"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Kristof Gets the Gates Memo: Bracey Offers to Tutor

When you have billions available for postage stamps, everyone gets mail. Apparently Nick Kristof got his the other day, as he quickly responded to the Gates-Broad crusade against teachers and principals by offering his own broadside in favor of eliminating teacher training as a way to insure better teachers.

Since Mr. Kristof apparently has decided to join those who would blame the current corrupt capitalist economic collapse on bad teaching and bad schools, Jerry Bracey offered this letter to Mr. Kristof as an introduction to bringing him up to speed (other excellent letters can be found today in the NYTimes):
Dear Mr. Kristof

As a psychologist with 42 years of post-doctoral experience in education, I hope that I might help you a bit on what you call the “steep part of the learning curve.”

First off, you start your blog saying, “the teacher outweighs everything.” Maybe. It depends very much on whether you are talking about level of achievement or changes in achievement. Your comment on the LA Study is about change and change is greatly affected by teachers and less so by socioeconomic factors (the report’s speculations on the closing of the test gap are indeed speculative). Level is affected by family and community. If you haven’t already, before long, you will come across James Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity from 1966 which led many to throw up their hands and say “It’s ALL family.” This was a misinterpretation, but it is true that when speaking of level of achievement family background factorsare what count most.

I recently reviewed a manuscript which describes 10 “Out-of-School” factors that affect level of achievement. I just emailed the editor of the series,to see where we are in moving towards publication and to find out when it might be appropriate to send you a copy. The factors range from prenatal,nutrition, to medical problems, to the stress induced by poverty (which, affects the architecture of the developing brain), to enrichment program activities not available to poor kids.

My own new book, which I think will be out next month and might actually carry the title, Getting Out of Education Hell: Moving Beyond 50 Years of Failed Punish-the-Schools Reforms, contains a chapter “Poverty is Poison,” a title I’m sure you recognize as the headline over a Paul Krugman column (he is credited).

Then there is the matter of your comment on “best” and “worst” teachers. Do you have a set of criteria for identifying those? Test scores don’t work. Even the document in which you found the LA study admits that tests can’t evaluate teachers and don’t measure important things that kids should learn. A must-read at some point in time is Norman Frederiksen’s “The Real Test Bias” which appeared in the March 1984 issue of The American Psychologist.

Norm was one of the first to show that when instruction is oriented towards a test, kids learn what’s on the test but not much more. He also shows that multiple-choice tests don’t measure a lot of important things that performance tests do. But performance tests take time and are expensive compared to quick and cheap multiple-choice tests, so the real test bias is a variety of Gresham’s Law: bad tests drive out good.

Good teaching might very well be situational. If you take the “best” teachers and put them in the "worst" schools, they might very well fail miserably. Teaching is not something that inherently resides in a teacher.

Take Jaime Escalante. He had amazing success in LA, so much so that ETS accused his kids of cheating. But his success was much more muted in Sacramento. One big reason—in LA he often spoke to his all-Latino classes in a gruff street language which had power in that subculture. In Sacramento, the kids were about equally divided into black, white, Asian, and Latino so his motivational tactics worked only on a quarter of the kids.

I suggest you read Tested: One School Struggles to Make the Grade, by Linda Perlstein. Linda is a former Washington Post education reporter who spent over a year in a poor school, Tyler Heights, in a rich district in MD. She chronicles and describes the efforts of the principal and the teachers to prepare the kids to pass the state test. Here is an excerpt of my summary that can be found at www.huffingtonpost.com/gerald-bracey. This particular blog piece is called “Parents, Poverty, and Achieving in School:”

The kids get off to a bad start physically: they get sugar water or Oodles of Noodles as infants, Froot Loops as toddlers, and show up at school overweight, undernourished, their teeth rotting.

The academic beginnings aren’t healthy, either.

“Mrs. Facchine felt no small measure of distress when she asked what adding an ‘s’ does to and noun and every face in her class went blank. Ms. Milhoan was mortified when she handed out Post-it notes for questions about friendship and got back, ‘Ho do friend go yon’ and ‘The kestos is the kmbslo’ One girl doesn’t know what a paragraph is; one boy, asked the character trait that describes him said, ‘Word.’ Another, asked how much is between seven and eighteen answered ‘Four’.”

One teacher was baffled by a boy who farted all day and announced, “I smell like salad.” Then there was the boy who, complimented on his new sneakers said, “Thanks! My mom stole them!” During sharing time one girl spoke of speaking to her father through the glass using a phone. One girl, asked the meaning of “stray,” said “Like a homeless person.” “Is Mars a lifetime?” one boy wanted to know. On multiple-choice tests, kids answered the questions without reading the stems and quit early, beaming to be done even though segments of the test were unfinished. And we haven’t even talked about the many kids who don’t know English.

Part of my summary discusses Linda’s chapter comparing Tyler Heights with Crofton, a rich school down the road (these are both real names). The kids at Crofton arrive knowing most of what they need to learn in elementary school. What my summary doesn’t include, but Linda does, is a discussion ofhow the values of the school are in conflict with the values of the ‘hood. “Lying, aggression, and detachment got you in trouble by day, saved your ass at night” (p. 113). I bet if you took those “best” teachers from Crofton and plunked them down in Tyler Heights, the Heights’ kids would eat half of them alive and the other half would flee in terror after the first day.

Well, there is lots more, but two pages are enough for a start. Many of your columns begin with concrete situations in horrific settings. They read like anthropological notes from fieldwork, albeit with a moral to throw at the reader at the end. If you’re to climb that learning curve, in addition to reading all the reports cited in your column, you need to do some fieldwork in the schools. Observe some teachers, shadow a few principals. I predict you’ll end up writing more like Mike Rose’ Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, than like Gordon, Kane & Staiger’s Identifying Effective Teachings Using Performance on the Job. The latter is about abstractions, the former is about real people like those Cambodian girls enslaved as prostitutes.

Gerald W. Bracey

PS: Education by itself does not produce jobs. Critics always emphasize the supply side saying the schools have to produce more of this, that and the other, but we have three new home-grown engineers and scientists for every new position in those fields and an attrition rate of 65% in two years (long hours, lousy pay, poor conditions for advancement turn them into real estate agents, investment advisors, etc). When you look on the demand side, who the hell wants to be a scientist or engineer—longtime science writer, Dan Greenberg, has created a new position, “post-doc emeritus.” Duncan is wrong—high scoring Iceland is a basket case. High scoring France is on strike. The test aces in Japan couldn’t keep it out of 20 years of recession and stagnation.


  1. Diane Ravitch just told me that she read on an Education Week website that Linda D-H will remain in California. As she put it, "The Obama Department of Education is now completely in the hands of the entrepreneurs."

    I'm not a bit church-going, but this all makes me want to say, "Lord help our children."

  2. Anonymous10:07 PM

    Thank you so much for posting this. Am I wrong or has the NYT been in a haze of fantasy on this subject for years?