When Education Reform Gets Personal

Confessions of a policy-wonk father



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SUMMER 2012 / VOL. 12, NO. 3

Over more than 20 years in the field of education—including two with Teach For America—I have helped promote state standards, the Common Core, the hiring of teachers with strong content knowledge, longer class periods for math and reading, and extra support for struggling students, to name a few. I have recently discovered, however, that what I believe as an education policy wonk is not always what I believe as a father. I am incredibly fortunate that my two young daughters are ready learners who attend a high-functioning school. That said, I make the following confessions:

As a policy wonk, I push for high academic expectations for all students. I know that American competitiveness requires excellence in subjects such as math and science that our schools do not teach very well. As a father, however, I find that what matters most to me is that my daughters are happy in school.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, academic expectations are extremely high. Our school district aims to teach math, for example, in a rigorous way. I appreciate this goal, but to date “increased rigor” has primarily meant that some students skip grade-level math classes and enroll in classes meant for older kids. Basic skills that are taught and reinforced in the grades being skipped are often given short shrift. In 2nd grade, my daughter brought home worksheets on probability before she had any real understanding of the concept, or even a strong foundation in simple division. Her frustration with probability, and consequently math, grew as we substituted times-table drills for play dates. Last year, to my horror, she said that she hated math. This year, which has included an increased focus on math facts and an inspiring teacher, math has become her favorite subject.

With my policy hat on, I know that a teacher’s academic background is critical. As a father, however, I want a teacher who manages a calm, safe, and fun classroom, and who loves children. One of the best teachers my children have had is our regular babysitter, who speaks English as a second language and never graduated from high school.

Of course, there are some gems at our school (thank you, Ms. Bederman, now retired) who are knowledgeable, skilled, passionate about learning, and passionate about children. To a father, Ms. Bederman was a gift from heaven; to a policy wonk she is the Holy Grail. Why can’t we identify and train more of these treasures? Why wasn’t every teacher in our school crowded into Ms. Bederman’s classroom to witness her magic? Why didn’t the principal require every teacher to crowd into her classroom?

As a policy wonk, I believe that student learning flourishes in classrooms that include students with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds. As a father, I want my daughters to appreciate diversity of all types. But I also want them to be surrounded by children who come to school ready and eager to learn. These goals come into conflict when some students are constantly disruptive; the policy wonk must preach patience to the father who wants the class disrupter out.

My daughter’s kindergarten class included a troubled boy who was going through the foster-care placement process. He is exactly the type of child that can benefit most from an excellent education, but he regularly disrupted class. One day, when I was in the classroom, the teacher—talented, but inexperienced—spent more than half of her time trying to keep this boy on task.

I feel for children like him; my company works with schools and districts to improve outcomes for these kids. But I was angry. The other children were clearly uncomfortable. His disruptions reduced learning time for my daughter, and seemed to steal some of her innocence and excitement about school.

The tension between my understanding of good education policy—driven by a deep commitment to equity and the belief that an outstanding education can transform lives, and this country—and what is right for my daughters makes me both a better policy wonk and a better father. The tension also illustrates why school reform is so difficult.

Scott Joftus is the president of the education-consulting firm Cross & Joftus.




Comment on this article
  • Sally Cauble says:

    Scott, I found this an excellent article. Last week we were just talking about when main streaming works and when it becomes a teacher and classroom nightmare. I believe this topic is going be our next challenge as policy makers. Also, I think it might need to be something to watch for in the reauthorization of IDEA.

  • Michael Endicott says:

    I like what you have said but you forget one thing – teachers already know this and have been fighting policy wonks who have been destroying the happy learning environment for decades. What is worse is that the wonks have been told this over and over by both their children and the experts in the room – teachers. But you don’t listen, it is only when it becomes personal that you reconsider your opinions and admit the possibility that teachers have been right all along.

    I wonder what responsibility you folks think you bear for messing up the education of millions of children these past decades with bad education policy? We could use fewer wonks or more children for the ones we have, clearly the experts aren’t listened to.

  • Roxanna Elden says:

    Well said, Mr. Joftus.

  • [...] the class disrupter out.” Scott Joftus explains how his day job at an education consulting firm collides with his role as a father of two school-aged girls. (Education [...]

  • John Thompson says:

    The best thing about your excellent article is that it prompted Micheal comment’s. To borrow from Larry Cuban, teachers were “deputized” to end poverty, but “reformers” listened to us less than the “status quo” did.
    Had you guys listened twenty years ago, and respected our wisdom on safe and orderly schools, this educational civil war would not have had to happen.

    Now think of the scenario poised by Paul Tough of ten in an inner city class with twenty other kids when ten kids are traumatized so badly that it disrupts their cognitive functions.

    How will Common Core or a longer day conceievably address the “culture of hitting and fighting” that inevitably results? Will you now join us in fighting the absurdity of firing their teacher based on test score growth?

  • Richard Cardillo says:

    How refreshing to read about someone who explores using tension creatively. It’s only when there is the capacity to see “Both Sides Now” that we can effect true change. One of the greatest gifts of the recent education reform movement is to focus on assets first and build from there. That is why school climate improvement efforts possess such a tremendous potential for school turnaround (from an academic standpoint as well as towards attaining the goal of creating engaged citizens). Rather than approach education policy and academic rigor from polar opposite points, let’s start looking at the common ground between the two (i.e. Ms. Bederman) and building from there. And, for goodness sake, let’s start listening to the students and the teachers!

  • [...] Another problem? It’s personal. [...]

  • John danner says:

    I went thru similar feelings as ceo of rocketship and watching my own kids go through public school. Your own kids definitely build an appreciation for empathy and safety in a class or school. However, i would challenge you as your kids grow to think more about how those skills jibe with rigor. Rigor is actually a form of compassion. A teacher who expects a lot of their students prevents them from feeling the frustration your children feel now, but much later in their school career ( ie high school or college ). The real problem you are seeing is that your child’s teacher has high expectations but doesnt understand how to differentiate. At rocketship, we have found that differentiation is a very difficult practice for teachers, so we have moved much more of the individual developmental work with children into our learning lab, where we use tutors and computers to give them the extra attention they need. We should never think of empathy/safety as an OR with rigor. We have to accomplish both. Its very difficult, but it can be done even with children more at risk than ours.

  • Lisa Orcutt Kane says:

    I appreciate your truthfulness, but I must say, Mr. Joftus, that the tensions you articulate boil down to nothing more than this:

    My beliefs as expressed in my professional capacity are routinely contradicted by my experiences in actual classrooms and in my role as parent.

    Do you know how frustrating it is for teachers, and I’d guess that given the parade of folks through my 3rd grade classroom I’m considered a Ms. Bederman in my school and in my district, that it is the voice of ‘wonks’ such as yourself that drive the discussion these days?

    No, reform is not difficult if what we chose to do is listen to the voices of excellent teachers, not policy makers. The very fact that we have ANY non-teachers creating the conditions of classrooms in this country is, to me, the root of much of the ‘problem’ of educational reform.

    You say that you are ‘in the field of education’ for 20 years, having spent, I presume, a mere two years in the classroom with Teach for America.

    When you have left ‘the field’ and entered the classroom, only then do you or the other voices of educational policy gain credibility in the eyes of teachers, teachers ‘talented but inexperienced’, experts, and every other ‘quality’ of teacher who do know what is entailed in getting the job done and what will be the effect of the policies enacted by those who choose to stand ‘in the field,’ usually in an enterprise that is profiting from ‘reform.’

  • LindaS says:

    One or two disrupters may be accommodated; unfortunately, in city schools, those students may comprise 1/3 of the class. No wonder the rest of the class is lagging behind.

    BTW, those who want teachers to “differentiate” and “scaffold” content – it can be done, if the content is knowledge-based missing information (“Europe is a continent – that’s all the countries in a given land area – see on the map?”). Such catching-up is relatively easy.

    Can’t do that for the kid whose teacher is working on graphing skills/slope, but the kid doesn’t understand fractions/decimals/formulas. The gap between where the rest of the class is, and where he is, is too great. That kid would be better served learning the missing content in a smaller group setting. That teacher hurts the rest of the class that can’t move ahead until some given number of the class understands.

    Application skills aren’t easily scaffolded. Tracking has its deficits, but it did narrow the range of skill levels in a given class – MUCH easier to tailor lessons to help the students achieve.

  • Brad R says:

    Curriculum, rigor, and effective teaching practices count for nothing if a student is asleep, or absent, or anything other than trying to learn. The biggest problem facing educators is cultural. I’ve taught HS math for nine years and I can reach and impact students whose home culture values education.

    Our biggest problem is out of our hands. The 50 minutes I get per day with these kids can’t compare to the influence of friends and family. I love building relationships with students. I will not, however, become a social worker and beg kids and parents to give a damn.

    Sending unruly children to school should be the next big social taboo. Like smoking was in the 90′s.

  • David B. Cohen says:

    “Why wasn’t every teacher in our school crowded into Ms. Bederman’s classroom to witness her magic? Why didn’t the principal require every teacher to crowd into her classroom?”

    - Yes, there’s value in observing a skillful teacher, but it takes much more than that. We could watch any number of skillful teachers on videos, too. I think the Gates Foundation is big on that idea. But then again, we’ve long had access to books to tell us how to do it all, too. What the non-teachers seem to think is that if the average teachers just watch the excellent teachers, they can imitate what they see and get great results. What they fail to understand is that what you can observe on the surface is a small part of what makes a teacher or classroom tick and hum. So, if you want to make significant and lasting impact, I’d argue that you need to send those teachers into that classroom more than a little bit, and follow-up with discussion, and look at various elements of planning, routines, and all of the prior work that went into creating current conditions. Those conversations, that kind of adult learning, takes time – and time is money. When we’re ready to invest in teachers having the time and resources to develop in their practice, we’ll see better results. If you check international comparisons, you’ll find that American teachers have higher student loads and spend more time in the classroom than many higher-performing nations. Give us more reasonable student loads and more time, and we’ll make greater strides.

    And THEN, you need to acknowledge that teaching is profoundly personal work, and that there are limitations to any imitative approach. No matter how good Ms. Bederman might be, there will be some non-transferable qualities. It’s important to trust teachers to grow into their own persona, not expect too much uniformity.

  • Jeffrey Miller says:

    Are you listening Education Next? Are you listening you who fund this website and many of the bloggers? Mr Endicott is spot-on. Do you recognize the support he has in the comments? Or are you going to continue to play political and ideological games with educational professionals and treat us like indolent factory workers who just need a kick in our accountable pants?

  • Brook Brayman says:

    “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel. ” –Robert Frost

    Mr. Joftus, it appears as though you are experience the fundamental tension of contemporary education. Your liberal, technocratic side that sits around and reads research about what happens ins schools has these lofty ideals, but your conservative side wants the best for your children.

    Next time you read some leftist position about education remember that there are thousands of parents who live in poverty, have low English skills, and have low education who want the same thing for their children: a world class education, and those parents want the trouble-makers out of the classroom more than you want the trouble-makers out of your child’s classroom.

    Your feel-good educational theories damage more low-income, low-English, and low-education students than they save, and like a 19th Century Methodist missionary in Africa, your theories impoverish and damage the very people that they purport to help.

    Thus, in the end, this is more about your liberal fantasies than the lives of real people.

    However, I applaud your candor. Thank you for showing the rest of us that even leftist reformers know that their theories are wanting.

  • Lisa says:

    This article actually makes me angry. Sure, it’s well written; it’s thoughtful. But it is maddening! Joftus repeatedly describes himself as a “wonk,” but that word denotes a rule-making blowhard with little to no actual, practical experience. Why are wonks involved in educational policy at all? Clearly, Mr. Joftus has explained, via his article, that he doesn’t know what he has been talking about. It is ABSURD to teach high level maths to kids in elementary school. I see the same thing with my kids, and yes, they never learn their times tables…later on, I see high school seniors using calculators for 12 x 2, no lie. And what is the point? They might take Adv Calculus, but they never need it in real life. Even physicians don’t ever use Calculus. We’d be better off teaching kids to read more and use their brains to form intelligent arguments. Think about that, wonks.

  • Doug says:

    Another thing the wonks need to consider is how their blanket policies such as NCLB and RTTT have ruined education. Joftus is lucky to live in a good school district. My kids’ district has cut Art, Gym, Library, Tech and foreign language so they can devote all their time to “teaching to the tests” that wonks have foisted on us. Thank you, wonks, for killing public ed in America.

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    I was amused by Brook’s comments, because I read the policy wonk side as the conservative side and the caring dad as the liberal side. The “wonky” policies he is talking about are being pushed by CEOs and conservative think tanks and politicians, so my brain is spinning at the idea that these are being called “leftist” ideas.

    What’s interesting is he probably isn’t wonky enough, that is, digging into education deeper and longer might help him realize that some of the things he’s suggesting don’t work broadly in the long run. Realizing this, the two sides of his thinking would come closer together–that is, there is no such thing as effective education that doesn’t address the whole child, or consider the effects of policies on teachers’ motivation and mental health. I’m guessing that many of the policies he supports (longer reading instruction) are only effective in the short run for boosting test scores, but are broadly counterproductive overall.

    Why every teacher can’t be that great is the same reason why every basketball player can’t be Michael Jordan or every plumber can’t be as helpful as the guy who just came by here.

  • Barry Garelick says:

    Differentiated instruction and mixed ability classrooms is taught as gospel in ed school, and preached by pundits and other others as something that works. The comments I see here are saying otherwise, and that’s good.

    Ability grouping is not the same as tracking. I explore this in more detail here: http://www.educationnews.org/commentaries/156298.html

  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    Why hasn’t EducationNext rounded up Ms. Bederman to get her take.
    Oh, get the Professional Education Reform Movement to listen to long time teachers.

    (Also, I recently read, NYT?, that David Levin of KIPP only has time on Sundays to spend with his child.)

  • kwine says:

    The comments are the best part of this article. Thank you Mr. Endicott for crystalizing my thoughts. I agree with Mr. Wheatley regarding the “leftist” and “conservative” flip.
    I hope that Mr. Joftus will continue his self exploration, and continue to be brave enough to share with his fellow “wonks” that what they are doing doesn’t jibe with what the education he wants for his children.

  • C. Matthews says:

    For folks who continue insisting that the ed reform movement refuses to include teachers in their conversation, please look into Teachplus.org. They’re doing good things to make teachers’ voices central to the discussion.

    I am also surprised by the virtiol against the author’s “wonky” politics here. As far as I can tell, nobody in education–kids, teachers, parents, wonks–would fight against most the things he seems to value. What is “wonky” about “extra support for struggling students,” teachers with strong content knowledge, etc.? I’ll concede the Common Core issue and acknowledge that the teacher qualification comment might be a nod to NCLB, but even still–do YOU posters want your 2nd grader being taught probability by someone who doesn’t underestand math well enough to recognize the absurdity of that “challenge”?

    As a teacher-turned-policy-writer, I feel fairly ambivalent about the “tension” identified in this article. Of course things are “easier said than done”–education is not unique in that regard. But I am embarrassed for the folks here accusing the author of “ruining” American education. Last I checked wanting high-quality teachers like Ms. Bederman–who I suspect was qualified to be teaching in Montogomery County–wasn’t ruining the nation. True–I don’t know all of his policies and suspect I’d disagree with him on plenty of them (I am a teacher-turned-wonk), but the blame game isn’t helping kids, either, remember….

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