Aug 02 2011

Tilson vs. Rubinstein Round I

Follow garyrubinstein on Twitter
One problem in the current ed reform debate is that there is not enough genuine debating.  Really, there’s no communication at all between the two sides who I see as the ‘corporate reformers’ (Duncan, Klein, Rhee, and even Kopp) and the ‘realistic reformers’ (Ravitch, Cody, Valerie Strauss, and others including me).  Without direct communication all you have is New York Times OpEds and press conferences where each side says what they want, but are never challenged, directly, to defend what they say.

Writing this blog for the past couple of years has often felt like playing tennis against a wall.  I feel like I’m making good points and possibly even bringing people around a bit on their thinking, but without feedback it is hard to know.

Most of the comments I’ve gotten over the years have been supportive of my point of view.  Occasionally I’ll get a critic who I’ll engage with.  They’ve always proved no match for me (who can forget Seth who came upon the scene with such gusto, only to disappear a few days later after leaving about 40 comments?).

So it’s hard to really know how good you are when you play against the wall and demolish the few challengers who have ever tried to match wits with me.

Rather than waiting for the competition to come to me, I decided to be proactive and challenge some of the most vocal advocates of the Duncan corporate reform agenda.  Eventually I found the perfect opponent:  Whitney Tilson.

Whitney Tilson is a businessman who helped both TFA and KIPP get off the ground in their inceptions with his ability to raise funds.  It’s possible that neither TFA nor KIPP would even exist today without his support.  Tilson also formed a group called Democrats For Education Reform, which has promoted the corporate ideas of bringing ‘choice’ and ‘accountability’ to our school systems.

I read some of Tilson’s writings, mainly while trying to refute the words of my hero, Diane Ravitch.  Though I found him to be completely misinformed about what goes on in actual schools, I did appreciate the energy he put into his blog.  I also respected that he was willing to seek out statistics to defend his points of view.  He reminded me a bit of, well, me — if I was also misinformed about the basic axioms of how schools and school systems run.

From a distance, we have a lot in common.  Most blogs have clever names that leave the author anonymous.  Mine is called ‘Gary Rubinstein’s TFA Blog’ and his is called ‘Whitney Tilson’s Ed Reform Blog.’  We are approximately the same age.  We are both relentless in defending our position and attacking those who assault it.

I reached out to Tilson and challenged him to a blogger throwdown.  It began as a series of emails where we tried get a sense of each other’s core beliefs.  As certain topics began to come up over and over, we started to spar on some of the key debates in ed reform.

Like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson needed each other to bring out their best, I feel like these discussions are very interesting.  Our differences enable us to collaborate on something that neither of us could have created independently.

What follows is four excerpts from our correspondence.

Discussion #1.  When is it appropriate to close down a school?

From Tilson:

Your comments about closing schools led to this thought: let’s say a charter school comes up for renewal after five years and it REALLY sucks — dropout rates are very high, test scores are the pits, attrition is high, staff turnover and morale is crap, etc. Would you renew its charter, even conditionally? I sure wouldn’t and assume you wouldn’t either.

So why wouldn’t you feel the EXACT same way about a regular public school that had REALLY sucked for 50 years???

My reply:

The charter does not get the same break that I’d give to the public school for two reasons: 1) The charter has, in general, easier to educate kids so if scores even stay the same, they have done a worse job. 2) The charter school was exempt from some of the rules that the public school was not.

If the charter has the same population of kids and they have to play by the rules, then I wouldn’t expect their results to be much better so I can also see NOT closing that charter after 5 years since they are failing for the same reasons that the public school was. It would be a good argument for why it wasn’t a wise decision to close the school in first place. But now that the damage was already done, the cost and turmoil of shutting down another school so soon and then replacing it with another school that will probably fail isn’t worthwhile. It’s like when a lamp isn’t working so you replace the bulb and the lamp still doesn’t work. It means that the lamp is the problem. This isn’t to say that it is impossible to raise the standardized test results for those kids. It just means that with limited resources it is nearly impossible.

The new ruling about school closings came with a demand by King that the schools that replace those 22 closing schools have to serve the same populations. To me, this is a small victory which will yield interesting results. I’d like to see a charter handle a population that is truly randomly selected (not by lottery, but the way public schools get them.)

An experiment which I’d love to see, and which would resolve the entire question, would be if a KIPP took over an existing failing school. Same kids, same building — literally, not figuratively the way Duncan does with Urban Prep. Prove that better staffs get significantly better results under the same constraints to prove that swapping staff was a good decision. Why has this experiment never been done? A great idea for a TV show like Wife Swap, but called School Swap. You back it, I’ll be the producer!

His reply:

What do you mean by “limited resources”? Newark spends $20-25K/kid, depending on how you count it, and NYC is $16k or so. What’s your number where you’d be satisfied that it’s not the money?

As for your experiment, you need to visit Locke HS in LA — Green Dot has worked a miracle there. Also, read Stray Dogs… By Alexander Russo.

By the way, if Ravitch were to look at the school and apply the same methodology she applied to Urban Prep (which she wouldn’t do, because Green Dot is unionized — albeit with a different “thin” contract — which is all she cares about; notice that she has NEVER ONCE said anything bad about a unionized school, no matter how horrific), she would point to the test scores, which are still very low, ignoring the massive improvements in both test scores and other metrics like graduation rates.

You seem to be really focused on how charters cream the best students. I assume then that you oppose the existence of all magnet and other types of selective public schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science? Don’t you find it ironic that while, yes, charters benefit somewhat from the self-selecting nature of who enters a lottery, it is only the regular public school system that explicitly sets up selective schools, throwing a lifeline to a few percent of the students and consigning the rest to mediocre (or often far worse) schools?

You are right, by the way, that’s it’s often not fair to compare a charter school with a nearby public school, even one that shares the same building. But so what? What I’m interested in is what a school does with the students it gets. Let’s say the regular school gets students coming into 5th grade two years below grade level and a year later they’re 2 1/2 years below, meaning the avg student only progressed 1/2 a year in one year. And let’s say the charter school, due to the dynamics of the lottery, got kids “only” one year below grade level, but after one year they were at grade level, meaning the charter students had made two years of progress in 1 year. I would celebrate the charter school and criticize the regular school. Would you? I assume not based on what you’ve written — you’d instead focus on how the schools aren’t comparable, how could the regular public school be expected to do anything with “those” kids, etc. Sorry, I’m not buying that.

The experiment I’d love to run — and I’m sure you would to — is the day before school started, switch the students who were entering KIPP or Harlem Success with the regular schools that share the same building (and stipulating to counseling out, etc.). I’d bet my last dollar that the VAST differences in outcomes would be 80-90% intact. Not 100%, but close to it…

My reply:

In response to your comment:

if Ravitch were to look at the school and apply the same methodology she applied to Urban Prep (which she wouldn’t do, because Green Dot is unionized — albeit with a different “thin” contract — which is all she cares about; notice that she has NEVER ONCE said anything bad about a unionized school, no matter how horrific)

I know for a fact that she does not discriminate in that way. When Newsweek came out with their list of the 10 miracle schools, I analyzed each of them on my site and she tweeted the results, even though some of the 10 schools were unionized. So your ‘NEVER ONCE’ is definitely inaccurate.

The point in ‘slamming’ schools is not to show they are bad, but to show they are not so much better than the failing schools that are being shut down for not performing miracles.

Discussion #2:  How are kids and schools like lamps and bulbs?

I wrote to Tilson in discussion #1 that replacing the staff of a school is a lot like changing the lightbulb in a lamp that is broken:  It’s not going to make a big difference.

Before I put the exchange, let me comment here to my blog readers that as a ‘highly effective’ teacher, myself, it might seem a bit strange implying that better teachers don’t make a big difference.  I do think that better teachers make more of an impact than ineffective teachers.  I just think that it doesn’t often translate into standardized test scores.  As a teacher who truly values learning, for instance, I won’t do intensive test prep, even though I can probably do it better than most.  It’s not worth wasting their time and the score increases wouldn’t, I think, be that dramatic anyway.

From Tilson:

I’ve been thinking about your lamp analogy. If I flip the switch on a lamp and it doesn’t turn on, I assume that it’s a bad bulb (I.e., ineffective adults in a school) (and will be correct 99% of the time). Put a different, better bulb in and, voila, there’s light! I’m loving this analogy!

But you are claiming that NO bulb will ever work — not even a tiny flicker — because the lamp is broken — in other words, the kids and their parents are so incorrigible and/or beaten down by life that NO school and NO teachers can move the needle for them (at least within any realistic spending levels). Do you seriously believe this???

The real problem with your lamp analogy is that you assume that the light is either on or off — nothing in between. Yet in your very next email, you said that even at schools with the worst test scores, there’s learning going on.

So, if we’re going to use a lamp analogy, let’s talk about a lamp with issues, one in which a bad bulb will flicker very faintly and erratically, a normal bulb will produce a weak somewhat flickering light, but then there are rare and special new bulbs that manage to produce a bright, steady and long-lasting light, even when placed in the lamp with issues. The problem is that these special bulbs, while not costing any more than normal or even bad bulbs, are REALLY hard to manufacture, so they are in terribly short supply.

So, what should our strategy be? Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? 1) Do everything humanly possible to ramp up production of the special bulbs. Shower money on the people who’ve developed the new bulb technology, remove regulatory barriers, etc. And 2) Replace the bad bulbs with the special bulbs as fast as the latter can be produced (and, in the meantime, replace the bad bulbs with at least the normal bulbs).

Ah, but what about the manufacturers of the bad bulbs, dominate the market currently? They know that they produce a high number of defective bulbs, but rather than fix the problem, which would involve painful changes for their employees, they instead tell themselves that it’s not really their fault – the bulbs are fine, it’s just that that are so many defective lamps. To fight change, they use their enormous financial and human resources to cleverly win vast, unrivaled political power, aiming particularly at utterly destroying the small, entrepreneurial folks making the special bulbs — sadly, with a great deal of success. Isn’t it obvious that our policy should be to stop this outrageous and self-serving behavior?

But, you’ll reply, it’s hard to tell what type of bulb it is until it’s placed into the lamp — and given that the lamp has issues, sometimes the new bulb is no better than the bad one it replaced. True enough, so again here the strategy is obvious: only replace the very worst bulbs, only do so when you have a reasonable degree of confidence that a better bulb exists, and lastly, have reasonable expectations. There will be some failures, and even the improved bulbs still might be weak and flicker a bit (but a lot less than before).

Thanks for getting me thinking about this…

My reply:

Yes, no lamp is so broken that it is impossible to work.  Every lamp / bulb combination does produce some degree of light.

So there is a lamp bulb combination that is producing hardly any light.  There are two options:  fix the lamp or change the bulb.  ‘Fixing’ the lamp (tackling all the effects of poverty) is extremely costly, much more than we can afford.  Better bulbs produce more light with this lamp, but the potential seems to be limited by some constant in physics that we are running up against.  It is, at least, theoretically possible that there could be a bulb that will produce a lot of light without fixing the lamp, but the cost of producing that bulb is also more than we can afford, perhaps even more costly than fixing the lamp itself!

How can it possibly cost more to make a bulb (improve the adults) than to fix the lamp (cure the poverty of the kids)?  Well (to exit the analogy for now), I asked one of my good friends who is a principal at a public middle school in the South Bronx.  I asked if he had an infinite budget, what would it take to get his students to all pass the standardized tests.  He said he’d need mental health services for half the parents.  He’d need translators and English teachers for parents who don’t speak English.  He might need to quadruple his teaching staff.  You asked in an earlier e-mail what do I mean by limited resources.  Now, I’m not a businessman at all, so this is just hypothetical, but people are always saying ‘we doubled the amount we spent on education and it didn’t make any difference so more money is not the answer.  It’s like (here’s a new analogy) if there’s a fire and you tried to put one cup of water on it and it didn’t extinguish it,
so you doubled it to two cups, when you really needed hundreds of gallons.  So I’m suggesting that the better lightbulb while perhaps not as expensive as fixing the lamp, could still break the bank.  It may be that we can’t afford to do either.

So this brings us to the question of what can we afford to do.  Some districts try to get a little gain by changing lightbulbs.  This isn’t shutting down a school, as you make your analogy, but when you fire the principal and the staff and ‘reconstitute’ the school.  Miami Central, one of Ravitch’s miracle schools did this.  It didn’t work.  Though it got them mentioned by Obama and Jeb Bush, that school was recently slated for closing and replacement with charters for lack of improvement.  The ed commissioner saved the school for another year.  It is an ironic epilogue to that story.  Yes, better staffs will get some improvement.  But the question is whether it is worth the upheaval to get it, if the gains aren’t that much larger.

This brings us back to KIPP.  KIPP is a bulb that works well with a particular lamp.  That lamp has some factors in common with those lamps that work so poorly with any known bulb.  Both schools have poor minority kids.  So it seems like if we can’t find any bulbs that work with the real problem schools, perhaps we can take a model that is producing light with a ‘similar’ lamp and try to pump money and attention onto that.  But I don’t think the lamps are as similar as wealthy funders want to believe.  Yes they have poor minority children, but there are many different types of poor minority children.  There are kids with mild to severe learning disabilities.  There are kids with behavioral disabilities including ADD and ADDHD.

One last factor is that bulbs can be ‘improved’ through support and training.  So I think that just as many gains — with a lot less disruption to the system could be made if teachers are supported better with things like really usable lesson plans and activities.

I don’t think that any charter system is willing to put their reputation on the line and attempt to take over a failing school by keeping all the same kids.  But it won’t be until that happens (Did KIPP try to do that with a school in Denver, but just gave up?  I heard something like that, but don’t know if it is true) I don’t agree that we should invest heavily in the KIPP lightbulb that works on a lamp that may look the same to most outsiders.

Discussion #3:  Is Locke a miracle school?

Tilson wrote to me in discussion #1, above, that there was one genuine ‘miracle school’ that he knew of which took the ‘same kids in the same building.’  It is called Locke High School in Los Angeles.  They turned over the staff and kept the kids and, since I thought I made it clear what a ‘miracle school’ was — that it had to have the 90-90-90 stats that Duncan claims are so frequent, I was interested to learn more about this miracle turnaround.  It was my belief that a school can only get incremental gains from such a re-staffing.  Tilson put me in touch with Marco Petruzzi, the head of the school.

I wrote: Re. the Green Dot Miracle. I haven’t fully researched it myself, but others have.

Marco Petruzzi’s reply: The first thing I did was read the link below from the guy who “researched” Green Dot and I had to laugh. The problem with blogger/researchers is that they can claim whatever they want and if they write decently and with authority people think that they are credible. Now, you certainly don’t have to believe me either, but we do have UCLA doing an independent study on Locke and the results are very encouraging.

The most incorrect claim in the blogger’s article and the guy he quotes are that we dumped all the students, and that we spent outrageous sums of money. We kept all the students. We obviously no longer had the old 12th graders, who graduated, and we got a new batch of 9th graders, but we basically had the similar trends in enrollment than years before in terms of incoming population from the attendance area. This was not a choice school, but their school of default, and everyone basically showed up. In terms of spend, please note that Locke is 3,000 students. We did get $15 million for the first 4 years and then we will break even with public funds. Note that that adds up to $1,250 per year per student for the first 4 years. Note that as a charter we get about $7,800/student, which happens to be about $1,500 less per student that LAUSD got before. So we really are just getting close, but below, what the District previously got and then we go back to having a $1,500 gap. And note that we are below the $11,000 average for the US and below the $16-18,000 that NY gets. Our critics apparently can’t do 5th grade math. In any case, after 3 years at Locke here’s where we are (and I can tell you we are not a 90-90-90 school yet):

- Our biggest impact has been on student retention. If you look at the data prior to Green Dot taking over, you would see entering 9th grade classes of around 1,200-1,300 students that would quickly go down to about 250 graduates 4 years later. However, the data is not perfect as LAUSD has the nasty habit of counting in the 9th grade not only incoming 9th graders but also “returning 9th graders”, students who didn’t drop out but basically failed the majority of their freshman courses and therefore had to stay another year in 9th grade. Anecdotally, from teachers from the old Locke that stayed with Green Dot, almost all of the returning 9th graders would eventually drop out. In any case, from records we can tell that the actual graduating rate of “new” 9th graders, who were approx. 1,000, only 250 graduated and of those only 85 did with a college prep diploma (California still allows two types of diplomas, the good one and the useless ones). Since you are a teacher, I’ll let you do the math of the devastation that that school was creating in that community. Our entering 9th grade class the first year was approx. 900 students.

A-ha, you might say, why 100 students less? Are you not accepting all the students? Demographic trends will show you that the population in South Central Los Angeles has been declining steadily for the past 10 years and that the trend will continue. The decline has actually accelerated in the past 3 years with the crisis, due to less immigration in general, less undocumented immigration specifically, and the lack of jobs for people with no high school degree in the area, who have all had to move out.

Anyway, what has happened to the incoming 9th graders? The majority are still with us, and we believe that if the trends hold, by the fourth year we will graduate approx. 600-700 students, all of which will have taken the college prep curriculum. Is it perfect? No. Are there still some drop outs? No doubt. But a marked improvement in retention. We did it by throwing the kitchen sink at credit recovery and intervention courses and doing whatever it takes for every child. This year, after 3 years we had 560 graduates from a class that didn’t start with us with 100 more that are still enrolled for one more year (mostly ELL and Sped) with high likelihood of achieving all their credits

- The second impact has been in access to more rigorous courses. This was easy as we put everyone on a college prep track, no exception, no excuses.

- The third impact was achievement. This has proven as you can imagine the most difficult one, and the main reason we cannot claim “we did it” just yet. While we have doubled or tripled the number of proficient students in most subjects the percentages are still low. We suffer from a “double impact” a numerator impact and a denominator impact. The numerator problem is that Locke started so low – 4% proficiency in math – that even when you triple that, it still sucks. We’re not there yet. The second problem is that with our amazing success in retention, guess who you keep as a student? The lowest performing ones. They rarely contribute to your numerator, at least not right away. So we have a long way to go. Our biggest issue here is that the actual entry level of the students is so darn low, coming from the K-8 system reading at about 4-5th grade that it is difficult to accelerate them so much.

In any case, Gary, if you’re ever around, I’d be happy to show you Locke. I think all of this nonsense will disappear when the country fully embraces value added measures. When we start measuring schools by how much they move their students up, independent from their point of entry, we will actually possess data to do true comparisons. In the meantime, people like Mark Garrison and the other blogger he quotes, will continue to muddle the arguments and get us nowhere.

My reply:

Marco, from what you’ve described, I’m very pleased that you have what I’d call a ‘great’ school. Note that I call it ‘great’, but not a ‘miracle’ (a 90-90-90 school). This is fine since, as you know from your experience, you can be great without achieving the 90-90-90 metrics.

You were off my ‘debunking’ radar because no politician that I had heard used your results as proof that their reforms were working. This is a shame since your school sounds like a model for what is possible and for what a realistic time-table for success is. So not being a ‘miracle’ school is not an insult or a bad thing. There is no need for me to ‘debunk’ your school since you so candidly ‘debunked’ yourself with an honest explanation of your impressive successes.

I wish a politician would point to your school about what sorts of improvements can happen. If everyone knew what realistic improvement looks like, we would have fewer teachers getting fired and schools getting shut down for having test scores comparable to yours. Please believe that I am being sincere when I say ‘Keep up the good work.’

Here’s my question:

Which of these two statements is more accurate about your school, and why?

1) We have some outstanding teachers at our school. If they were replaced by average teachers, our school would fall apart.

2) We have some outstanding teachers at our school. If they were replaced by average teachers, our school would still be successful because of some of the other things that make us great.

Marco’s reply:

Hmmm…not sure I know how to answer this. While I do think that teacher effectiveness is one of the most, if not the most, important element of building a great school, I think that there are other elements as well that go hand in hand with that. Certainly, of equal importance, is the quality of the principal leadership. Never seen a great school without a great leader. Needless to say these elements are self-reinforcing. Great leaders build a great team and great teachers seldom would follow a weak leader. I can tell you that besides bringing in more effective people on average, we did a lot of other things, like bring in new programs, better professional development, better safety and culture building programs, etc. But certainly all these wouldn’t have taken without a more effective and aligned team on campus. Hope that answers your question.

Discussion #4:  More about shutting down / reconstituting schools

Tilson: One major point of disagreement between us is under what circumstances a school should be closed/shut down/reconstituted, defined as either more than half of the adults leaving (what’s required under one option of NCLB, and what was going to happen to Central Falls HS in RI), or truly closing the school and turning the space over to often multiple operators (the most common model in NYC under Klein).

I laid out my general principles in one of my emails/blog posts about Central Falls HS (and in my em about the lamp/bulb analogy). I do NOT believe it should be entirely driven by test scores — I believe test data, measuring student GAINS (not absolute performance), should be maybe 40-50% of the weighting in an evaluation of a school (or individual teacher), with the rest being many other objective (graduation and dropout rates, violent incidents) and subjective factors (in-person assessments, the existence of a realistic plan for improvement, etc.).

What are your criteria? Can you point to a single school anywhere in the country that you think should be (or should have been) shut down/reconstituted? Not Central Falls? Not even ONE of the nearly 40 schools in NYC that the DOE has tried to close in the past two years?

Not Locke, which before Green Dot was perhaps the most notorious HS in America, where there was literally a race riot between black and Latino students? (read Stray Dogs… For the details)

My response:

Hi Whitney,

Great question. One thing I can answer without hesitation is the NYC Klein model should never happen, in my opinion. It is the ‘Death Penalty’ of school reform and, like the actual death penalty, I am against it in all cases (even for Bin Laden — this is a topic for another debate, if you’d like.) Just like the actual death penalty, I’m opposed the NYC style closings because they are irreversible, unfairly affect the poor (yes, the poorer of the poor get shuffled elsewhere, so don’t argue that they help the poor), and do not serve as a deterrent for others. Knowing that this is what will happen to the 22 schools in the recent judgment that the people at Tweed drank so merrily to, truly made me sick to my stomach. I lost sleep about it, and I get sad every time I think about it. The problem with the Klein style is when the kids are shuffled, it is really hard to determine if the charters that replaced the big school were serving the ‘same children in the same building’ (to quote Duncan on Urban Prep. How can an all-boys school be the ‘same children’ as the old co-ed school?)

Now, the other model, particularly now that I’ve learned about Locke — thanks for getting that exchange with Marco happening — I’m warmer to that. I think that in the majority of cases, the reconstitution does not do much good. Didn’t do much for Miami Central, despite praise from Obama — it will be charterized by next year. (Do you want to help me get the word ‘charterized’ copyrighted?) But the Locke story, well that sounds like an example where this Green Dot had an actual plan to keep the kids in the same building and offer support and a better leader and a better staff. It seems to have worked, so maybe it can work elsewhere. This was what Ravitch had in mind when she supported charters. And you’re right that she would praise Locke, as a charter that is not creaming or winning by attrition. However, if a politician ever tried to use Locke to prove that 90-90-90 schools are out there, she would certainly point to their low test scores as a way to call the politician out on his lies. It would be a slam on the politician, not on the school. Listen to the opening of the Ravitch/Alter debate on Denver radio — particularly her opening comments. (I felt Alter humiliated himself. Maybe you heard something different than me. It’s human nature to hear and believe what we want to hear and believe.)

I will be interested in how politicians speak about Locke. If they are honest about the slow, but steady progress they are making, I’d like that. If they choose to only focus on one metric that they are doing well with (i.e. Urban Preps 107 out of 107 getting into college), then Locke will, unfortunately become a pseudo-miracle school and could earn a spot on my site. It’s not a 90-90-90 school, probably never will be one, not (to quote Seinfeld) that there’s anything wrong with that.

I am going to read your Central Falls posts. I suppose that there could be some criteria for getting a new staff, particularly if it is a staff of ‘ringers’. I’m not sure what criteria New York City uses. Whatever they use, they are a bit too eager to shut down schools. I know you are not a fan (to say the least) of Ravitch, but her blog post about why closing schools is a bad idea is one piece that I don’t think you’d have a lot to refute.

If you can’t read that piece and at least nod a few times in silent contemplation, you’ve got to really think about what you’re so defensive about.

Tilson: This email provides real insight into your thinking and how vastly different our approaches and thinking are — these lines in particular: “It is the ‘Death Penalty’ of school reform and, like the actual death penalty, I am against it in all cases…Knowing that this is what will happen to the 22 schools…truly made me sick to my stomach. I lost sleep about it, and I get sad every time I think about it.”

I, too, oppose the death penalty, not on moral grounds, but because of the imperfect nature of our judicial system. If even one innocent person was put to death, but 99 guilty murderers were executed, that would be too high of an error rate for me (and of course that actual error rate is massively higher).

So, then, why don’t I apply the same thinking to closing schools? Because what I care about is the kids — and I don’t blame them (or their parents) when they can’t read properly by age 10 (or 12 or 14 or 16…) — I blame the adults whose job it is to educate them. I KNOW with 100% certainty, because I’ve seen it hundreds of times personally, that great teachers and great schools can teach virtually every child to at least a basic level — maybe far from 90/90/90 (since when did that become the litmus test?), but to a decent level so that the vast majority of children have some chance in life.

I’d estimate that 25% of the schools in NYC — roughly 400 schools — are failing this basic test and should be shut down/reconstituted. So, there you have it: of the approximately 1,600 public schools in NYC, you’d shut down/reconstitute ZERO and my number is 400 — you could drive a truck through that gap! Not all at once, of course — it would take at least a decade, starting with the worst schools, the ones filled with mostly mediocre-to-truly-incompetent adults, where virtually no learning whatsoever is going on. (I still don’t understand your viewpoint, by the way: do you deny that such schools exist, or just that one can’t identify them, or that even if you can, that the replacement is probably just as bad, so why cause any disruption — just leave them alone?)

I’m sure you’ll reply that closing such a large number of schools — in fact, even a tiny fraction of this number — will result in some schools being closed — and some teachers and other adults losing their jobs — unfairly. In fact, this number — the error rate — might be quite high. I agree — in fact, it’s probably one of the few things we’ll ever agree on! It’s just that our reactions are different. You feel “sick to your stomach, lose sleep and get sad thinking about” the injustice of a school being wrongfully closed down. I don’t. I’m not happy about it, but my distress level is maybe a 5 out of 10, whereas yours appears to be a 9.5.

Why am I less upset? Because I don’t think it’s the end of the world if the adults have to find new jobs. Since when are teachers the only working people in America who never have the risk that they work for a company or factory that has layoffs or gets shut down? I’m sure there are lots of money-losing companies or factories that have wonderful, productive, effective people in them, and it’s truly sad when those people lose their jobs due to the incompetence of management or their fellow employees, but that’s the unfortunate breaks that some people get. Not to minimize the trauma/disruption of anyone losing their job, especially due to no fault of their own, but almost all truly effective people are able to find another good job. I know for sure that great teachers are in VERY high demand — in fact, finding them is KIPP’s single biggest constraint on its growth. In summary, I’m not too worried about the adults whose lives are disrupted when a school is closed/reconstituted.

But what about the kids? I’m more concerned about them, but they’re the ones being victimized by the terrible schools — it’s like when you’re on the bottom rung of a ladder, it’s hard to get hurt if you fall off (or the ladder is pulled out from under you). If the methodology to determine the schools to be closed has even the tiniest bit of common sense — unlike you, I don’t think it’s the slightest bit difficult to identify the truly horrific bottom 5-10% of schools, as a starting point — then it’s almost certain that the vast majority of kids have nowhere to go but up.

This is another great debate that I hope you’ll allow me to share your part of it with my email list…

24 Responses

  1. Central Falls is a very oddball case. If you don’t know its history and context, both the city and the school, you can’t say much useful about it. And, for that matter, the political context that made it the poster child for turnarounds.

    It is not a particularly bad urban school — it has some strengths — but its overall context is uniquely screwed up.

  2. FYI: The scores at Locke suck as do the scores at a number of Green Dot’s in L.A. Locke is neither a miracle or a great school.

    The 2010 API scores for the following Green Dot charter schools are:

    Animo Locke #3: 495
    Animo Locke ACE: 537
    Animo Locke #1: 563
    Locke: 567
    Animo Locke #2: 605
    Animo Tech: 606
    Animo Ralph Bunche: 658

  3. There is no miracle at Locke. There may be better behaved students with nice new uniforms, a school with a fresh paint job, and a hopeful spirit that comes with a $15 million dollar infusion of private funds from billionaires, but the cold hard facts are that test scores have not risen to the level of miracle. Mr. Tilson believes the hype but he needs to believe that transforming schools takes hard work, and there is no silver bullet. Jay Mathews wrote about this last year:

  4. Cal

    “I don’t blame them (or their parents) when they can’t read properly by age 10 (or 12 or 14 or 16…) — I blame the adults whose job it is to educate them. I KNOW with 100% certainty, because I’ve seen it hundreds of times personally, that great teachers and great schools can teach virtually every child to at least a basic level — maybe far from 90/90/90 (since when did that become the litmus test?), but to a decent level so that the vast majority of children have some chance in life.”

    This is exactly what’s wrong with eduformers.

    First, it’s not about “blame”. But when you look at the CAUSE of students not learning to read, the primary CAUSE is cognitive ability. Therefore, when he says he KNOWS that the adults are responsible, he’s so profoundly clueless that it makes all further conversation pointless.

    But of course, anyone who points out the link between cognitive ability (never mind poverty and the rest) is a cavilling, racist, excuse-seeker.

    Until someone takes eduformers on this point–and leave poverty out of it–all discussions are largely wasted.

    Alas, most traditionalists don’t like mentioning any possible links between cognitive ability and outcome, so they don’t discuss it.

    And so the Big Lie continues.

    • msw

      You say that the primary cause is “cognitive ability” and you acknowledge that “anyone who points out the link between cognitive ability (never mind poverty and the rest) is a cavilling, racist, excuse-seeker.”

      My first inclination is to tell you that the kids I’ve worked with who can’t read “properly” (i.e. on grade level) include kids with a variety of issues: kids who are very bright, kids who are ELLs, kids who are in the foster care system and have had major disruptions in their lives, as well as kids who have learning disabilities.

      But, before I go further, I’d like to know more about what you mean when you say “cognitive ability.” And I’d also like to know why students at low-income schools have a disporportionate number of students with reading scores that are below grade level?

      • Cal

        What does your first inclination have to do with my statement? Are you seriously arguing that “primary cause” means “only cause”?

        Cognitive ability is just what it says it is. There are many measures, including IQ.

        • msw

          To clarify, my point was that, in low-income schools, the “primary cause” for having a low reading level may not always be low cognitive ability.

          I certainly agree that low cognitive ability is a cause for low reading level, but I don’t think it’s always the primary cause. At low-income schools where the majority of the students have low reading levels, there are usually a number of factors that cause a student to have a low reading level – and many of those students may have average to high cognitive ability.

          I recognize that it’s easy for us to make generalizations and to simplify large problems – especially in this forum – and I acknowledge that you likely have more data to back up your argument. Otherwise (as you pointed out), others can interpret your argument as concluding that the majority of low-income students have low cognitive ability.

          • Cal

            It is quite possible that the majority of low income students have low cognitive ability. Most data shows that lower income populations have disproportionately lower IQs. Anyone interested in disproving that has a simple job–test a student population at the beginning of the year, using a variety of cognitive ability tools, and then see how the students do on the year-end tests and whether cognitive ability as measured has any relation to higher test scores.

            Of course, it would probably prove the opposite–that cognitive ability is the best indicator (but not the only) and that cognitive ability strongly correlated with test scores.

        • parus

          I love how IQ tests have somehow, over time, morphed from a tool for identifying individuals with clear cognitive disabilities for the purpose of receiving targeted services, into a way of assigning a precise numerical value to someone’s level of “intelligence” for the purpose of comparing neurotypical individuals. And by “love,” I mean I think it’s absurd.

          People are able to improve IQ test scores by taking the tests multiple times…I guess they must get smarter the more they’re tested!

  5. Boston

    Gary–the experiment you propose (same kids, same building, new staff & admin) is being done as we speak.

    • Mavor

      I went to and read that there is a lottery to attend the UP Academy. That is in no way “same kids”

      • Boston

        They are the same kids. The kids who attended the middle school that’s been converted were given automatic re-entry into UP Academy. The lottery took place for the sixth grade, which is coming in new to the school. They had to sign a charter application to enter, because it’s legally required by the state. The staff pursued the return of the applications as hard as they possibly could–home visits, phone calls, emails, whatever they needed to do to get them back. They know this experiment will be called invalid if the student body is different from last year.

        Currently, approximately 85% of the students who attended the converted school are returning to UP Academy this year.

        • MavorW

          You just confirmed they are not the same kids. 15% of ringers could easily skew the results.

  6. Mavor

    I went to and read that there is a lottery to attend the UP Academy. That is in now way “same kids”

  7. Mavor

    It seems as though Locke HS has brought some order to the campus, but has not made much progress at all in academics. I am sure that they, one way or the other discouraged some problem students from returning. This same thing happened at Washington Prep in the 70′s and 80′s. I have taught at schools in LAUSD and New Orleans Public Schools that made more progress than Locke and the schools were still labeled as failures. It seems as though Green Dot is given special consideration because it is part of the so-called corporate reform movement.

  8. Russo’s book is fact free cheerleading. See my brief piece Millionaires, Mendaciousness, and Miserable English Scores: the false Locke success story:

    Those remediation rates are staggering. Petruzzi, like hedge fund vampire Tilson, is another businessman who has no qualifications to be discussing matters of pedagogy.

  9. Liv

    I’m sorry, but that last part about why he doesn’t care about teachers unfairly losing their jobs was just really insulting. I’m an incoming CM in metro Atlanta, and I’ve already seen the level of personal pride my colleagues take in their classrooms and teaching. Saying that they should just get jobs elsewhere is so blatantly disrespectful, not to mention a horrible idea for education reform–if you want schools and teachers to be better, why on earth would you treat teachers like this? If there is a problem with overall teacher quality, shouldn’t teachers be treated MORE like respected professionals? I’m prepared to work incredibly hard for my kids this year, as I did this summer at Institute, but this attitude makes me wonder why. Why should teachers try to be highly effective when they’re treated like this? It’s utterly ridiculous that he doesn’t see the obvious contradiction between treating teachers like expendable, worthless parts AND demanding the absolute best from them. Wow.

  10. Former Bain & Company, Inc. employees are now self-styled experts on pedagogy? I suppose that follows since housing derivative shorting hedge fund mangers consider themselves experts as well. Here’s a brief account of the real facts behind the alleged Locke “turnaround:”

  11. Ultimately, I have issues with Tilson’s credibility. His actual, on the ground understanding of high-needs schools is exceptionally limited. He’s not a teacher, and I see no evidence in any of his comments anywhere that he’s talked seriously and openly with the teachers whose jobs he’s very willing to destroy.

    I’ll admit I have serious issue with his profession, too. Despite his working in capital, he seems unable to admit that it may have some very real impact on school performance, child health and the opportunity gap in the United States. It concerns me that he sees – or at least attributes little weight to – something so important it is his life’s work having any impact on public education.

  12. H

    I would like to respond to the following statement from above:

    “So, then, why don’t I apply the same thinking to closing schools? Because what I care about is the kids — and I don’t blame them (or their parents) when they can’t read properly by age 10 (or 12 or 14 or 16…) — I blame the adults whose job it is to educate them. I KNOW with 100% certainty, because I’ve seen it hundreds of times personally, that great teachers and great schools can teach virtually every child to at least a basic level — maybe far from 90/90/90 (since when did that become the litmus test?), but to a decent level so that the vast majority of children have some chance in life.”

    I have taught at 2 schools: 1 of poor quality, and 1 ranked at the highest quality in the state. There was a student in my class at the excelling school that I always think of when people insist that it’s the teacher’s fault when a child cannot be satisfactorily educated.

    This child attended school when he wanted to or when his mom wanted him to (he was a 7th grader). In any given week, I would say he showed up 3 days. This child NEVER… I repeat NEVER completed any homework. This child also rarely completed any classwork and when he did, it was rarely ever completed fully or correctly. This child was bright, a talented artist, but he had zero interest in school. His test scores were incredibly in all areas but math, where they were simply somewhat low. His mother did not value education, and did not seem to care whether or not he attended school or completed homework.

    I did everything I could think of to reach this child. Positive rewards for completing work (motivation!), praise, tutoring, forcing him to stay afterschool once a week so he could receive 1:1 help to complete work. I scheduled conference after conference with his mother, many of which she simply would fail to attend. I called his mother. I sent notes to his mother. She began dodging me. On the day the child was supposed to stay after school for 1:1 help, sometimes he would stay and sometimes he would simply sneak off and get on the bus and go home (while I was performing my “bus-duty” and monitoring the dismissal of students). I asked neighboring teachers to watch him so he wouldn’t bail whil I was on duty, but many times he managed to get away with just leaving.

    I referred this student to the school’s child-study team to make sure there was no learning disability that was causing him to not want to attempt work or come to school. He went through testing and there was nothing wrong (that testing could pick up, at least). Finally, there was nothing else I could think of but try and get the truancy officer involved. I documented his absences, filled out the truancy reports, and hoped that it might “inspire” the mother to get her kid in school. I even began paperwork for retention, in hopes that making the situation more real to the child and his family would get him in school and at least attempting to work. What happened? The family moved to another school district.

    Needless to say I spent a lot of time on this ONE student. The hours of tutoring, hours of staying in with him at lunch to try and reward him with “computer time” or “art time” when he completed work, meetings with school staff to try to come up with ideas to help him, meetings and communications with his mother, hours spent preparing make-up work for him, hours (upon hours) spent on child-study team, truancy, and retention paperwork. But despite my efforts, there was nothing I could do. I could not reach this child. And finally, when I began pushing too hard and trying to hold his family accountable, they simply moved away.

    I imagine that there are schools were classrooms have several of such children. I was able to devote so much time because he was the only student who required those efforts.
    I don’t know how one teacher would deal with several such students in his/her classroom. How a failure to effectively deal with multiple such cases would make someone an ineffective teacher who cannot reach his/her students, I do not understand.

    I reflect on this student from time to time and wonder if there was anything else I could have done. The only thing i can think that would have helped would have been additional training/support for me, as a teacher, and possibly support/education for his mother.

    • H

      Correction to the above– sentence in the 3rd paragraph should say “his test scores were incredibly LOW in all areas…”

  13. Mavor

    But, of course it was the teachers fault that he was not learning and so you should receive a poor evaluation. Give me a break. When was in school nobody would ever think to blame the teachers. The system has gone so fare overboard in it’s willingness to blame the position that has the least control over the student, resources, curriculum and organization. These so called reformers view us as factory workers on an assembly line…..That is why we need unions.

  14. PhillipMarlowe

    The one time KIPP took over a school and kept the students, they failed.
    Cole Middle School in Colorado

About this Blog

By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

High School

Subscribe to this blog (feed)

Subscribe via RSS


Reluctant Disciplinarian on Amazon

Beyond Survival On Amazon

RSS Feed