making things up, public education edition



Freddie deBoer used to blog at, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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32 Responses

  1. Avatar Joseph FM says:

    Precisely. I am not opposed to vouchers. I just think that any school that takes them ought to be required to use the exact same standards as the public schools in the region. This is something that people like Jeb Bush (and his disciples like former FL House Speaker Marco Rubio, whom Reihan’s been drooling over, or my college president Frank Brogan) refuse to do, even while they push the most inane and ill-structured standardized tests ever conceived as the answer to every public school problem (well, except those that are blamed on unions). I am willing to support any effort to improve education in this country, provided I believe that that is the sincere goal. But there are precious few Republicans (or, for that matter, libertarians) that I can really say that about.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    uhhh, yeah, like facts matter.

    Amongst the stupid things critics of public education say is how they point to other countries where kids do better then ours. Yet those countries have public education. So they are in effect saying “Public education doesn’t work and i can prove it by showing how effective public education is around the world.” D’OH.Report

  3. Avatar Nance Confer says:

    Even if we can eliminate the FCAT and other states’ NCLB tests, even if we can adequately fund ps instead of loving us some tax cuts, how does doing the same thing, following the same standards, help the children stuck in poverty-stricken schools?


    • Avatar Joseph FM in reply to Nance Confer says:

      Well to the extent that all that doesn’t help them, I’d say that’s because it’s beyond the scope of what education policy – any education policy – can actually achieve. You can’t cure poverty, but if a school is not actually accomplishing its purpose despite adequate funding than the best we can do is make it so that children are not “stuck” in any school.Report

      • Avatar Nance Confer in reply to Joseph FM says:

        This is what is always done though. We’ll cut finding or expand funding, we’ll do more testing or less, we’ll change the curric, we’ll try charters or vouchers, etc. But we won’t tie that to any larger plan about how people live. And it will be found, after this generation of students has stumbled through, that some did fine and some did not and the percentage of each will not have changed much.


  4. Avatar mike farmer says:

    Then it seems like a standardized sytem to measure outcomes could be an essential part of a widespread voucher program. An accreditation board similar to hospital accreditation could be set up to inspect private schools receiving voucher money in order to determine outcomes. Conversely, your claim that public education is not systemically failing is not backed up with proof. An independent accreditation commission using standardized measurements could make this determination.Report

  5. Avatar Nance Confer says:

    Here’s a link to a group in FL that discusses these issues:


    • Avatar Joseph FM in reply to Nance Confer says:


      Off topic, but it’s nice to see a fellow Leaguer from Florida. Where do you live?Report

      • Avatar Nance Confer in reply to Joseph FM says:

        We are in Martin County.



        • Avatar Joseph FM in reply to Nance Confer says:

          Right south. I’m in West Palm. If I seem a bit pessimistic, it’s just that I feel like, for all the problems with some of our schools – problems I experienced first hand at Forest Hill when we were labeled one of the only “F” high schools my junior-senior years – it seems to me like there’s very little that any policy approach can take to really help the students that most need it, because they’re bigger than just the school system. If anything, every attempt just seems so hapless. But I feel like we should at least try to make things better in the limited ways that we can.Report

  6. Avatar mike farmer says:

    To Nance’s point — what I proposed above would be most helpful in poverty stricken areas.Report

  7. Avatar Nance Confer says:

    How so?

    What do you mean by “outcomes?”

    Test scores? Which schools/neighborhoods have the lower test scores?

    Some other measure?


  8. Avatar mike farmer says:

    By “outcomes” I mean the achievement of the goals of education. I think public education fails at its worst in poverty stricken areas because of the lack of flexibility to provide creative means to deal with special probems. In the private sector, if schools received voucher money (or private donations, if there was a huge tax break), more innovative methods would be implemented to achieve the goals of education — and these could be measured, relatively. Whatever the measurements are, they’d need to be comprehensive in order to determine if private schools are more effective than public schools. I’m sure if we wanted to study the problem to find solutions, education experts could devise measurements to determine if the goals are being achieved. I’m also sure that most minority parents in areas of poverty would be in favor of this approach.Report

    • Avatar Nance Confer in reply to mike farmer says:

      This sounds promising. Better than “test ’em ’til they drop.” What it actually becomes in the real world is a big question.

      And agreeing about what the “goals of education” should be. Passing the FCAT is hardly a worthy goal but it’s what students and families have been trained to do here.

      But truly individualized and worthwhile goals are not always easily measured.

      This fellow — — has long explored the need to revamp our entire approach to education and, as real-world and flexible as his ideas are, I don’t think they’ll be adopted any time soon. Precisely because their success may not be easy to measure.

      OTOH, if all you want is to get better math and reading skills, no matter how you measure them, more money, smaller classes, one-on-one tutoring, lots of resources, lots of time and all the things a “good” school should have, will get you a long way down that road. In that case, I don’t see why it matters whether the child is in a private school or ps.

      I’ve been thinking the focus should be on providing the best childcare possible and letting the rest take care of itself. Childcare is the practical need that many families have and, if ps was more like the library, students could advance at their own pace. Maybe you are envisioning a Sudbury-type school along these lines?


  9. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Bottom line unless you are for abolishing public education, you should be for realistic efforts to improve it, which shouldn’t involve overstating its failures. Choice advocates constantly undermine their credibility by exhibiting outright hostility to public education. The logic of vouchers is inherently hostile to public education, but when you incorporate that hostility into your rhetoric, it seems to me you are forfeiting the game entirely. It would be as if the government of Israel exhibited outright rhetorical hostility to the idea of a viable Palestinian state in addition to taking concrete policy steps that decrease the likelihood that such a state can be formed, rather than simply taking those steps but maintaining a rhetorical stance that supports the possibility of two states.Report

  10. Avatar mike farmer says:


    I’m not sure who this is directed toward, but I have no reason to overstate the failures of public education, nor do I know any serious advocates of choice who have a need to overstate the failures. I happen to believe that attempting to improve public education is throwing good money after bad. The analogy to the Israel/Palestine situation doen’t fly. Well intentioned government officials have been trying to improve public education for a long, long time, but they haven’t solved the problems. But if the goal of individual parents is to have access to the best education possible for their children, wouldn’t it be wise to determine which means create the best education systems? Vouchers being a compromise solution could only improve public education by having public schools compete for funding.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to mike farmer says:

      Nothing I wrote was directed at you, Mike. Th I/P thing was something of a riff on things that had been happening here earlier. In any case, if you disagree with my premise, that vouchers are fundmentally corrosive of public education, then certainly the policy-rhetoric analogy to I/P is not going to fly for you. The post was about a question of evidence for claims within that debate, so I’m not inclined to open the larger question here. Suffice it to say we’d be on opposite sides.

      As to whether anyone is saying you personally overstate public education’s problems: wouldn’t that be doubtful, as that’s what Freddie’s post was about to begin with?Report

  11. Avatar mike farmer says:

    Also, there is something strange about the claim that proponents for choice are undermining public schools by offering a solution to the problems– using this logic, we could say everyone who voted for the Democrats undermined the Republicans, and that we all should have worked to make the Republican Party better.

    The reality is that we have choices, if we allow choices, and if one choice is better than the other, then that’s what will be chosen — that’s the way it should be in a free society.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to mike farmer says:

      We can agree that we certainly do have choices. I’d just add that that remains true regardless of wether we receive public subsidies to pursue them or not.Report

  12. Avatar Nance Confer says:

    “you should be for realistic efforts to improve it, ”

    Such as?


  13. Avatar greginak says:

    Mike- I recognize competition and the free market are the conservative miracle cure for everything, but many people don’t actually think they always fix every problem. In fact education on a large scale doesn’t seem to me to be that amenable to competition as a cure all. In fact starting with a solution without listing the specific problems seems backwards. Poverty ha been shown to have a powerful effect on school achievement, so any attempt at fixing schools in poor areas will have to aim at poverty. The Great Society programs of LBJ cut poverty rates drastically. Head Start, a government program, has been shown to improve school performance. However Head Start has been seriously underfunded under repub admins.Report

  14. Avatar mike farmer says:


    I don’t think the conservatives are that hep on free markets and competition, not in a sans-corporate welfare, libertarian sense which I’m invoking. Why do you think competition would not be beneficial to education? The monopolistic government-run education system has no incentive to change — they just ask for more and more money to protect the union and bureacracy. Otherwise, they’d be open to competiton and new approaches. I think it’s worth the effort to try choice on a broad scale and then measure the results. It won’t cause any harm to try it — if there’s no improvement, then drop it. It seems to me that trying different approaches and allowing parents a choice is a wise plan. If you think the evidence that private schools are an improvement where vouchers have been tried is trumped up due to self-reporting, then have an independent commission measure the results and give a report. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find out what works the best — and if it works, then so be it — I mean, the goal is improvement in education — to provide the best system of education, right? Let’s find out what’s best.Report

    • Avatar Joseph FM in reply to mike farmer says:

      Except, as I said, there are few voucher or “choice” advocates like yourself who share that view. The very Republicans who are the loudest critics of public education act like accountability begins and ends with bashing teachers’ unions. This is one issue where there really is a sensible “center” position. I don’t think our government-run schools are as bad on the whole as you seem to, but aside from that I think we’re basically in agreement.Report

  15. Avatar mike farmer says:

    LBJ’s programs eventually led to more poverty. The welfare state is the worst thing that’s happened to poor people in this country. We just can’t see what might have been if charity associations had been allowed to proliferate. Take it from someone who grew up in poverty — I learned at a young age to run from government do-gooders who wanted to help the poor.Report

  16. Avatar greginak says:

    Mike- I think teachers have an incentive to have good school. they want to feel like they do a good job. Incentives are more then about just money. Most of the teachers i have known, and especially those teaching in hard core poverty areas want to do a good job. They are working their butts off and want to see their kids do well. That is incentive.

    I don’t think a market analogy or solutions works that well because education is not potato chips. Most kids and parents want to go school in a place they know and with their friends. It is nice to open up schools for choice but it is not like buying a consumer product. How many kids and their parents are willing to travel long distances to go to a school where they don’t know anybody and where they may be treated poorly based on stereotypes. A few will but most won’t. The consumer in this case does not have a wide variety of choices with known quantities, but vastly limited choices that could have high costs and uncertainties.

    Teachers, as a general statement, i think are open to new ideas. What they don’t want is to get screwed and they want to have a voice in those choices. I am also not sure lack of innovation is the problem in our system. there are cultural factors ie: americans often view smart as equaling nerd, elitist dork, and a percentage of americans think the flintstones was a documentary.

    There is quite a bit of research on what makes good schools. Smaller class size helps a lot for younger kids. Head Start works well. School lunches help hungry kids preform better , etc.Report

  17. Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

    Our statist public education system doesn’t work because of idiots and their ideology.
    Maybe we should call a meeting, form an agenda, and have a dialogue.
    You know, leftism, does make one “feel” warm and gooey.Report

  18. Avatar mike farmer says:


    I’ve pretty much made my position, so I’ll move along, but reducing choice and competition to potato chips is missing the point, as is looking at the motivation of individual teachers — the problems are systemic and I believe we need to try new approaches, offer diversity so that aptitudes and interests are taken into account to prepare kids for the world of work as much as higher education, specialization in the crafts, etc. You are right, there are different types of intelligence, and each ought to be addressed with skill, understanding and responsiveness, teaching kids how different areas of learning combine to prepare them to meet the demands of the real world. But the main point is that choice and competition will break the system’s complacency so that excellence and performance are more important than protection and favortism, so that good teachers aren’t caught in a bad system which prevents them from being creative and flexible. But, also, there are bad teachers, and they should be removed if they aren’t capable of doing the job — the system shouldn’t protect incompetence. Peter Senge has written brilliantly regarding systemic learning, and his book, The Fifth Discipline, is a great guide to what needs to be changed in the education system.

    Thanks for the discussion.Report

  19. Avatar Kyle says:

    “is that the vigor and frequency with which conservatives have pointed to failing public schools have created an atmosphere where people casually assume a majority or even all public schools are just inherently failing. That’s not fair, it’s not based on evidence, and its not productive.”

    I think you’re misrepresenting the full and bipartisan spectrum of those who criticize failing public schools. The well publicized inadequacies of urban school districts has led to decent number of public interest groups, bipartisan or a partisan coalitions, and general public dissatisfaction, which all point to failing public schools as their raison d’être.

    Also, I don’t think people casually assume that the school down the street is a drop-out factory, I think people look at public schools and don’t see a model for success. Where’s your proof?

    The 2005 NAEP reading assessment shows that 73% of 12th graders were at the basic level or higher. Basic is defined as partial mastery of fundamental skills. Grades 4 & 8 showed 64% and 73% respectively for the same year.

    Now, I think there’s a fair argument that these statistics mask the degree of success in suburban districts and the higher degree of failure in urban ones. However, the NAEP shows as a national average that between 27 and 36 percent of students aren’t achieving at least partial mastery of fundamental readings skills consistently across grade levels. That’s a considerably high failure rating for a system that costs the nation over half a trillion dollars a year.

    If any other industry were producing a product that only worked 3/4 of the time, allegations of systemic failure wouldn’t be considered frustratingly dishonest. Imagine, a post office where every fourth letter vanishes. A Toyota where only 3 of every 4 Camrys will even turn on. More to the point in 2005 public school enrollment was 49.1 million. Which means that in 2005 somewhere in the ballpark of 13 million students were below basic readers, if not functionally illiterate.

    “this [data] problem would be worsened by private school vouchers, not improved. Private schools have far less accountability in the form of standardized testing than their public counterparts.”

    This is entirely speculative, future voucher programs can easily require standardized testing regimes upon acceptance and current programs are a reasonably diverse lot. IES research has garnered data useful enough to provide comparative snapshots of District of Columbia students and students using the Opportunity Scholarship (voucher) Program.Report

    • Avatar Nance Confer in reply to Kyle says:

      But it’s not an industry producing a product.

      These are messy people with real lives who will be running the world soon.


  20. Avatar Nance Confer says:

    More to mull:

    Teaching the Way Children Learn

    reviewed by Mary C. Markowitz
    & Jessica M. Dunn
    — May 22, 2009

    Teaching the Way Children Learn
    *Author(s):* Beverly Falk
    *Publisher: * Teachers College Press, New York
    *ISBN: *0807749281, *Pages:* 208, *Year:* 2008

    In the introduction to the book, Beverly Falk states that “the
    developmental theories, pedagogical understandings and reform
    strategies” (p. 8) she describes throughout the book are not new. Nor
    are her arguments for encouraging the adoption of these theories,
    understandings, and strategies. Since the release of /A Nation at Risk/
    in 1983 through the past eight years of intense standards-based reform
    initiatives tied to No Child Left Behind, many teachers, students,
    teacher educators, boards of education, parents, policy makers, and
    communities have questioned the purposes and efficacy of public schools,
    especially urban schools, and the manner by which public education can
    be improved. In that regard, Falk is probably preaching to the choir –
    those who already have qualms about the standards-based approaches being
    used to address the current performance of public schools and those who
    would agree with the child-centered approaches she helped implement and
    study at the Bronx New School.

    On the other hand, her work is a refreshing reminder that child-centered
    education does work to meet not only students’ cognitive development,
    the overarching focus of standards-based initiatives, but also their
    social and emotional development in rich learning environments, the
    foundation of a progressive approach to education. Overall, we agree
    that the most beneficial aspect of /Teaching the Way Children Learn /is
    its contribution to the growing body of literature about schools and
    districts that have success with child-centered, progressive forms of
    education, and it offers practitioners some ideas about how to
    operationalize the principles she promotes, especially in urban
    elementary schools. It is a book full of hope and encourages teachers
    and building administrators not to give up their dreams for a system of
    public education that offers ways to promote cognitive, social and
    emotional development for all students without sacrificing two for the
    sake of one; yet, it is also pragmatic in describing the many challenges
    involved with major systemic school reform.

    Falk’s is a passionate account of the disappointments and triumphs of
    developing and running the Bronx New School when it was founded in 1987,
    but she also supplements her personal story with subsequent research
    studies supported by the American Education Research Association and the
    Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching after her personal
    association with the school had ended. Her personal involvement and her
    research were defined by several guiding principles, including the
    desire for school equity, the development of authentic, experiential
    learning environments, and incorporating the concept of a community of
    care in schools that promotes a love of learning, empathy and a sense of
    social responsibility. The ultimate goal of the book is to argue for the
    need to create an assessment and accountability system that truly
    reflects these principles. The standards-based, one-size-fits-all,
    heavily-academic focus of our current system does not capture all that
    schools do and should be doing to advance the development of children.
    The story of the Bronx New School indicates social and emotional
    development do not have to be sacrificed to achieve cognitive
    development. The school has an alternative perspective, not an either-or
    mentality, and seems to have successfully integrated the guiding
    principles Falk and the other school founders had envisioned.

    Falk describes significant ways in which the Bronx New School has
    utilized progressive, child-centered approaches in educating a diverse
    group of urban children. The chapters range in scope from the motivation
    underlying the school’s creation and the theories on which it was
    designed to chapters that describe theory-into-practice in the Bronx New
    School. Falk cites a veritable who’s who list of child-centered,
    progressive theorists combined in a manner rarely seen in actual
    practice. For example, she references Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, and
    Dewey to promote experiential education practices. Piaget and Vygotsky
    are present in the explanation of psychological and social
    constructivist theories. Heidegger, Gardner, and Ladsen-Billings round
    up the group who challenge behavioral (read “standardized”) teaching
    practices and promote a call to focus on individual student’s learning
    styles. Nel Noddings is cited when referring to a nurturing environment
    in a community of care.

    From a teacher educator perspective, whether working with pre-service
    or in-service teachers, Falk does a wonderful job not only of explaining
    the theory and identifying the theorists but also providing real-world
    examples of how these theories can be conceptualized in an actual
    classroom. Too frequently, we hear teachers say, “Yeah, that’s nice in
    theory, but ….” This book gives enough examples to make the “yeah,
    but-ers” pause to contemplate different ways to meet the cognitive,
    social and emotional developmental needs of their students.
    Additionally, the combination and breadth of the theories utilized in
    the school is impressive.

    From a classroom teacher perspective, the book reinforces that one does
    not have to cave in to the notion that teachers are confined to teaching
    to the test. Nurturing a child’s curiosity, creativity, and sense of
    social responsibility, while simultaneously promoting cognitive
    development, is not only possible, it is preferable for enhancing a
    student’s cognitive ability in any number of areas. The bulk of the book
    provides detailed chapters full of examples of how the Bronx New School
    addresses topics like creating communities of learners, the active
    nature of learning, critical thinking, curriculum integration,
    assessment for supporting learning instead of punishing students,
    teachers and schools, culturally relevant teaching, and creating a
    community of care. Falk demonstrates how the Bronx New School addresses
    the needs of the whole child and involves all school personnel, the
    family and the community in the process as equally important
    stake-holders in a child’s development. As classroom teachers, we are
    not alone. In fact, /Teaching the Way Children Learn/ is a perfect book
    for teachers to pick up and read mid-year when they feel discouraged
    about their work as a teacher. The stories of success that the Bronx New
    School has experienced remind classroom teachers of the great things
    education can do for children.

    Considering the benefits of the book has also led us to consider a
    possible limitation. We believe the audience for this book might be
    fairly narrow since the study focuses on an urban elementary school.
    While many of the theories and practices can be modified and adapted for
    other elementary settings, the special restrictions imposed by the size,
    scope, and purpose of secondary schools would require much greater
    consideration of systemic reform, especially school culture and
    structure. We are currently working on a project in which a heavily
    researched special education practice, Response to Intervention, is to
    be implemented in general education high school math classrooms. RTI has
    been successful in many different settings, most notably in elementary
    reading intervention, but translating successful examples of
    theory-into-practice from one level of education to the next is
    difficult; however, it is not impossible. Some recognition of the
    challenge of transferring the knowledge gained by the Bronx New School
    to other possible settings and grade levels would garner a larger
    audience who might otherwise dismiss this work as being only a vision
    for elementary school reform. That would be a shame, because the unique
    and successful combination of concepts and principles on which the Bronx
    New School was formed apply to all levels of education.

    *Cite This Article as: */Teachers College Record/, Date Published: May
    22, 2009 ID Number:
    15637, Date Accessed: 6/9/2009