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Thompson: A Teacher's Review of Kristof and WuDunn's A Path Appears

ScreenHunter_01 Nov. 19 13.20I loved A Path Appears, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It deals with global issues and a variety of philanthropic and grassroots paths to tackling poverty, ignorance, and violence. I doubt that readers are very interested in my non-expert opinions on international issues, so I will limit this post to musing about Kristof’s and WuDunn’s approach to American educational challenges.

Chapter Ten, “Coaching Troubled Teens,” starts with a quote by Immanuel Kant, “Act so you treat humanity … always as an end and never as a means.”

The chapter begins with a visit to Tulsa where 8th graders were engaged in a curriculum focused on avoiding teenage pregnancy developed by Michael Carrera. This program, ranked as “top-tiered” in effectiveness costs $2,300 per student and it would be a bargain even if it didn’t get students started with a savings account, financial literacy, and medical care.

Kristof and WuDunn then breeze through a paragraph that includes the ridiculous – but oft repeated - soundbite that if African American students had teachers from the top 25% in “effectiveness” for four years, that the achievement gap would be closed. Those of us obsessed with education issues can anticipate what was cited in the footnotes, the economic theory of Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff that has been repeatedly misrepresented as research relevant to real world policy.

Educators, like me, are likely to get flustered and complain about the methodological flaws of Chetty et. al, and protest about the way they have allowed their regression studies to be used as intellectually dishonest props in a legal and political assault on teachers.

Perhaps Kristof and WuDunn take the wiser approach. They move on, writing “We must also rethink the role of schools in low-income communities.” The rest of the chapter argues for full-service community schools. Kristof and WuDunn may not have mentioned the way that the “teacher quality” focus of the corporate reform movement has undermined the science-based policies they advocate, but they make the case which teachers, education scholars, and unions have tried to make for overcoming the legacies of poverty.

A Path Appears is equally diplomatic in citing Joe Klein’s incendiary and reductionistic attack on Head Start. Klein misstated the research, claiming “Head Start simply does not work …” He then compared Head Start to “criminal” and “outrageous” tax breaks for oil companies. Kristof and WuDunn say they disagree, summarize the research on Head Start in a balanced manner, and let the facts speak for themselves. 

While ignoring the Gates Foundation’s method of imposing nonstop testing, competition, and treating students and teachers as a means to an end (victory in the global marketplace), Kristof and WuDunn describe the Ford Foundation’s Citizen Schools. Rather than reward and punish individual teachers for jacking up test scores, these schools bring in a “second shift” of caring adults. They offer after-school apprenticeship programs, mentoring, and counseling that brings at-risk youth and their families together. One result, but not the only result (and not an end in itself) is an increase in test scores.

Other paths to real progress include Youth Villages, which are similar to the proven Nurse-Family Partnership. Kristof and WuDunn then describe College Advising Corps, which has a model similar to Teach for America (but without its down sides.)  Dynamic recent college graduates work for two years as college advisers in low-income schools. Mentors such as “China Joe” (John Loften) have developed a program, Cure Violence, which has reduced shootings in Chicago by 16 to 28%.

This chapter closes with the argument that “we have underinvested in interventions at the beginning of life – family planning, pregnancy, infancy, childhood - despite growing evidence that they have the highest returns.”

So, would it be uncharitable for educators to complain that A Path Appears did not tackle corporate school reform? Should it have questioned the effectiveness of edu-philanthropy in the United States? Should it have noted the inherent conflict between outcomes-based, accountability-driven school reform and the solutions proposed by Kristof and WuDunn? Or, were they wise in overlooking that part of the story?

I’m inclined to say that there are multiple paths to school improvement. Kristof and WuDunn have earned the right to tell their story as they see fit, prioritizing the issues they choose to emphasize. We educators must point out, however, that the evidence-based, holistic, and uplifting team efforts that they support have been opportunity costs of the end justifies the means, competition-driven corporate school reform movement.-JT (@drjohnthompson)    


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