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Thompson: Kristof Points the Way Toward Ending the Education Wars

The New York Times’ Nick Kristof, in Beyond Education Wars, does what Babe Ruth supposedly did, and more. He points to where he'll hit a home run and then delivers a grand slam. Kristof articulates the best single suggestion for improving schools, and he offers the wisest political message I’ve heard.

Although Kristof still identifies himself as a reformer, he wonders whether the reform movement has peaked. We’ve seen a dozen years of an idealistic movement where “armies of college graduates joined Teach for America. Zillionaires invested in charter schools. Liberals and conservatives, holding their noses and agreeing on nothing else, cooperated to proclaim education the civil rights issue of our time.”

But, now, the education reform “brawls have left everyone battered and bloodied, from reformers to teachers unions.” Kristof observes that “the zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. … The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity." Those expensive campaigns have left K-12 education "an exhausted, bloodsoaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after.”

Kristof provides three reasons why we should, “Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.” He starts with the scientific evidence that “early childhood is a crucial period when the brain is most malleable, when interventions are most cost-effective for at-risk kids.” He writes:

Growing evidence suggests what does work to break the poverty cycle: Start early in life, and coach parents to stimulate their children. Randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evidence, have shown this with programs like Nurse-Family Partnership, Reach Out and Read, and high-quality preschool. These kinds of interventions typically produce cognitive gains that last a few years and then fade — but, more important, also produce better life outcomes, such as less crime, fewer teenage pregnancies, higher high school graduation rates, and higher incomes.

Second, Kristof notes that reformers picked “the low-hanging fruit” of the K-12 world.

In other words, even charter proponents will have to tackle some of the challenges faced by traditional neighborhood schools if they hope to remain in the school improvement game. At the risk of contradicting Kristof’s conciliatory message, I find it shocking that charter operators are just now learning the facts of life faced by schools that face the most intense concentrations of generational poverty.

Thirdly, early education is our best political option because it is not so polarizing. Kristof correctly notes, “New York City liberals have embraced preschool, but so have Oklahoma conservatives. Teacher unions will flinch at some of what I say, but they have been great advocates for early education. Congress can’t agree on much, but Republicans and Democrats just approved new funding for home visitation for low-income toddlers.”

I very much admire Kristof’s analysis, and I wonder if I have been wrong in seeking a more complicated call to action. I have feared – and today, I fear even more – that reform is a wounded bear and that makes it more dangerous. I see the zillionaires descending upon Oklahoma in what I believe is a last-gasp effort to impose test-driven accountability on us. Here and nationwide, educators must still throw everything we have into the battle against high-stakes testing that has done so much harm to the students and educators in our most challenging schools. Then, we can act on Kristof's advice.

I know of millionaires and billionaires who agree with Kristof on early education. Sadly, they often seem to be more trusting of the zillionaires’ claim that accountability-driven reform can still be salvaged. I wish we could get them to read the social science Kristof cites and visit the highest-challenge schools so they could understand how and why output-driven reform most hurt the children they first wanted to help. If we could do so, I believe that both sides of our tragic education civil war would follow his advice and focus on early childhood education.

I'd also like to know what Kristof's implied beef with teachers unions is. But, to paraphrase him, if we could remove the punitive components of testing, we'd still have issues to argue over. We just wouldn't have reasons to fight each other, as opposed to the legacies of poverty.-JT(@drjohnthompson) 


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Oh, please. Grand slam. More like a bunt.

Supporting early ed is the easiest, most politically palatable, and cheapest approach there is. That's why everyone pays lip service to pre-K.

But it's just a feint and a smokescreen. Everyone was saying the same thing in 2007, the last time the White House was up for grabs. They didn't really mean it:

Sure, it's the right thing to do. But it's far from enough.

And hardly a way to end the ed wars. It's not that they can't battle to a pointless, bloody stalemate over early ed. They just haven't gotten to that as a battleground yet. But they will.

The real grand slam would be to tell both sides the truth - that their self centered obsession with their own adult interests means everyone has lost, and they are wasting precious resources as another generation of kids gets ignored.

The real grand slam would be facing up to the hard things in education and the ed wars.

It sounds like you would be as verbose as I would be if I got the billionaires Boys Club cornered. I'd probably deconstruct the parable of the Prodigal Son. I'd probably turn them off by saying that we would welcome them as warmly as I'm welcoming Kristof if they return to the effort to help poor children of color.

I'd probably be insufferable in analyzing the research behind Kristof's A Path Appears and say what he did not explicitly articulate. His research explains why corporate reform was doomed since day #1. I probably could not resist calling their policies as the education version of Intelligent Dessign.

I'd probably chide them for believing the New Data scholars who refuse to articulate a falsifiable hypothesis or fairly summarize the research of social scientists. I know I'd lecture them for reform's pride in refusing to read education research and history that argues against their theory. I'd remind them that they should have welcomed the burden of proof, and not turned children into lab rats.

As I've done with value-added scholars, I would not have challenged their work as theory, and I'd acknowledge that it could stand as "proof of concept." But, I'd cross examine them about their assumptions and their complete lack of knowledge of, and interest in, the logistics of real live students and teachers in actual schools. I would then probably be insufferable when lecturing corporate reformers for funding study after study that is irrelevant for policy purposes. I'd also demand an apology for the slander that their top dollar public relations firm and the slander and lies they have thrown at us.

I'd close by guilt-tripping corporate funders for the harm they have done to poor children of color, robbing them of a respectful education.

I could go on in describing the hard facts that I'd probably demand that they face.

And, they would completely turn me off.

I believe Kristof better knows his elite audience, and nails the message that should work.r

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