Flash: School reform ‘won’t fix everything’

School reformers ignore student’s home life, asserts Joe Nocera, the New York Times new op-ed columnist. “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.”

Not a safe school community, not strong school leaders, not curriculum, not a longer school day and year, not college aspirations and never parent outreach.  (Ninety percent of school improvement plans in Midwest states include a parent involvement initiative.) Silly reformers.

He talks to Joel Klein, New York’s former school chief, who says that “family engagement can matter” but poverty isn’t destiny.  We shouldn’t give up on improving schools, Klein says.

“To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

Who’s the other side? Social scientists and teachers’ unions, writes Nocera. He concedes that improving schools is a worthy goal, but warns “school reform won’t fix everything.”

Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.

Is it “demonizing” teachers to say that some are better than others? Are reformers ignoring the problems of poor kids by trying to get more effective teachers in high-poverty schools? Are there school reformers who think school reform is easy and will fix everything? Or maybe they’re trying to improve teachers and teaching (and curriculum, etc.) because they don’t have the power to improve parents.

Ed Next’s Peter Meyer had a similar reaction. School reform won’t fix everything? Gosh! Who knew?

About Joanne


  1. CarolineSF says:

    But many of the corporate-education-reform spokespeople — and definitely much of the media — constantly and forcefully present the various fads and nostrums in the corporate-education-reform bag o’ tricks as the “it’s a miracle!” that WILL fix everything. So the “who knew?” sarcasm should be sent their way.

    By the way, Parents Across America (www.parentsacrossamerica.org) is also a strong and growing voice in opposition to the corporate-education-reform juggernaut. And we (I’m a founding member) are not part of the categories “social scientists” or “teachers’ unions.” Our critics are accusing us of having our position papers written by the NEA, which is unbelievably insulting to us as parents (mostly moms); not to mention that many of us, including me, are veterans of journalism and other educated professions, and our research and writing skills probably exceed those of NEA staff anyway.

    To respond to Joanne:

    “Is it “demonizing” teachers to say that some are better than others?”

    No, but you are misstating the message that comes from the corporate-ed-reform crowd. Their message is that “bad teachers” are rampant and are THE cause of “failing schools.” You can see it every time they rattle off the line that “teachers are the most important factor in student success,” while conveniently forgetting that the adjective “in-school” is supposed to go before “factor.”

    “Are reformers ignoring the problems of poor kids by trying to get more effective teachers in high-poverty schools?”

    Corporate reformers dishonestly downplay the devastating effects of poverty when they claim that “bad teachers” are the primary cause of the problems of high-poverty schools. So in effect,that does ignore the real problems of poor kids.

    “Are there school reformers who think school reform is easy and will fix everything?”

    Absolutely — or at least that’s what they profess to think’ it’s what they regularly say. And their supporters in politics and media resoundingly state that — constantly. Think of the infamous Newsweek cover (“The key to fixing schools: We must fire bad teachers”).

    “Or maybe they’re trying to improve teachers and teaching (and curriculum, etc.) because they don’t have the power to improve parents.”

    They’re not trying to “improve” teachers so much as trying to undermine and damage them. What their thinking is about the long-term effect of doing so is not clear, but that’s what they’re doing.

    That’s why not just social scientists and teachers’ unions but also parents and concerned advocates for public schools, teachers and children — largely ignored but starting to get a tiny bit of attention — are speaking out.

  2. “Our critics are accusing us of having our position papers written by the NEA, which is unbelievably insulting to us as parents”

    I suppose it’s unfair for people to assume that merely because your group is funded by the NEA.

    “Parents Across America (www.parentsacrossamerica.org) is also a strong and growing voice”

    Your group has passed the 1,400-fan mark on Facebook. A few hundred more, and you’ll have a third (1/3) as many fans as Michelle Rhee.

  3. CarolineSF says:

    The NEA has donated modestly to our group, along with other donors.It’s outrageously insulting (and sexist given that we’re mostly women) to claim that the NEA is writing our position papers. It’s also false.

    If only we had 1/3 as much funding as Michelle Rhee … however, at least we have our honor; we haven’t sought success based on faking resumes and cheating on tests as she has.

  4. I don’t know who is making the NEA accusation, but given how many women are involved with the NEA, it seems ludicrous to suggest that sexism is involved in any way whatsoever — whoever said that probably just thinks that your position papers are indistinguishable from what the NEA would want (more money, more jobs, no accountability, no choices for poor kids).

  5. I agree with Caroline about the reformers. Yes indeed, the reformers constantly act as if fixing teachers and killing those nasty teacher unions will dramatically improve schools.

    If instead, they admit that getting rid of bad teachers might give us 10-20% improvement, and getting rid of unions might make things cheaper, but not improve results much (which isn’t a bad thing), then their mellow is seriously harshed.

  6. CarolineSF says:

    Also, there’s a lot that needs rebutting in the Peter Meyer commentary to which this original post links. See below.

    Meyer says the people who refuse to dismiss poverty as a factor are “forgetting that we now have dozens, if not hundreds, of schools that are succeeding in educating poor children. He [Nocera] 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.”

    Here is the reality:

    1. We have very few schools, if any, that are succeeding in educating poor children without some kind of process that selects or self-selects for children higher-functioning, more-highly-motivated students from families who care about their kids’ education. (I will reluctantly add “arguably,” because there are diehards who stubbornly insist that there are no such processes at work, but they’re wrong.) That’s a huge factor that the corporate-ed-reform advocates routinely pretend is nonexistent.

    2. That goes for Catholic schools, which also are famous and even celebrated for tossing out kids who cause them problems. We saw in “Waiting for Superman” the girl who wasn’t allowed to participate in her parochial school graduation because her struggling single mother couldn’t pay the tuition (she lives across the street from the school and stands in her window sobbing while the graduation goes on across the street, or at least that’s how Guggenheim represented it).

    3. It’s mindblowingly inaccurate to claim that in the past US public schools did better educating poor kids. It used to be the norm for working-class and poor kids to drop out well before graduating from high school; it’s a relatively new concept to even set an expectation that all students should graduate from high school. The high school graduation rate reached 50% just about the time of World War II, according to Nicholas Lemann in “The Big Test.” My own grandmother, born in 1899 into an Appalachian railroad family, dropped out of school after 8th grade, which was the norm and the expectation in her family, socioeconomic group and community.

    Joanne, how can you link to such misleading misinformation?

  7. Good lord, I had just posted almost the very same thing on his blog. Idiotic. You did a better job than I did of spelling out the problems.

  8. “(and sexist given that we’re mostly women)”

    Given such an idiotic statement, I really have a hard time taking any other statement made seriously. By that logic, to make a claim about a person of another race is automatically racist, to make a claim about an elderly person is automatically ageist, and to make a claim about someone in another country is automatically xenophobic. It’s a dirty trick, and makes about as much sense as pounding on the table and screaming that you don’t have anger issues.

  9. Oh Caroline, you really are engaged in a Sysiphian task.

    1) If “very few schools, if any, that are succeeding in educating poor children without some kind of process that selects” that’s hardly likely to comfort parents who have to send their kids to schools which don’t allow any self-selection. Those schools, by your own admission, are doing a lousy job educating poor kids and you’re arguing to keep all poor kids in those schools.

    What’s interesting in your “argument”, if it can be dignified by that word, is that it implicitly ignores a parent’s concern with their own child which exactly mirrors the attitude towards kids institutionalized in the public education system.

    2) Yeah, she should definitely have gone to the public school that was chaotic, dangerous, ineffective and is far better-funded then that Catholic school.

    3) Of course those schools accomplished their lesser task for a fraction of the funding the current public education system doesn’t accomplish its task. If we reduce our assumptions of what’s expected of the public education system does that mean teacher’s compensation will be similarly reduced?

    I’d say you ought to be answering the question you asked of Joanne.

  10. CarolineSF says:

    Yes, I understand that point, Alien. You don’t have to treat me like an idiot. But in the big picture, what we’re talking about is schools that miraculously succeed by not enrolling the students who aren’t successful.

    The public school down the street could do the same thing if it used the same exclusionary practices. The cluelessness is in failing to recognize that.

    The funding disparity claim is bogus. The Catholic schools, for example, don’t accept kids with disabilities because “we don’t have the REsources,” they whine. One of the local Power Parish schools dumped a DYING disabled kindergartner into my kids’ public school, which welcomed and supported the family, by the way, until the girl passed away — but of course the parochial wasn’t willing to deal with her because she was too costly. Multiply that endlessly. (This makes me so furious I can barely type — the hypocrisy is disgusting.)

  11. Also, the notion of representing “parents” is a bit annoying. I’m a public school parent — I have 5 kids in K-12 public schools right now, which is probably more than you, Julie Woestehoff, Leonie Haimson, and Rita Solnet put together.

  12. cranberry says:

    Public schools also exclude. It may be open, as with public exam schools, which admit on the basis of exam scores. Public magnet schools also practice selective admissions. It may be implicit in the cachement areas for schools, or set by high average property values. Public school also exclude children by outplacing them to specialist schools, or by refusing to allow them to attend a school, instead providing tutors at home.

    The most insidious form of exclusion may be placing students in schools, but then assigning them an unqualified teacher. A gym teacher who’s offically teaching algebra 2, for example.

    Both sides of the debate simplify the other’s position, which is hardly helpful. I don’t think anyone on the education reformers’ side would deny that poverty causes enormous problems. I don’t think anyone on the teachers’ unions’ side would deny that some teachers are incompetent.

    Suburban schools often receive multiple appications from qualified teachers for every position (sometimes dozens). Inner city schools may need to grab anyone they can find to fill positions with warm bodies. Quality of instruction matters.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Has anyone considered the possibility that universal education *without* some sort of exclusion may by definition be a failure?

    Think about it for a moment: what’s the most fundamental element of the student-teacher bond? The teacher must voluntarily accept the student, and the student must voluntarily accept the teacher. If you don’t have that, what you have is a prison guard and an inmate, the former with a duty to make the latter “learn” something. Which is absurd.

    Indeed, the notion that you can simply take all the children and MAKE them learn is, on its face, a ridiculous one. You can no more make someone learn than you can make a horse drink. And while

    If all the successful schools practice some sort of exclusion, that should tell you something about what it takes to be successful.

  14. We need to stop blaming teachers and start supporting them. Students in low-income communities face unbelievable circumstances. How can we expect a student that has been abused, watched a friend/family member get shot, or has not eaten in two days come to school and learn? Yet, we expect teachers to work this miracle without any support, preparation, professional development, or resources. We blame them, continue to cut school funding, and then try cheap fixes that rarely work. Teachers are not the scapegoats they are made out to be. http://whatiswrongwitheducation.blogspot.com/2011/04/teacher-burnout-part-ii.html

  15. Those schools, by your own admission, are doing a lousy job educating poor kids and you’re arguing to keep all poor kids in those schools.

    Actually, there’s not a lot of evidence that KIPP does much better educating similar students. They do better, but not substantially so, and the take away is that segregating highly motivated students away from their destructive peers is the solution, as opposed to KIPP.

    You don’t know that KIPP would do better at educating similar populations.

  16. Allen, Caroline called you an “Alien,” but I think she really wanted to call you a sexist. By the way, maybe one reason kids living in poverty are more intransigent than they were, say, 50+ years ago is the culture. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I’d give the youth cell phones, iPods, video games and other gadgetry to distract them. I’d put former hippies in places of leadership to destroy the influence of religion and the traditional values that once made us great. I’d invent some kind of primitive music that elevates misogynism, gangster life, violence and immorality to cult status. Then I’d saturate the society with sex, destroy the nuclear family and advocate race, gender and class as the paradigm for explaining all social phenomena that has occurred since Adam and Steve.

  17. While I wasn’t treating you like an idiot Caroline you’ve certainly given me a reason to do so now with your deliberate misspelling of my name; “Alien” indeed. Feeling quite the fierce defender of the downtrodden are we?

    With regard to that “exclusionary practice” you’re so upset about you do understand that’s not true and that everyone who reads your comments understands that as well, right? Charter schools are rather more likely to toss out kids who are disruptive but don’t try to position the indifference of district schools to disruptive students as demonstrating concern for the students.

    If a kid’s disrupting the education of other kids and, presumably, not getting an education themselves then who is it who’s benefiting? It’s a bit of a mystery to me so perhaps you, being so adamantly opposed to the notion of tossing out disruptive kids, can shed some light on the beneficiary of the practice? Are you capable of understanding that none of the kids, including the disruptive kid, benefit by the practice of pointlessly keeping those kids in the classroom?

    Oh, and about that “Power Parish” school that dumped a DYING disabled kindergartner, prove it. Your fury is unpersuasive and unburdened by credibility.

  18. CarolineSF says:

    Sorry for the possibly Freudian typo! But at least I didn’t call anyone an idiot. And sorry, but it’s absolutely true about St. Cecilia’s dumping the dying kindergartner. Anyone familiar with Catholic schools and not in total denial knows that they dump all manner of disabled kids on public schools (while then patting themselves on the back for their superiority and alleged lower costs). The child in this case happened to have a (known) terminal condition, which shows up this routine practice at its most inhuman. Not being a believer myself, I can’t do a whole bit about what Jesus would say.

    Aside from open cruelty, I didn’t actually say I opposed getting rid of disruptive kids, and a private school has the right to accept whom it pleases. But it can’t then be held up as superior to the school that accepts its dumpees — or even compared fairly at all. The playing field isn’t level. The claim that Catholic schools have done great things with low-income children (compared to public being the point) is simply invalid for that reason. And, re-emphasizing: The claim that public schools worked better with low-income children in the past dating back to 150 years ago is entirely inaccurate, jaw-droppingly so.

    By the way, it’s a subject of constant discussion and unrest — even anguish — in public schools as to how to deal with disruptive children. Indifference is DEFINITELY nowhere to be found.

  19. CarolineSF says:

    Cranberry, I agree that nobody on the teachers’ union side would dispute that there are some incompetent teachers. But it’s a constant message from the corporate-education-reform faction that poverty doesn’t matter. The Newsweek cover with the copy “The Key to Fixing Education: We Must Fire Bad Teachers” is the definitive example.

    Also, a magnet school that excludes, or selects, does it openly, as do private schools. But then it can’t fairly be compared to schools that don’t, which is my point. (And charter schools that do it covertly are another story.)

    As to this concept: “Public school also exclude children by outplacing them to specialist schools, or by refusing to allow them to attend a school, instead providing tutors at home…” At least in my district, there’s a strong special-ed advocacy community, and the notion that either of those things just quietly happens (without parental consent, anyway) is not valid.

  20. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Caroline SF saith:

    I didn’t actually say I opposed getting rid of disruptive kids, and a private school has the right to accept whom it pleases. But it can’t then be held up as superior to the school that accepts its dumpees — or even compared fairly at all. The playing field isn’t level.

    I respectfully disagree with your conclusion. You say that “it can’t be held up as superior” — but that’s simply not true. It can be held up as superior and on a level playing field at that if the right move to make in the education game is to get rid of disruptive students. In other words, it might be adopting the “winning” educational strategy while public schools continue to force a losing strategy.

    The school that is employing the best strategy absolutely can be held up as superior, and I don’t think it’s obvious at all that simply getting rid of disruptive students isn’t the right strategy for every school, private and public.

  21. God, are people that foolish?

    f the right move to make in the education game is to get rid of disruptive students.

    Focus hard: the comparison is KIPP to public schools. Public schools can’t get rid of disruptive or unmotivated students.

    So no, KIPP can’t be held as superior if it adopts a strategy that it can only adopt because public schools are forced to take its rejects.


  22. Michael E. Lopez says:


    You’ve misread my post. So instead of telling me to “focus hard”, and referring to me as “foolish” and “unreal”, why don’t you ponder the following….

    You stated the following proposition:

    A) “Public schools can’t get rid of disruptive or unmotivated students.”

    I completely agree with (A) and it’s not only not a counter to what I wrote in my comment, it’s absolutely consistent with what I wrote.

    Think on that and ask yourself who needs to focus.


    (N.B. I’m assuming that you’re using the word “can’t” in the sense of “under the existing regulations” and that you don’t mean to say that the voters of a state are not allowed to amend their Constitutions, which would be false as well as silly.)

  23. CarolineSF says:

    OK, so a school that can get rid of disruptive students is superior. But it’s superior because it gets rid of disruptive students, not (necessarily) because it does anything else better. So is that accurate?

    The interesting thing is that advocates of “miracle” charter schools heatedly deny that their secret is getting rid of (or keeping out) problem students — disruptive or academically challenged. (Joanne Jacobs explicitly stated in her book that Downtown College Prep dumps low-performing students — but then denied it when I called it out, even though her book explicitly says so.)

    But now Michael Lopez says their superiority is based on their ability to get rid of disruptive students.

    WOULD you people get your stories straight? It’s getting very confusing.

  24. Basically, anyone with decent subject knowledge can teach a willing student (or a student who can be MADE willing through the proper combination of penalties and rewards.) That’s why most homeschoolers and private tutors are very successful teachers.

    On the other hand, it takes a specialized set of skills and years of practice to handle disruptive students well, especially in the current regime, where you can’t send them to the principal’s office and where their parents frequently don’t care or don;t know how to punish them for acting up in school.

    Maybe we ought to be looking at interventions that enforce strict discipline, and that teach new teachers the skills they need to keep the classroom from getting out of hand in the first place? Because once you lose control, it’s not coming back, unless you can pull a Nelson/Swamp.

  25. Michael E. Lopez says:

    WOULD you people get your stories straight? It’s getting very confusing.

    It’s probably a mistake to conflate Joanne and I into a single ideological unit, especially on the topic of urban charter schools where I’m pretty sure we have some wide disagreements.

    The “miracle” charter schools you’re talking about, Caroline, are probably wrong when they say that getting rid of disruptive students isn’t part of their success. It seems obvious to me that it would have to be: we can go back as far as St. Anselm to see that intractability on the part of one who receives something prevents its reception just as much as the failure to offer it. (Please note that I’m accepting both the assumption that they get rid of disruptive students, that they are successful, and that they claim the one has nothing to do with the other, solely on the basis of hearsay and for the purposes of this discussion. I am not asserting any of these, however, particularly the claim that charters, or the KIPP charters in particular, are “more successful”.)

    Now Dierdre’s point is extremely relevant: she asserts that willingness, at least the willingness necessary for education to occur, can be externally generated. That’s actually a very interesting philosophical question — one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and which figures in the borders of my dissertation. I think I’d disagree with her, but certainly not all the way down, as it were, and it’s also not perfectly clear to me that she’s wrong about even the parts of her position that I think I’d disagree with. Certainly I think that filling schools with bright, capable, impressive teachers would go a long way to impressing upon the students that it’s better to be like the teachers than it is to be like the students, and that’s a sort of external motivation. I question whether you can punish or reward someone into learning without falling into the trap described by Rousseau and Dewey both, wherein what the student learns is actually how to obtain the reward or avoid the punishment. Anyway, that’s another topic entirely.

    Now you’ve got another point, Caroline, that you’re making implicitly and that I think I agree with completely. Charter schools, you say, are dumping low-performing students. Dumping the low-performing is, of course, not the same as dumping the disruptive and unwilling. And I don’t hold the same suspicions about the former being part of the optimal education strategy that I do about the latter. I am rather inclined to say that a school should simply not admit students who aren’t prepared to do the work. Or if the school’s mission includes teaching that prerequisite knowledge, then the proper response is to move the student into the class where the prerequisite knowledge is taught.

    But that’s neither here nor there, and is a topic for another day. Thank you for taking the time to understand what it is I actually wrote rather than simply responding to what you think I think. I really appreciate that about you, even if we sometimes disagree.

  26. Michael – Well, St. Augustine claimed that much of his early learning was a result of…um… properly applied pressure. 😉 And, in my own home, I see that removal of privileges (Wii and TV) can ‘encourage’ a relcutant student to apply herself. It can’t force LEARNING, but it can, for example, get her to sit down and do the math test that will help her to learn her math facts. Now, it’s true, if she was ABSOLUTELY DETERMINED not to learn anything, it might not work, but if you can get the kids to settle down and be on task for a period of time, that’s a long way towards learning. And sometimes rewards/punishments are necessary to get them to work toward the harder goal (learning math) rather than the easier one (jumping off of chairs shreiking like a monkey).

    But, from personal experience, being knowledgeable, enthusiastic and motivated is NOT enough if you have two or three students who insist on disrupting the class and can’t be controlled or removed. (Which is why I could successfully teach Precal and Latin and Geometry, but had NO SUCCESS with “remedial Algebra 2.” I fell down on the ‘maintaining classroom discipline.” And yet, there are some teachers who can restore order with just a look and a frown. But neither the “look” or the knowledge is enough. You need both. And we spend precious little time teaching new teachers how to keep order. (Also, it was VERY HARD to get feedback on how to improve discipline, because whenever the principal or a ‘master teacher’ sat in on the rowdy class, they were suddenly well-behaved and attentive and focused on the lesson.)