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Thompson: School Reform As A Kind Of Wonky PTSD

As you may already have read here and on other sites, education writer Paul Tough said in a recent interview  "I think education reform has probably hurt the very poor.” The author of How Children Succeed argues that "the better-off portion of low-income kids are more likely to find alternatives [like charter schools]. That leaves the original schools more concentrated in their disadvantage, and thus even worse learning environments.”


What you may not have heard about yet is Tough's analysis of how and why school reform took the course it's taken -- and what can be done about it.

Tough's book takes us on a comprehensive tour of cognitive and social science, while describing the limits of contemporary school reform efforts, finally explaining why reformers took the wrong path. "The War on Poverty left some very deep scars on the well-educated idealists who waged it, creating a kind of posttraumatic stress disorder on policy wonks.” 

This contributed to a movement which, to borrow a phrase from historian Larry Cuban, “deputized” teachers as the driving force in fighting poverty.   Tough writes, “education reformers have mostly united around one specific issue: teacher quality.”  He terms it as “an article of faith” for reformers. 

Tough then questions one of reformers’ most ubiquitous sound bites, explaining, “it seems to make sense that having a top tier teacher three years in a row would raise a student’s achievement three times as much as his having a top-tier teacher for a single year – but it might not.”  Even the most intense advocates of teacher quality conclude that “variations in teacher quality account for less than 10% of the gap between high- and low-performing students.”  So, "somehow we’ve allowed teacher tenure to become the central policy tool” for fighting poverty, even though teacher quality is really “just a small part of a much broader and more profound question: What can we as a country do to significantly improve the life chances of millions of poor children?”

Tough then addresses the failing of traditional liberals that made it seem like the educational “status quo” needed to be destroyed, not reorganized.  Progressives had a deeply held aversion to saying that conservatives are correct that “character matters.” Tough also was once so frustrated by “what hadn’t worked” to end poverty that he was sympathetic to school reform as the solution.  One of those solutions, charter schools have mostly worked with “the most able low income children, and they often don’t work very well with the least able.” 

Tough now challenges another of the most insidious of the reform sound bites, that “we know what works.”  On the contrary, Tough argues, “no one has found a reliable way  to help deeply disadvantaged children.”

Tough’s final recommendation is consistent with the best of today’s educational research, ranging from the Consortium for Chicago School Research and Robert Balfanz’ Everyone Graduates Center to John Merrow, who calls for making teaching a team sport. He calls for a coordinated system targeted at the 10 to 15% of students who are most at risk.

By the way, Tough's analysis is equally consistent with what I saw in Oklahoma City. When I started teaching twenty years ago, all of our neighborhood schools were about 2/3rds low income.  Now, one neighborhood high school is 84% low income, while the others are more than 90% low income. 

My school provided a great social science experiment.  On the west side of our school's feeder group, we had a mixture of situational poverty and generational poverty, with some working and middle class students.  The east side of the feeder group, we had kids from a census tract listed by the Brookings Institute as one with "extreme poverty."  Had "reform" resulted in data-INFORMED, as opposed to data-DRIVEN, accountability, perhaps we could have adjusted to the pressure to speed up instruction in order to meet NCLB targets. 

After all, increased assessments gave us an amazing archive of data.  For instance, students who attended school enough to take five of six benchmark tests increased their Reading scores to a 7.6 grade equivalency, while highly mobile and ELL students finished their 9th grade year testing at a 5.7 grade level. In 2005, our Freshmen Teams were inadvertently divided into students who were disproportionately from their respective feeder areas.  Instructional reforms helped raise the pass rate of "Kodiaks" to 30%, as the "Grizzlies," being taught by the same teachers, dropped to 15%. The "Grizzlies" ultimately had a graduation rate of about 10%.-JT(@drjohnthompson)Image via.  


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It's absurd to claim that "teacher tenure is the central policy tool for fighting poverty" because that ignores Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, public housing, public health clinics, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and other programs designed in whole or in part to benefit disadvantaged Americans.

I'm not sure what point you think you're proving with your final example. If your district did not make good choices in the face of an increasingly disadvantaged population of students, get on the district's case instead of blaming reformers, NCLB, or whatever.


You seem to exemplify the "reformers" obsession with blaming others for your approach's twenty year record of failure. In one short post, you call Paul Tough's conclusion "absurd," and you blame our district's administrators. But,I distinctly recall 2002, when I was fairly new to school reform, (although I was not new to inner city teaching which is a phenomenon that I suspect you are unaware of) how I was told, chapter and verse, how NCLB would produce these destructive policies. I was dismayed that veteran administrators in OKC, and other experts, were making such confident predictions of how test-driven accountability would backfire. Those predictions nailed it.

In my experience and, more importantly, in my close reading of "reform" literature, you guys show no indication that you understand the distinction that Tough is making. (Value-added evals, for instance, collapse when you take into account the difference between extreme poverty and less intense concentrations of trauma, and to my knowledge NO value-added researcher has even tried to address the distinction.) You simply can't compare run-of-the-mill high-poverty schools, such as charters, with neighborhood schools. Step inside an inner city classroom and you'll understand.

Sometimes you run together so many false statements and non-seqs that it's impossible to sort them out. And probably not worth the effort.

I said that it's absurd to claim that attending to teacher tenure is the central policy for fighting poverty because that ignores our many social and economic policies that fight poverty.

I should also have said that it's absurd to make a blanket claim that reformers focus exclusively on teacher quality because anyone at all familiar with what's going on knows that some reformers focus on curriculum; others on leadership, including principals and superintendents; others on funding and funding formulas for districts and schools; others on regulatory and legal issues; others on preparing teachers and inducting them into the profession, others on professional development; others on the organization of schools; and so on. Some reformers has put their ideas into practice by opening schools in the inner city.

The claim that accountability polices force schools to make only bad choices can not withstand scrutiny of the policies and is laughable in the face of so much contrary evidence. Finally, you keep throwing severely disadvantaged children as a trump card against reformers and accountability policies. You really ought to reconsider that.

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