Tough Duty

A running joke in ed policy circles is that everyone works part time for the prolific Rick Hess…but apparently I’ve got a new boss in Matt Yglesias now, too. It’s almost Dickensian, except that he’s the one who wants more about the NYT Magazine Paul Tough article that everyone is chatting and blogging about.

I said that it is the most important education article of the year, and that wasn’t a throwaway line. I think it is. But it is for the exact reason it leaves Matt hungry, it raises more questions than it answers. That’s because we’re in the midst of a very fluid time in education. On the one hand you have the greater performance pressure being put on schools, most visibly through No Child Left Behind but also via a variety of state activities. Similarly you have the pressure of charter schools, which are now numerous enough they can’t be ignored (more on that at this event tomorrow). On the other, you have a very change averse-system and really difficult challenges for educators in these communities, this is not easy work.

In other words, it was important not because it heralded a singular solution but rather because it framed pretty much exactly where the debate is today and the fork in the road where we find ourselves. At a small dinner in LA early last year, Alan Bersin remarked that the American future is being built (or not built) in our cities today. That’s exactly right, the frontier is long closed but the educational frontier is right near the offices of many readers of this blog. And how that story will turn out is very much up for grabs.

Now, I thought the piece was elegant in that it was about charter schools as the vehicle by which some of this change is happening without just cheerleading for charters. Tough walks through the characteristics of effective high poverty public schools and the schools he focused on are charters. But that’s a function of policy. Because of the inertia, politics, and institutional constraints, charters happen to be the sector that is the leading edge right now. Yet there is nothing magic about them. But right now if you want to change urban schools, charters are a key lever at your disposal because it’s the primary way to create new public schools.

To the debate about whether schools like the ones Tough describes are scalable, I think that they certainly are more than they have been to date. And again, I don’t think teacher turnover – a key argument against high intensity models – is necessarily always bad. Regardless, the ideas, norms, and pluralism in service provision these schools embody are certainly replicable much more broadly. We define scale too narrowly in this context.

Others have complained that the political analysis was a little simplistic, and sure it was. But, that’s really an entire additional article because educational politics are (a) complicated and (b) counterintuitive to a general reader because it’s not just left-right. And nothing Tough wrote there was outright wrong, it was just not a complete and textured picture.

Finally, I liked with the direction the story pointed at the end. Basically we have an enormous social problem here but whether or not we solve it is hardly out of our hands. However, it requires a pretty fundamental rethinking of how we do things in an industry that has changed little in a half-century despite enormous social, demographic, and labor market changes. That, of course, is why I come to work every day. I think it’s the most interesting problem in social policy. Tough gave the lay reader a window into why that is and what’s possible.

Can’t help but note in closing that some of the funders of the schools Tough profiles are attracted to them precisely because of the promise that they could change how we think about what’s realistic and possible in urban education. And that’s ultimately why I thought the Tough piece was the most important article of the year: It showed that’s happening.

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