Jay Mathews and the temptation to pick cherries…


IMG_20110328_112446I have not been very efficient this trip. I feel like I haven’t attend a lot of sessions at ASCD and the few I have attended haven’t offered me a lot of new insights. I think part of the problem is that I have done a lousy job of picking out sessions for the few that I did attend. I need a booker.

What happened on Monday at ASCD? Well, Jay Mathews made an appearance ;-). For those not aware of the joke, Mr. Mathews missed his session originally scheduled for Saturday. That ended up being my big event for the day, so let’s start with that…

Jay Mathews is a well known education writer with books on Jaime Escalante,  Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, and the founders of KIPP schools and TFA alums Feinberg and Levin, Work Hard, Be Nice. The long-running theme of his work is about breaking down barriers of exclusivity in education that track students away from higher classes. More recently, he had gotten the ire of teacher bloggers for supporting many of Michelle Rhee’s policies during her tenure as DCPS Chancellor, and being a cheerleader for KIPP in the face of mounting evidence they do not truly serve all their students.  I don’t follow Mr. Mathews columns as closely as I read Valerie Strauss, mostly because I’m not as crazy for TFA/KIPP/Rhee and at a certain point, you’ve read all the arguments.

I figured it would be a chance to have a face-to-face discussion (or argument) that I normally have online, which is always an experience. The first part of the talk was a podcast interview with Molly McCloskey, ASCD’s managing director of Whole Child Programs, where he gave the history of how he ended up becoming a journalist, covering educations, writing the books above, and ending up at the Washington Post. I think this is germane because it outlined his philosophy of education, and showed how a personal  event, his child not “qualifying” to take an AP class at an elite high school, drove him to look into selective admission process for such courses, and to write against tracking for all students. In general, the talk was much more about anecdotes, than studies and numbers.

The next part he started by sharing a big story that had broken that day in USA Today, where his wife is the Features Editor (so it was “her story”). That would be the DCPS test score scandal.  Being in “conference land” I had not heard about the story until he brought it up. I did get this tweet from Ira David Socol. I would have to say he stood pretty firmly with the missus on this one. He made it clear he believed that there had been cheating, and this was not acceptable. The only question I have left about this is does he appreciate how the atmosphere that Rhee created, not just in offering bonuses, but by threatening to fire administrators who did not “perform” caused this problem (the story makes that clear). My sense is that the love fest with Rhee has lost a bit of it’s bloom for Mathews, but as long as he still loves KIPP and TFA, how he feels about the individual players doesn’t matter much. And he makes clear here, that whatever he thinks of Rhee, he liked what her plan was.

He still seems to be holding tenaciously to his love affair with KIPP. When an ASCD staffer asked him about attrition rates at the schools, his response was pretty incredible. He cited the expulsion figures as being low, and offered that they involved serious behaviors like bringing in a weapon, which will get you expelled from just about any public school.  Anyone who has worked at any school can tell you that expulsion is but a small fraction of the causes for students leaving a school. In fact there are a myriad of reasons that a student will choose to leave voluntarily without even being “counseled” out as often happens at high performing charters. Transportation, being too far behind to keep up, not having enough time for the longer school day and year, etc. On that score, as Valerie Strauss points out, the figures are pretty clear, they lose at least as many kids as nearby public schools (more in some notorious cases, like the Bay Area school), but unlike local public schools, they don’t have those students replaced by similar students, who are the most needy, the lowest academically, and under the most stress in their home lives.  KIPP and charters schools have “attrition”, public schools have “churn”. Anyone, like myself, who has worked in these schools for a bit of time, will tell you this is what happens. Attrition tends  to make your scores rise, as you leave kids behind.

On a more hopeful note, I asked him about the role of poverty in achievement, citing Linda Darling-Hammond’s figures from the day before about the racial achievement gap decreasing during the years when the US was aggressively addressing poverty, and increasing as we abandoned those efforts, and wealth gaps increased. His point, we need to improve teaching at the same time we address poverty issues. I don’t think that differs really significantly from what Linda Darling-Hammond had to say, since she is very concerned with teacher preparation and continuing development in most of her work. Heck, I think we need to improve teacher preparation and evaluation myself. I think the big difference is that I don’t see a ton of value in what TFA and KIPP bring to the table in this regard, since almost all of  what is worthwhile that they offer is a regurgitation of programs you find at good teacher education programs, and within organizations like ASCD.

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“Jay Mathews and the temptation to pick cherries…”


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