It’s the academic content, stupid

Some well-known education reformers attended private high schools, wrote Michael Winerip in the New York Times. His list includes Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Teddy Kennedy, Checker Finn, “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim, Jeb Bush,  and others.

In response, ed reformer Whitney Tilson called Winerip “the worst education reporter in America” and a “gutless weasel.” Tilson also lists education reformers who attended public high schools.

In Private School Student, Public School Reformer, Core Knowledge blogger Robert Pondiscio takes a calmer look at the issue. He thinks that well-educated people may take a strong curriculum for granted.

Private and parochial schools tend to have fairly set curricula that describes grade-by-grade content with great specificity. Public schools tend to have “standards” that enumerate the skills kids should demonstrate, while leaving curriculum choices to the teachers.

The difference is significant, Pondiscio argues.

If you assume that what kids learn is basically the same from school to school, you will naturally assume the only thing you can change is teacher quality, accountability, pay structures and funding formulas.  Do students in public schools get poorer meals, fewer resources and lousy teachers compared to their privileged peers?  Some do, some don’t. But the one thing most low-SES children certainly do not get is a well-rounded, academic curriculum.  Tilson himself once told me that a good curriculum “is like mom and apple pie. Everyone is in favor of it.”

But then why are so many children saddled with content-free drivel?

Pondiscio sent his daughter to a Manhattan private school, while he taught at a public school in the South Bronx. Lots of public-schools teachers were stronger than some of the private-school teachers, he writes.

The magic of her school, at least at the elementary school level, was not in the teachers but in the curriculum and a first-rate, purposeful school tone.

I went to public schools in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. We had a mix of excellent, average and lousy teachers. The curriculum was hit-and-miss, especially in elementary school. But we had a first-rate school tone. Our education-centric parents — mostly college educated and Jewish — had moved to the suburbs for good schools. They sent their smart, ambitious kids to public schools. And the schools were good.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. CarolineSF says:

    Well, “gutless weasel” is at least classier than Tilson’s previously favored tactic of spreading rumors about the 73-year-old Diane Ravitch’s sex life.

    Joanne, your schools were good because the students’ parents were college-educated and education-centric. If you had stuck that same group of kids in the most disastrous school in the Chicago slums, they’d have done just as well and the school would have soared. If you had stuck the kids from the Chicago slums in your school without your home life and economic advantages — well, you get the picture.

    I think Winerip’s valid point is that those particular reformers have no life experience in or contact with the world they’re now trying to dominate, dismantle and refashion according to their own ideas. It would be like my swooping in and trying to dictate how to run the U.S. armed forces. His list does include some of the biggest names, while Tilson’s contains smaller potatoes.

    Winerip left off Marion Wright Edelman’s son Jonah of fill-in-name-of-generic-sounding-corporate-ed-reform organization — no, it’s Stand for Children. When you wonder how the son of such a revered children’s advocate could go so wrong, you do have to ask about his education — Sidwell Friends, same as Davis Guggenheim.

  2. Sol Stern says very much the same thing in his piece about successful Catholic schools in Harlem. A strong curriculum (a la Hirsch and others) and a school ethos of high expectations make a difference, even when some teachers are not as strong as one would wish.

    http://www.city-journal.org/2011/21_2_catholic-schools.html

  3. CarolineSF said:

    …your schools were good because the students’ parents were college-educated and education-centric. If you had stuck that same group of kids in the most disastrous school in the Chicago slums, they’d have done just as well…

    Not exactly. If having educated, caring parents was enough, why is so much tutoring needed in affluent areas today? Curriculum matters. Teaching matters. The school environment matters. If you could take Joanne and her classmates and put them in today’s schools, even those with similar demographics, their experience would be very different from what it was when she was growing up. No doubt home life and economic advantage matter a lot, but that is not all that matters.

    As far as most reformers go, whether they went to public or privare schools, few have much in common with the most disadvantaged members of society. Doesn’t mean the reformers are incapable of doing good.

  4. How about this radical idea for true reform?

    I’ve always thought (and written once in an op-ed piece) that, truly, the only way to fix our public schools is to close all the private schools. Radical, eh? Only in that way, schools will matter for everyone–not just for other people’s children.

    Of course, it won’t happen. Alas. But, it would work. I’d predict that within a year, our schools would be fixed, even in the inner cities–kids would learn, discipline would be in place, teachers would have time to teach, and the sun would shine upon us all.

    How about giving this idea a try?

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    What about another radical idea to fix the government schools…if you take taxpayer money for your salary then your kids need to be in the government school system in which you teach…

    Private schools have been around “forever” and the good ones will continue to be around “forever”. It is those schools that popped up because of busing and have weaker curriculums than, believe it or not the government schools but have stronger discipline, an environment conducive to learning that will close if the public schools ever adopt a stronger curriculum, get discipline under control, have an environment conducive to learning, etcl.

    So…teachers…get with the program…stop taking public money and not educating your kids in government schools…yeah, right. But this is what it will take to improve the government system…teachers also need to be customers of the school system in which they teach…maybe then they will finally, finally find their voice.

  6. “Winerip left off Marion Wright Edelman’s son Jonah of fill-in-name-of-generic-sounding-corporate-ed-reform organization — no, it’s Stand for Children. When you wonder how the son of such a revered children’s advocate could go so wrong, ”

    I know Edelman doesn’t fill the all-important role of being a full-time detractor of charter schools (especially KIPP), but it’s not clear what he’s done that is “so wrong.”

  7. (Freedman): “…the only way to fix our public schools is to close all the private schools… in that way, schools will matter for everyone–not just for other people’s children…it would work…within a year, our schools would be fixed, even in the inner cities–kids would learn, discipline would be in place, teachers would have time to teach, and the sun would shine upon us all. How about giving this idea a try?

    Let’s not. The education industry is not a natural monopoly. Children are not standard. Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically adept parents. Aggregation of children, resources, and authority into ever fewer hands will further degade overall system performance. Abolish private schools, homeschooling and independent school districts and you will still have magnet schools, G/T classes, career tracking, assignment by residence, and other tricks that politically adept parents use to shield their children from the antagonized slaves who work, unpaid, as window-dressing in the massive make-work program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel.
    The most effective accountability mechanism that humans have yet devised is a policy which gives to unhappy customers the power to take their business elsewhere.
    Let’s try tuition vouchers, tuition tax credits, subsidized homeschooling, and Parent Performance Contracting.

  8. CarolineSF says:

    Disagree, NC Mom. You have no way to compare how much tutoring is needed in affluent areas today compared to how much might have been needed in the past — that’s a bluff.

    But if there were greater demand — or the demand were more vislble — there are certainly major cultural shifts that could explain it, too. For example: It used to be that only a certain social class aimed at the Ivy Leagues, and they were accepted to Harvard and Yale without effort. Now striver kids throughout the upper middle class, and quite a few from lower on the ladder, aim at the Ivies, and the competition is fierce. The movie Race to Nowhere shows us that the demand for perfection in all areas on kids in the middle class and up is far higher than it was a generation or two ago. AP classes used to be for the elite; now it’s considered the norm for kids across the ability spectrum to take AP classes and for kids in the elite to pile on a huge number of them. And I’m just getting started…

    Yes, Joanne and her classmates’ experience would be different today — a lot more would be demanded of them and they’d have to work even harder. I vigorously disagree with what I think you’re trying to say, which is that the schools serving the children of college-educated, education-centric parents are inferior to those of our day. That’s simply not true.

  9. CarolineSF says:

    And yes, Stuart, if Jonah Edelman were my kid I’d definitely be weeping about where I had gone wrong, raising a child without a moral compass. So far I don’t have to do that — my real-life kid wrote a sharply critical review of “Waiting for Superman” for his college newspaper, the Oberlin Review — though of course parents can never breathe easy.

  10. “Without a moral compass” — strong words. Put up or shut up, why don’t you?

  11. CarolineSF says:

    Malevolent and harmful actions warrant strong words.

    I’m not sure what the “put up or shut up” challenge calls for.

  12. Caroline SF, I’m an Ivy League grad (1968). Even then, middle class students far, far outnumbered “upper class” students (though they were certainly there). There were even working class and a few very poor students. The competition was less, as you point out, mostly because very few students left the region they came from to attend college. And because we did not then, as we do now, bizarrely try to convince every single high school grad that they had to go to college in order to have an acceptable life.

  13. Um, it calls for explaining what the heck you’re talking about. When I look at his Wikipedia page, it says that he wants stronger graduation standards, better teachers, better data, etc. Sounds pretty anodyne.

    If by “malevolent and harmful” or “no moral compass” you mean that he was caught embezzling from handicapped children, then that’s one thing, but if you merely mean that he has non-left-wing ideas about how to improve education, then that’s another.

  14. (Caroline): “if Jonah Edelman were my kid I’d definitely be weeping about where I had gone wrong, raising a child without a moral compass. So far I don’t have to do that — my real-life kid wrote a sharply critical review of “Waiting for Superman” for his college newspaper, the Oberlin Review…
    You mean this embarassment?

    The film requires many such suspensions of disbelief. In order for our students to compete with kids from countries with better schools than ours, like Finland, Guggenheim argues, we need to break the influence of powerful teachers’ unions and rewrite the labor contracts that protect bad teachers from losing their jobs. Furthermore, we need to greatly expand the number of charter schools, which receive public funding but are run by private operators with scant public oversight.

    As one might suspect, though, nations like Finland, whose schools he praises as superior, didn’t build their school systems with such a typically American blend of privatization, deregulation and union-busting. Such countries instead invest in well-funded public schools, well-paid (and unionized) teachers and a huge welfare state that systematically attacks the core problem of poverty. Such systems depend on high taxes on the wealthy — and since America’s ruling class seems united these days in pushing for as low taxes as possible on the wealthy, it’s obvious why Guggenheim and his fellow elites might be anxious to promote an alternative, market-based narrative for improving education.
    Neither did the US build its school system with “privatization, deregulation, and union-busting”. In the US, government schooling has been locally controlled through most of its history. 100 years ago there were about 160,000 school districts in the US. Today there are fewer than 16,000. Through most of US history, public-sector workers could not bargain collectively. That only became widespread anter 1960 (about the time SAT scores started falling and per-pupil budgets started rocketing upward).
    (Caroline jr.): “Such countries instead invest in well-funded public schools, well-paid (and unionized) teachers and a huge welfare state.
    Such” countries? Like, you mean Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea? I don’t think so.
    Gerard Lassibile and Lucia Navarro Gomez
    “Organization and Efficiency of Educational Systems: some empirical findings”
    __Comparative Education__, Vol. 36 #1, 2000, Feb. , pg. 16

    Furthermore, the regression results indicate that countries where private education is more widespread perform significantly better than countries where it is more limited. The result showing the private sector to be more efficient is similar to those found in other contexts with individual data (see, for example, Psucharopoulos, 1987; Jiminez, et. al, 1991). This finding should convince countries to reconsider policies that reduce the role of the private sector in the field of education.

    (Caroline jr): “Only in passing does he mention a study showing that less than a fifth of charter schools achieve significantly higher standardized test scores than similar public schools, while over twice as many score significantly worse.
    “A” study? Cherry-pick much? Here’s Paul Peterson on charter studies:…

    To identify the effects of a charter education, a wide variety of studies have been conducted. The best studies are randomized experiments, the gold standard in both medical and educational research. Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard University’s Thomas Kane have conducted randomized experiments that compare students who win a charter lottery with those who applied but were not given a seat. Winners and losers can be assumed to be equally motivated because they both tried to go to a charter school. Ms. Hoxby and Mr. Kane have found that lottery winners subsequently scored considerably higher on math and reading tests than did applicants who remained in district schools.

    In another good study, the RAND Corp. found that charter high school graduation rates and college attendance rates were better than regular district school rates by 15 percentage points and eight percentage points respectively.

    Instead of taking seriously these high quality studies, charter critics rely heavily on a report released in 2004 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

    (Caroline jr): “The reforms he champions are meant to be taken as the “Superman” from the film’s title, but I’d just as soon keep waiting.
    He missed the point of the “Superman” metaphor. There is no Superman. No Philospher/Superintendent will transform the system. It’s the system itself that is the problem. Humans are not standard. The State has no more business in the education business than in the retail hardware business or the auto repair business.

  15. Stacy in NJ says:

    Thanks, Malcolm. It’s helpful to know where folks are coming from.

  16. J. D. Salinger says:

    Disagree, NC Mom. You have no way to compare how much tutoring is needed in affluent areas today compared to how much might have been needed in the past — that’s a bluff.

    It isn’t a bluff. The prevalence of trendy educational methods in lower grade (collaboration, small groups, art projects and posters in lieu of reports) has been escalating. There are schools in affluent areas that no longer teach grammar. Math has been on a downslope for some time. Perhaps high school courses are on a better keel, but only slightly. The students who have not had the advantage of outside tutoring or parental help to learn what isn’t being taught in schools cannot qualify for the AP and honors courses. The “strivers” you refer to have had such advantage. Those who don’t qualify are relegated to watered down courses. Read up on “winner take all” high schools before you start spouting off on how much we don’t know.

  17. I missed a close quote before…

    Neither did the US build its school system with “privatization, deregulation, and union-busting”. In the US, government schooling has been locally controlled through most of its history. 100 years ago there were about 160,000 school districts in the US. Today there are fewer than 16,000. Through most of US history, public-sector workers could not bargain collectively. That only became widespread anter 1960 (about the time SAT scores started falling and per-pupil budgets started rocketing upward)

    which was my rebuttal.
    My first reaction to Joanne’s post was “a plague on all your houses”. Most of those so-called “reformers” aren’t. Kennedy took vouchers out of NCLB. Obama killed DC vouchers. Bill Gates may mean well, but if throwing money at problems would solve them, the US would have the best system on the planet. I used to link Tilson on my blog untl he swooned over candidate Barak Obama.

    The argument that goes “you don’t have standing in this conversation because X (you went to private school, etc. Fill in the blank) is almost ad hominem and irrelevant. If a computer outputs “2+2=4″ we don’t usually ask why it did that. It’s only when a machine generates “2+2= 7 1/2″ that we ask why. Same with people; if we agree with what they say, we don’t usually worry about motive.

    There is one reason to take an interest in the education behind an education “reformer”. Most people who influence school policy did well in school themselves. It’s as though the winners of the last Superbowl or World Series get to make the rules that will govern next season’s play. The natural human inclination is to think well of one’s self and to suppose that if people do not take your path there’s something wrong with them.

  18. Michael E. Lopez says:

    You can always get to the bottom of these ad hominen arguments by asking who is qualified to offer an opinion.

    Imagine the conversation:

    Me: “I say we should do X.”

    They: “But you went to private schools. You can’t possibly know what it’s like in public schools.”

    Me: “Only for two years. Everything 4th grade and up was public.”

    They: “But you’ve had tons of advantages. You don’t know what it’s like ”

    Me: “Like growing up poor and not having enough money to go to high school dances and suffering from a whole host of social ills including physical abuse?”

    They: “But you’re really smart. You don’t really know what it’s like.”

    Me: “You wanna put some C-student proto-dropout in charge? Seriously?”

  19. As I said to Caroline w/r/t Jonah Edelman, if by “malevolent and harmful” or “no moral compass” you mean that he was caught embezzling from handicapped children, then that’s one thing, but if you merely mean that he has non-left-wing ideas about how to improve education, then that’s another.

    From her inability to respond, I’m guessing she must have meant the latter.

    That’s one of the most contemptible things about education debate today. (Not just left-wingers are guilty, of course.) That is, people who all deep down want to help children are so quick to demonize others just for having a different idea of how to get to the same end goal.

  20. J.D. Salinger is right and, sorry Caroline, but you are wrong on this. I’m a private math tutor in my neighborhood and my clients are all middle class folk, but not because they’re trying to get their kids into ivy league; rather, they are hoping to get them into the next grade! Montgomery County, MD has crap for a math curriculum from K to high school. Finally, after many years of implementing fad math, they have decided to revamp the curriculum so it stops covering too many topics with too little practice built in. Hence, they are returning to a more traditional math curriculum that actually waits for students to learn the material before jumping to another topic. I’m not sure how much they paid for the math audit that produced this 180 degree change, but I would’ve told them the same for free. I’m relieved by this change and I hope it will be a serious endeavor. Nothing has made me more angry as a parent here than their b.s. talk about closing the acheivement gap while simultaneously teaching a terrible math curriculum to the high numbers of low income kids that now live in this county. Kids with parents who understand the necessity of learning math facts and keeping up with the dizzying pace of MCPS elementary curriculum teach their kids at home or pay for tutors. The rest of the kids, if not innately above average in math, fall behind a little more each year. I won’t be tutoring next year anyway do to a career change, so I don’t have to be depressed that my client base might shrink.

  21. I’m a math tutor as well, and Caroline is correct. That’s probably because we both live in the Bay Area, where the suburban schools are excellent. My clients aren’t middle class, but upper income professional.

  22. (Caroline): “Joanne, your schools were good because the students’ parents were college-educated and education-centric. If you had stuck that same group of kids in the most disastrous school in the Chicago slums, they’d have done just as well and the school would have soared. If you had stuck the kids from the Chicago slums in your school without your home life and economic advantages — well, you get the picture.

    I was a teacher (Secondary Math) for ten years in the Hawaii DOE. Currently, I tutor.

    If home environment determines the result, why do we subsidize school at all?

    This “home environment” argument arises often when voucher advocates compare standardized test performance and graduation rates of independent and parochial schools to State (government, generally) schools. The “home environment” argument has a gaping hole; it implies that these successfully concerned (private schooling) parents are systematically deluded. Here they went and wasted $10,000/year on tuition. The “home environment” argument implies that, if they had instead spent that money on a Nikon microscope and camera mount, chemistry set, Celestron telescope, and subscriptions to Science News and National Geographic, and enrolled their kids in the tuition-free, tax-subsidized NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s schools, their kids would have done even better. The “home environment” argument implies that these educated parents who value education are stupid.

    The “home environment” argument ignores clear evidence from cross-State comparisons that institutional structure matters. States with numerous small school districts outperform States with large school districts. Countries which subsidize parent choice outperform countries which restrict parents’ options for the use of the taxpayers’ pre-college education subsidy to schools operated by government employees.

    Please read Chubb and Moe, __Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools__.