If Charter Folk And Eduwonk Had A Baby…It Would Be…Wonky Folk! Plus Reader Reaction On deBoer And Philanthropy

Clearly, there are not enough middle-aged guys with podcasts.

So Jed Wallace and I decided to address this market gap. Jed’s popular “Charter Folk” newsletter and his interviews focus on the charter sector and issues in and around it. I’ve been a guest a few times. It’s a great medium, despite that.

Now, as I mentioned recently, Jed and I are going to do an informal and semi-regular podcast on education goings on more generally. It will be us, and some guests. In our first one, just out today, we discuss some charter stuff but also the absurdity in Los Angeles and the politics in Chicago – and why Karen Lewis still doesn’t get the credit she deserves for reversing the teachers’ unions fortunes – there and more generally. She walked so Brandon Johnson could run. We speculate wildly about what AI might mean for schools and we discuss some of the nuance around school safety. It’s the first one so feedback extra welcome.

You can listen here:

Watch here:

Transcript here if that’s your thing.

Two reactions to recent posts here on Eduwonk.

On philanthropy and metrics and investing in people, reader Mike G writes,

If I ran a big charity, I’d invert the whole thing.  Rather than metrics, I’d tell them I will ONLY consider additional funding based on the quality of them telling me everything going WRONG.  “True confessions” is what I’d reward.  With hypothesis that in telling me that, it may plausibly trigger an authentic what will we do.  

My weekly sends to all grantees would be like this: 

Dear Grantees,

This week we frigging LOVED xyz tutoring org’s report, of the absolute chaos in their NYC expansion.  We sent $10,000 of vodka just to help them cope.  Seriously, they really shared the nuance of what was going on, that they had this theoretical anti-racist framework but the kids laughed in their face about how “weak” the tutors were and just played on their phones.  So now at least CEO is trying to lead an authentic convo on what to try, that makes up happy.  

Also we got a total bullshit spin job from ABC ed tech grantee we won’t mention.  It wasn’t actually sent to us, it was sent to all their donors, but it was the classic annual report pack o’ lies.  Remember the test: we cold call your people on the front lines.  And we find ways to hack access to the kids themselves.  For ABC, we cold-called some teachers who said ABC was really struggling, and then they put some of their students on a Zoom who said ABC was lame.  Again, fine for ABC to be lame if they’re fighting to make it NOT lame.  But they’re in the charity collection business, the prestige business.  They’re dead to us.  

Rich Mike

On the what we should expect from schools question and the deBoer essay, David G. writes,

As you know, there are aspects of Freddie deBoer’s thesis that resonate with me, but there are two major issues with his piece that I don’t think that you picked up on that are perhaps interesting. 

Optimism bias is good/essential

He makes it as if optimism bias is bad, but actually it’s essential for innovation.  Silicon Valley is optimism bias central  — every deal is going to make a gillion dollars, and they keep on pouring money into it whether it seems to be working or not, until it’s apparent it isn’t, and then they walk 10 feet and invest in the next crazy idea. If all education people were of the opinion that nothing works, everyone would go home.

Yes, deBoer is right to the extent that we need to realize eventually when things don’t work, and in fact, education does course correct, if slowly. But being pessimism-biased would destroy our ability to dream, innovate, make mistakes, ignore the last failure and start the next one without looking back. My rose-colored glasses are welded to my face, and without them, I’d be writing grouchy pieces on my substack instead of out there fighting the good fight.  Without optimism bias, Bellwether would close its doors (and that would not be good for anyone).

To the extent that he’s right, the system doesn’t spend much time on post-mortems – that was my take home from the time that I spent at Bellwether talking years ago about the failures of education reform. If you look at the amazing success in reducing the number of planes that fall out of the sky or patients that died from anesthesia, it was all due to the system carefully analyzing why people died and coming up with better methods. I’m not sure that education really hasn’t learned many lessons from the failures of ed reform (though I’m not really a member of the inner circle of ed policy people, and so don’t know if those conversations are happening in private).  More generally, I don’t think that education has come up with a framework for analyzing successes and failures – there’s no group dedicated to this – what we at SeeMore call the Theory of No Change, which is necessary to developing a coherent Theory of Change.   

And one last point – the issues that he states about orthodoxies (and they are, as you acknowledge, not all wrong) are largely true of sociology, development economics, all economics, psychology, political science, and not only “soft fields”, but also hard sciences like biology and physics. All of these areas are cultures with their own norms and beliefs – someone should show him Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. To the extent that education fits here, I can’t see that it’s any worse than other fields, and it’s fundamentally built into human endeavors and progress. Change happens and generally to the better, but it’s on its own timeframe – faster probably in the sciences, but even there it can take a while (cf geocentric model of the universe, Newtonian physics, etc.

Much of education is actually pessimism-biased   

deBoer is complaining really about policy people.  But if you go to a lot of schools and colleges, they’re pretty skeptical about every new last great idea, and many are resistant to new ideas. Many teachers don’t actually believe that their students can learn.  I still don’t have a good sense of the distribution of optimism/pessimism among teachers in a turnaround high school, for example, but I definitely get a sense that some amount of pessimistic fatalism is there. And there’s at least some strong suggestive evidence that many teachers don’t have a growth mindset attitude about their students (and I get the sense that almost no one believes in growth mindset around personal characteristics, which I believe is very wrong). On the ground, and not in the policy clouds, I would guess that pessimism is more rampant and dangerous than unbridled optimism.

In fact, why is it that charter schools work?  Is it really that their pedagogy and curriculum is better?  That TFA teachers outperform veteran teachers? My suspicion is that their inherent optimism was a big part of what made the good ones work so well, and especially in comparison with public schools, that often have a pall hanging over them.

One of our major focuses is on self-efficacy – we think that it’s the major factor in personal success (and there’s a raft of both educational psychology and organizational development in the business world to back that up).  But we think that self-efficacy isn’t only a personal characteristic, but a characteristic of organizations and entire systems. Optimism-bias is not true self-efficacy, since it’s not always informed by actual success and a meta-cognition for what does and doesn’t work. But pessimism is pure poison to self-efficacy. Let optimism reign!