Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Ground Zero for Kristof on Education Knowledge

Update: A Teacher Responds to Latest Kristof Ed Column posted at Norm's Notes.

One of the major problems with the poor quality of American journalism is the lack of quality journalists. Perhaps they should get merit pay or demerit pay based on the quality of the columns they produce. Today we have another in a long line of low-level, almost amateurish columns on education in the NY Times from Nicolas Kristof. He can write all the great stuff about Darfur or wherever, but when someone can get education so wrong, I can't stomach anything he writes.

Queens HS chapter leader and member of ICE Michael Fiorillo responds.

Hello All,

I've never been a fan of Kristof: there's often more than a whiff of moral vanity in his tone that turns me off. But this column shows him to be a fool or a knave.

Parroting the corporate ed reform talking point that nothing - not low birth weight, poor pre-natal care, poor nutrition, personal or family medical conditions, unstable family and housing situations, unemployment and on the furthest end of the spectrum substance abuse and incarceration - matters except effective teachers for student success, he writes,

"One study suggests that if black kids could get teachers from the(teaching) profession's most effective quartile for four years in a row, the achievement gap would disappear."

Do these people actually believe this nonsense?

How exactly is this panacea supposed to be implemented?

Fire every teacher below the 75 quartile, and move all the kids into the top producers's classrooms?

Keep firing the "low-performers" and just keep hiring TFA missionaries until you've reached 100% of your staff functioning in the 75 percentile or above?

Isn't there a problem with the math here?

Please also notice the extreme patronization - a key feature of the outlook, rhetoric and "pedagogy" of corporate ed reformers - in Kristof's language: why is it "black kids," who are singled out?

This elision of other poor children who also suffer from the "achievement gap" (also a term of art developed to pile drive the premises of the debate into unfriendly terrain for teachers and their unions, walling off discussion of other factors that influence school "performance") reveals the targeting of African-American communities for internal competition for diminishing resources among charter and public schools. This is now happening across the city, as Bloomberg's minions bus in charter school parents to public hearings to support mayoral control and the real estate grabs that are a part of it.

What these people are doing is despicable, creating a separate and unequal system in the name of racial justice.

Michael Fiorillo

Kristof's column: Education’s Ground Zero


Arjun Janah said...


Read your response with interest. You bring up a number of very important issues.

Let me add some more.

I had responded to Nick Kristof on his blog, and Norm has kindly posted this, on his Norms Notes, at

However, my response was rather long, which may irritate or lose quite a few people. So let me sum up some elementary, yet important, points I made there, which every experienced teacher will understand, but which appear to be lost on most "reformers", both past and present.

(1) Most attempts at school reform, going back as far as I can remember, and including the current corporate-model attempt, are based on a false working hypothesis -- namely, that the poor quality of education obtained by many students in urban schools in poorer neighborhoods is caused, in large part, by teachers who are not doing their job, owing to incompetence.

The solution to the problem is then to try to either train the teachers to teach better, or else to replace them with better qualified ones.

Despite the repeated failure of past "reforms" made in this direction to produce any significant improvement in the product turned out by the schools, and despite the obvious chaos that such misguided efforts have produced, few have dared to publicly challenge the validity of this hypothesis.

Because of this, the true, underlying problems, which have become increasingly intractable, have never been addressed.

(2)That said, there is scope for improvement in the schools. In my two decades in the system, this is what I have increasingly found lacking:

(a) The belief, among students and teachers, that students, even those who appear to be terribly "behind", can still learn many things, including those considered "difficult" (such as, for example, physics or pre-calculus) provided they want to and provided that they and the system approach these subjects as they are meant to be approached by all except the most talented -- step by step, in sequence, with time and pace adjusted to that of the students and the topic, with due diligence on the part of the students, and with knowledge and wisdom on the part of the teachers.

This may seem absurdly utopian in our system, where we have little control over many of the things that we should have control over, at least collectively as the teaching body.

But this is what has been demonstrated to work, in this country as well as others, over hundreds of years, and will, of course, never return to our schools unless we demand it, and work towards it, collectively.

I am not saying that any kid can become an Einstein or a Beethoven. But they can do much better than they are doing now.

(b)The conditions under which effective teaching and learning can take place -- which includes a relaxed atmosphere relatively free of distractions and interruptions, where sincere students can concentrate on the work, and teachers can actually teach (a bad verb, for a long time!) the class, as well as help those who need help.

These also include a home atmosphere that is conducive to the study and work that a student needs to do at home to keep up with what is being taught in his/her classes.

Again, at present, many of our schools have deteriorated into hell-holes, where teachers are caught between social pathologies originating from the community, which the schools are unable to deal with, and highly misguided directives from above.

Both of these things make effective teaching and learning nearly impossible.

Indeed, the first difficulty (the social illnesses in the community, themselves the result of socio-economic problems that have long histories) is the primary cause of the decline of many urban schools in poorer, minority areas, while the second difficulty (the puerile directives and micromanagement) further compounds the problem, while basic educational needs and issues remain untouched.

(3) I had mentioned, in 2a, the need for the students to "want" to learn the subject. While the teacher may provide some motivation from time to time, there is no substitute for:

(a) starting at the lower grades, and continuing, the intrinsic motivation that comes from minor successes that result from effort; this conditions the mind for stronger and more sustained effort as the student matures -- a deepening and widening of attention span;

whichever field this maturation proceeds in (including sports, hobbies and family life, including care of younger siblings) it tends to give the child confidence, which spills over into other fields;

in this process, the child also learns responsibility and self discipline, setting aside temporary distractions and discomforts while focused on increasingly longer-term goals;

It is worth noting that much the same process works for teachers. In a good environment, a teacher will obtain small, daily successes that motivate him/her and build and sustain confidence. This results in energy and initiative.

In a hostile one, they will partake, instead, of daily failures that discourage, and that erode confidence. This results, ultimately, in loss of energy and initiative, and a state of "learned helplessness".

We may have recognized this state in many of our students.

With both teachers and students, nothing succeeds like success.

(b) Especially in the higher grades, during 10-12 for sure, the student needs to feel that he/she is focusing on things that truly interest him/her, and may be likely to lead to some sort of career.

This is a natural desire, that, when subverted, often results in conscious or unconscious resistance and sabotage.

With this end in view, a certain amount of (reversible) specialization is called for in these higher grades. In other words, there needs to be some sacrifice of breadth for depth at this stage, something that young folks can sink their teeth into with gusto, because they have opted to.

This would also free up time for students and systems that are overstretched by state requirements, allowing, for example, a subject, such as Chemistry, to be taught over three terms, or even four, rather than two. This would bring this country's system closer to that of many others, where such subjects are taught, typically, over 3-4 years.

This specialization should include vocational, commercial and other streams that still could lead to jobs, survival and self-respect for many of our students, had they not been discarded.

(4) There is no substitute for experienced and dedicated teachers, and for sincere students. However, a system that does not respect and nurture the potential and needs of sincere students and teachers will tend to lose both -- physically, if they can leave, or else mentally, if they cannot.

(5) There are a host of issues in the schools that I may not have touched upon above, including:

-- basic structural problems in curricula, class size, teacher and student workload, attention to sequence and prerequisite, etc.

-- the nightmares of twice-a-year (or even, in some schools, four times a year) programming that allow little time for actual counseling,

-- overly rigid state mandates, and the problems of special education,

-- and, of course, the current test and data driven mania, coexisting with the perennial preoccupation with "teaching methods" (including those puerile in the extreme),

-- the belief, somewhat akin to fierce monotheism, that there is only one way to do things (with this "way" changing, however, with every new "reform"),

-- classroom disruptions that can amount to verbal and physical abuse or torture,

-- the flourishing, in an atmosphere where many teachers have mentally disconnected from their profession, of all manner of lowlife -- including the corrupt, the disturbed, the unscrupulously ambitious, and the zealots, especially among supervisors, etc. etc.

It is all of these things that are never addressed by those like Michelle Rhee of D.C. (herself a symptom, as have been so many here in NY, of the malaise and breaking of spirit in our profession that allows such a one to rise up and bully others far more competent and experienced than herself) and her dilettante supporters, such as Nick Kristof.

Unfortunately, it is these people that have the public's, and the politicians' ears. Who is listening to us?

That is why we need outlets such as Norm has constructed. However, we also need to reach the mainstream media, that remains, by and large, anti-union and anti-teacher.

As you can see, this post, while nt the same as my response to Kristof, has also become too long. My apologies!


Arjun Janah

Mr. Talk said...

I'll quote myself on this subject, as I blogged on it the other day and I'm too lazy to paraphrase (those darn lazy teachers!):

Kristoff throws around meaningless statistics, touting improvement to DCs schools because "Test results showed more educational gains last year than in the previous four years put together." But in the same op-ed, he admits that only 8% of DCs kids reached the standard in mathematics. How big a statistical boost did Rhee cause if they are currently at 8%? Perhaps Kristoff needs to brush up on his own math.

And he also touts her because "Her aim is for Washington to become, in just six years, one of the best-performing urban school districts in the country, while drastically reducing the black-white achievement gap." That's it? We should support her because she is aiming high and incidentally right at the backs of teachers?