When school reform gets personal

After two years as a teacher and nearly 20 as a policy wonk, Scott Joftus saw his ideas tested when his two daughters started school, he writes in When Education Reform Gets Personal in Education Next. His “daughters are ready learners who attend a high-functioning school.” But . . . 

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.

The boy’s “disruptions reduced learning time for my daughter, and seemed to steal some of her innocence and excitement about school,” Joftus writes.

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.

Read it all — and be sure to read the comments.

About Joanne


  1. It is, of course, possible to provide all of the kids at issue with top-notch education without the same degree of classroom disruption – I would argue that the quality would be better for all children (or at worst, all but one child) in the class – by providing the needy child with an appropriate teaching aide, or by revisiting inclusion / mainstreaming policies relating to a child with that level of emotional need. But that would cost money.

    • Edging towards that one-teacher-per-student classroom, hey?

      But that’ll necessitate a one-administrator-per-teacher organization won’t it? It certainly seems that’s the direction public education’s been headed in for some time so give some thought to what you’re wishing for even if it’s unlikely to come true.

  2. (Joftus)”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…
    Why is there “tension”? This is an evasive admission that he wants to impose on other people’s kids a classroom environment that he does not want for his own kids.

  3. This is a little off-topic, but I’ve noticed that the “Teacher Insight” online surveys – required for teachers applying for jobs – are HORRIBLE. So many of the questions could be interpreted in different ways:

    “Students cultural backgrounds impact how they approach school-related situations”

    If you agree, are you stereotyping?

    If you disagree, are you not sensitive to their cultural background?

    Many of the questions are similar – no matter what you answer, a reasonable person could evaluate that answer as insufficiently sensitive to cultural differences.

  4. The need to personalize education for more students is a deep one. It is hard to have a standard public school system that also allows for individuality, and gives time to teachers so that they can work with certain students. Not all children learn on the same level or at the same pace, and there is nothing wrong with that.

    To combat this, I personally really like the Montessori system. I live in Brooklyn, NY, so I take my children to Brainy Academy (http://www.brainyacademyny.com) in Sheepshead Bay, for their Montessori classes. Montessori is a particular system that allows children on different levels to be in a classroom together because children work with whatever educational materials they want to, and can work with them as long as they want to. The teacher’s job in this environment is to explain the game or the object, and lead the child in doing it. Ultimately, children learn to use all the materials themselves.

    Check out Montessori classes if you are worried about your child getting the right curriculum for their level. Good luck!

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Montessori was originally developed for Rome’s most at-risk kids. So why is it that, in the US, it’s an upper class thing? Why can’t we work toward replacing headstart with “Montessori for all?”

  5. Dee hodson says:

    Love love love Montessori

  6. This implies an argument against honors classes and allowing accelerated students to achieve to the highest level possible. The conflict is that while struggling kids benefit from being around more motivated and advanced kids, the same can’t be true in terms of contributing to pursuit of excellence for the top performers. Certainly, much can be said for the benefit of the top kids helping the average to struggling kids along, but it’s a trade-off we don’t readily concede. As my son is at a magnet school for GT and highly motivated kids – even as we live in a top performing district with great schools – I’m obviously motivated for my kids to achieve at the highest level. And being in a class full of distractions and discipline problems is not conducive to that. I won’t apologize for that decision because I am not wrong.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      When you put “low performers” in with “high performers,” you may get two good things. The high performers may motivate the low performers, and they may actually teach the low performers.

      However, it is an empirical question how much this actually happens. When a teacher does groups or think-pair-share or anything like that, she hopes that the lower performing students will “get with the program” and actively participate. Alas, often they do not.

      You may also get some bad things. The low performers may demotivate the high performers. The class cannot go as fast as the high performers could go. But neither can it go as slow as is necessary to bring along all the low performers. A number of them will be lost, which may lead to disinterest. As a worst case scenario, they become disruptive and/or drop out.

      Wishing and hoping that the good things happen and the bad things don’t is not enough, not even if you really, really, really, really want that to be the case. Too many people in education refuse to stare reality in the face. It’s often kind of ugly. But we’re not doing students–“high performers” OR “low performers”–any favors when we embrace pretty fantasy over gritty reality.

      • When you put “low performers” in with “high performers,” you may get two good things. The high performers may motivate the low performers, and they may actually teach the low performers.

        I note that neither of those good things helps the high performers (especially not those on the Aspie spectrum, who think so differently that the dull-normal neurotypicals might well be an alien species).  It also turns the high-performers into unpaid labor.

  7. I’ve known way too many ‘educators’ that are convinced that if you rub a clean hand and a dirty hand togrther, you will miraculously end up with two clean hands…

  8. i agreed with point, yes this is true that studious students they do suffer because of few disrupter but we can’t stop them going to the school, school is for every student. Teacher need to work on that seriously and try to make every child busy in study, if students going to be busy in their studies then they won’t get time for such stupid things.

  9. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Well, I guess there’s tension in a reality check. Welcome home from planet wonk.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Apparently, being a policy wonk doesn’t pay well enough that he could send his kids to Sidwell Friends.
    Yet another statist who wants to subject others to his Good Ideas. But not his kids, of course.
    Reminded of Brave New World, here.

  11. SteveH says:

    Why would this be a surprise to a “wonk”? And why does wonk imply a certain position on educational inclusion?

    A K-6 charter school in our area uses what they call a full-inclusion environment. The students are grouped by ability in the core subjects, but combined for everything else. Considering that many full inclusion schools end up separating kids for many things in the same classroom, and considering that all kids know who the good students are, the charter school format looks like a reasonable solution. However, the last time I checked, the charter school still suffered from issues of poor curricula and low expectations.

    Our regular public schools are known for their full-inclusion classes (not just environment). Families move to our town because of them. However, between 20-25 percent of the kids in town are sent to private schools. My son was one of them for a while in K-6, but if the private school was also going to use Everyday Math and “trust the spiral”, then we weren’t going to pay $15K+ for that. We had to make up the difference at home in either case.

    I saw some benefits of full inclusion, and I also saw the chair throwing. My son had mixed ability groups where kids would destroy the project. The teacher thought it was a good way to learn to work with other people. They also got group grades and had crayon projects in sixth grade.

    The biggest problem with this approach is in math, where it is critical to master specific content and skills. Parents have to work with their kids at home or use tutors if they expect to keep all STEM career doors open. Schools don’t do the job. In fact, they sent home notes telling parents to work with their kids on math facts. They just spiral along and assume that kids will learn when they are ready. That’s how they think that full-inclusion will work. Our schools now talk about differentiated learning and not differentiated instruction. The onus is on the student to become a life-long learner.

    It’s interesting how full-inclusion starts to magically disappear in 7th and 8th grades. Our state requires subject certification to teach in those grades. There is also the downward pressure to make sure kids have the opportunity to get to a second year language course or the geometry course in high school. Reality starts to set in. I guess they can put social issues over academics in K-6, but not anymore. This puts big, nonlinear academic pressures on kids just when they have to deal with more of their own social issues – the fact that kids can be mean and that not everyone is going to be your friend. The kids who are successful get a lot of academic help at home or from tutors. Full inclusion doesn’t fix everything. It just creates problems elsewhere. While it might be best socially for some kids, schools never see (or care about) what’s going on at home. Many of us parents do a whole lot more than just turn off the TV and take our kids to museums.

    You don’t get something for nothing and I’m tired of hearing how everything is supposed to work with differentiated instruction and critical thinking and understanding and problem solving and developing one’s writing voice, etc., ad nauseum. Full inclusion is all about lower expectations. Woe to those not getting specific academic help at home or from tutors.

    “The tension also illustrates why school reform is so difficult.”

    Baloney. Urban parents in our area are desperate about getting their kids into charter schools that set higher expectations and focus on mastery of basic skills and knowledge. The educational establishment is fighting them tooth and nail. These urban parents are not worried about leaving behind the disruptors. They are not going to sacrifice their kids to get some sort of magical rising tide to float all boats. Maybe affluent parents should be forced to not teach their kids at home or use tutors. Maybe they should be prevented from sending their kids to private schools. In addition to those elitist affluent parents, we now, apparently, have elitist urban parents. Education can’t work until poverty is fixed, but kids are not allowed to escape because the goal is to fix poverty. When educators talk of equal educational opportunity, they better stop affluent parents from teaching at home or sending their kids to private schools. They are doing that to urban parents. Maybe they think that affluent parents are smart enough to make that decision, but urban parents are not. Then again, many think that all it takes is more money.

  12. gahrie says:

    Look..everyone knows that tracking is the best system, but we cannot use tracking in public schools because of certain demographic realities.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Where do you people live? In Jersey, we track. It begins in 3rd grade for math and reading. The kids are assigned a reading and math teacher and leave their homeroom for those two blocks every day. They stay together for extras (music, P.E., art, Spanish) and also for history and science. They begin tracking for history and science in the 5th grade. By the time they reach high school they are completely tracked from the IB/AP/Honors and academy level, to the “A” for academic level, to the “B” for lower performing level, to the SE level.

      And, yes this causes NCLB issues. The districts that are racially diverse have white and Asian students tracked at the top and hispanics and blacks disproportionately represented on the lower tracks.

      I’m from Minnesota orignially and have very clear memories of tracking in elementary school.

      I’d really like to know where in the U.S. are students NOT tracked?

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        There was a physics teacher at my high school who used to say, “Half the kids in Honors don’t belong in Honors.” This year 100 students in a class of 250 are taking Honors Physics. You simply can’t teach to the top 25 or the top 50.

        There is only one other track, officially a college-prep track, where there is “inclusion” of all but the most mentally challenged. (And, yes, students can move between tracks if they want to and the Guidance Office agrees.)

        It is not “one size fits all.” It is “two sizes fit all.” Of course, they don’t.

      • Genevieve says:

        I live in Iowa. My daughter has essentially no tracking in elementary school. There is ability grouping for reading and math within the classroom. A select few that had very push parents and are gifted in math go up a grade during math.
        In middle school, there is only tracking for math. Our local middle school only does heterogeneous classes for all classes. I think that there are special classes for children with reading difficulties, but no acceleration.
        Then magically in 8th grade, a few children are invited to attend advanced classes half the day at a separate school. We do have tracking in high school.
        I have heard that there is a portion of people in the district that would like to eliminate both the special school and the tracking.

  13. @Stacy. I’m in California, my oldest will start high school in the fall. The only class that will be tracked is math. The others will be relentlessly heterogenous. The principal assures me that the high students will be challenged but I know better. I suspect that she will have essentially three or four periods of study hall. Worst case would be ate archer who requires interaction as they go over basic reading skills

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      I find this unbelievable. Do they not offer the IB or AP? Or, do they offer it to all comers?

      My son’s freshman class is roughly 375 students. They offer 4 sections of honors English with about 23-25 kids per class; that’s about 25% of the kids taking honors English. To be eligible for honors level they must have maintained a B+ in the prior year’s course and been recommended by their teacher. Because we have a science academy, honors level science classes are very challenging to get into. Only a pretty narrow slice of kids opt for that route. We also have a classics academy which is quite select and small. This is all within the same single district high school. The average SAT score is 600-610 (math & reading) and is slightly higher than the state average of 580.

      The minimum standard SAT for our state university – Rutgers – is 520 on reading and 560 on math. So, our district does a reasonably decent job of preparing the average kid for entrance to our state system.

      Our district is considered high performing but isn’t nearly as competitive as some of the near by more affluent districts. 59% of the kids are white, 20% hispanic, 15% black, and 4+% Asian.

      I offer this info up as a comparison tool.

      California sounds like a disaster.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        I want to correct something I wrote above:

        For students at the 75th percentile they score 600-610. That’s not the schools SAT average. Sorry, it was very misleading.

  14. “Urban parents in our area are desperate about getting their kids into charter schools that set higher expectations and focus on mastery of basic skills and knowledge.”

    The benefits of those charter schools is that they impose admissions hurdles that screen out unmotivated, non-compliant, low-functioning students, and then push out the less successful. That’s understandably appealing to parents.

    Back to Mr. Joftus, he’s still accepting paychecks for promoting policies that he knows (now, if he didn’t before) are harmful to children, schools, teachers and education. Too bad there’s no such thing as a moral fiber transplant.

  15. *benefit … is.

  16. Isn’t this the perfect situation for a volunteer assistant that would take care of the disruption while the teacher devotes her attention to the rest of the class? While supportive of the rights of all students, especially “special needs” students, I feel that teachers cannot be expected to conduct a class and take care of a disruptive student at the same time.
    I understand the budget problems and therfore suggest a solution that would bring into play trained volunteers, including parents,, something not uncommon, especially in kindergarten. I am sure that the need for such assistance will vary between classes and therefore volunteer assigments would be most beneficial to the classes where disruptions are more frequent.

    • Genevieve says:

      I’m not sure I would trust a volunteer with the job of dealing with a disruptive student. Often children aren’t just off task, children might be defiant, throwing temper tantrums, etc. It is very easy for an adult to react and end up in trouble. I’m sure there would also be a fair amount of liability for the school district, especially if the child has an IEP.
      Paid teaching aids or paraprofessionals can be a solution. However, often the positions don’t pay well (slightly above minimum wage) and there is minimal training. So often the aids don’t know how to handle the children and they may not care. Sometimes aids are more trouble than they are worth.

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    “volunteer assistant”
    Doesn’t pay enough to pay for a bazillion dollar liability policy.

  18. (Genevieve): “I’m not sure I would trust a volunteer with the job of dealing with a disruptive student….
    Paid teaching aids or paraprofessionals can be a solution. However, often the positions don’t pay well (slightly above minimum wage) and there is minimal training. So often the aids don’t know how to handle the children and they may not care.

    You don’t intend to imply that a paycheck guarantees competence, do you? The alternative here is the supposition that “training” confers competence. This sounds just as unlikely.
    Expanding the range of parents’ options foor the use of the taxpayers’ K-12 education subsidy would reduce the mismatch between children’s interests and aptitudes, on the one hand, and the curriculum and the pace and methods of instruction, on the other.