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Looking for Some Journalistic Objectivity

Jay Mathews has been an education writer and columnist at the Washington Post for decades. But the degree of journalistic objectivity in his work has been on a steep downward slope for most of that time.

Take, for example, his column in today’s paper in which he reviews a new book about charter schools that focuses on the KIPP network.

Jim Horn is the most vocal critic of our nation’s (and the District’s) largest nonprofit charter school network, KIPP. Among journalists, I am KIPP’s most enthusiastic supporter.

Is someone calling themselves a “journalist” supposed to be an “enthusiastic supporter” of one side in a story they’re covering? Just askin’

Anyway, Mathews goes on to criticize the author for being one-sided, and then proceeds to take the other side, supporting KIPP management against the “research and personal accounts” in the “252-page book”. Personal accounts that includes “long excerpts from interviews with 23 former KIPP teachers”.

Now, I have not read this particular book (I’ve read other works about KIPP, both critical and favorable), and have no idea if the author’s material makes a compelling case against KIPP’s educational philosophy and how it’s executed in their schools. It’s very possible his book does belong to the “great tradition of American polemics” and is a total hatchet job.

However, Mathews’ “enthusiastic” support for KIPP’s program, based in part on visits to 42 of their schools and his observation of instruction as a non-educator who has never taught, does the reader of his Post column (in the Metro section and not labeled as opinion) a disservice.

He’s hardly in a position to call for another writer to be objective about his subject matter.

Teachers are the Problem, Right?

One of the podcasts I listen to every week is Freakonomics, which focuses on business and economics in everyday life and is based on the books of the same name. Most episodes are very interesting, although sometimes they reach a little too far in trying to make a connection, and once in a while fall off the rails altogether.

As with a recent edition in which they asked the question Is America’s Education Problem Just a Teacher Problem?. You can probably guess how that discussion went.

Start with the people involved. In addition to the host and co-author of the books we have the co-founder of KIPP, which the program describes as a “nationwide network of public schools”,1 a think tank economist, the author of a book on education history, and Joel Kline, a lawyer and former Chancellor of the New York City schools. No actual teachers, of course, and at least two people who are described as “educators” but who really are more business people.

Although there is so much wrong in this program, I still recommend a listen.2 If, however, you don’t want to spend the time, here’s a short summary of the conclusions, none of which should surprise you.

  1. Everyone agrees that most US students are not doing well, especially compared to those in other countries.
  2. Most US teachers “aren’t the best and brightest” and we need more “great” teachers.
  3. More great teachers will change #1 as well as improve the economy.
  4. But raising teacher salaries will not solve the problem, although “competition” (merit pay, charters, etc.) will.
  5. Teacher unions are bad and KIPP has everything figured out.

Finally, at the very end of the program, the host inadvertently stumbles across why the previous 35 minutes of talk was mostly wrong.

Think about it: a school has your kid for only seven hours a day, 180 days a year, or about 22 percent of the kid’s waking hours. Nor is all that time devoted to learning, once you account for socializing and eating and getting to and from class. And for many kids, the first three or four years of life is all parents and no school. But when serious people talk about education reform, they rarely talk about the family’s role in preparing children to succeed. That may be because the very words “education reform” indicate that the underlying question is “what’s wrong with our schools?” — which, these days, inevitably leads to “what’s wrong with our teachers”? [emphasis mine]

Reformers rarely talk about the family’s role. Or the part that a community plays in that other 78% of a child’s life. About whether living in poverty just might have more influence on a child’s future than any “great” teacher.

Maybe the underlying question of school reform shouldn’t be “what’s wrong with our schools?”, but instead “what’s wrong with our society?”.

Playing Under Different Rules

A new study of the KIPP charter schools program, darling of school reform advocates, says they “often outperform regular public schools. “But they’re not doing it with the same students, and they’re not doing it with the same dollars.”.

The study from researchers at Western Michigan University, to be released Thursday, estimated that KIPP schools receive more than $5,000 a year per pupil through private donations in addition to regular sources of public funding. It also found that about 15 percent of KIPP students leave the schools each year as they progress from sixth to eighth grades – and that those students often are not replaced.

The people pushing charter schools want us to think they work miracles with the same cost per child as the public schools from which they draw their students and money.

However, this and other research over the years continues to show that, while they do improve the test scores of their students, KIPP and other high profile charter schools are not subject to the same criteria as the public schools to which they’re compared.

I wonder how Jay Mathews and other members of the KIPP cheering section will spin this latest bit of evidence.


Not More Time, Better Time

In advance of his keynote this Sunday at NECC, I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Overall it was a very good read, about on par with The Tipping Point and much better than Blink.

As always, Gladwell is a great story teller and does an excellent job of helping us get to know the people he calls outliers.

Unfortunately, as with his other works, he also works way too hard to stretch his anecdotes into fitting around his thesis, which in this case essentially can be summarized as “chance favors the prepared mind”*.

But there’s one example late in the book that had me yelling at the pages.

In that chapter, Gladwell is discussing a study showing the change in reading scores over summer break for students in different socioeconomic classes.

Now take a look at the last column, which totals up all the summer gains from first to fifth grade. The reading scores of the poor kids go up by .26 points. When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session. [his emphasis] The reading scores of the rich kids, by contrast go up by a whopping 52.49 points. Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.

From this he concludes: “Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”


The reasons for the large gains made over the summer by wealthy kids is not more of the same traditional schools. The explanation is provided by Gladwell right there on the same pages.

Those “rich kids” went to summer camps, museums, and “special programs”. They had “plenty of books to read” at home and parents who both encouraged and modeled reading.

Their parents “see it as their responsibility to keep [them] actively engaged in the world” around them.

Gladwell may be right that some kids need more time in school in order to raise their achievement levels (aka test scores). However, that’s not what’s happening here – or what should be happening.

The students who showed the most gains over the summer did so because of the alternative learning opportunities they received, that active engagement with a variety of sources, guided – not taught – by their parents.

Just extending the school year, one of the school reforms most loved by politicians and education “experts”, will do absolutely no good for any socioeconomic group of kids if that additional time is filled with more of the same test-prep-driven activities used during the current calendar by most schools.

And, no, I’m not convinced that the extended school day/week/year, highly regimented KIPP model Gladwell discusses in the same chapter is one that should be replicated for all students, not even for all low achieving kids.

More time is not the answer to better education. Better time is.

* The more commonly used version of Louis Pasteur’s original observation that “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind”.

Thoughts on Being Nice

Being that I’m usually in a constant state of behind, Jay Mathews’ book Work Hard, Be Nice is still on my stack of stuff-to-be-read.

However, my colleague Jenny, who blogs at Elementary, My Dear, or Far From It, has finished reading it and offers some excellent thoughts on the book and about the KIPP organization, which is Mathews’ subject.

I don’t want to get rid of KIPP. I just want to know that we are looking at it closely, considering the positives and negatives, and moving forward from there. I’m bothered by the presentation of KIPP as THE answer. That’s how Mathews presents it here. The book is worth reading, but not unless one is willing to go beyond it to learn about KIPP.

That’s her conclusion but the whole post is worth a read.

And while you’re at it, add Jenny’s blog to your aggregator.

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