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Thompson: "Third Way" Study Shows Real Way to College Readiness


The Third Way describes itself as representing the “vital center.” It is a moderate effort to break think tanks out of policy “silos” and it is “built around policy teams that create high-impact written products.”

While I respect an effort to articulate “principled compromise,” I hope that education isn’t treated as a pawn, to be sacrificed when appealing to corporate powers’ supposedly better angels. [I also hope that its founder Jon Cowan doesn’t share the anti-teacher positions of his former boss, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.]

I became more optimistic after reading the Third Way’s The Secret of College Completion.  Cowan and Elaine C. Kamarck introduce the study by Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann. They explain that 8th grade grades are strong predictors of college completion because they are indicators of behavioral patterns which are learned early in life. These patterns tend to persist into high school and college.

In other words, factors beyond the control of teachers make it unlikely that reforms focusing on “value-added” in the secondary school classroom will work.

DiPrete’s and Bachman’s analysis is thus consistent with research of the Chicago Consortium for School Research which has documented the immense challenge of improving schools serving neighborhoods with high levels of extreme poverty, high incidences of trauma, a lack of social capital, and low levels of relational trust. Their findings are consistent with the early education policy of Mayor Bill de Blasio. They implicitly argue against the test-driven approach of Governor Cuomo.  

The keys to academic success are “attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, flexibility, organization, expressing feelings, ideas, and opinions in positive ways, and showing sensitivity to the feelings.” These are much more important factors than those measured by standardized tests. Boys start out behind girls in exhibiting those crucial traits and the gap grows throughout school.

DiPrete and Bachmann conclude that “boys are more negatively affected than girls by growing up in families with absent or less-educated fathers.” They are more negatively influenced by the lack a strong learning-oriented environment. Adolescent boys “underinvest in education due to out-of-date masculine stereotypes that depict academic excellence, attachment to school, and interest in art, music and drama as unmasculine.” 

In other words, poor children of color need extracurricular activities and holistic, authentic instruction, as opposed to the “drill and kill” that is encouraged by test-in school reform. Schools also need to nurture the relationships that boys will disproportionately need to prosper. Schools should provide mentors. They must foster trusting and loving relationships. 

Another study by the Third Way’s David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, in “Wayward Sons,”  explains how the problems faced by males, especially black males from poor and under-educated families have grown worse over the last forty years. 

I attribute these outcomes to the deindustrialization of America, accelerated by the Reagan Administration’s subsidies for business closing factories that were still profitable, the “War on Drugs,” and the corporate domination of politics of the last generation. 

Whether or not the Third Way agrees with my historical assessment, a supposedly pragmatic think tank should address the legacies of the last two generations by seeking humane and caring school cultures. Their analysis is consistent with high-quality early education that stresses reading for comprehension (as opposed to concentrating on test scores), the nurturing of the socio-emotional, and full-service community schools. We’ll see how many future Third Way reports are consistent this science-based analysis, as opposed to fostering dog-eat-dog school cultures where poor children of color, and their teachers, sink or swim.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via


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