Bayview Academy. They gave him what she understood to be the admission test in a noisy, busy part of the school, which she said is a particular challenge to a child with autism. When she complained, the principal ordered her and the boy off the property. The fact that the mom understood her son to be taking an admission test is overshadowed by the rest of that account, of course.


I think that if what your saying is true, something definitely needs to be done. Students should absolutely, positively NOT have to pass any test to be admitted to a public middle school. I don't know how the laws in CA work with regards to charter schools and replacing students, or if there simply isn't much demand for a KIPP school there and thus someone to fill the spots, or what the philosophy of the administration there is, or if there's just a general incompetence.

I think that we need to be careful about taking what's happening in SF and extrapolating it to the whole national organization. DC is the third largest concentration of KIPP schools (behind, I believe, Houston and New York). I can tell you, as fact, that such screening simply does not take place, and that students are replaced here.

I think we also need to be careful about what our sources are. The statement, "I'm told that in low-income communities...the universal belief among those who've heard of KIPP is that the tests are admission tests" simply isn't strong enough to make such accusations. Don't get me wrong, something is definitely up with the retention numbers. But your own experience with your own daughter made it pretty clear that they were most likely doing exactly what I described we do here--testing your daughter to make sure that she had the education foundation to be successful in school--and if not, put her in the grade that would best serve her in the long run.

I think in general, we'll just have to agree to disagree. I have a feeling that if I were a parent in SF who didn't have any previous interaction with KIPP, and had come across the situations you have, I'd be very wary of anything that came your way. By the same token, I think that if you were a teacher at the school I teach at, and you see that no such shortcuts are being taken, you'd be a pretty strong supporter of KIPP schools.

As I say, I didn't pursue it in my daughter's case to find out what the outcome of the test would mean. I visited the school and filled out a form; they said they'd be in touch; they snail-mailed to give us a test date, without clarifying what the impact of the outcome of the test would be. At that point I canceled the test; I wasn't really comfortable taking up that much of the KIPP staff's time and resources for my little investigation.

Combined with the KIPP dad who believed his daughter had "tested into" KIPP SF Bay, and the mom of the autistic student who believed that her son was taking an entrance test for KIPP Bayview, it's credible to me when "word is" that the KIPP tests are widely believed to be entrance tests. At least it's credible enough that I don't think it's irresponsible to mention it, with the caveat that it's hearsay.

Maybe California KIPP schools ARE particularly problematic outliers, though that's ironic since KIPP World Headquarters is right here in San Francisco.

This has been a long and fruitful discussion, and one that I have been enjoying very much. I am particularly intrigued by Deb's observation/suggestion of teacher paranoia in spite of/because of/concurrent with union representation. I have also observed this with regard to teachers. Having worked most of my life in other settings (without either unions or contracts--and a mix of personnel practices and beliefs), the continual ongoing fear of teachers that any move to the right or to the left of some line will result in job loss (or something) is surprising to me. Also surprising is the pervasive sense of powerlessness to bring about systemic change (and despite a certain sense of solidarity, a lack of collaboration with regard to work).

I do not know why this is. But, to echo both Caroline and Diana we "just need to cut it out." One of my suspicions, that relates to the work of unions, and use of the industrial model, is that there is a need, from the collective bargaining standpoint, to "keep the pressure on" with regard to both distrust of management and refusal to accept responsibility for changing anything that might otherwise be defined as an administrative responsibilty. So, on the one hand, responsibility for such things as curriculum planning, text selection, evaluation, discipline, etc. falls on management. On the other hand--we know that they cannot possibly do it right, because they are, after all, management. The result is this (self)infantalization of teachers. When we arrive at the point of professionals believing that they are unable to respond to various realities (low reading levels, students with disabilities, changes in the laws regulating their profession, immigrant students) because they have never been GIVEN the appropriate training, we have an example of the conflict between professional workers and factory workers. Sure, this might be something to include in contract negotiations--but the sort of blanket assumption that teachers don't have a set of professional responsibilities that include keeping current on teaching within the current reality (whatever it might be) is demeaning.

I ran into something today about the organization of work in Japan--where lifelong employment is an expectation. There are a few American companies that have chosen to operate in this way (Lincoln Electric, in Cleveland, Ohio is the one I recall from a textbook). Constructing this kind of workforce, successfully, requires a whole different kind of orientation to hiring and expectations of workers. There is a lot of care that goes into identification of a common mission/vision. You don't take on a life partner without a whole lot of examination of whether you are going in the same direction--and committed to that direction for the long haul (Lincoln Electric has managed for many decades to avoid employee layoffs--a part of their commitment. Employees have sometimes agreed to shorten their working hours in order to avoid layoffs).

While most American companies increasingly assume that their employees are not only expendable, but that investment in developing their skills is more costly than hiring in newer workers who have already acquired those skills, they also are very likely to assume that employees will leave at will. Teaching is something of an exception--although not entirely, and less and less so--particularly among new teachers entering the field. But teachers are hired more like hamburger flippers or insurance sellers than life partners. We don't evaluate their willingness or suitability (even before granting tenure, as a general rule) to be a part of the organization for the long haul.

The suggestion in the weakly evidence-based recommendations for school turnaround (to evaluate staff, what each of them have to contribute and their commitment to the job at hand) is the sort of thing that really ought to be VERY carefully evaluating at the time of hiring, or movement into a building. Because it is not realistic to expect (and somewhat supported by the evidence) that change can occur without a critical mass of workers committed to carrying out that change (or otherwise acting to support the mission of the organization).

I don't know if unions (in general, not just teachers unions), or some facet of labor intelligentsia can move us back in that direction (the "just in time" hiring philosophy being something of a new phenomenon). I do know that the time is ripe for new organizing paradigms, and has been for some time. Home computers and connectivity have dramatically changed the possibilities of the workplace. Just as sweatshops were a means of breaking apart the concentration of labor in a "shop" that could be organized (farming out "piece work" to workers who might never come in contact with one another), so computer work presents all kinds of cottage industry possibilities--even those that take place out of the country (like call centers in India).

I don't think that unions--as we have known them--will face a resurgance. Labor will have to find other pressure points. Maybe it will be some kind of confucian-style moral understanding that we are all on the same planet and will either live or perish together. I don't have that kind of crystal ball.

Just an aside about the KIPP discussion. I don't know if they a losing kids and not replacing them. I do know that the new KIPP school here had teachers pounding the pavement to recruit when their numbers were lower than needed to stay afloat. I also know that just about everything that has been suggested above about ways to cherry pick are things that I have experienced not only from some public charters--but also from various schools within the public district. It's pretty much illegal, but not very carefully monitored and very hard to prove. There's always some other reason (discipline transfer, subtle discouragement, placement in a "special program," just being uncooperative to the point that the family gives up). The numbers that Carolyn sees in KIPP from 6-8 are what I see in public high schools from 9-12.

I know I'm getting off the subject here, but once again a comment by Diana Senechal prompts me to a few thoughts. She says, a few comments above, "group battles are rarely subtle . . . . . . . we need the thoughts and knowledge of individuals." I think that is an important idea. Groups may win big battles, but they can not win subtle battles. They are incapable of even recognizing subtle battles. This brings up a related idea that I have been pushing. Group effort dilutes individual effort. One reason only individuals can win subtle battles is because group effort dilutes individual effort.

All this is connected to the emphasis for collaborative learning that inspires so many educators (but not all), as well as to this ongoing discussion about unions. This collaborative learning emphasis goes way back in the history of education, about a hundred years or more, but seems to given new attention lately. I am not sympathetic to this emphasis, and I consider that I have good reason.

Years ago I started dividing up people into "groupers" and "non-groupers", at least in my own mind. Groupers want to do things together. Non-groupers want to do things more individually. To relate this to at least one part of the present discussion, groupers believe in and support labor unions, non-groupers much less so. Nongroupers see the down side of labor unions, at least labor unions as we know them. Groupers don't see this downside, even though it is very substantial. Further thought along these lines led me to what I consider a very important conclusion - groupers and nongroupers don't understand each other very well. They have little appreciation for the perspective of each other. They have very little empathy, or even awareness, for the drives, ideals, and sentiments that motivate the other. They irritate each other, but don't know why.

I think we pay a high price for this lack of understanding. I have developed these thoughts to some length in an article on my website. Here's a link.

Diana, Brian, Here! here! and thank you for the idea "group battles are rarely subtle". What a tremendously helpful turn of phrase!!

The impacts of this range from the petty (grumpy bus drivers) to the nearly cosmological (national insufficiency of art, history, and math).

Diana, I would take exception to your idea (though it is likely widely believed by teachers, who should all read more management books) that:

While most American companies increasingly assume that their employees are not only expendable, but that investment in developing their skills is more costly than hiring in newer workers who have already acquired those skills,...

Lincoln Electric, the Japanese, and Nucor Steel are all perennially cited examples of the worker-centric philosophy done well. However, we were all reading those things in 1990; American companies long ago embraced this philosophy.

It cannot be otherwise. As companies become more and more specialized, the idea of turning elsewhere for new workers becomes much harder. Friedmans' "The World is Flat" describes how UPS is becoming the world's supply chain manager. If a few companies comes to have all the nations' supply chain management expertise in house, how can they expect shop elsewhere for talent? They must invest in who they have!

So, it is just this type of experimenting and specializing and support which is not happening fast enough in public education. By putting too much authority (real and moral) with the large group--the NEA, the SEA's--we're missing too many opportunities moving steadily forward, bit by bit.


I read with interest your post and article. It's an interesting way to think about certain tensions. It reminds me of Deborah's comments (a while back) about whether "libertarians" and "communitarians" can live together--she said she thought it was possible, since both streaks live in her!

You may be right that certain people (and cultures, and historical eras) lean more to one side than the other, and yet we are all both.

But I reject a critique of unions as being overly communitarian (by definition, although it may be true in some places). In fact, unionized teachers make possible what they cannot do alone. But the kinds of suffocating rules that some teachers work under is not just because of collective bargaining, and it's very rare that anything about curriculum is in a teacher contract (and remember contracts are a negotiation, so it takes two sides to make an agreement).

Deborah has written about the pilot schools in Boston. This is a union-initiated model of schools that basically gives schools as much "autonomy" as charter schools. This doesn't mean that libertarian teachers in these schools can close their doors and do whatever they want (I don't know of anyone arguing for this approach--are you?) But that many decisions are made at the school level rather than the district level--so a smaller number of people can target their strategies for a smaller community--could this be perhaps the "subtle battles" that you refer to?

For this approach I think it's important to emphasize that the school cites need to have the knowledge necessary to confront extremely difficult problems. Too often teachers and schools rely on distant experts telling them what to do (a superintendent, chancellor, team of experts, or even NCLB). A question for unions moving forward is both how to fight for more cite-based decision-making, and how to provide opportunities for teachers to rise to that challenge and show that it can work better for student learning.

I'm not sure if this model better satisfies a self-described "non-grouper." But schooling in a democracy is a shared enterprise, so aside perhaps from home-schooling, it's hard to know what would satisfy a "non-grouper!"

I'm sure a non-charter public school could covertly employ some strategies for cherry-picking, but I don't see how they'd get away with it for very long. Their administrators are colleagues and peers of the administrators at the schools that are receiving the kids they discourage or winnow out, and their district still has to deal with those kids (and their families) and the entire situation. Eventually, aren't those other schools' administrators going to kick up a fuss, and isn't the district going to have to deal with the fallout?

By contrast, with KIPP schools and other charter schools, they never have to set eyes on or give another thought to the kids who leave or who were deterred by the requirements of the application process.

I don't think you can compare high school attrition to middle school attrition. High schoolers can legally drop out or get their GEDs, whatever -- as the mom of a 12th-grader I know a number of kids in an array of such situations. (Comparing high schools to each other is fair and legit.)

But when a middle school has a much smaller 8th grade than 5th (or 6th, depending on the school's structure), something is amiss. San Francisco's (KIPP schools tend to have an enrollment bump in grade 6, BTW, because they have a very hard time attracting 5th-graders -- kids don't want to leave their K-5 schools, but lots of families consider KIPP when it's time to choose a middle school.) Anyway, if you see middle schools like that, KIPP or not, it's time to raise questions.

As I may have noted, due to the massive press and pundit worshipfest for KIPP, I was the one who looked at the numbers and raised the questions about attrition -- and I'm a layperson volunteer unpaid blogger. Yes, the attrition did get national attention once I blogged about it, but the press and professional education researchers should have been doing their homework.

Ed, the indented words you attribute to me ("While most American companies...") are not mine! Margo/Mom wrote those words.

Brian, I read your article quickly on groupers and non-groupers. I will go back and read it more slowly; the subject is of great interest to me. I especially enjoyed your corollaries.

Matthew, while I agree with some of your points, I do see a place for a non-grouper in public schooling (and in democracy). Every institution needs people who think independently. Many schools and school systems have forgotten that.

The schools emphasize groupwork and group talk to such a degree that Brian's "non-grouper" would be quickly "grouped out." This has not always been so, nor does it need to be. Schools could be places of quiet thought as well as collaboration.

In democracy as well, we need room to retreat and think on our own. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are rendered meaningless if you cannot choose to be alone. Yes, we do have responsibilities to our various communities and to the country, but those need not take the form of group work all the time, or even most of the time.

What about unions, then? How can one participate in a union as an individual? I am puzzling over this question. At this time I have no desire for extra groupwork or meetings, and I am averse to slogans, placards, and chants. But there could be other ways of contributing. I hold out the hope that one can participate in an organization while keeping one's integrity and individual views. It is not always easy, but it can be done.

Diana Senechal

"Their administrators are colleagues and peers of the administrators at the schools that are receiving the kids they discourage or winnow out, and their district still has to deal with those kids (and their families) and the entire situation."

Carolyn--yes this is true, however, there are more and less favored schools within the district. Popular alternative schools have the option of continually churning because they have long waiting lists. The also tend to "pool" the teachers and parents with the most "clout" (social capital). Kids with disabilities (or labels) are the most vulnerable to negative transfers--and yes the schools on the receiving end are ticked at being the recipient (as they are also ticked and mightily self-righteous about the kids that they take in from charters for various reasons).

But protecting the various "turfs" in which people live makes change difficult to impossible. Schools have fought to keep resource rooms out of their building. The Special Ed Department gets worn out from these fights, as well as being reluctant to place staff and students in a building that has organized against them. One urban district in the state just had a team of outside consultants point out that their "discipline transfer" policy did nothing more than move kids with mental/emotional health issues from one unprepared and underserved building to another. But there is a contractual guarantee that teachers can, in certain circumstances, force such a move. Teachers (via their union) tend not to take a wide view. What they tend to see, and advocate for, is for the administration to remove kids who have or cause problems. There may be some suggestion of a need for a black box solution (some kind of "behavior school")--but the actual solution, beyond removal, is someone else's problem. So we wind up with this kind of geographic cure being institutionalized, with perhaps a hope that moving a kid away from their peers will enable them to change.

I will buy that a comparison of middle to high school attrition rates is not quite spot on. What I do see as a commonality, however, is the "push out" potential at all grades. There are many ways to do it--and to the extent that there are options (other places for students to go), it tends to result in sorting of students. What is really sad by high school is that some of the more powerful options for many kids are the ones that take them away from school entirely. I don't see this as a public vs charter school issue. I see it as an engagement issue and a commitment issue. I have seen both strengths and deficits in both across the board.

Ed - I'm a perfect example of get rid of the person rather than train them up. I got out of computer programming because I was transferred (my whole department) to the university. The IT department forced me to use PHP instead of Oracle and made life miserable for those of us without the skills. I tried to learn it but was given huge projects to do quickly without any learning curve time.

Their turn over in the office is absolutely huge - worse than the military. This turn over style of management is done on purpose as I heard it pretty much out of the director's mouth.

Margo, I agree that those issues (high attrition, push-outs) are not restricted to KIPP or to charter schools.

But in the case of the KIPP schools I have researched, the issues are particularly extreme. The cherry-picking in some charter schools in my experience is evident too -- though in San Francisco, most of our charter schools can't cherry-pick because they don't get enough applicants.

It's a big deal because KIPP and charter schools are so often touted as a miracle solution, and public schools suffer unfairly from the comparison and suffer loss of support accordingly. Plus the big private funders shower those schools with money (which of course could theoretically be going to all public schools) based on the misleading PR. That's why I bother to do the research.

Regarding KIPP schools and whether the California schools are outliers because of their high attrition* -- I seem to be the only person in the country bothering to do this research, but being an unpaid volunteer amateur, I don't know how to research those numbers in any state but my own. So it would be interesting to actually see the numbers (official ones) for KIPP schools in other states. What a strange coincidence if only the KIPP schools being researched are the outliers with extremely high attrition.

*I looked at numbers for all the California KIPP schools starting two years ago. Six of the nine showed the pattern of very high attrition, and far, far higher for the most academically challenged subgroup -- either African-American boys or Latino boys, depending on the schools' overall demographics. I believe there's a 10th KIPP school now, in Southern California, which is too new to have numbers yet.

Brian and Diana,

I continue to think about Brian's notion of "groupers" and "non-groupers" especially in relation to unions and schools. I think it's somewhat ironic that both of you seem to associate unions with a "grouper" mentality since it has been union contracts that largely kept teachers' hours and work days to a reasonable level (despite constant pressure to increase them).

Let's assume for a moment that nobody likes going to meetings (which might not be too far from reality). Then there must be serious benefits for having them, right? I would argue that if meetings (kept to a reasonable amount of time) at the school level can help teachers be more thoughtful about their teaching, to reach more students and families more effectively, and to make governance decisions about that school that lead to more "buy-in" for the staff and parents and students (and the decisions are not turned over by some "higher authority") then these meetings are well worth extra time (compensation for them would be even better). Currently, teachers and schools put up with policies that they never would agree to if they had a seat at the table.

Margaret Haley, the founder of the AFT, fought for this kind of decision-making power from the beginning, but never was able to gain it. This may be beginning to chance in some public schools (although it's probably much more common in private and charter schools).

Can such authority (to schedule additional meetings) be abused? Of course it can--poorly organized meetings can be never-ending and exhaust everyone. In fact, making good use of meeting time (and adult education in general) is just as hard, and requires just as much thought, as being a good teacher for children, I think. But just because it's hard, and some people don't like meetings or are "non-groupers," shouldn't be a reason to give up on the benefits for everyone. It seems hard to imagine, for example, how it's possible to teach children how to be good democratic citizens when teachers (and parents, and administrators) don't value--nor practice--the skills that go along with what that means.

Anyway, Deborah was writing about how schools can be made to be intellectually stimulating for everyone involved. But I think that is considerably more difficult if people have an automatic resistance to being in the same room together. But maybe that's because most of us are too used to being treated like our time was not valuable?


I think you may have misunderstood my points. I do not have "automatic resistance" to being in a room with others. I willingly attend union and faculty meetings and often participate in the discussions.

I object to the overwhelming emphasis (in NYC schools) on groupwork and talk. I relish whatever quiet I can find. If there were more room for quiet, if the talk were less insistent, collaboration would be sweeter.

Many assemblies and groups make room for quiet. Take religious worship. I am not observant, but I appreciate this aspect of it. When people assemble in church, synagogue, or other religious places, they do not turn and talk every few minutes. They do not have to work in groups or fill out graphic organizers. They can be together and alone at once.

The same goes for the audience and performers at a play, concert, film, or dance performance. It is the quiet and focus that brings people together. Yes, people may laugh or cry together during a movie, but that would be spoiled if they had to turn and talk. And imagine if dancers had to interrupt their steps to "facilitate" small group discussions! That would be the end of the dance troupe, maybe even of dance.

That does not mean we should do away with discussion in schools; far from it! But there must be plenty of quiet--with excellent books and challenging problems--to give the discussion form, life, and substance.

Diana Senechal


Okay, that makes sense. I think what you're talking about, and what I was trying to write about, has to do with the idea of quality learning and growth for teachers. I know you objected to the term "professional development" earlier, but it's hard to think of another term. I was also writing about collaborative decision-making.

But the question of what "quality" means is a very difficult one. It might vary from person to person and school to school, in terms of what's necessary/powerful. I agree that having a focusing text is often helpful, I also like certain protocols for inquiry, and I like it if someone can share a strategy that is useful in the classroom in a very practical way. I also value meetings where people can really voice disagreements in a respectful way and a good decision or plan of action can be made.

I guess I don't measure the amount of talk vs. quiet in these kinds of meetings. I don't like it when people talk over each other and not listen, but I think voicing opinions and hearing thoughtful responses can be a valuable form of learning, and decision-making.

I think this topic is important, and I'm glad you bring it up. Teacher meetings are very often after-thoughts for those leading them, I think. A missed opportunity, or worse.

Diana, I don't know your ethnicity, so I comment without making any assumptions.

From spending much of my life in a diverse, high-density city and making observations as an amateur sociologist, I have to point out that in some communities, a kind of group-participation audience attitude at performances is part of the culture. White people sometimes complain that groups of African-Americans in movie audiences talk too much -- interestingly, American friends who have moved to or spent much time in Israel have made the same complaint about Israelis. It's a different cultural attitude toward audience behavior. Visit a black church (and compare it to a white, say, Episcopalian service).

My kids were performing in a high school jazz concert recently, and I was sitting near an African-American dad who is a professional musician himself and a product of the culture that vocally expresses approval. I ADORED it when my trumpeter son had a couple of solos and this dad was making comments like "play it!" and "yes!" -- not loudly, but audibly.

Or for an amusing example of these cultural differences without a skin-color aspect, watch "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" again.

Anyway, I think some of these cultural differences can also be applied to a preference for group work vs. quiet individual desk work. Individual preference may also apply, of course.

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