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

Saturday, September 04, 2010

"Irrepressible" Bloggers vs. the Borg

Jay Mathews is the insider's insider on corporate education reform issues, serving as the media mouthpiece for the psychological sterilization movement of KIPP and the KIPP knock-offs.  The Elder himself, Bill Gates, carries a supply of Jay's KIPP book to hand out to anyone interested in the Oligarchs' choice of a final solution to educating the poor and the brown of urban America.

At the same time KIPP is becoming the urban model for corporate ed reform, the movement is in the process of pivoting from the the phony campaign under Bush ostensibly to close the black-white achievement gap, with the same high expectations for all, thus avoiding "the soft bigotry of low expectations," blah-blah, to a new phony campaign of assuring that poor children have the same access to high quality teachers and schools because education is now the "civil rights issue of our generation."  Blah, blah, blah.  While the pivot leaves in place the high-stakes standardized testing that declared 30-40 percent of public schools failures and charter targets under the last 9 years of NCLB,  the pivot demands a shift in what is measured by the tests and how it is measured.  The achievement gap has left the stadium, ladies and gentlemen, while growth models have taken the stage.  Now that the urban school systems have been blown up, thus clearing the way for the corporate charterites,  the canyon between test scores of the rich and poor is no longer of interest.  Indeed, the achievement gap has become a "mindless measure," to use the words of Jay Mathews.

The focus now is on "a year's worth of individual student growth" for a year's worth of teaching (much more on this later, with a feature on the Wizard of Oz, Bill Sanders).  In short, the new target of corporate ed reform is to blow up, or disrupt, the teaching profession by measuring effective teaching on how much test score growth a teacher can oversee.  And as the new CEO-led KIPP chain gangs are to replace urban public schools, so then an endless stream of non-union white missionary temps are being prepared to replace the professionals who now staff the urban schools.  Test score gains, or lack thereof, will be used to justify the firing of professionals and the use of temps from TFA and the TFA knock-offs that Arne fondly calls alternative teacher certification programs.

When I challenged Mathews for his commentary in WaPo supporting the pivoting away from the achievement gap, he responded with the piece quoted in its entirety below.  You will notice that the first thing he does is not respond to the challenge but, rather, to change the subject and, instead, to challenge Ira Socol's insightful piece that I recently posted. 

As you will see from the comments, Jay bit off more than he could chew when he challenged Socol, who is not impressed with nor intimidated by the fact that Mathews has the full backing of the Billionaire Boys' Club and all the "thinking" that their tanks can buy.  A good number of other comments, including my own, are left out of the edited comment section below.  I wanted to focus on the back and forth between Jay, the hapless interrogator, and Ira, the intelligent respondent.
Jim Horn of the Schools Matter blog, one of my favorite hecklers, posted a critique of my recent column, "Forget about the achievement gap." He says:
Obviously, Jay has joined other bold reformers such as the recently-fired Bret Schundler of New Jersey whose efforts to remake New Jersey schools in the corporate image led him to denounce New Jersey Public Schools as a “wretched system” and the state’s #1 national rankings on the NAEP in both 4th and 8th grade reading and math as “irrelevant.” For bold reformers like Jay and Bret, or Arne and Michelle, if the facts don’t support your desired results anymore, those facts no longer matter. Poof.
Jay and the the new generation of reformers doing the same thing as the last generation (when will they become the status quo?) would rather look at test score growth over time, especially when big achievement gap closing claims by your favorite politicians do not materialize. Focusing on individual gains makes the disparity between the haves and the have-nots much easier to ignore, since this new value-added universe is not even interested in those troublesome group comparisons any longer that are based on the poverty chasm. Unless, of course, the reformers need to shut down your neighborhood school and turn it into a corporate-styled testing madrasah, i. e., charter school. Then your percentile ranking becomes a crucial tool in deciding who is in that bottom five percent that just keeps replenishing itself as the last group is scraped off to become charterized.
I am not sure I fit well with the important present and former policymakers he cites, but it is always good to be noticed by Jim. He is a great writer, and validates my existence on the planet.
In his most recent post he also hands me some ammo to fire back at him. He quotes an online letter to President Obama from a reader, Ira Socol. Socol is critical of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), as an example of the kind of charter school the president admires, and compares KIPP unfavorably---too rigid, too uncreative, too imperialist---to the Sidwell Friends School which Obama's daughters attend. This is reminiscent of a point made by the late, great Gerald W. Bracey at the beginning of the Obama administration.
Sadly, Socol makes the same mistake Jim has made many times. He cites as evidence for his views of teaching at KIPP and Sidwell some descriptions he found on their Web sites. Any good teacher would tell you that is no way to judge a school. Socol gives no indication he has ever spent time inside a KIPP school, or Sidwell. Neither has Jim, unless I have missed something. They are among the many KIPP critics who consider it sufficient to judge schools by what they read on the Internet.
I think they should visit the schools they write about and tell us what they see. All of the KIPP schools I know have an open door policy. There are 99 KIPP schools in 20 states and D.C., including one in each of the 20 largest cities except Phoenix. I have visited many KIPP schools and Sidwell. I think Socol, and Jim, will be surprised, once they get inside, at how little difference there is between the great teaching going on at both places.
By Jay Mathews  |  September 1, 2010; 2:00 PM ET

Well Jay, let me recommend a few journalism tricks. One would be to read further - that is by using Google to look for my other writing on the subject. Another would be to email or call the subject of one of your columns to confirm what you are about to write.
So yes Jay, I have been in KIPP schools. That was not the point of this particular blog which was focused on philosophies expressed to the Obama Administration. I have been in KIPP schools (3) and - personally - I have found them terrifying.
But more than that Jay, I have some really extensive experience in the types of communities KIPP seeks to serve. I know these kids, and I know what they could do if they were offered the kind of educational opportunities available at Sidwell (or Cranbrook, or St. Ann's or etc).
And I know one more thing. Barack and Michelle would never send their daughters to a KIPP school, nor tolerate KIPP-style education in any school their daughters attended. As I've said, KIPP is the way the white and powerful want the poor of color to be educated. But they aren't suggesting it because that's a path to equality. They are suggesting it for just the opposite reason - they don't want the competition for their own children.
- Ira Socol
Posted by: irasocol | September 1, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Ira---Too impatient to wait, I have searched google for your writings on KIPP. I am far from an expert Web surfer, but the pieces I found that mentioned KIPP did not cite any personal experiences or observations. So I am doubly eager to give you a chance to do that here. We had one KIPP visitor who was critical of the school she saw, and I ran her comments in full, but it was a comment she posted here anonymously and she declined to respond to my request that she identify herself and tell us more. Since you have visited three KIPP schools, you could give us a much deeper critic's view of what you saw.
Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 1, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse
Mr. Mathews:
I visited KIPP schools with "invited observation teams" in 2007 and 2008. KIPP Ascend Charter School (Chicago) in 2007, KIPP Lead College Prep (Gary, IN) and KIPP Indianapolis College Preparatory School in 2008. I am not willing to say who brought me in, that might threaten a person's job.
What concerned me? An absolute lack of tolerance for mental, learning, and behavioural diversity, in classroom after classroom, corridor after corridor. Of course I come from a Special Education background, so this was far more disturbing than it might be to others. I also found the brutality of teacher-student, and especially in Indianapolis, administrator-student communication fairly shocking. If you would send your grandchildren there, you're a different kind of parent than I am.
I also found the educational philosophy quite flawed. Though there was substantial "one on one" time in all three schools, I saw almost no pedagogical or curricular differentiation, which is the heart of creating success for the diversity of students in any school.
But I will not deny that I am, philosophically, anti-colonial. I do not think that we have to "force these kids to be white." Nor do I believe that "gazing at the teacher" is anything but a power-relationship statement. If you follow the links my blog post offered, you would have found these conversations. If the first step offered poor children of color is being made to become "white" - and then they are expected to catch up, obviously they never will.
I do see a great many schools each year in my multiple roles. I see great schools, I see lousy schools. I see great charters, I see lousy charters. Great schools in my sense of the word empower students to build their own identities, their own toolbelts, their own skillsets, which they can carry through their lives. They prepare students to be themselves within the wider world. And I believe that every child can experience that kind of school.
I will not accept the idea that (a) we compare KIPP to the worst schools in America (that is NOT the change we believe in), or (b) that we accept that rich kids get one kind of education and poor kids get another (that's not new, we already have that).
But just one question Mr. Mathews, I've seen lots of KIPP demographics. Where, exactly, are all those middle class KIPP parents you speak of?
- Ira Socol
Posted by: irasocol | September 1, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse
Ira---Thanks very much for your comment. I would still like to run a more detailed post by you that tells us exactly what you saw and heard at which schools that led to the conclusions you draw. Some readers might interpret the same events differently. It would help everyone to get clearer sense of what moved you. I visited the Indianapolis school in 2008 also, if my memory is correct, and I saw things there I had not seen at any other KIPP schools, particularly students insulting each other in the hallways. The principal was not there that day for me to ask about this. I visited KIPP Ascend and KIPP Lead in 2009 and did not see anything that bothered me. They seemed to be productive and happy places to learn, similar to the 38 other KIPP schools I had visited. 
I know you are not a reporter, and prefer to get right to the point. But I think it would help the rest of us to read what you saw and heard, and see what the KIPP people at those schools have to say about that. Let me know. mathewsj@washpost.com
Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 1, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse
Ira--- I forgot to answer yr last question. The college educated middle class KIPP parents I spoke to were in Atlanta and LA, and I am told there are some in DC whom I havent met yet. Since about 10 percent of KIPP students nationally are not low-income, I suspect there are a few middle class kids in nearly every school. One of our reporters told me she was trying to choose between KIPP and a regular DC school in an affluent neighborhood, Janney. I told her I thought KIPP was the better bet. But I believe she chose the regular school.
Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 1, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse
Ira Socol: I will add a couple of things: First, I'm not sure it is possible for a reporter, certainly a national education reporter, to visit a school and see much more than the best "Potemkin Village" the school can construct. The same goes for politicians, especially celebrity politicians. And it might go for "invited educational observers" as well. However, the "tech guy," universally viewed as somehow "unimportant," sees and hears a lot. I'm not targeting KIPP here. At universities and K-12 schools I have seen and heard amazing things, including way more confidential information than should ever be disclosed.
That said: Let me offer you a couple of scenes.
In Chicago I saw a young teacher working one-on-one with a series of students who needed reading help. A few things stood out. The students who came to him were all, quite obviously, struggling with different aspects of the reading process. One had essentially no phonological awareness, one was really struggling with the symbols (he could not, as an example, associate the lower case letters with the equivalent upper case letters), a third read fluently but with almost zero comprehension.
The teacher, very clearly untrained in any of this, repeated the same efforts with all the kids. He was clearly operating from a script. And as his efforts inevitably failed, he became angry with the students, repeatedly blaming them for "not trying hard enough." The child with no phonological awareness was called "lazy" repeatedly. KIPP only phenomenon? Of course not, but I saw similar scenes throughout all the buildings.
In Gary I saw more than one teacher encourage students to belittle and demean students who were struggling to stick with the "SLANT" program. As I believe most WaPo reporters would struggle if these rules applied in staff meetings. The encouragement of "pack cruelty" was something else I observed in all three schools.
In Indianapolis I saw appalling student-to-student behaviour, but honestly, I thought it fairly closely mimicked the communication system between the school's adults and the children. That school (and there were echoes of this in the others) was all about "top down power" - yes - very old-school British in the "hidden curriculum" - which is, in every school, the curriculum which really matters.
What I saw almost none of in any of these schools was student-led, or student-centred learning, much less any student-generated context. These classrooms are training followers, not leaders, and not collaborators.
Now, sure, I have no doubt that there are parents who want this system. There have been military-style schools and reductionist hyper-discipline schools forever. But that is not the way the American elites are trained. They get very different environments. And they get those because that top of the American economic pyramid has always been about creativity and flexibility and rapid adjustment. Never about compliance. Never about staring at your superiors.
- Ira Socol
Posted by: irasocol | September 1, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

For Ira, also if you could recall the actual words the Gary teacher said, that would help.
Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 1, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse 
Mr. Mathews:
I have no intention of giving the actual quotes of the teachers in Gary in this forum, and I will explain why.
If I provide the actual words, the KIPP/TFA machine will "fire up" and claim that I am mistaking "peer mentoring" and "cohort building" and "positive pressure" for bullying. They will focus on the words themselves and not the faces of the children being tormented, nor the question, "is bullying good educational policy?
Suffice it to say that in KIPP classrooms I have seen teachers encourage children to humiliate others. And this is done with the "pack" using the same words, as if scripted. You may see that as positive, I see it as hazing, and perhaps a significant reason for KIPP's rather stunning attrition rate. http://epicpolicy.org/newsletter/2010/06/new-kipp-study-underestimates-attrition-effects-0 A rate the KIPP Foundation seems to go to great lengths to obscure.
I do want to add one other question: Who, Mr. Mathews, paid for your traveling to all these KIPP schools around the country? And why? There is an awful lot of "Vioxx Research" in education these days, with people who profit from one reform project or another funding studies which often hype the positive and gloss over the "side effects." (The Washington Post Company is one company which does profit directly from current Obama Administration educational policies http://voices.washingtonpost.com/college-inc/2010/08/higher_ed_community_focuses_on.html ).
I'm just curious. How many urban Montessori schools did you visit on those trips? How many "free" schools? How many public schools? I'm just trying to get a sense of the purpose of your research.
- Ira Socol
Posted by: irasocol | September 1, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse
Ira Socol's points fall into two categories; on the issue of individual abuses at particular KIPP schools, I have no reason to doubt his assertions, though some of them are a matter of interpretation. But it would be helpful if Mr. Socol would, in criticizing the educational philosophy that KIPP schools follow, specify other schools that use a different philosophy -- a more Montessori-type philosophy, perhaps, and that are open admission at the same level as KIPP (i.e. free, minimal paperwork for admission, etc) and that produce learning gains that are better than KIPP's.
Posted by: jane100000 | September 2, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse
I can point you to many schools making great gains with far more "open" environments. Most of these are, in fact, "traditionally financed" public schools built on inclusive models, but they are working with the kind of systemic change necessary - creating districts which, when possible, cross community boundaries, providing equalized funding, including high levels of professional development. These are the areas where there is little or no pressure for KIPP. One example I might offer is Michigan's Godfrey-Lee District, with demographics closely matching those of KIPP, this public school draws in many "school choice" students, and though it might not match the test scores of East Grand Rapids, its graduates do very well in life.
Which raises the question: How Jane, do you measure schools? http://education.change.org/blog/view/evaluate_that_-_schools_for_children
- Ira Socol
Posted by: irasocol | September 2, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse
Ira, not just by test scores, for sure. Altho the Godfrey-Lee NAEP scores aren't very encouraging especially for minorities and low-income children. My benchmark is how well students do after they finish their schooling -- not something you can tell from a website, unfortunately. I'm curious as to why this particular school district is your comparison for KIPP, as 75% of the students are Anglo or Asian?
Posted by: jane100000 | September 2, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse
"Thanks very much for your comment. I would still like to run a more detailed post by you that tells us exactly what you saw and heard at which schools that led to the conclusions you draw."
Sorry Jay, Ira's blog posts are already more detailed, and better substantiated with both research and direct observation, than your articles, or your books.
Posted by: mcstowy | September 2, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse
Lowest "resources" (tax-base) in Michigan. Very high poverty. Over 60% non-English speaking at home. (There is one Asian family that I know of.) About 65% of district adults have no high school diploma. http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sdds/singledemoprofile.asp?county1=2616080&state1=26 Great NAEP? No. But many kids on to college, and other post-secondary success. With a very involved, very creative, administration and staff http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2010/02/west_michigan_school_district.html I see them as a model of a district which takes in everyone, sends no one away
Posted by: irasocol | September 2, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse
... [hit enter too fast], and yet treats students as fully human, and as fully capable of handling sophisticated learning.
- Ira Socol
Posted by: irasocol | September 2, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse
for ira --- I think if you tell us what was said, the KIPP people will be put in a real bind if it is as compelling as you feel it is. They might come up with some excuse, but the blog is not for them, but for readers, and readers would see your point even if KIPP tried to shrug it off. 
As for yr good question on my travel, which has been asked before here and answered, all of my travels to KIPP schools have been paid by me. I have been a reporter for more than 40 years and know that you kill yr credibility if you take money from a source. I did a lot of traveling to KIPP cities while writing my book about KIPP, Work Hard. Be Nice, and then did some more traveling, often to KIPP cities, to promote it. My wife can verify that all the money came from the family bank account, altho we were able to write much of it off as a business expense. I am very cheap. That worried some people. Particularly when I described the Executive Inn and Suites in Houston, where the clerk at the main desk gave me the TV remote since, he said, they couldn't afford the loss of keeping them in the rooms.
For Jim, tfteacher and others---my apologies for my last post. The headline on that online version, "Forget about the achievement gap,' certainly left the impression I wanted people to henceforth ignore the gap. The column itself was more balanced, thank goodness. They shouldn't let that blogger write his own headlines.
Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 2, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse
Mr. Mathews,
I appreciate the answer on the expenses. What was the intent of this trip? That is, why KIPP? Did you look at the other schools in each community? Trying to get a sense of what drove your research in this direction.
As for the quotes: I was not doing an "approved" study. I did not ask anyone if I might quote them. And again, I do not think language is the issue. I know these positions seem odd to a journalist, but I work from differing standards.
- Ira Socol
Posted by: irasocol | September 2, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse
Ira---if you read the book, which I hope you do, it explains in the first couple of pages why I decided to do a book about KIPP. Since a book I wrote in the 1980s about Jaime Escalante and his school, Garfield High, I have been investigating schools that have found ways to significantly increase the academic achievement of low-income students. I heard about KIPP in 2001, did a lot of reporting, and realized they had compiled a better record than any other organization for taking low-income kids to a new level, and had done it through wonderful teaching and more time, which was reassuring. The standard rap about KIPP being a drill and kill enterprise, everybody memorizing the answers, was as far from the truth as it could be. The schools were being started by some of the most creative teachers I had ever met, and they were hiring for their staffs people just like them, and like the two founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, whom the book is mostly about. I think it is a very important story and have continued to cover it on this blog, and will probably do another KIPP book when the big Mathematica study of KIPP---the largest randomized study every of a charter network--is completed.
Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 2, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse
I continue the conversation here http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2010/09/on-kipp-and-question-does-philosophy.html
- Ira Socol
Posted by: irasocol | September 3, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse
For Ira---for most school visits I must call the school district PR office and get permission. For schools where I have developed a relationship with the principal, I call that person and ask what would be a good time. Three of my books were focused on specific high schools, where I visited for 2 or 3 years, and I just showed up whenever I wanted without calling ahead since the principal had approved the project and I had the run of those places--Garfield High in East LA, Mamaroneck High in Westchester, NY,and Mt. Vernon High in Fairfax County, Va. For KIPP schools, which have an open door policy, about half the time I call ahead and make an appointment with the principal and half the time I just show up. When I visited that Indianapolis KIPP school, I was just showing up without an appointment.
If there is breaking news, or if we (the Post) have been frustrated in all attempts to visit a school where we think there is news, we will show up and try to slip in, or stand outside and interview students as the leave at the end of the day. We can get their parents numbers that way, and parents often have teacher home numbers.
Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 3, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

It is interesting, as Ira points out, that the only schools that a sour taste in Jay's mouth are those he visited without an appointment.  Hmm.