A Review of How the Other Half Learns

Robert Pondiscio won’t like my review of his new book, How the Other Half Learns.

For starters, I can’t say that I hated Pondiscio’s book. In fact, I quite liked it. His narrative of a year embedded at the Success Academy charter school network is one of the rare education books that I would wholeheartedly recommend to family and friends. It’s readable and compelling and fair in a way that most education books fail to achieve. He weaves together stories about children and teachers in with wonky discussions of reading curriculum and the Coleman Report.

Pondiscio’s reflections on his own past teaching experience in a nearby traditional public school add to the narrative. He is thoughtful about those experiences, and he attempts to honestly reconcile what he saw in his own teaching with what he sees now at Success Academy. He’s searching for truth and brings the reader along with him. It makes for a compelling reading experience.

And yet. Even as I trust Pondiscio as a narrator and an honest observer, I question his interpretation of some key policy questions. Two examples stand out. One is his dislike for standardized testing and the responses it might theoretically generate. He claims that federal accountability pressures forced elementary schools to focus more on math and reading while neglecting other subjects. This is an oft-repeated claim,  but the evidence for it is actually pretty thin. The National Center on Education Statistics found no meaningful differences in time usage when they surveyed public school teachers in 1988 and 2018.

In the book, Pondiscio admits that he wanted to dislike the Success Academy approach to “slam” the state exams in reading and math. And yet, he seems to grudgingly admire it by the end. It’s hard not to. I was personally cheering and on the verge of tears while reading a passage about the excitement and determination Success Academy teachers and scholars showed in the face of the exam.

And why not? Pondiscio’s reporting finds Success Academy schools practice a mixture of determination, discipline, and support. Instruction seems to be rigorous, even to Pondiscio’s watchful gaze. Kids are (mostly) on task and proud of their accomplishments. Teachers hold students to high standards and expect all students to achieve. At the end of the year, Success Academy scholars will perform as well as any other school in the state in reading and math, even ones packed with students from wealthier families. We don’t know yet whether Success Academy’s achievement results will translate into college or career success, but getting tens of thousands of low-income students to read and do math proficiently is no small accomplishment.

My second objection to Pondiscio’s policy excursions is a wonkier one, but it’s no less important. It’s about parents. He spends a good amount of time showing that Success Academy draws parents who are different than the typical public school family. True, Success Academy students are admitted by a random lottery and most of them are low-income. But these are students with engaged, persistent parents who show up at mandatory school uniform fittings, read to their kids daily and keep logs of that time, deliver their kids at the school doors at 7:30 every morning (all without transportation services), and just engage in their child’s schooling process in a way that few schools truly demand.

Pondiscio makes the logical conclusion that the traditional public school system is losing out when these types of families choose to enroll their kids at Success Academy. (At the same time, Pondiscio makes a spirited defense of their right to do so, and excoriates hypocrites who block public school choice even while sending their own kids to elite schools.) This is an entirely logical conclusion, and it’s illustrated all the more so by Pondiscio’s stories of a difficult child named Adama who Success Academy may or may not be trying to pressure out of its schools. Pondiscio does not spare us any of the controversy.

But I think the author is missing something here. Success Academy specifically asks for, and subsequently receives, this high level of parental engagement. If the traditional public school system never demands a similar level of engagement from their parents, this “lost” potential never really existed, did it? It’s like an untapped reservoir of human capital. Even as Success Academy finds a way to unleash that parental power, the traditional public schools won’t miss what they never had.

Economists might add to this by pointing to the possibility that the competition from school choice can help traditional public schools improve as well. Pondiscio almost explicitly discards this argument, but I think that would be a mistake, because, while choice is not a panacea, there is a growing body of literature that the introduction of school choice seems to lift all boats. The competition effect is real.

I’ll end with one more piece of praise for the book, which is that How the Other Half Learns is the best response I’ve read on the question of whether high-performing charter school networks can grow successfully. Charter networks like Success Academy and KIPP and Uncommon and Aspire and IDEA and Harmony and Noble* keep facing questions about whether their models can “scale” and grow. Each of these networks has started small. Each of them produces remarkable results. And each of them churns through young staff. Surely these things cannot last, right?

Pondiscio might respond to this question with two counter-arguments. The first is simply to point at the growth figures. Each of the networks I mentioned above is only a decade or two old, and yet they educate thousands or tens of thousands of students to extremely exacting standards. Success Academy in particular has managed to replicate itself so far with no dilution of results.

The second response is to draw a distinction between the scalability for individuals and the scalability of systems. Pondiscio reminds us regularly that many of the Success Academy teachers and principals are young and inexperienced. And yet Success Academy faculty and staff somehow produce remarkable results that far surpass their experience levels.

Pondiscio implicitly draws this distinction—between individuals and systems—with what is perhaps the best metaphor I’ve read on the question of whether charter schools are sustainable. He writes:

If Success Academy students visit just a few years from now, they might not see even a single familiar face. The de facto model that has evolved is more like the U.S. Army or the Marines; a small and talented officer corps surrounded by enlisted men and women who do a tour, maybe two, then muster out, with new recruits reporting for duty. Teacher turnover, and lack of experience and continuity, is widely assumed to be a problem, particularly in urban schools. But it’s never suggested that our military would be better if only soldiers stayed in uniform longer. So far, the relative inexperience of Success Academy teachers hasn’t seemed to compromise their effectiveness.

In other words, what may not be sustainable for any one individual may endure as a system and a culture.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman  

*Disclosure: Bellwether has worked with many of these networks.