Friday, July 15, 2011

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Public Education is a Community Garden

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about where my academic training would help in the education reform debates--in cognitive psychology, in research design and in statistics. But on those rare times when I get to engage someone whose take is largely different from mine, it seems that the evidence is irrelevant. So many in the education debates seem to have entirely different notions of what the American system of public education is. I don't think that people who don't agree with me are evil, greedy, or stupid. But I do think they might be operating under a different metaphorical framing of education than I operate under. So here is a metaphor I have been toying with lately:
Photo: Jennifer Cowley (The Constituency for a Sustainable Coast)

Public education is a community garden.

There are many elements that go into the success of a garden. There are different degrees of sun, soil, water, seeds, weeding, and different kinds of gardeners to maintain it.

From far away, our American garden looks both unkempt and unproductive.  Wholesalers who weigh our produce at the market  look down and shake their heads. Chefs at restaurants say that if we keep at this rate, they won't be able to serve their customers. Then a new crop of architects, after conferring with these chefs and grocery stores, survey our garden woefully, roll up their sleeves and get ready to apply new science and technology and their experience planning buildings to quickly solve the problems of this poorly managed community garden.

The gardeners on the inside have a different view. They see that one side of the garden is thriving. That side has perfect soil and plenty of sun. The seedlings from that side come from an expertly maintained greenhouse. The architects can't see what the gardeners know; this side has a hidden irrigation system that cares for the plants when the gardeners aren't there. The soil is refreshed with compost, lovingly collected and gently spread by the neighbors of that side of the community garden.

The other side of the garden is not so lucky. The soil is hard and barren of nutrition. The trees above give too much shade and pine needles acidify the soil. The seeds must be planted directly, and do not get time in the greenhouse. The hoses are leaky and always breaking.

Gardeners on the inside see and cope with these conditions. The ones on the sunny side come in the morning, and gently trim their plants, shaping them with trellises or tomato cages. They appreciate the superior tools they are given, and how they don't have to hoe every day, or do the grueling tedious work of removing pine needles. The irrigation system lets them wield their spray bottles, polish their fruit, and cultivate a rich and diverse garden of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Yet they appreciate their position, and don't fault the gardeners on the other side for the differences in effects.

The gardeners on the other side have it differently. Some bring a rake from home, and use the handle like a pick ax to loosen up the earth. Others wander around aimlessly picking up pine needles, grumbling that this doesn't feel like the gardening they signed up for. A few dedicated, and often experienced gardeners manage to get flowers to grow out of this awful environment. They have often cleared out the weeds and needles from their area, are doubly proud of their hardy little seeds and their own accomplishments. But most gardeners on this side don't feel that, or only for a season or two. Many realize that they would much rather wield the spray bottle than use the handle of their rake like a hoe and jump into an open spot on the sunny side as soon as they can. Others think they aren't cut out for gardening, and leave the garden altogether, some even become architects. And some give up, lean on their rakes, or sit down and stare off into the distance; ignoring a stray  seedling or two, often knowing it won't be enough to take to market.

What do I like about this metaphor?

First, learning as cultivation strikes me as capturing the nature of learning a lot better than the "filling up the head" featured Waiting for Superman, or the "Race" to the Top. It is a more organic process, more obviously complicated.

Second, I think it emphasizes the distortion of the economists such as Eric Hanushek, and policymakers evaluating the entire system as a whole through test scores, comparing to other "community gardens" in other towns (like Singapore, Hong Kong or Finland) just by a crude single metric (perhaps simply weighing the produce?). We have at least two school systems in this country, and the gaps between rich schools and poor schools are stark.

Third, I think it captures the complexity of the situation for the teachers/gardeners. Let me acknowledge a point of the reformers: there are bad teachers. There are teachers who have given up and don't put enough effort into the job. But the next two questions are critical. How many of these are there? In my experience, and that of my friends, siblings and wife, this was small at some of our DC Public Schools. Further, can you be so sure that you can identify the ones who have given up and the ones who are taking a break. I am reminded of John Steinbeck's story about his uncle in his book "A Primer on the 30's" (nice blog post).

Relief workers in San FranciscoPhoto: Greg Gaar Collection, San Francisco
It was the fixation of businessmen that the WPA did nothing but lean on shovels. I had an uncle who was particularly irritated at shovel-leaning. When he pooh-poohed my contention that shovel-leaning was necessary, I bet him five dollars, which I didn’t have, that he couldn’t shovel sand for fifteen timed minutes without stopping. He said a man should give a good day’s work and grabbed a shovel. At the end of three minutes his face was red, at six he was staggering and before eight minutes were up his wife stopped him to save him from apoplexy. And he never mentioned shovel-leaning again.”

Many critics of the shovel leaners have no idea what it is like. Others, like Michelle Rhee, leave after three years, after proclaiming success, despite employing questionable methods. And they are right in principle that an amazing dedicated gardener can have a real impact anywhere. A teacher who is willing to work 70-80 hour weeks and shed blood to feed her little seedlings can, with luck and support, coax a flower from the dust bowl. But this is not a way a way to approach a system or grow a profession. Many things matter to student learning. The student's ability, desire and discipline. The school environment, the class size, the resources available, the course content. External factors wreak havoc on any gardener's well planned regimen: Lead paint, family illness, constant relocation.

This metaphor illustrates to me the approach of Diane Ravitch, the SOS March and the skeptics of top-down, market-based reforms They are on the side of the gardeners, defending their hard-worked, but still weedy patch of earth in front of bulldozers. They agree that the current state of the garden is unacceptable, but they don't think bulldozers and a new set of gardeners will help: the soil is still the same, as is the sun, and the water. But before we have a deeper, more sophisticated discussion about different seeds, soil types, what kind of plants we value, we have to stop the bulldozers and stop attacking the gardeners. What would reform look like, you ask? More compost (resources, aides), more water (interesting content), better tools (higher teacher salaries across the board), and maybe a smaller row to hoe (class size). But this is not the same as saying the garden is perfect as it is.

Corn in a Community Garden, Photo by Ned Raggett
This metaphor also fits with how I view standardized testing. The kind of testing we see seems to be a simple ruler. How high is your plant? Plant height is not a totally irrelevant metric for plant health, but when you push too hard on it (Campbell's Law) it ceases being as informative. What would intense pressure and incentives for taller plants in a community garden cause? The nice sunny side would ignore it at first: My tomatoes are tall and lovely, thanks. On the other side you would see contraptions to stretch every inch. But eventually, people would move away from planting things like pumpkins and squash, or strawberries, and all plant corn. And the narrowing of curricula has started to happen across the country, just as our crop biodiversity has narrowed with the efficient and standardized approach to growing corn and soybeans.

I am sure this metaphorical approach doesn't solve anyone's problems, but for me it is a reminder that it is very hard to agree on how to improve education, if we can't agree on what our education system is.

Friday, July 01, 2011

David Brooks: C'mon Feel That Invigorating Moral Culture, baby!

David Brooks recent column on education reform is not as immediately awful as many of his other columns. It does not make me want to throw it down in disgust (but in the bestest, smirking-est, Taibbi-est way possible). It does not make me want to mumble die yuppie scum (ok, maybe just a little bit). It has that wonderful brooksian reasonableness, you can just see him with Mark Shields, nodding in resignation in response to something about Sarah Palin while subtly plugging Newt Gingrich’s epic intelligence.

Nevertheless there are some major errors in logic, and a repetition of a troublesome theme of his, which I think merit a line by line criticism.

Diane Ravitch with a book
she recently poured out
First, he begins with the standard criticism of Diane Ravitch. She is so prolific (“she pours our books”). She gives speeches (sometimes two at the same place! What a blabbermouth!). She is too quick to assign evil motives. Okay, I will acknowledge that I too don’t like her tendency to assail the intentions of some reformers (although “greed-heads?” Really? Is this 2nd grade?).

But you know who else is prolific? Appearing on TV and in the NYT? Writing books? Giving readings? David Brooks. I don’t see anyone  debunking Brooks based on the quantity of his output. What hypocrisy for people as prolific as Brooks to resent the attention that Ravitch gets. They should acknowledge two things. First, she cultivates attention by listening to the educators. She is also is an amazingly effective social networker, publicizing teachers' own words along with her own frequent pithy, twitterific turn of phrase. Brooks, being a good writer himself should realize some of Ravitch’s popularity is due to rhetorical skill as well as to audience cultivation. Second, Ravitch touches a nerve. Her power comes not from her awesome institutional power as a Professor at NYU, or from her bully pulpit as a columnist at the New York Times (oops, sorry, that's Brooks), but from the fact that she expresses what so many people are already thinking and feeling, and she is rare in the national media for doing so.

The next paragraph is a straw man (see Paul Thomas' response), but a critical one in the education debate as  it highlights what many reformers misunderstand about Ravitch, and misunderstand about resistance to  current top-down reform efforts. Brooks identifies these as “the party-line view of the most change-averse elements of the teachers’ unions:”

There is no education crisis:
This is an oversimplification. The argument that Ravitch and many others (if Brooks bothered to read one of her books, he might realize this) isn’t that there is no education crisis, but that this claim rests on two false assumptions. First, there is no single American educational system. Well-off suburban schools have been turning out well-educated future professionals for quite some time now. Second, the current crisis rhetoric ignores the historical data. Ravitch is a historian, and has seen the permanent educational crisis described in every decade of the 20th century. She claims that our present moment is not unique.

Poverty is the real issue, not bad schools. 
Again, an oversimplification, but one that Ravitch comes a lot closer to making. But saying “real issue” here obscures Ravitch’s point. While Ravitch may say that addressing poverty with a holistic program (like, hmm, Harlem Children’s Zone, maybe?) is better educational policy than test-based accountability, she is not a nihilist who thinks “bad” schools don’t matter. She is simply saying that poverty is a greater predictor of academic achievement (yes, even test scores) than reformers want to acknowledge, and that trying to identify and punish bad schools is not an effective way to improve them.

We don’t need fundamental reform; we mainly need to give teachers more money and job security.
What does “fundamental” mean here? Ravitch knows that reformers of every age have pledged that the school system needs to be “fundamentally” reformed. Many teachers know this firsthand, suffering from “reform fatigue” as every new turnaround expert boasts of fundamental change. When ed reformers of all stripes use the word “fundamental reform” it means “the way I want to redesign the educational system.” Everyone involved in this debate wants reform. There are many dimensions of reform possible. From class size, to school size, to curriculum, to who is teaching, to how we train them. Take Diane Ravitch, Leonie Haimson, Deborah Meier, E.D. Hirsch or any number of other people involved in education reform for a long time, and you will find many different ideas for reform. Please stop calling your own approach “fundamental” and everyone else’s ideas “change averse” without bothering to understand them. Most of these people have been trying to change the system for most of their careers.

At this point, Brooks steps back from the straw man (Look how reasonable I am! I am not going to attack this straw man I have shoddily erected, I’ll just be passive aggressive and undermine my opponent before I show how reasonable I am and admit that despite her overall craziness, she has some good points). Brooks acknowledges that teaching is a “humane art built upon loving relationships between teachers and students.” A system designed to improve multiple choices test scores distorts that.

At this point, I must acknowledge that that I continue to read Brooks for a reason. His willingness to acknowledge points of the other side does bolster his credibility. “If you make the tests all important, you give schools an incentive to drop the subjects that don’t show up on the exams but that help students become fully rounded individuals. You may end up with schools that emphasize test-taking, not genuine learning”  Acknowledging the tension between testing and the humane nature of education buys him back into my good graces.

Oh, wait. I missed that word. “may” As it turns out, this incentive doesn’t have to work the way Brooks says it “may.” Why not? The dehumanizing testing incentive can be overwhelmed by the magic of the free market a visionary school leader with a mission. Brooks cites “education blogger” Whitney Tilson (Don’t you mean hedge fund director? Or TFA co-founder? Or finance columnist? or co-author of More Mortgage Meltdown: 6 Ways to Profit in These Bad Times) as delivering the linchpin in his argument here. The schools that are the best indicators of reform, like KIPP and Harlem Success Academy put tremendous emphasis on testing. But they are also the schools most likely to have all those nice things that Ravitch wants: chess, dance, physics, philosophy and Shakespeare. Tests are not the end in these places, but merely a “lever” that their visionary leaders use to get their students interested in school. Here is the message: Accountability schools have tests, but the tests are subverted to a broader mission (and bizarrely, it doesn’t seem to matter whether that mission is character education, Core Knowledge, or performing arts). The charisma of the school leaders and their “invigorating moral culture” (like some sort of super charged educational shower gel) ensure that these schools are not testing centers, but where education comes alive.

Some evidence? No cherry picking here! Oh wait, just kidding. Carolyn Hoxby’s results of studying charters in New York and Chicago. New Orleans (yes, where Arne Duncan said that Katrina was the best thing that happened to the education system there) has doubled  the percentage of students performing at basic competency levels and above (yes doubled! Right here in River City! That’s double with a capital “D” that rhymes with “C” that stands for charter school!). What, you are skeptical of doubling academic achievement in a couple of years. Are you a status-quo defender?

Taste our invigorating moral culture, vile illiteracy!
First, I can believe that many charter schools in New York and Chicago have good results. But Hoxby’s study does not say why they are better. Imagine the following situation: You are pitting two youth basketball teams head to head. They played several times before, and it has always been very close, but one team recently got new uniforms. The new uniform team crushes the other team. The clothing company crows about the new uniforms being the thing that made the difference. Silly, no? Is this a fair metaphor? Follow me for just a few seconds. To say that the new uniforms made the difference, you would obviously have several good questions. The first one is of course the criticism that Ravitch begins with: selection bias. Did the new uniform team get any new players? Did they cut their lower ability players? This does not have to be a charter skimming only the best students, and need not be nefarious counseling out (although that does happen). It can be the result of a policy that demands a high level of involvement from parents (KIPP and parental involvement link here) ensuring that even across other measures of poverty, motivated parents more able to be involved in their child’s education are able to enroll. This absolutely happens in some charters. This is not a reason to damn the charter school itself, but just to acknowledge that accepting that high attrition cannot be a national model (or even a system- wide model, the students have to go somewhere). New Orleans is a tragic special case of this demographic fact, in that natural decimation does have a way of changing the demographics of a city, including its school system. The second, often neglected point, is that you might ask what other basic differences between the teams. Did one team get more practice? This is an often passed over difference between many charter schools and traditional public schools, that Hoxby acknowledges, charters often have longer school days, and longer school years. Maybe more practice at school helps you be better at school? Just sayin. If you moved beyond the practice question, you might ask about resources. Did the new uniform team get other things besides new uniforms? How do these charter school pay for chess, philosophy, Shakespeare? Oh, maybe it is because of massive fundraising efforts?

The kind of presentation of evidence Brooks engages in here is reminiscent of Matt Yglesias with the magic of bourgeois modes of behavior. They dispense with the first criticism of selection bias (using a lottery study, or a single case study but ignoring other sources of selection bias) and trumpet the new uniforms. This reminds me of many shoddy popular interpretations of psychology experiments. Just because you have dealt with one third variable problem (selection bias) does not mean you get to say that now correlation really does mean causation.

But I don’t hate charter schools. And neither does Ravitch. I would love to see some of the elements of KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zone see more wide acceptance. For one: addressing poverty takes time and  money. Rather than trumpet miracle schools that have amazing results with the power of mission, or leaders, or spiritual fervor, acknowledge that money helps when spent wisely, on things that Ravitch wants it spent on, like chess, Shakespeare, philosophy, or the arts, or foreign languages.

Brooks saves his most dishonest, victim-blaming paragraph for near the end, and almost makes me re-read Myers’ epic rant to fortify myself:
The places where the corrosive testing incentives have had their worst effect are not in the schools associated with the reformers. They are in the schools the reformers haven’t touched. These are the mediocre schools without strong leaders and without vibrant missions. In those places, of course, the teaching-to-the-test ethos prevails. There is no other.
The reformers have touched every single public school in our country. NCLB and RTTT have ensured that is the case. By elevating testing in reading and math as THE incentive that matters, accountability-based reformers have demanded change from every single principal, and every single superintendent in the country. But where does this testing have the most impact? In the “failing” urban schools (although don’t worry, we’ll all be failing soon). The highest demands, the most intense pressure is felt by those places that had the most children in special ed, the most children in poverty, the most crumbling school buildings, the least amount of cultural capital, the least potential for PTA fundraising, the least number of functioning bathrooms, the least experienced teachers. But no, that doesn’t matter to Brooks. All they need are strong leaders with vibrant missions. No matter how many times Brooks goes to his thesaurus for “alive” (“alive” “vibrant” what’s one more… oh, how about “invigorating” “passion”) it doesn't hide his privilege, callousness and ignorance.

I went to DC Public Schools, I worked with a few principals after college in a brief volunteer stint for Hands On DC. My dad has taught at my high school for 15 years, my wife taught at another one for 8 years. The problem is not mediocre people. Please stop handing a charter principal a multi-million dollar budget and a development office and turn around and tell the public school principals to stop being mediocre and work harder on being outstanding with a sense of mission. When charters have as little resources as public schools, they struggle.

At the end of the column, we finally get the Brooks final solution, so much more reasonable than Ravitch: “The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door” You know what, I love my kids' public school. I can volunteer there (to teach chess!) because I am a professional with flexibility in my hours. There is a great principal and a wonderful staff of hard-working teachers. But what makes this school work so well? Dedicated professionals. Active PTA and parent community. A state and district that funds reading aides and math aides (scroll to the bottom), and lower class sizes. An office staff and a full time nurse.

I’ll fight to protect my school with dedicated professionals with resources, a caring community with time and money to give, and a curriculum as full of "interesting science facts" as my son says. And I'll advocate to give the same to as many kids across the country as we can.You can keep your invigorating moral culture, David Brooks.