Friday, October 16, 2009

Nick Kristof Strikes Again, and Gets It Wrong Again

Updated: Oct 17, 9PM (GO YANKEES!)

The letters in today's Times in response to Kristof's column were unanimously thumbs down, something I've never seen before. I posted them at Norms Notes.
Times Letters Respond to Kristof Column

Here is my original compilation of reactions I posted Friday, with some additional add-0ns from Accountable Talk.

I was going to write about Nicolas Kristof's column in yesterday's Times supporting the education deformers but Steve Koss does it so much better. Not the first time Kristof has ventured into territory he knows nothing about.

Ed Notes covered his previous lame attempts:

Education Notes Online: Updated: Skoolboy Savages Kristof
Feb 19, 2009
And I would usually believe Kristof. But when you actually know something about something and see a guy getting it so wrong, I wonder why I should take anything he writes seriously. Word to the wise: Don't write glowing reports about ...

Mar 22, 2009
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, ...

Before I let you get to Koss, I want to list the hackisms, platitudes and recycled nonsense used by Kristof, stuff that came directly from a Joel Klein press release.

cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate’s difficult to improve failing schools when you can’t create alternatives such as charter schools and can’t remove inept or abusive teachers...But there’s mounting evidence that even in such failing schools, the individual teacher makes a vast difference.Research has underscored that what matters most in education — more than class size or spending or anything — is access to good teachers. A study found that if black students had four straight years of teachers from the top 25 percent of most effective teachers, the black-white testing gap would vanish in four years...This is the central front in the war on poverty, the civil rights issue of our time. Half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, isn’t it time to end our “separate but equal” school systems?

These ed deformer supporters love to talk about the research - often proven tainted by people with a dog in the race - call it Hoxbyisms. Do they ever mention the gold standard Tennessee study on class size? To talk about teacher quality out of the context of class size and general school conditions is like blaming crime on the quality of the police or fires on the quality if firemen. They just wouldn't dare.

Kristof should check out the separate but unequal charter schools vs the public schools they are implanted in.

Nick Kristof Strikes Again, and Gets It Wrong Again
by Steve Koss (posted to the NYC Education News Listserve)

I can think of few journalistic practices more damaging and wrongheaded than the reporter who helicopters into a complex problem for a few days, sniffs around a bit without really understanding the context in which he or she is observing, and then drops an "expert opinion" editorial on the matter. No one in my recent memory appears more prone to this, and more badly misled, than the NY Times's periodic editorial contributor, Nick Kristof, particularly with regard to education.

Back in 2002, Mr. Kristof dropped himself in on some schools in Shanghai and then wrote a ridiculous column on China's "super kids" whose schooling and intelligence were apparently going to bury the U.S. competitively in the future. He could not have gotten the Chinese education system more wrong in 750 words than he did at that time; reading his 2002 column today ( is still an embarrassment for anyone who really understands what's going on in the Chinese education system.

Now, Mr. Kristof has inserted himself into education once again, and just as foolishly, with his latest contribution to the NY Times. In an October 15th piece oddly entitled "Democrats and Education" (, Mr. Kristof elects to beat on that favorite old dead horse of education critics, that the problem with US education is bad teachers and their unions who simply won't let schools get rid of them. In his article, he talks about NYC's system where "failed teachers" are sent at full pay to "rubber rooms," clearly not understanding that the purpose of such centers is to hold teachers against whom potentially serious allegations of misconduct (such as, for example, sexual misconduct or verbal or physical abuse of students) have been made while their cases are being investigated. Whatever one may think of rubber rooms, they are not holding pens for teachers who have merely been judged incompetent.

Of course, Mr. Kristof trots out a couple horror stories about bad teachers to "prove" his point, and there's certainly no argument here that abusive teachers who degrade their students or show up drunk do not belong in classrooms. As his column progresses, he slyly manages to conflate the clearly unacceptable behavior of his "horror stories" with the term "ineffective teachers," as though the U.S. education system is suffering from an epidemic of school-based child abuse. Ineffective and drunk (or telling a failed suicide that next time the student should cut his wrists more deeply) are not equal.

Anyway, these horror stories are old news, and Mr. Kristof writes as though he just discovered this issue. Beyond making it easier to remove such "ineffective" teachers, what are his solutions? Two of them are more charter schools and "objective measurement to see who is effective." Of course, while calling for better teachers with better compensation, he conveniently ignores the fact that under NCLB, teachers of all stripes and levels of ability are being hamstrung by precisely those types of measurement systems, all of which begin with state-defined standardized exams which place enormous pressure on school administrators and teachers to show ever-improving results. The damage these exams are doing to real education is incalculable, since they distort both teaching and curricula by narrowing content, detracting from coverage of other subject areas, and focusing on test-taking rather than education as an exploration and learning experience.

In his closing, Mr. Kristof writes, "I’m hoping the unions will come round and cooperate with evidence-based reforms, using their political clout to push to raise teachers’ salaries rather than to protect ineffective teachers," as if this is the essential either/or choice. It's merely another false dichotomy -- the two items have nothing to do with one another.

More charter schools, more "objective" measurement of teachers' value added based on standardized exams, less intrusion from the teachers' unions -- this is what Mr. Kristof wants the Democrats to be doing. Sadly, President Obama (through his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan) appears to be working from Mr. Kristof's playbook, acting more like a conservative Republican than the Democratic reformer for whom we thought we had voted

Steve Koss

Related: From Accountable Talk

Kristoff, Revisited.

I've written a number of posts on Nicholas Kristof's off the wall views on education. See here, here, and here, for example.

I thought I was going to have to do it again after reading Kristof's latest diatribe in today's Op-ed section of the Times, but Thoughts on Education Policy saved me the effort. Well worth a read.

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