Education Unbound*



By 04/26/2011

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Unfortunately, in his Limits of School Reform essay this morning, the newest op-ed columnist for the Times, Joe Nocera, shows the limits of logic in thinking about the subject – or writing about it.  After throwing up the standard straw men – “At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance, so that’s all the reformers focus on,” “reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant,” “Dodd [the teacher] does everything a school reformer could hope for”  – he rolls out the woefully tired and hopelessly unhelpful nostrum:  “What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything.”

Thanks, Joe. I didn’t know that.

In fact, Nocera, who wrote the Talking Business column for the Times before landing the plum assignment on the paper’s prestigious op-ed page, will one day see this essay as beginner’s jitters.  He does hit all the high notes – the ravages of poverty, the lessons of James Coleman, the further lessons of Richard Rothstein, even bringing in Joel Klein as the heartless reformer who thinks a student’s home life is “irrelevant” – but ends up being completely off-key,  forgetting that we now have dozens, if not hundreds, of schools that are succeeding in educating poor children. He also conveniently forgets that the Catholics have been doing it rather successfully for many decades, if not centuries. And, in fact, Nocera ignores most of the last 150 years of American history, during which time our public school system did rather well educating poor people.

No, no.  The modern school reform movement does not need “a dose of humility about what it can accomplish,” as Nocera suggests. It needs smart people like Nocera to give up on naïve, ahistoric, and ultimately fatalistic beliefs about the limits of such reform and the potential of schools to make a difference in childrens’ lives.

-Peter Meyer

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*With thanks to Rick Hess, for his Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling




Comment on this article
  • Cal says:

    “Thanks, Joe. I didn’t know that.”

    Most of you act as if you didn’t know that. How much of the gap do you think teachers alone can close? Come up with a number. 10%? 20%? 80%? Because if it’s anything less than 30%, then you are spending a lot of time and money promising not all that much.

    For myself, I believe we can do it cheaper. But not much better than we are now.

    ” but ends up being completely off-key, forgetting that we now have dozens, if not hundreds, of schools that are succeeding in educating poor children.”

    Really? Where? Name even one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of schools that are “succeeding” in educating poor children–by which you must mean they have closed the achievement gap. Not narrowed it a bit around the edges, not moved kids up to proficiency by hook or crook, but closed the achievement gap. Name these schools.

    And, by the way, these schools that are even narrowing the achievement gap slightly are doing so by booting out the problem kids, not by superior instruction.

    “And, in fact, Nocera ignores most of the last 150 years of American history, during which time our public school system did rather well educating poor people.”

    Is this some sort of joke? Since when did we do well educating poor people? Since we’ve been required to educate all of them, as opposed to allowing them to drop out and find a job?

    “It needs smart people like Nocera to give up on naïve, ahistoric, and ultimately fatalistic beliefs about the limits of such reform and the potential of schools to make a difference in childrens’ lives.”

    So first you say “Uh, duh” to Nocera, as if he was stating the obvious. Then you contradict yourself by demonstrating that you do, indeed, believe that teachers can make up a huge amount of the difference.

    You have no idea what you are talking about. If all Nocera’s article did was force you folks to backtrack, that’s time well spent. Because now, every time you write some glib post about the big difference a teacher makes, someone will come by and ask you about the poverty factor. It will harsh your mellow, but that, too, is time well spent.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Peter

    I teach teachers, and when those teachers are in the classroom, it is essential for them to focus on their circle of influence–to do all they can do for the children in front of them, and not fixate on or be made pessimistic by obstacles such as poverty.

    I think Joe Nocera is speaking more to policymakers, whose circle of influence includes policies that influence relative poverty and affluence as well as schools.

    Heroic educators do amazing things with the children in front of them, but there is no evidence that the current policy directions can create systemwide improvement for poor children–we create isolated successes (and mostly just on test scores) by simultaneously pulling down the rest of the district. It’s like what the Yankees do in baseball–not every team can have as many championships as the Yankees, and the Yankees drain away so much talent that they always have disproportionate success.

    Lasting and broad change (not isolated successes) will require a far lower poverty rate, a strong social safety net, a shared culture of responsibility, aspiration, and deferral of gratification,

    If we continue to rig the economy and social policies so that the rich get even richer and most people are living paycheck to paycheck, substantial educational inequality will be permanent in America.

    Joe is right–it’s fine to improve teachers and teacher ed, but the majority of the action in terms of maximizing every child’s potential lies with broader economic and cultural factors.

  • Peter Meyer says:

    Dear Cal and Karl,

    I’ve reread Nocera’s piece several times and still believe his major sin is misrepresenting the reform movement. Sure, teachers are important, but I know of no successful reformer — I’m talking at the school or network level — who does not pay close attention to the “whole school” picture, which includes things like curriculum, collaboration, discipline, pedagogy, and schedule (longer school day and year). Perhaps my critique was too subtle, but I stand by my belief that plenty of schools — not just heroic teachers — are getting the job of educating poor kids done and we should be celebrating those policy successes rather than pretending they don’t exist in order try to keep the demography is destiny monster alive. Just because there’s no secret sauce doesn’t mean there aren’t some pretty tasty dishes out there. Let’s try them.

    cheers,

    –peter m.

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