A Dangerous Belief

Sandra Stotsky and James V. Shuls

During the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I sat glued to my screen. Like many, I was enthralled by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and then the testimony of Kavanaugh. As I watched, I was engaged in a running chat with three of my close friends, all of whom graduated from the same doctoral program, work in the same field, are professors at state universities, and share many political views. The conversation among my friends mirrored that of the nation. As Kavanaugh lashed out with a snarl on his face, some concluded it was obviously the behavior of a wicked and cruel man; others declared it was the normal reaction of the wrongly accused.

It was in that moment that I was reminded of a very important life lesson: people who have much in common can see the exact same set of facts and yet arrive at very different conclusions. Good people, friends even, can honestly disagree.

We should all have this perspective because it helps us deal with people who have different views from ours. Those people aren’t our enemies and we should not seek to destroy them by taking to the outrage mob on social media. Instead, we should seek to understand people with different perspectives and to reason with them.

This does not mean we should blithely accept all viewpoints. Some ideas, regardless of who is presenting them to you, are just bad.

These are the thoughts that came to mind after reflecting upon two recent books, written by two authors with, ostensibly, very much in common. In Changing the Course of Failure: How Schools and Parents Can Help Low-achieving Students, Sandra Stotsky explores past efforts to address the problem of poor academic performance and what might be done about it. Similarly, in The Education of Eva Moskowitz shares her personal story of developing a charter school network focused on helping traditionally underserved children.

Stotsky and Moskowitz are Jewish women who have lived primarily on the east coast. They each attended a top-tier university, Stotsky earning a B.A. with distinction with a concentration in French literature from the University of Michigan, and Moskowitz earning her B.A. with honors in history from the University of Pennsylvania. They each went on to pursue doctoral work at two of the most prestigious American universities, Stotstky completing her Ed.D. in reading research and reading education at Harvard in 1976 and Moskowitz her Ph.D. in American history at Johns Hopkins in 1991. After graduate school, each of their careers included time in public service. From 1999 to 2003, Stotsky served as the senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education. Many have credited her with changing the trajectory of education in the Bay State by instituting rigorous curriculum standards and increasing teacher licensing requirements. During almost the same period of time, 1999 to 2005, Moskowitz served as an elected New York City councilmember. Her notoriety, however, came after she left office and started one of the most successful and controversial charter networks in New York City and possibly the country—Success Academy Charter Schools.

Even their most recent books deal with essentially the same question—what does it take to educate the truly disadvantaged? It is in answering the question, however, that their stories depart in a rather significant way. To one, success is mostly just plain, hard work—it is aligning high quality content standards, developing rich curriculum, and increasing teacher quality through effective hiring and intensive professional development. To the other, it looks more like internment camps.

I don’t use this term lightly. Indeed, when Jim Horn described the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter network as a concentration camp, I rebuffed him; calling his work “nothing more than a poorly constructed hatchet job masquerading as social science research.”1 In my use of the term, I’m not referring to KIPP, Success Academy, or other “No Excuse” charter schools. Rather, I’m referring to the recommendations made by Sandra Stotsky.

In a section entitled, “Possible long-term solutions to massive adolescent underachievement,” Stotsky argues for the “centralization of educational policies for low achievers.” Her big idea, her solution to the problem of persistently low achieving students, is for parents to give their children over to the federal government. “First needed,” she says, "are signed agreements from parents making their own low achieving children education wards of the federal government” (96). These “federal educational wards are to be enrolled in federal schools paid for by Congress and in programs staffed and evaluated by federal personnel and appointed by elected federal officials” (102). Stotsky suggests “these programs would be for preschool to grade twelve but might be otherwise similar to the ‘boarding schools’ for ‘disadvantaged’ secondary students, begun a decade ago by the French government” (102). It’s not clear if the wards get to return home for the summers.

This isn’t a suggestion from 1984 or some dystopian future; this is a suggestion from a mainstream education policy professor who has been lauded for her efforts in improving Massachusetts’s education system.

The crazy thing is, it is not too hard to see how she arrived at this conclusion. What’s worse, it can almost be seen as a logical extension of many arguments we hear from teachers’ unions and defenders of the traditional public education system. Take for example, this exchange between Sara Scribner, a reporter for Salon, and education guru, Diane Ravitch:2

Scribner: So obviously health care would be incredibly important to you for closing the achievement gap, but what about home culture, too? I’ve worked at two schools in urban areas. There is a sense that education has to be entertaining all the time. Many of the students’ attention spans are very, very short and motivating them can be hard. What can be done about problems like that?

Ravitch: When you say those things, some people like Michelle Rhee would say you’re making excuses—you’re talking about home culture. Actually, the state and the government and the schools can’t really intervene in home culture, but what the state can do is intervene to try and reduce poverty, to set a goal of reducing poverty, which we seem to have abandoned. And we can also set goals to reduce racial segregation, which would help considerably. In addition, just having health clinics or school nurses attached to the schools would make a big difference.

While Ravitch then advocates for better teacher preparation, her “two solutions” which she thinks are “completely feasible financially and will have sweeping positive results in schools,” are prenatal care and early childhood education. Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with advocating for better prenatal care for unborn children or for proposing better educational opportunities for young children; but understand the underlying premise—strong schools come from strong communities; conversely, failing schools come from failing communities.

We hear this same argument when public educators make excuses for persistently low achievement in urban schools. In disadvantaged communities, they tell us, educators face insurmountable obstacles. Poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, and trauma of all kinds impact the lives of our students. Yet, we expect teachers to do yeoman’s work in helping disadvantaged students not just keep pace with their more advantaged peers, but to outpace them. The only way a poor, disadvantaged child with low academic performance can ever hope to catch up to his more affluent, successful peers, according to this argument, is by consistently making larger academic learning gains.

We expect teachers to close an achievement gap that they didn’t create, but that has been established over decades of racist policies or just plain bad life choices by parents.

I have heard these views similarly expressed by conservative activists who want to dismantle the public education system and by liberal public school teachers who feel exasperated by the constant challenges they face. One young educator in an urban school told my colleague she was considering moving to a more affluent school district, because she had lost two children to senseless violence before Columbus Day. That experience is all too common, and it is easy to see how anyone might conclude that we cannot expect educators to overcome the persistent challenges of poverty, violence, and communities in peril.

Stotsky is making just this argument, insisting that “[t]he entire public school system is being held hostage to the test scores of students, many if not most of whom, for a range of reasons, are not academically inclined, do not attend school regularly, and/or do not like to read or write much” (xvi). Like Ravitch, she believes that we cannot expect schools alone to fix what is ultimately a cultural problem. While Ravitch’s solution is to address the problem before the students come to school with tremendous deficiencies, Stotsky argues we should ship off the low achieving student.

Like Stotsky, Eva Moskowitz sees the impact that community culture has on teachers and schools. In her memoir, she tells stories of her teachers being hit by parents, students violently disrupting class, and of a general lack of educational expectation that pervades many families and communities. Interestingly, from her vantage point, things may look even worse—we don’t just have a cultural problem outside of the schoolhouse walls, we have one within. We have created a system which protects adults, even those failing to do their jobs, at the expense of children. Moskowitz shares story after story of an educational system built on bureaucracy, more concerned with preserving jobs than with educating children; such as teachers (I use that term loosely) assigned to “rubber rooms” because they cannot be fired for their terrible performance in the classroom. In a telling example, Moskowitz is chastised when she replaces the 5,000 hour light bulbs with 30,000 hour light bulbs in an effort to minimize cost and classroom disruptions. What’s good for kids be damned; she’s just taken away jobs from workers who were paid to change those lightbulbs!

It would be easy to look at all of this—a community culture not accustomed to educational excellence and an educational system that protects mediocrity—and call it quits. But that’s not what Moskowitz does and this is where Moskowitz and Stotsky diverge. Moskowitz seeks to change the culture of the community and the school system. She requires parents to read to their children and she encourages her teachers to be intentional about building relationships with parents. For instance, teachers are admonished to call home to report good news. She does not tolerate failure and removes ineffective teachers from the classroom. She sweats the small stuff in an effort to overcome the persistent challenges of poverty. As she states, “Our view was that you’ve done your job when you’ve succeeded.” It takes a lot to be successful at educating the truly disadvantaged, most of all hard work.

I’m under no illusion that Eva Moskowitz is a saint. By all accounts, even hers, she can come across as demanding and abrasive, but she offers all of us, even traditional public school educators, something that we all need—the belief that the work of education matters. She shows us that what we do as educators can make a difference in the lives of children, even the most difficult to reach.

In full disclosure, Sandra Stotsky was one of my professors in graduate school. In the intervening years, I have considered her a valuable ally in opposing the Common Core State Standards. Her proposal here, however, is a bridge too far. Admitting schools have an uphill battle is not the same as admitting defeat. If we accept that teachers cannot make an impact in the lives of their students, then we are giving up hope. We are implicitly saying that schools don’t matter or can’t matter. That’s a dangerous belief; it would be a short step for someone on the fringe to take from Stotsky’s idea of a voluntary boarding school to the mandatory internment of low achieving children.

Sandra Stotsky, whose forthcoming bookThe Roots of Low Achievement: Where to Begin Altering Them,will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2019, responds to our reviewer.

I am puzzled that James Shuls suggested that I was close to recommending government mandated “internment camps” for low-achieving children. I recommended no such thing, nor were my suggestions in Chapter Ten (five education-oriented policies for reducing massive adolescent underachievement and one non-education-oriented policy for doing so) the basic purpose of my book. I spell its basic purpose out quite clearly in my preface on page xiv. But, first, let’s address his charge. Here is what I did write as my first recommended education-oriented policy.

Congress should continue to centralize educational policies for low achievers but in an agency of its choice and only for those students whose parents want the federal government to be in charge of all aspects of their education. All interested parents (low-income or not) should be allowed to participate . . . . Parents would be able to end their child's participation in the program as easily as they now do with any private school a child attends. (100)

Shuls tries to soften his self-induced nightmare about “internment camps” as the logical extension of my supposedly preferred education policy for addressing low achievement by saying that he is simply expressing the concern that what happens voluntarily might be mandated. But while it is doubtful that many parents would want government control of all aspects of their kids’ education, a reviewer needs to be careful not to set up a straw man. One needs to read what I’ve written to understand Shuls’s failure to grasp the point of a book on “changing the course of failure.” What is that failure? Shouldn’t a reviewer try to help readers in some way to understand a book’s title?

On page xiv, I indicate that the central purpose of the book is to help policy makers to understand that massive adolescent underachievement is a social problem, one that has not been solved by our educational institutions in over fifty years. Over fifty years ago, the 1965 Moynihan Report and the 1966 Coleman Report both showed that family background outweighed schools and teachers in explaining low achievement. Despite these reports, Congress placed almost the entire burden of addressing massive adolescent underachievement on our educational institutions, and they have failed to move the needle much.

Shuls and many education researchers and policy makers today want to see teacher unions or biased communities as the responsible parties for the disaster known as ed reform. But, as I show, teachers (and their unions and communities) are not the cause of the massive underachievement in our schools. It is not the case that an overhaul of public education or any bundle of “education reforms” will solve the social problems tearing public education apart via the Common Core project. Even though fifty years of federal funds, education policies, programs, and mandates have unsurprisingly failed to solve this social problem (the failure of these policies/programs was predictable on the basis of the Moynihan and Coleman Reports), the U.S. Education Department (USED) and our state boards and departments of education do not want to grasp that almost nothing has moved the needle: that our education institutions have not solved and cannot solve the problem of massive adolescent underachievement. But it’s easier for educators to burble about economic inequalities and vilify the critics.

Only now is the public beginning to hear about the “course of failure” we have been pursuing for over fifty years. The news is often couched in contemporary jargon—the gaps are not closing—meaning that low-income or low-achieving students are doing as poorly at the high school level as they used to. Whatever gains have taken place in earlier grades wash out after grade 8.3

In the EducationNext article that reports their study, Eric Hanushek and three colleagues conclude by saying that “it is beyond the scope of their study to suggest ways to change policy to more effectively narrow the gap. They are merely reporting on the gap, an indication that our current policies aren't working.” NAEP scores have been telling us that for years. Why have most education “reforms” in the past fifty years failed? Isn’t it time we started discussing that question? Money isn’t the issue. The federal government has appropriated billions via Title I and other grant programs. Philanthropists have also given billions.

I remember sending my Chapter 10 to several “endorsers,” for review as well as endorsement. Two of them are lawyers, and no one envisioned involuntary “internment camps” in that recommendation or as an extension of what USED is already doing. In fact, what the USED mandates now through ESSA and the four year state education plans it has reviewed and approved has not been agreed to by most parents or any state legislatures (e.g., a “standards-based report card,” use of “college-readiness” standards and aligned tests, and enormous data collection). Few educators and researchers seem to find this objectionable, although many parents do. But no one thinks that parents (low-income, or not) are already sending their kids to something like an “internment camp” every weekday morning based on current education policies. The growth of the opt-out movement suggests that parents haven’t given up.

But we do have a national problem of misinterpretation of the ideas or words of others and the spread of “fake news.” This happens on a regular basis in the media. Why didn’t Shuls discuss the central purpose of my book? The point that I make over and over again is this: almost nothing has worked in the name of education reform. So maybe we need to think outside the box. I am not alone in this assessment. Foremost education researchers Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, Laura Talpey, and Ludger Woesmann echo my thoughts in their March, 2019 EducationNext summary:

Although policymakers have repeatedly tried to break the link between students’ learning and their socioeconomic background, these interventions thus far have been unable to dent the relationship between socioeconomic status and achievement. Perhaps it is time to consider alternatives.4

James V. Shuls responds to Sandra Stotsky

In her response to my review of her book, Sandra Stotsky asks, “Why didn’t Shuls discuss the central purpose of my book? The central point that I make over and over again is this: almost nothing has worked in the name of education reform. So maybe we need to think outside the box?” As Stotsky explains, the purpose “is to help policy makers to understand that massive adolescent underachievement is a social problem, one that has not been solved by our educational institutions in over fifty years.” She’s right. The problems faced by our schools are not created in the classroom; their genesis begins in the home and in the community. As I wrote in my review, Stotsky believes “we cannot expect schools alone to fix what is ultimately a cultural problem.”

Her book, however, has a second purpose, one that I saw as even greater, beyond just identifying the problem; this purpose comes directly from her title—Changing the Course of Failure: How Schools and Parents Can Help Low-Achieving Students. Stotsky is making a claim that her solutions, her ideas, can change the course and help low-achieving students. Where all of the old ideas have faltered, her ideas will finally succeed; they will help us address the issues we’ve struggled with for decades. That is the claim. And that is the focus of my review.

In her defense, the bulk of the book is spent on explaining the problem. Perhaps that is why she seems to have misunderstood my critique. I accept Stotsky’s initial premise; nothing has worked on a large scale to solve the persistent problem of massive adolescent underachievement. But what do we do with this knowledge? That is where we depart. Stotsky looks at the history of education and throws up her hands. Indeed, her book reads less like a solution and more like a nihilist’s lament—Nothing works! Give up now!

This is the belief I label a dangerous idea; it is the idea that nothing has worked, therefore nothing can work. While this may be true on a broad scale when looking at centrally mandated reforms, it is not true everywhere. Throughout the country, in every state, we see evidence of schools making a difference and we hear stories of teachers changing lives. The work is incredibly difficult for all the reasons Stotsky has outlined, but we must embrace that challenge through an ethos that believes teachers and schools can make a difference. If we lose that belief, we lose the purpose of public education and the work of a teacher becomes incredibly demoralizing.

Stotsky’s idea to centralize all federal programs and allow parents to make their children a ward of the federal government is an outgrowth of that belief. Honestly, it is not even a serious proposal for addressing the problem. She does not really believe this will help to increase the achievement of the persistently low-achieving student. She simply wants to free local public schools from the excessive entanglements and mandates that are attached to federal funds. She wants to remove burdensome testing requirements, the narrow focus on achievement gaps, and the Common Core from public schools. I share that goal, but I’m not willing to make a Faustian bargain where we accomplish these goals by creating federal boarding schools and make children wards of the state, even if voluntarily.

In my review, I point to Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy because they model the attitude we should all have. Moskowitz and her team recognize that schools must address seemingly insurmountable obstacles in helping disadvantaged students achieve. Yet they endure. They fight against systems that inhibit progress. They set high standards and strive to achieve them. None of this can be centrally planned.

Stotsky is right, government mandates focused on helping low-achieving students have not worked and likely will not work in the future, but neither will giving up on these students. But as long as children come to school from broken homes where they have been neglected educationally (and I see nothing to suggest this is going to stop), then teachers and schools must do everything in their power to help those students. And we, as a society, need to help get as many students in schools where the teachers and leaders have the same efficacious attitude of Eva Moskowitz.

I did not miss the point of the book; students come to school dealing with all kinds of problems. Making these children wards of the state, however, is not “outside of the box” thinking and it is the wrong solution to this problem.

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