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Observations from a Critical Friend


I couldn’t help but smile at his teacherly soul when Jay Mathews wrote:

It has been a while since I had a guest columnist in this space. I have never before turned the blog over to one younger than my own children. So let me introduce Catharine Bellinger, a Princeton sophomore who has plans to start a campus journal on education policy.
I suggested she practice with a topic provocative enough to get her in trouble, a good place for all writers to be. My question to her, inspired by her experiences in the D.C. schools, is: “Should middle class parents send their kids to KIPP?”

But as I read Bellinger’s piece, I had some concerns. My first response as a reader was to call her on some issues. My second response, as a mother of young adults, was to let it go since, as someone who writes about education policy myself, I understood that the pushback can be daunting and after all, she's young. My third response was that of a teacher. A teacher understands that an assignment without feedback is a wasted opportunity. And so, since this young woman wants to be taken seriously, I believe she deserves and can handle an honest critique.

So, Catharine, can we talk writer to writer? Mathews asked: “Should middle class parents send their kids to KIPP?” Here are some observations:

The US Census Census sets the median income at $50,740. How far below that mark is “impoverished” and how much does it take to be “affluent?” You mentioned parents who are “poor and never came close to attending college.” According to the US Census, college graduates represent only 24 % of Americans over 25 years of age. You risk offending a great many people by implying that those without degrees are victims of poverty and inadequate education. I was just a little older than you and teaching in one of the poorest communities in Texas when a parent corrected me by explaining, “There is a difference between being poor and not having a lot of money.”

The KIPP AIM Academy school where you observed and the National Cathedral School that you attended have minuscule populations and are extreme outliers on the education spectrum. What about everything else in between? While KIPP's “high expectations, more time in school, power for principals to make crucial decisions, a commitment to excellence and the relentless pursuit of high achievement” are commendable, these are buzzwords that are used in the mission statement of almost every school system in the country. KIPP has achieved some remarkable results, but there are currently some serious and important questions being asked about the program. It might be helpful if you offered some response to those concerns. Your anecdotal observations from your student-experience perspective are fresh and thoughtful, but as a teacher and a writer, I have to warn you: It’s a data driven research-based world out here, and without statistical evidence to support your observations, the policy pundits will eat you alive.

You give examples of some of the instructional strategies in both KIPP and NCS classrooms. Have you determined that these are unique to these settings? A broader observation might reveal that the focus and strategies you saw in KIPP’s AIM school are in line with the instructional models used by most public middle schools. The traditional lecture and discussion format you experienced at NCS is not uncommon in upper-grade high school classes at most public schools. Since AIM and NCS are both highly respected schools, we can assume that the teachers in both schools are using appropriate strategies for the cognitive development levels of their students. Readers who have a teaching background may perceive this as a rather naïve understanding of pedagogy. You’ll strengthen your arguments among practicing educators and other stakeholders if you take time to become more familiar with common strategies and best practices.

People who read online education journals and blogs such as Mathew's Class Struggle are accustomed to having links that support and verify the information sources. You singled out “education professor and policy blogger Jim Horn” for your opposing view. Your statement that “he has given no indication so far that he has spent any time inside a KIPP school” was pretty aggressive, especially since you build your own case on what you observed at one KIPP school and the National Cathedral School. It made me curious about Horn -- I thought he sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite place him. You didn’t give me a link so I did my own googling.

While you’re a ninteenish (?) college sophomore and he holds a PhD. in Education with a long career and some serious credentials, I don’t fault you for your David versus Goliath approach. But in my own search I also found this: “Horn is a talented, acerbic writer and a well-informed analyst. I cherish his blog because he is, by far, my most persistent critic.” Jay Mathews. By pushing against someone with strong credentials that your own patron acknowledges as a worthy and knowledgeable policy sparing partner, you may distract your reader and damage your own credibility.

Anticipate how your own words might be turned against you. I get it (and I would have probably enjoyed it), but there is a potential embarrassment for NCS if “One history teacher adopted a Schwarzenegger-esque accent and proclaimed herself “our German mother” while teaching us about the Vikings.” The Vikings were Nordic, not Teutonic; and Gov. Schwarzenegger is of Austrian, not German, heritage. Can you see how that could be scored as a ding for accurate content knowledge at a prestigious private school? And regardless of political alignment, some might find offense in a teacher who mimics the speech patterns of an immigrant English Language Learner who has managed to amass a personal fortune and become the governor of California. Do you see how that could be spun into cultural insensitivity and elitism even though that was not your intent? It’s the sort of Achilles heel that detractors seek out in order to discredit you. It allows them to redirect the discussion toward a flash point, and it result in rifts with allies. It’s unfortunate and it’s petty, but it happens. Be careful.

Finally, let’s go back to your writing assignment. Mathews asked you “Based on your experience, should middle class parents send their kids to KIPP?” Did you really address that question? You did a good job of describing and comparing the instruction at the two schools. You outlined the advantages of the programs. But that doesn’t go to the heart of the issue. I guess I might ask, “Since private school can be a huge drain on a family’s expenses in our current economy, would you suggest that your NCS classmates' parents send their younger children to KIPP for K-8 and then apply to NCS for high school?” That’s harder, and, as Mathews warned you, it could draw fire from several sectors, but if you’re serious about journalism or policy, it comes with the territory.

Okay, now I’m imagining Catharine reading this. I’m guessing that her first reaction might be defensive and that she may even be angry. I’m worried that her second reaction will be disappointment and that her feelings could be hurt and she’ll be discouraged. But I’m hoping that her third reaction will be reflective and that she’ll see my observations as constructive criticism and understand that my intent is to help.

Catharine said, “…ten years from now, the choice for parents may seem very different than it does today.” She described two good choices, KIPP and prestigious privates that share a common focus on preparation for highly selective universities. I am counting on bright, committed young people like Catharine to help us figure out how to bring such opportunities up to scale. But I also hope she and her peers will realize the importance of developing other education options that result in meaningful work, sustainable income, and responsible citizenship. We need more than one way to win.

I hope they’re willing to ask the hard questions and seek the complex answers that will allow every child to have the education that’s right for them -- because the tens of millions of public school children in America should all have choices that allow them the opportunity to discover their gifts, expand their knowledge, and follow their passions.


If I'm Catharine and reading this, I'm thinking, "Wow," I feel like the young poet Rilke wrote to. Now if we could only convince the world that all writing assignments should be as skillfully assigned and authentic as Jay's, and all instruction of writing should be as devoid of reductive numerical assessment (and thoughtful) as Susan's.
I also have to share that a number of years ago, Jay was generous enough to allow me to do an internship with him to get a couple credits at George Mason, where I was then working on my masters (I even helped him research the very first Challenge Index, mea culpa). Related to that, I had two educational writing experiences.
The first was when, at some point, Jay sat me down and interviewed me for an hour or so, and lo and behold, a few years later he had squeezed about ten chapters worth out of it for his book Supertest. If only I'd had the power to make so much of so little as an undergraduate.
The second experience was that I kept proposing story ideas to him, which he'd encourage me to write. I did, and filled a large 3-ring binder with crap, none of which was published in that form (as is always the case, later some of it was reworked and found its way into print). Jay was never less than supportive, although I underwhelmed a a GMU professor who called my notebook "self indulgent."
At the risk of seeming so here, I had to share those anecdotes about one of my best writing teachers ever, and encourage Catherine to take her's where she can get em.

I thoroughly enjoyed this critical (but friendly) analysis of Ms. Bellinger's piece. I hope she appreciates the opportunity you have given her to learn and progress in her writing skills. Not that long ago I was a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and I know that simply from reading this post I have been reminded of many of the most important lessons I learned there about what it takes to write a complete piece that is willing to examine an issue from all sides. Whether or not your constructive criticism helps Ms. Bellinger, it has certainly been a helpful reminder to me. Thanks!

Dear Susan,

I want to say first how honored I am to appear in your blog and how appreciative I am of your advice. What a perfect example of how criticism can be constructive when presented so thoughtfully, without condescension or anger.

You wondered whether my first reaction would be anger and defensiveness. On the contrary, I'm delighted that someone other than my mom has read my article! My second reaction is that the concerns you raise were some I had too when writing the article.

As an intern in the education section at a think tank in DC, I understand the value of data and research, but I decided to write the article based only on my personal experience. Maybe I should have changed Jay's question -- given your personal experience at two DC schools, should middle class parents send their kids to KIPP? And I am sorry if I offended people without college degrees. I was trying to convey two separate characteristics of KIPP parents, not make a broad generalization. As for my mention of Horn, I originally said, "Some people criticize KIPP's drill and kill approach," without making a specific reference to any education writers. But would that have been good journalism? I too respect Jim Horn and enjoy his Class Matters blog, and Jay and I even discussed inserting the quote. However, it may have been too aggressive to say he has never been inside a KIPP school.

On a side note, I have observed over 60 hours at KIPP AIM, and I have visited an additional 5 KIPP schools up and down the East Coast, including schools in NYC, the Boston area, and Gaston, NC. I have also observed and taught in the after school program at another DC area charter school, Washington Latin. I have spent hours poring over the KIPP 2006, 2007, and 2008 Report Cards, and I wrote an original policy paper on reading instruction and pedagogy at KIPP schools. I avidly follow issues in education blogs and newspapers, and I try to stay up on the current research on "what works," particularly with regard to middle school literacy instruction. I'm not an expert, but not quite as unaware as you might expect! And I am indeed cognizant of the many criticisms coming from inside and outside KIPP. You might be surprised to hear that KIPP teachers are equally concerned with issues of scalability, retention, attrition, and the right approach to discipline. What I love about KIPP is that teachers and administrators are always looking for ways to improve--that's why they host the KIPP School Summit every year to share best practices and discuss common challenges.

I'll admit you got me on the Viking reference. Years have passed since that 7th grade history class and I made an embarrassing factual error. I hope that I nevertheless captured my NCS teachers' energy and enthusiasm.

Thank you again, Susan (I hope you will forgive me for using your first name), for giving me the respect you would give another journalist. You remind me of some of my favorite NCS and Princeton teachers--kind, but critical, and above all encouraging. I would love to have your contact information, so if you have time, shoot me an email.


Catharine Bellinger

I agree with Emmett and Chelsea, (and was thrilled to see Ms. Bellinger's reponse). This was a thoroughly enjoyable and instructive exchange. Made this journalist-turned-English-teacher's day! P.S.--I'm using this entire post in my classroom this fall.

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Recent Comments

  • Renee / TeachMoore: Susan, I agree with Emmett and Chelsea, (and was thrilled read more
  • Catharine Bellinger: Dear Susan, I want to say first how honored I read more
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  • Emmet Rosenfeld: If I'm Catharine and reading this, I'm thinking, "Wow," I read more




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