Bears and Bulls

Diane Ravitch on Teach For America v. Whitney Tilson on Teach For America.

Rick Kahlenberg* on Michelle Rhee and economic integration v. Richard Whitmire on Michelle Rhee.

*Sidenote, Rick writes, “why haven’t charter schools, 88% of which are nonunionized and have that flexibility, lit the education world on fire?”  Given the characteristics of the consistently top-performing charters is this really a road Rick wants to go down?

25 Replies to “Bears and Bulls”

  1. Nonsense from Whitmire at Poltics and Prose on Sunday:

    Here’s what the author, Richard Whitmire, wrote to me (Whitney Tilson) yesterday:

    I appeared at Politics & Prose yesterday, “the” bookstore in D.C. located in upscale NW, and encountered a steady stream of Rhee detractors — all of whom offered up bizarre conspiracy theories about Michelle, but not a single person had any thoughts on why low-income African American kids in D.C. are as much as two years behind comparable kids in other urban areas. Pretty sad, really

    Needless to say, that did not happen.
    Richard seems to be following in the footsteps of his subject and making stuff up.

  2. Ed:

    Not sure why this is also hard for you to glean, but Whitmire there is likely referring to the lack of a better answer vocalized beyond, “it must be poverty!” This reflects his evil biases, sure, but you’re faulting him there for an email he sent someone, rather than his article where he is actually putting arguments forward.


    Readers might also want to note that the report referenced is published on the author’s private wiki, it hasn’t been peer-reviewed, and it relies on a very flawed approach at NAEP “trend” comparisons to level accusations without even a semblance of objectivity. Basically, it’s The Answer Sheet in PDF format.

  3. That doesn’t really change what I said….

    You’re complaining about a personal email he sent someone, and implying it affects how we should view the arguments he proffers in his article.

  4. No, I’m not complaining about an email he sent.
    It’s nice because it reveals his mindset:
    Disagree with Miss Rhee and you’re a hater.
    It also reveals his dishonesty.
    Go to the link I provided and the author added this after I posted that ridiculous comment from Mr. Whitmire:

    He never brought up the question about why low-income kids are two years behind to the audience.

    So, when CSPAN puts up the video, we will be able to tell who is lying: Whitmire or lodesterre.

    Many years ago, journalist Claud Cockburn proclaimed that facts and rumours were of equal significance, and warned against what he called ‘the factual heresy’ – the claim, dear to journalists with a saint-like idea of their own mission, that lumps of truth lie about like gold nuggets waiting to be picked up. He did not think journalism was either saintly or fact-bound. ‘All stories are written backwards,’ he once observed. ‘They are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist’s point of view from which the facts are subsequently organised.’

  5. This is silly, Ed.

    Yes, you’re complaining about an email he sent. And you’re presuming that this email bears on his ability to put forward good faith arguments. This is a fact; reread the comments you wrote.

    Remember: it’s just an email. To someone he agrees with, no less.

    It doesn’t imply that if you “disagree with Miss Rhee [then] you’re a hater.”

    It doesn’t “reveal his dishonesty.”

    It doesn’t even claim that no one had an answer to any particular question, either. He writes that many of the Rhee detractors in attendance were seemingly too busy with conspiracy theories to consider or bring up realistic reasons for why “low-income African American kids in D.C. are behind comparable kids in other urban areas”. Now, why does that sound familiar….

  6. Regarding the poor academic performance of African-American students in DC, has anyone here read the books by John McWhorter (an African-American professor and writer) entitled “Losing the Race” and “Winning the Race”? In his view, many of the problems African-American students face in school stem from the cultural distance that contemporary African-American has from school as a “white” or “mainstream” endeavor.

    McWhorter presents interesting statistics about the performance of African-American students from all socioeconomic levels, showing that even better-off students tend to study less, spend more time watching TV, etc. than students from other American ethnic groups. Interestingly, the sub-par performance does not tend to present itself in African or other black immigrants: Just in native-born African-Americans. Point being: Much of the problem is cultural in nature, not a reflection of teacher quality, textbooks or other commonly cited factors.

  7. Just to state the obvious, fellow Attorney, the question is not about culture. It is about this: why are poor, African-American kids in DC doing so much worse than poor, African-American kids in NYC? Surely you are not saying that the “culture” is the reason? Is there a different culture among poor black kids in DC than there is in Harlem or the South Bronx?

    Kahlenberg makes an interesting point in the above link, which is that NYC hasn’t fired its way to success, though he ignores that they have paid a lot of bad teachers to not teach, which is expensive but takes them out of the classroom.

    Anyway, reading this thread makes me basically think Whitmire is right that everyone just wants to duck the hard question. When the same kids in DC wind up two years behind the same kids in NYC, doesn’t it make you think there must be some pretty fundamental problems in the schools (not the homes) in DC? It sure makes me think that.

    And it makes me think, with all due respect, that continuing to say that it is somehow black culture causing DC student performance (compared to NYC) is not only unsupported, but also pretty dangerous. It sure seems to verge on blaming the victims.

  8. First, Whitmire seems to be saying that DC kids are “as much as” two years behind comparable kids in other urban areas. He doesn’t say that on average low-income African-American DC students are two years behind comparable students. Frankly, I’d be surprised if DC African-American kids are two years behind African-American (not immigrant) kids in other cities like NYC, controlling for income, parental education, and other non-school factors).

    However, my goal is to point out that there is an explanation for poor performance from students that does NOT place all the blame on teachers, principals, textbooks or any of the usual suspects. McWhorter writes that even in well-funded, integrated schools in places like suburban Mt. Airy, Pennsylvania, the African-American (not immigrant) kids continue to turn in sub-standard performances. Some people (perhaps the authors ofThe Bell Curve) may blame this on genetic inferiority or IQ. From my experience teaching a wide variety of students, I believe that most of the “achievement gap” (controlling for family income) has to do with culture, which manifests itself in the students’ effort, motivation, and behavior in the classroom.

  9. Got it – thanks for thoughtful response. I would be interested to hear whether the cited stat comparing DC to NYC controls for poverty (not sure it needs to control for immigration unless somehow the number of “African American” kids in NYC has a substantially higher immigrant population than in DC and we know that immigrants are somehow doing better on these tests?). If it does control, then I think your theory blows up.

    So on NYC vs DC, would love to see some info because I don’t have all the backstory there. Is NYC doing better than DC with similar kids?

  10. Yes, it would be interesting to have more info on the performance of African-American students in DC compared to those in other cities around the U.S. (especially if we can control for many at-home factors such as family incomes, two-parent households, parental education levels, and other factors).

    However, my ultimate point is that we as a society need to look at the REAL factors that influence academic performance of our nation’s students, even if such factors include such “uncomfortable” subjects as culture, values and family structure. Research seems to pretty conclusively show that student performance is much more heavily influenced by out-of-school or personal factors than by teachers.

    In light of the above, I believe the current emphasis on holding teachers mainly or solely accountable for their students’ performance, without looking at student motivation, effort and behavior in the context of their culture, is misguided and, ultimately, will prove futile.

  11. Ed:

    No, I was stating that you are wrong.

    Attorney DC:

    I think most accept that schools aren’t the only factor in the equation. I personally, at least, just haven’t seen any practical ways to help solve these others problems that wouldn’t also be benefited by a continuing hard look at fixing schools, as well. It’s not an either-or situation. We can do both.

    What I find contentious in your post is the part where we are “holding teachers mainly or solely accountable for students’ performance without looking at [other factors]”. There is a lot of effort right now being put into keeping teachers accountable for their students’ gains relative to past achievement. I think there’s a lot more we can do to improve accountability with that goal in mind.

  12. Chris: I agree with you that there are certain steps that can be taken to improve schools (‘It’s not an either-or situation’). However, in my experience, most teachers are trying hard and struggling to succeed in teaching the most difficult students.

    Many teachers can be successful if they have motivated kids who come to school prepared and do their homework. It’s much harder to teach kids who DON’T come to class, who goof off in school, disrupt other students’ educations, don’t do homework (at all), never study for tests, fail to show up for after-school tutoring, etc… The current trend seems to be to flagellate teachers who have the misfortune of teaching the most difficult students in the most difficult schools.

    There are some things that can be done to alleviate these problem, short of major social engineering (although I’m not sure we should rule that out!). If I ran the world, I would make discipline and student behavior my top priority. In many schools today, teachers cannot teach effectively because they have students in their classes who misbehave and are really out of control.

    Schools should have strict discipline codes that are enforced by teachers and administrators. If students don’t come to class or do their homework, they should be held accountable. If parents don’t come to conferences or respond to their kids’ problems, they should be held accountable. Expecting teachers to educate seventeen year old gang members who skip school and have absentee parents (and punishing them when they can’t) won’t solve any problems: It will just push the good teachers away from inner-city schools and into the suburbs (or out of the profession altogether).

  13. Attorney DC,

    I like a lot of your analysis and agree that we have to get beyond the “blame the teacher” and “teacher accountability” remedies.

    My concern is with your last points about making discipline and student behavior the top priority. It is my understanding that this is what KIPP does. Is this correct?

    And if so, will this work for a majority of students – it seems like a very harsh and anti-child environment, which has a high student and teacher turnover ratio.

    Thanks for you thoughts.

  14. Steve: Thanks for your reply to my comments. My recommendations, above, are based on the idea that cultural factors create an atmosphere in many schools today in which students act out. If there are no repercussions, their misbehavior will not stop and will affect other students’ ability to learn.

    However (as Chris S. and others have noted) it is difficult to change cultural attitudes. In response, my recommendation is that we address the symptom of the cultural problems apparent in schools, if we can’t yet address the cause of the problems. To that end, I believe that schools should actively promote good behavior and should quickly stop any inappropriate behavior on the part of students. Teachers should not be scared to report misbehavior to the administrators for fear of losing their jobs or suffering a career setback. Instead, the teachers and administrators should present a united front in enforcing schools rules; If a student acts up, the student should be held responsible for his behavior.

    In answer to your question, Steve, I don’t think that a KIPP-like atmosphere is required in order to help low-performing students (although it may be beneficial to some). Rather, I think that the school should simply enforce school rules with a united front of teachers and administrators, and misbehaving students shouldn’t be allowed to regularly disrupt the education of their fellow classmates.

    Real Life Example: When I worked at a summer boarding school, all disciplinary problems were handled by an ex-Marine who was in charge of school discipline. Each day, he collected the names of students who misbehaved or failed to turn in their homework assignments. These students were immediately put into ‘detention’ that very day (instead of their sports period) and had to pick up trash (if they had misbehaved) or sit in study hall and complete their assignments.

    I note that the above approach worked very well, in contrast to other schools which put the burden of all student discipline on the individual teachers. For example, some schools require teachers to organize detentions, contact parents, keep tabs on kids who skipped detention, etc. on top of other duties. And in many schools teachers who report misbehavior are criticized for their ‘ineffective’ classroom management, even if the student misbehaves in all his classes!

  15. Well said, Attorney DC. You have presented us with a primary cause of academic failure in high poverty schools as well as a cogent and inexpensive strategy for ameliorating it. It’s only a matter of time before we see these changes.

  16. Linda: Glad you liked my posts… Sometimes I think I write too much, but I get carried away when I read about education policy issues. There are so many things we could be doing to improve our schools, but I truly feel that politicians and ‘those in charge’ are not promoting solutions that make sense in the real world.

  17. Steve F.:

    KIPP is “anti-child”? Really?

    Attorney DC:

    That “most teachers are trying hard” is besides the point. Some are more effective at others at teaching their students, even if their students typically have behavior issues or rarely in the past have done their homework. That’s what I meant before when describing what accountability can mean in the context of schools, by using past achievement as a metric for each student.

    Your example of how to focus on fixing inappropriate behavior in schools does not really lead itself to any “change in cultural attitudes”. I’m open to schools making sure that “teachers [aren’t] scared to report misbehavior” but I doubt this will itself lead to any actual fixes in non-school barriers to student achievement. Making some kids pick up trash will not, itself, lead to closing any achievement gaps.

    What’s also flimsy about your argumentation is your faulting administrators for students misbehaving and not learning anything, yet the reason we hear most often from teachers about why their students aren’t learning is because they only have them in class for X hours a day. Why is their students’ misbehavior, then, more the fault of someone these kids see even less?

    I agree that schools have to support teachers, but there’s a balance here, and there should still rightfully be a focus in the classroom on how to get all kids, even the troublemakers, to achieve, and that includes addressing some/most disciplinary issues before hoping that someone else will.

  18. Chris: Thanks for your reponse to my post. Maybe I’m too long-winded in making my point, but my basic point (having taught in many different schools) is that teachers generally do a pretty good job when they have students who behave well, come to class, study and do their homework. However, in many of these ‘failing’ schools where teachers are targeted, the real problem is not that the teachers are not generally competent teachers, but that the students are misbehaving to an egregious extent. This misbehavior includes everything from skipping class to throwing things at the teacher. In my opinion, the cause of this misbehavior and negative attitude toward school is in large part based on the students’ family, socioeconomic status and cultural attitudes toward education.

    In light of the above, my solution to the problem of ‘failing’ schools and students is to fix the main culprit: Student behavior problems. Student behavior is a problem best fixed by school policy and the administration, acting to back up the teachers. Currently, many teachers in high-poverty schools are left to handle this issue on their own. Worse, administrators are prone to blame teachers for reporting misbehavior (rather than blame students for acting that way). Many struggling schools have no discipline policies that are enforced, allowing the inmates to take over the asylum.

    Hiring and firing teachers in an endless cycle (the policy du jour of many education systems) is not going to fix the most difficult schools.

  19. I wanted to add that holding kids responsible for their own behavior goes beyond traditional “discipline” and could also include things like notifying parents on a regular basis if their child is completing less than X amount of his or her homework, requiring parents to attend conferences (or at least speak on the phone or via email w/ teachers) and other approaches.

    My general point is that children (especially teenagers in high school and junior high) should be given responsibility for their own conduct. Schools should help by rewarding students for good behavior (attendance, completing homework, etc.) and by delivering consistent consequences for inappropriate student behavior. Students should not be allowed to wiggle out of well-earned punishments like detention (or having to sit out a basketball game) if they complain to their parents or their guidance counselor (all too common!).

    Punishing teachers for the performance of students who fail to hold up their end of the bargain is counterproductive.

  20. Attorney DC:

    I understand your basic point, but even after your clarification it is still oblivious to several key points:

    * That “cultural attitudes toward education” is the problem we should be most concerned with even though we have the least capability to solve it.

    * Examples like “requiring parents to attend conferences” and “picking up trash” will not change any cultural attitudes that are perpetuating achievement gaps.

    * That student misbehavior is never the fault of teachers but instead paradoxically the fault of both people kids spend the most time with (family) and the least time with (administrators).

    * School climate is not established in a vacuum: teachers collectively also have a say in the general expectations that a school has of their students. Individual teachers are empowered with establishing a classroom climate that is most conducive to learning, as well.

    * No one is proposing “hiring and firing teachers in an endless cycle”.

    * What is being proposed is holding teachers accountable for the performance of their students based on what we should expect of those students from their own academic histories.

    * Not every teacher is a great teacher. If we keep making excuses for why students can’t/won’t/didn’t learn that belies this point, we shouldn’t expect things to dramatically improve in education.

  21. Chris: I guess we’ll never come to a complete agreement on this topic (although I’ve been enjoying the debate!).

    My opinions on these issues are derived from my experience teaching in many different schools. In my experience, I’ve found that MOST students who are well behaved, attend class, do their homework, etc. generally do well in school regardless of their particular teacher. For instance, if Jenny does well in English in 9th grade with Ms. Johnson, she will also do well in English next year with Mr. Taylor, and the following year with Mrs. Smith.

    In contrast, MOST students who misbehave, skip class, don’t do their homework, etc. will do poorly in school, regardless of their individual teacher. I’ve attended several conferences where Johnny is failing not just one, but 3 or 4 of his classes at the same time. It’s pretty unusual (barring a learning disability or other extenuating circumstance) for a student to get an A in English one year, but fail the next — or to get A’s in history and English but F’s in math and PE.

    My solution to low student performance is based on the theory that the children’s own behavior/motivation/aptitude will be the main determinant of their academic success. Rather than trying to change/fire individual teachers (which can undermine teacher morale and discourage individuals from remaining in challenging schools), I believe that the most effective strategies should be aimed at changing the behavior of the students. This is especially important in schools where a small number of students act out and disrupt the learning of the entire class (or encourage other usually well-behaved kids to join them).

    Based on my experiennce, I just can’t get behind the idea that the best way to improve the performance of low-income and minority students is to heavily scrutinize their teachers (ignoring the students’ own behavior). Schools perform best when administrators back up the teachers in holding students accountable for their own actions.

  22. Attorney DC:

    You are entitled to your opinions, but you surely understand that anecdotal evidence is not very convincing for a debate on accountability, right?

    You also seem to be talking past me. I understand that students who are well-behaved will generally do well in school, but we can still measure teacher effects with these students by seeing which teachers help them achieve more relative to past performance. Behavior/motivation/aptitude ought to be something that teachers and schools focus on improving to promote academic achievement. Motivation would definitely be a factor in achievement and thus we should figure out which teachers are best at supporting their students’ efforts to succeed.

    Finally, I don’t think you responded to any of the bullet points in my above comment. Did you agree/disagree with those counterpoints to your previous arguments?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.