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Tough lessons, but true

Paul Tough’s article on closing the racial/economic education gap in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine is must reading for education policy makers, and that includes not just those who run the schools but also those who fund them.

It’s also welcome news for educators who have been wondering whether Richard Rothstein is right, and there’s just no sense in continuing to work so hard and feel so bad about not being able to do more, because it will take the eradication of poverty to really close the learning gap.

Finally, it’s a relief for liberals who have found themselves in an uncomfortable position arguing with conservatives about the causes of the education gap, with the conservatives blaming the teachers and the liberals blaming, of all people, the very families they have always defended and tried to help.

That’s because what Tough does is reconcile right and left-wing views on whether the goals of No Child Left Behind are achievable, and if so, how.

The right is pointing to the success of some high-poverty schools and some charter schools as proof that the problem is in the public schools, specifically the teachers who don’t work hard enough, and the unions, whose rigid rules make good education impossible.

Rothstein effectively debunked the myth of highly successful poor schools by showing that the vast majority of the thousand-plus schools cited by the Education Trust were, on closer inspection, either not so successful after all, or not so poor, or not so representative of a low-performing student body.

Tough agrees. But there are still those few schools, mostly charters, that really do seem to have found the right formula: high standards, a structured instructional approach, character education, long hours, great teachers and development of a esprit d’corps.

And while Tough laments the fact that teacher unions have constrained the growth of charter schools, it is clear that there is little, if anything, these schools are doing that could not be done in a unionized school – unless of course we expect that schools that rely on teachers working twice the hours (15 or 16 a day, he says) can be replicated systemwide without increasing teacher salaries proportionally. (In fact, those strategies are precisely what the UFT and Chancellor Crew built into the Extended Time Schools back in the 90s, and many of them are working today in the UFT Charter Schools in East New York.)

So with what some charter schools, like KIPP, have shown us can be done, society has some choices to make. If we just want to pay lip service to the goals of NCLB without shelling out real money, we can allow charter schools to continue as exemplary but limited, non-unionized incubators of effective education strategies, and then continue to blame the teachers and their unions for preventing poor, black children from getting a good education. That’s the road many of those on the right have chosen because it kills several birds with one stone: it keeps taxes low and promotes their anti-union agenda.

On the other hand, if we are truly committed to giving all our kids a decent education, we can make the major investment necessary to take those strategies to scale so we might actually have a chance of closing the gap by 2014 (a la NCLB) or even 2020.

But in the real world, where teachers need to earn a living wage, that takes money. And not just for the longer school days and weeks and years. Also for the early childhood education, to help poor children start in first grade with the vocabulary and pre-reading skills that middle class six-year-olds have. And for the high-quality, ongoing professional development those successful schools provide their teachers. And probably for the smaller classes, too, though Tough doesn’t mention that.

Not coincidentally, those are all things the CFE money could have brought to New York’s poor children, had the Court of Appeals taken NCLB seriously.

So, as Tough says, if NCLB does not succeed in closing the education gap, as now seems likely, it will not be because we didn’t know what to do. It will be, he says, because that was the outcome we chose.



  • 1 School Information System
    · Nov 26, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    “Still Left Behind”?…

    Paul Tough:But despite the glowing reports from the White House and the Education Department, the most recent iteration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test of fourth- and eighth-grade students commonly referred to as the nation…

  • 2 phyllis c. murray
    · Nov 26, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    By Phyllis C. Murray

    Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was inspired to write: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The lamp beside the golden door which she referred to in The New Colossus , was a lamp of liberty. That lamp must still offer a promise to all American citizens. It must be the promise of an America where free public education and an opportunity to” breathe free” offers hope to all of our tired, poor, and huddled masses. If the early immigrants were enabled to brave the condescension which they found on the “teeming shore” to carve out a better future for themselves and their descendants, surely our new immigrants ,and the poor of this great nation, must be allowed to have the same opportunity.

    The door to public education must not close to the newer immigrants today, nor to the poor who are huddled in inner city neighborhoods. Many teachers have returned or remained in the inner city neighborhoods “for the ones who have no out.” And each day the teachers must use their personal funds to supplement the resources in their classrooms, Yet, it is sad to see how some of the inner city schools personify the disgraceful and inadequate funding of public education in New York City; and the deplorable physical condition of the schools, seems to be reserved for public schools, only. Thus, as educators and advocates for children, we find ourselves constantly addressing these issues in Albany.

    Surely our elected officials must be held accountable for the empty promises they have made. Making education a priority in our nation should not be a dream deferred. Nor must the empty promise of making education a priority be allowed to become the stellar campaign promise which often ends once the election year ends. We cannot allow the legislators to short change our students and pauperize education year after year. We must continue to press on.

    Today there are new voices; new poets to be heard because even the students know that they don’t hear America singing. And the torch which burned so brightly in the past cannot be seen by today’s huddled masses.

    I Don’t Hear America Singing in the South Bronx

    By Gisela Rodriquez-Montalvo

    I don’t hear America singing in the South Bronx.
    As the sun rises over this low and dismal place,
    You can hear the stirring of a people in bondage:
    A people held together by the same broken dream;
    The dream of every American to live in harmony.
    Each link of the long chain that binds us,
    Represents our failures in achieving what is rightfully ours.
    Our yells and calls for help fall on deaf ears.
    Our captors’ hearts are as solid and cold
    As the concrete streets of our land…the South Bronx.

    False promises are what they make and we…
    Being vulnerable, take them and are satisfied;
    But nothing is gained.

    We’re living circles of unending strife as
    We strive to become all that we can possibly be.

    Every once in a while a prodigy is born.
    Someone who is able to break the chains
    And leave behind the memory of the land
    That raised him.
    Let’s hope that he remembers
    Of what soil he is from.
    If I am among the lucky ones,
    I pray to God I can help my people to be equal!

    Don’t Hear America Singing in the South Bronx” was written by Gisela Rodriquez-Montalvo in 1979. Today Gisela is an extraordinary and exemplary teacher in the South Bronx. Her poem is like a prayer from the past. It has become a self prophecy in the present. It has also become a declaration of hope each day as Gisella invests selflessly in the future of her students. After earning a BA and MS from Fordham University, Montalvo returned to District 8 to realize her dream. Her skills and abilities propel her students onto the highest levels of academic excellence, daily. And as indicated by Othania Johnson, a Jr. High School honors student, “I learned more from Ms. Montalvo than any other teacher.” Like Sandra Cisernos: Montalvo Montalvo has “returned for those who have no out.”

    Phyllis C. Murray
    UFT Chapter Leader
    District 8 Region 2

  • 3 Jackie Bennett
    · Nov 26, 2006 at 10:10 pm

    Thanks City Sue for posting on Paul Tough’s article in the New York Times . I was hoping someone would open up a thread on it, and I’m glad you did. I too thought that Tough made some excellent points, especially the one you seem to echo: that educationally poor kids don’t just need the same as everyone else; in order to be equal, they actually need more.

    But there is something crucial missing from Tough’s article, and in fact it seems to be missing from most of the discussions I’ve heard comparing the relative successes and failures of public and charter schools. And that is that the schools are not running by the same rules.

    I’m not talking about union “rules” (decent pay and working conditions, the favorite whipping boys and scapegoats of the right). As you point out, there’s nothing going on in those schools that we can’t do in schools that have a union.

    Rather I’m talking about rules of discipline. While NYC’s publics operate under soft, flexible rules of student discipline that are themselves not strictly or evenly enforced, charters like Kipps have a “No Excuses” attitude toward misbehavior that is unheard of in our own schools. Where in our student discipline code, for example, will you see that misbehaving students can be compelled to wear a bright red or yellow shirt for several days while other students are instructed to shun him? Where in our discipline code will you see that students can be forced to make public apologies to the entire school community?

    When I visited a Kipps school, shunning like I described above was exactly the kind of discipline strategy I saw in force. And, though we can all make 1000 arguments for and against such practices, the fact is that – especially when combined with a strong alternative culture ready to welcome a child who buys in – these punishments seem to work. At the schools I visited, the focus was off discipline and on education partly because the penalties for disrupting the life-and-death mission of getting educated were just too high.

    Now, compare that to the public schools and the culture of casualness with regard to discipline that Klein has created. While the charters spend a great deal of their professional time creating an environment that encourages self-discipline, we spend none at all. For all the big-paper share-outs and touchy feely pd activities that the DoE has subjected me to under Klein, the DoE has never invited me to a discussion on the problem uppermost on many teacher’s minds: the low standards set by the DoE for behavioral expectations, the soft discipline policy, even what strategies a teacher might use when a student curses him and all his descendents, or when he throws the paper across the class, or brandishes the knife. In fact, at a recent forum organized to present the findings of a group called Common Good, I asked the panel of teachers if they had ever had any professional development from the DoE with regard to discipline. The answer from all of them was no .

    The results of good discipline are obvious: Tough describes self-disciplined, intensely focused classrooms where the priority is on education.

    And the public schools? Randi Weingarten highlights the truth of our schools in her column, “What Matters Most.” Summing up the teacher diaries presented by Common Good she writes: “Reading the teachers’ diaries is an exercise in frustration: breaking up fist fights; confiscating scissors from one student threatening to stab another; a student threatening to slash a teacher’s tires — and time and time again, there are no consequences for misbehavior. The offending students are simply returned to the classroom.”

    I am not advocating for shunning or other draconian, boot camp practices that, frankly (given my wayward personality), I could not myself in childhood ever have survived. Shunning is a controversial practice, and ultimately, we can all decide for ourselves whether we believe that scapegoating one child for the education of may others (and possibly himself) is a defensible act. We should not be fooled into thinking, however, that these schools are somehow better than ours educationally until we are all playing by the same rules.