Thursday, August 12, 2021

"Are you all rich?" (Problems with Philanthropy, Part III)

One of my most vivid memories of the school I taught at in Harlem was when some rich white ladies came to my classroom. I forget who the ladies were--probably the wives of somebody or other, certainly past or future donors to the school (donors came through pretty regularly). Given their clothes and handbags, the ladies were very obviously of what we later called the 1%. Kathleen, the wonderful pre-K teacher who was guiding the ladies on their tour introduced them to my third graders, and asked if the kids had any questions.

Mischievous DeShawn Williams, a child whose irreverent wit made me smile every day, raised his hand. Kathleen, the Pre-K teacher, said, "Yes, DeShawn?" and DeShawn asked the ladies, “Are you all rich?”

There was a brief moment while his question rang in the air.

Then the ladies tittered uncomfortably. I laughed. No one knew what to say. 

No one knew what to say, because no one wanted to make the obvious, simple answer: Yes, these ladies were rich. Of course they were rich. Unlike some of my students, who would wear the same clothes to school for days at a time, they were dressed rich. Like most people who came through the school, they were visiting because they were considering making a donation. So why did they all hesitate to answer the question? Why were they embarrassed by their good fortune? That’s a deep question on which we can only speculate. What’s certain is that they didn’t say anything, and their tour guide had to jump in and answer for them. 

Her face turning a bit red, her smile getting bigger and, to my eyes, less genuine, Kathleen said, “No, DeShawn, they’re not rich.”

I remember DeShawn’s impish look of skepticism and disbelief (then again, he often had that kind of a look).

After asserting that the obviously rich ladies were actually not rich, maybe the pre-K teacher felt she had to clarify, to explain herself. “They’re not rich,” she said. “They’re… well-off.” 

This seemed like gibberish to me, and I think we all still felt a little uncomfortable; maybe that’s why Kathleen went on:

“You see, Deshawn, they went to school, and to college, and worked very hard, and saved their money--and… you can do that too!”

She no doubt meant this to be a message of uplift. There was no one at the school I admired more than Kathleen; she was present to the children at all times, engaged in their lives, working for their betterment. And if it’s arguable that her answer was actually fine, especially given the context, it still made me uncomfortable, partly exactly because of the way the context seemed to have dictated the answer. But the main problem, of course, was that her answer was so transparently false. The ladies in the room might have been hard workers, but their hard work was almost certainly in no meaningful sense the reason for their being rich, especially not in the sense that DeShawn meant it.

I wonder what the school’s founder would have said in the same situation. A poet who had worked for years as a young man in Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, who was full, in his phrase, of “the fury and the passion of revolution,” he railed in his books about “the cruel power elite.” But, ironically, he was dependent on this same elite for the money to operate his school. He probably wouldn’t have said exactly what Kathleen said, but he was the only one at the school who could have gotten away with saying something even close to the truth. (1)

Kathleen’s response to DeShawn not only implicitly blamed the parents of the children before her for their own poverty, it also absolved the larger society from any responsibility for the inequality that was visibly present in the classroom. You could argue that this explanation could work to empower the students (“Work hard, and you too can be well-off!”), but it seems more likely to have made the students feel worse about themselves. In any case, my guess is that this explanation was not made for the sake of the students. Instead, Kathleen’s real audience seemed to be the rich ladies themselves. And this was the real problem. I am pretty sure the rich ladies did not come to Harlem to have the vast gap between their own privilege and the lives of the children of Harlem pointed out to them, even if their very presence pointed it out to the perceptive children. The rich ladies did not come to Harlem to think about the root causes of inequality and poverty. Instead, the rich ladies came up to Harlem, and were greeted in Harlem, as benevolent, disinterested saviors. But if you don’t talk about inequality and justice, if you don’t talk about structural racism, if you don’t talk about massive changes but only talk about small changes, nothing big will change.

In any case, for me, the morals of the "Are you all rich?" story are many, among them:

  • Children always see through our BS, even if they don't always know what to make of it;
  • Inequality is uncomfortable to everyone involved, but it's better to be honest and open about it;
  • If individual private citizens are funding a school, they should they should not be paraded around through the schools like visiting royalty--but really they should probably not be in the business of funding important societal functions, like school, at all!
  • Because the problem with philanthropy isn't only, as per Giridaradhas (2), that donors are self-serving, it's that philanthropy erodes democracy.



    (1) Our school was distinctly different from its present-day successors: the KIPPs and the Success Academies of the world believe that the best way to eliminate poverty is to change the poor people themselves, because the main injustice in our world is that poor kids are not educated well enough, while our school believed, I think, that the poverty and injustice were the problems, and that while school could help to heal the wounds of poverty and injustice, the world needed a revolution. There were problems with this, obviously--the founder of the school was a complicated guy, but he was always vulnerable to accusations of having a white savior complex, or worse--but the school really did try to be, in his words, a "community of healing." Unfortunately, by choosing to grow the school, its founder set it on a path that would require more and more money. In order to get this money, the school had to “beg” beyond the pages of the New York Review of Books; in fact, it had to go to the elite levels of technocratic New York business and finance. By relying on this funding source, however, the school was putting itself at the mercy of the establishment, and it simply could not continue to be a place of revolutionary peace and love. The year after I left, the founder was forced out by his board of trustees, and now, less than twenty-five years later, the school is run by people without any teaching background who have aligned themselves in their language (data-driven rigor!) with education reform: They've taken both "children" and "school" out of the institution's name. It's now an "Academy," and according to the International Journal of Progressive Education, the school is now "centered on heavy discipline and traditional instruction."

    (2) Anand Giridaradhas's book, Winners Take All, is great, but I wish he had focused a bit more on the ways philanthropy is anti-democratic. I'll probably write about that a bit next week.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2021

    Problems with Philanthropy: Scalability

    In the 1990s I worked, first as a teacher, then as a reading tutor, at a small independent school in Harlem. The experience was great in many ways--I loved my colleagues and my students--and it was only years later that I started to see the school, wonderful as it was, as representative of many of the problems with philanthropy in general: inefficient and inadequate, and unable to be scaled up to solve the problems it was addressing, it nevertheless gave the elite, powerful people who funded it and directed it the illusion that they were doing something revolutionary. That second problem--the illusion of efficacy--I'll leave for another day. Here I want to address the most basic issue: the school's model was unscalable, because it depended entirely on the school's being small and elite. 

    Unscalability of Raising Money

    I remember a joke in a classic movie about a couple who looks like they “probably met by answering an ad in The New York Review of Books.” Our school, too, sometimes seemed like a joke about the intellectual preciousness and insularity of New York intellectuals and elites. In the early years of the school, back when it was still a pre-school, its founder raised money and sought help by writing public letters to the editor in the New York Review. One of the letters, titled, Help Wanted, read: “We need teachers of poetry, music: We need teachers of poetry, music, history, foreign language, English, composition. We need doctors, lawyers, people skilled in the art of good and inexpensive cooking. We need artists and sculptors. We need folk to share their skills, vision and hope with the people.”  A letter from 1968 described the school as a “a place of peace, wonder, variety, joy and intellectual possibility,” and then asked readers to send money. 

    Over the years, as the school grew, it had to modernize its fundraising operations. By the time I worked there, the school was running a full-time development office, and it had to spend a surprising amount to get its money. The last time I looked, the school had a budget of about four million dollars, but its management and development expenses were a bit over a million dollars. In other words, the school had to spend a million dollars raising money in order to get 3 million dollars to spend on education. This is a pretty bad deal, and you certainly wouldn’t want to scale it up to the level of all of New York City. New York City public schools spend roughly as much per student as our school, but they do not spend another 30% above that on fundraising.

    Government is actually very efficient at some things. Collecting money is one such thing. The IRS budget is something like .03% of the Federal budget. (Distributing money is another thing the government does efficiently, and governmental antipoverty operations like the EITC, WIC, and TANF, are way, way more efficient than any charitable organization--but that’s another story). Collecting taxes is really cheap and easy, but raising money privately is relatively expensive, difficult, and inefficient--and, even more importantly, there just isn’t that much private money to go around.

    Unscalability of Sending Students on to Fancy Prep Schools

    Like its fundraising, much of what the school did just could not be scaled up. One of the selling points of the school was that it sent a lot of students to fancy private high schools--Darrow, Columbia Prep, Collegiate, etc. This was a well-deserved benefit for the individual students who went to these schools, but there just aren’t nearly enough spots in fancy private schools to take all the deserving poor kids who would like to go to them. Our kids went to these schools because our school developed relationships with the prep schools--partly, no doubt, because our board members and volunteers already had relationships with these prep schools, sending their children there or having gone there themselves. Having a few poor kids go to school with a lot of rich kids is nice for both the poor kids and the rich kids, but there is only room for a few poor kids, since one of the main functions of private schools is to be selective about their student populations.

    Unscalability of Staffing

    Another wonderful thing about our school was its reading room. Judy and Barbara were wonderful, and the volunteers were wonderful. But there just aren’t enough wonderful rich volunteers out there to staff all of the reading resource rooms in all the public schools in all the poor neighborhoods in the country. Most public schools have to make do with paid aides.

    How much the reading room tutors get paid is one issue; another is how much the classroom teachers themselves get paid. Teachers at our school are making much, much less money than they could make elsewhere.  This is one reason we could have two teachers per grade. Miranda, my co-teacher, and I together cost the school less than a very experienced teacher could have made teaching in the city’s public schools. We were willing to do it partly because we were young and inexperienced, partly because the school seemed exciting, warm and humane (I liked it that the head of school went around hugging every child and telling them they were marvelous), and partly, perhaps, because the school was so full, not only of characters (every school has those--Joyce, the cook, who was from the islands and was going to set me up with her friend the literary agent, Rubin, the gym teacher, who shared with me his love for the books of mega-pastor T. D. Jakes, Luis, the handyman, who kept the place going, and many others), but also of privilege--the English gardener who came around weekly to work on our backyard; Barbara, the second-in-command in the Reading Room who was ABD at Columbia and who later graciously hosted me at her weekend estate in Columbia County; the Danish artists who lived in Harlem and sent their kids to the school (the only two white kids in the place, as I remember); Elspeth, the pre-K teacher who was Dwight MacDonald’s daughter-in-law; the headmaster who talked about Isaiah Berlin as if Berlin were his bosom companion. In any case, there is no way there will ever be enough good teachers willing to teach poor students for very little money. Whenever there’s a teacher shortage (this year, for instance), it’s always worst in places with poorer kids and places that pay less money. Our school was able to overcome these disadvantages and get decent teachers, but again, it was benefiting from being unusual.

    Nothing about our school was scalable

    In its ability to attract teachers who would work for low pay, in its ability to attract donors, in its ability to attract volunteers, and in its ability to place its graduates in fancy prep schools on scholarships, our school could only work on a very small scale. There just isn’t enough of that stuff (philanthropic money, cheap quality teaching, good volunteers, prep school scholarships) to go around even in its one small poor neighborhood of Manhattan, let alone in other poor neighborhoods in Manhattan, let alone in the many poor neighborhoods of the four other boroughs of New York City, let alone in the hundreds of other impoverished towns in New York State, let alone in the whole country.

    It wasn't scalable, but it gave the illusion of scalability--and that was the problem. The rich donors felt like they were heroes, and felt like they were actively doing something--which almost no one, unfortunately, feels when they pay their taxes. But dealing with the donors' feelings is a story for another day.

    Monday, August 9, 2021

    25 years ago, I took a yellow cab up to Harlem...

    I began my teaching career 25 years ago, at a small independent school in a poor neighborhood of New York City. I was twenty-six, I had just moved to New York, and I needed a job. I liked kids, and I wanted to take the summers off while my girlfriend was getting her Ph.D.--and I wasn't yet suspicious of private schools--so I sent my resume out to every independent school in the city. I got two interviews, and I took a job teaching second grade at a small school in Harlem. The school was a small, warm community, and I have very fond memories of the students and colleagues I spent years with. I still don't quite know, however, what to think about the school overall, which now, looking back, seems to have adumbrated some the educational philanthropy boom of the past 20 years--and its problems.  

    Since I left Harlem, private money in education has gotten a lot of attention

    I moved away from New York City in 2001. Over the past 20 years, there has been an unprecedented influx of private money into education policy, charter schools, and reforms, all ostensibly intended to improve education for children growing up in poverty. Small independent schools, many of them charters, have sprouted in poor neighborhoods everywhere. In Harlem alone, there are now at least twenty charter schools (and my old school itself, bowing to the logic of the situation, has become one of them). These charters are being pushed by boatloads of private money. Over a billion dollars a year is spent on education by philanthropic foundations, much of it by the big three: Walton, Broad and Gates. This private money has gotten tons of attention, but it has not improved outcomes in any meaningful way, as Gates himself has ruefully acknowledged. It is perhaps not surprising that the money hasn't made much of a difference, since while  Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, have spent several billion dollars on education reform schemes over the last fifteen years, that is far less than 1% of what K-12 public schools in the US spend each and every year. Nevertheless, the Gates Foundation's cultural influence is outsized--and mostly, in my view, malign.

    Inspired by Paolo Freire and Liberation Theology (but funded by Wall Street)

    The school I taught at in Harlem was funded by private donations, and in many ways we were quite well-off. Although the school, housed in a few old rowhouses on a single block in a poor neighborhood, was shabby and poorly equipped by the standards of the public schools in Leafstrewn or Riverside, its physical plant was at least on par with the local public school, and some things about it were really nice. The atmosphere was a bit cramped, a bit shabby, but very homey. The school was small--fewer than two-hundred students from pre-K up through 8th grade--and each class had fewer than 20 students. Each class also had two teachers. This was one of the really big advantages of the school. 

    I remember a kid named Messiah who lived in the neighborhood. Messiah was six or seven, and he used to come by and hang out in our classroom, especially before the school year started. He wanted to go to our school, and I think he eventually did-, but for now he was enrolled at the local public school. I was shocked when Messiah told me that he had over 40 students in his class, and one teacher. My class had 18 students, and two teachers.

    A very low student-teacher ratio was one thing we could do that the local public school couldn’t (we had a bit more money, our teaching staff wasn't unionized, and there wasn't tons of competition for well-educated young idealists like me). We also sent a fair number of kids to fancy private high schools. We had graduates at Collegiate, at the Darrow school, at Poly Prep, at Columbia Prep, and so on. We also had a nice reading room, run by a reading specialist and staffed by volunteer one-on-one tutors. The reading specialist, Judy, was competent and experienced, and the tutors were kind, smart and dedicated. I tutored in the reading room for a couple years after I left the school--I came in and read twice a week with one of my former students--but I was really unusual: as I recall, I seemed to be the only tutor who wasn’t a middle-aged woman from the rich section of Park Avenue.

    This was really the strangest thing about the school: it was a sweet, homey environment that brought together very poor kids and very privileged adults. The wife of restaurateur Warner Leroy (of Tavern on the Green fame) tutored with me in the Reading Room. The head of our development office lived, in a fancy Rockland county enclave, next door to Mikhail Baryshnikov. The chair of the school’s board was born a Vanderbilt; we went up to her country place in Connecticut for our staff retreats. Famous people came through pretty regularly. I got to shake the hands of Tony Bennett and Bette Midler. Some Kennedy ladies toured the school one day. The school’s computer specialist was the son of Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation.

    As a young teacher at the school, I always had mixed feelings about the privileged folks who supported the place. On the one hand, the school was a radical experiment whose founder (and head of school) was an inspiring poet and visionary who was constantly quoting Paulo Freire and who had spent most of the days of his adult life warmly nurturing kids in a poor neighborhood far from his own privileged upbringing, and a lot of the individuals I met were really nice. Baryshnikov’s neighbor, Nick, was a great guy who was passionate about the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Bruno Navasky was very sweet and very smart. On the other hand, the school did not seem all that revolutionary, really. The school was a tiny pet project in a vast sea of poverty and dysfunction. It always seemed to me strange that the rich folks came up to our school, and gave money to our school, when we only served a small, nearly insignificant fraction of the hundreds of thousands of poor schoolchildren in New York. Why were they at our school, when Messiah’s school around the corner needed so much more?

    Private Money Is Never Enough to Fix Large Public Problems

    I'm going to write some more about this, but the school was a microcosm of the problems that come when private money comes in to try to help poor people:

    • First, the money was grossly inadequate to the job, and the model was totally unsustainable.

    • Second, the school gave the illusion of doing something about the problem and made rich people into heroes, and so discouraged any change in the larger system. 

    This is part of a larger pattern in American life. Philanthropy, while doing some good for particular people, is often bad for American society overall: philanthropy is, while pretty obviously undemocratic, also afflicted with the problems people usually ascribe to government. That is, philanthropy is quite often inefficient, inadequate,  and anti-competitive.

    More tomorrow...

    Wednesday, July 28, 2021

    If we keep some form of remote schooling next year, don't blame teachers' unions

    It looks like next fall will not bring the paradise regained that so many teachers and parents were hoping for. The lost Eden of pre-pandemic school--no masks, no deafening air filters, no Zooming and muting and shifting from one bad tech platform to another, just the good old-fashioned human work of people in a room together, reading and writing and talking and seeing one another's faces. If we're lucky, the Delta spike will abate, as it has already done in the UK, in time for September, and we will muddle through with our masks and our air filters. That would be fine with me. As long as I'm in the same room with my students, things should be more or less good.

    That might not happen. If our Delta spike extends to Labor Day, or if some new, more devious variant of the virus arrives, we could be back to remote or hybrid schooling. I have seen some people worrying that teacher's unions will use the Delta spike "as an excuse" to keep their members from going back to the classroom, to the "enormous detriment of students." (That language comes from Joe Nocera, a journalist who is himself the son of two union teachers and should know better, but who seems to have strange ideas about teachers' unions.) I could be wrong, but what from what I've seen I think there is very little chance teacher's unions will push for remote school. Teacher's unions follow the desires of their members, and most of us teachers hated teaching online, hated seeing so many of our students fall through the cracks despite our extraordinary efforts, and would rather do almost anything than go back to the miserable, makeshift, stopgap schooling of the past year and a half.

    Teachers hate online school

    Since the case numbers in Massachusetts started to turn upward in late June, I have been worrying that we won't get all of our students back in person next fall.  Last week, I texted some of teacher friends and asked if I should be worried that we hadn't gotten the official word that we wouldn't be hybrid or remote. Some of the people in the group chat were sanguine, because they were paying attention to state policy; nobody mentioned the union; and nobody felt anything but horror at the thought of teaching remotely again. 

    One friend wrote: “I will. BURN. THE. BUILDING. DOWN. If we do remote hybrid. So we are either in person or not teaching.”

    Another friend wrote: "“I’m already on record with my department chair that I’m taking a year off if we’re teaching remotely again. I will literally go dig ditches somewhere—whether or not anyone pays me will be beside the point.”

    Now, I was always much more eager to return to normal schooling than the average teacher at my school, and since the teachers I just quoted are friends of mine, they are not a random sample, but my sense is that almost all teachers really, really want to be back in the classroom with all of their students.

    Why, then, was the union so cautious last year?

    Teachers' unions came in for a lot of criticism last year. My own union, in Leafstrewn, was the subject of a long piece in a national magazine, a piece that played almost everyone, including our Union President, for comedy (she made the mistakes of wearing a Bernie Sanders T-shirt and referring to her gentrifying neighborhood, which is indeed much, much less elite than Leafstrewn, as "working class"). The writer of the piece interviewed administrators, parents, School Committee members, union officials, but only one teacher, me. What I said then still seems true: teachers reacted to a deadly and poorly understood virus in exactly the same way other demographically similar groups of Americans (i.e. educated and/or liberal): most of them wanted to stay away from other people so they wouldn't get the disease. The fact that teachers were being tough on negotiating their return to the workplace was because they were unionized, so they could be tough in their negotiations. Most low-wage workers couldn't negotiate at all; most white collar workers didn't have to, because it was relatively easy for them to work from home.

    I myself was always eager to go back in person, mostly because from very early in the pandemic I thought that with masks and open windows it just wasn't very risky, but I see the trepidation of many of my colleagues as of a piece with the trepidation many other people felt. The union simply allowed that trepidation to be taken into account, and that is probably a good thing. If people are worried that their job isn't safe, the way to convince people to do it anyway is not to force them back to work even though they think it will kill them, the way to do it is to convince them that it's actually safe. The public health communications on COVID-19 has been generally terrible (the early idiocy on masks, the oddly enduring pandemic theater of sanitizing hands and surfaces when it should have been clear from the beginning that this was airborne), and blaming teachers for not wanting to go back to work when every other white collar professional was doing the same is just crazy. I have a lot of friends and family who have white-collar non-teaching jobs, and literally the only one who went in to a crowded workplace earlier than I did was my cousin who's an ER doctor. ER doctors were a special case: when you become a doctor, you are basically signing up for hazardous duty--and even so, many doctors did work from home last year.

    So, yes, schools should have re-opened earlier than they did, and schools should be open this fall, but the fact that teachers unions expressed and supported the feelings of their members, feelings that were identical to the feelings of their non-teacher peers (i.e. "I'm scared to go spend my days in a crowded room in a pandemic") is fine--that is exactly what a union is supposed to do. Fortunately, with the experience of last year showing that we can return in person with very little risk, and with vaccination providing another layer of protection, we all seem to be feeling very different from the way they were a year ago, and teachers really want to be back in the classroom.

    Tuesday, July 13, 2021

    The Null Hypothesis: Boring, but usually true?

    As an English teacher, one of my main goals is for my students to become better readers. I've been doing this job for twenty years now, and I have read lots of books and articles about it, and I have tried to figure out how to help students become better readers, and it is truly surprising to me that there is not a clearer consensus about what works best. But there isn't consensus, and as far as I can tell that is because there is no really clear evidence showing that if you do X in your class or in your school, rather than Y, kids will be better at reading.

    Like everyone, I have my opinions about what should work, and yet I have to acknowledge that there is the evidence is not very strong that my preferred approach is better than other people's preferred approaches. This uncertainty and lack of clear evidence in support of one approach is in a sense not that surprising, since it's true in a lot of other social science fields (for example, people argue about whether, if you want to win an election, you should spend your money on door-to-door canvassing or on TV ads), and it's easy to imagine reasons for this uncertainty. But at the same time, it is truly remarkable that even in the face of such uncertainty about the best way to proceed, people still, including me, get into highly charged debates about how schools should teach reading. And we all believe our approach is, not only the best, but also is supported by solid evidence.

    Some approaches people wrongly claim there is clear unambiguous evidence for

    I have seen arguments for each of these saying that there is clear evidence that it works better than current practice at improving reading comprehension:

           a) Lots of free voluntary reading (this is my preference, and scholars like Krashen and Allington have made the case, but the evidence is, I have to admit, not as strong as I would expect. Krashen's go-to stat is that in 51/54 studies, FVR does "as well as or better than" comparison programs; I'd like 54/54 to show it's better!)

           b) Explicit vocabulary instruction (this is often, as in the What Works Clearinghouse's advice on improving adolescent literacy, the very first recommendation, and yet to me the evidence seems weak that explicit vocabulary instruction is any better than just reading and learning words incidentally as you read. People often cite studies showing that if you teach kids key words from a passage beforehand, they will do better at reading the passage--but that seems obvious!)

           c)  Reading non-fiction (the Common Core made this a key feature of its standards, and prominent scholars like Tim Shanahan and Nell Duke have argued that evidence shows that being assigned more non-fiction will make you better at reading non-fiction. This sounds reasonable, but last I checked there was no evidence for it.)

           d) Instruction in reading strategies (Metacognition, using prior knowledge, making predictions, asking questions, identifying the main idea--teachers are told that explicit instruction in these "strategies" will help their students become better readers, but the evidence for this is pretty thin. Natalie Wexler has a lot of fun skewering reading strategy instruction in her book, The Knowledge Gap.)

           e)  Instruction in content knowledge (Natalie Wexler's sharply written book argues, I think correctly, that instruction in reading strategies is mostly useless and argues that what we need instead is to teach facts and content; unfortunately, the evidence for more instruction in content knowledge is not great either. Among other things, there are whole schools devoted to E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge approach, and as far as I can tell they do not get significantly better reading achievement outcomes.)

           f) Systematic phonics instruction, aka the "Science of Reading" (Many people claim that our early grade literacy instruction is outrageously ineffective, is dooming many students to failure, and is a leading social justice issue. And yet, here as in the other examples, including my own pet theory that children should be spend much more in-school time reading books, there is, to my knowledge, no really clear evidence yet of a school or district adopting this practice and obtaining dramatically different results from those of other schools or districts. I am still looking into this question, and there's a chance I'm missing something, but so far it looks a lot like it follows the same pattern as these other approaches.)

    Pointing out that someone's evidence is thin is not a way to win friends

    By now, I have a lot of experience, in blogs, in person, and on twitter, with asking for good evidence that a particular approach works. It usually follows the same pattern as my remarkable exchange with Tim Shanahan about non-fiction several years ago, or , more recently, of my Twitter exchanges with some education professors about vocabulary or with Natalie Wexler about content. 

    Shanahan had written on his blog that kids should read more non-fiction. I said that I wanted to see evidence, and he said:

    "Actually there is quite a bit of research showing that if you want students to be able to read expository text, you have to have them read (or write) expository text."

    When I suggested that there wasn't great evidence, he responded, with admirable candor:

     "You are correct that there is no study showing that increasing the amount of the reading of informational text has had a clear positive unambiguous impact on reading achievement or student knowledge. "

    I still don't get why he and Nell Duke were claiming that there was a lot of good evidence for reading non-fiction, when the only evidence I ever found was against it, but what he was doing is pretty common. People often make exaggerated claims about their preferred curriculum or instructional approach. This makes sense: there's a lot of upside to exaggerated claims about data and evidence, and extremely little downside, since editors and readers don't seem to push back very hard. In fact, I often get the feeling that I am considered rude for pointing out that the evidence is weak. After seeming to admit that I was right and he had been wrong to claim that there was good evidence to back up his claim, Tim Shanahan told me that I didn't understand how research worked or how causal claims were put forward. By that I now think he maybe meant that everyone knows that there's no "clear positive unambiguous evidence" for any particular approach to reading. I just think he's wrong--everyone definitely does not know this--and I am still trying to make sense of this fact myself.

    Why don't any of these new approaches yield dramatically different results in the real world?

    None of these different approaches seem to make much difference in students' reading abilities--but why not?! It seems to me that a school that builds a strong culture of reading, a school in which students read a lot during school, a school in which they talk about what they read, and read more than students in other schools--it seems to me that such a school should have dramatically better results than comparable schools. And yet the East Side Community School, a wonderful school (with a bad-ass principal) that truly values reading and seems to be doing everything I would want it to, including having its kids read an average of 40 books a year (?!), has test scores that are only somewhat above average. Its test scores are arguably evidence of huge success, given that it has a higher than average number of poor kids, but it isn't totally clear that it's the reading program, rather than the schoolwide culture of caring and engagement or the fact that parents had to apply and send in a letter of interest (which means that its student body is not randomly selected) that leads to the higher than average reading scores. Also, despite the school's apparently amazing culture, its students are still not achieving at the level of a place like Leafstrewn, the district with the most educated parents in the entire country. And the academic literature on what Stephen Krashen calls "Free Voluntary Reading" is pretty good (see his book), but it is not a slam-dunk. I think it's somewhat better than the evidence for the other later-grade approaches I listed above, but I wish it were better. If somebody wanted to argue that my preferred approach didn't have unambiguous empirical evidence, I'd have to agree, just as people like Tim Shanahan admit, when pressed, that their preferred approaches don't have "clear positive unambiguous impacts on student reading achievement." But... why? Why can't we show that any new approach is clearly better than the current practice? The answer, I think, is threefold.

    1) Reading is the complex result of many factors

    Some of the factors that go into reading skill include: genetic abilities of one kind or another (it seems reasonable to think that there might be some genetic component to a child's verbal aptitude, to their ability to sit and concentrate, to their auditory processing, to their working memory, etc.); the language environment in which a child grows up (conversations with caregivers in early childhood, number of books in the classroom and in the home, examples of literacy in the neighborhood and among peers, traumatic events, etc.); the specific instruction a child receives in grapheme/phoneme relationships; the amount of reading the child does on their own; and probably more.

    2) Most of these factors are outside of the purview of school

    Children spend far more time outside of school than in it, and even what they do during school hours is largely influenced by their lives outside the schoolhouse. A student's reading ability in 10th grade, or 8th grade, or even 3rd grade, is mostly the result of out-of-school factors. Many of these factors are in place before a student even reaches Kindergarten.

    3) Most teachers are trying to do a good job, and the important stuff is pretty obvious

    Most teachers are smart, caring people who love their students and want to help their students learn, and most stuff teachers do with kids is basically fine. These preferred strategies are obviously not bad. If you teach them vocab, that's probably good--they're thinking about words! If you teach them reading strategies, that's probably good--they're reading! If you teach them content knowledge, that's probably good--they're thinking about the content you're discussing! If you have them "just read", that's probably good--some of them will actually do it, and reading is very worthwhile! If you teach them phonics, that's probably good--it is true that the relationship between letters and sounds is fundamental! 

    And even if you do the opposite, you are probably doing something that's worthwhile. If, instead of phonics, you use the much-reviled "whole language" approach,  you probably, unless you are really out of your mind, will spend at least some time on grapheme-phoneme relationships, since it is totally obvious that those matter. And even if, instead of doing, as I would suggest, a lot of in-class storytime and independent reading, you spend your class time discussing a book that kids are supposed to read at home (and many won't), those kids will still probably read a little bit in class and will still hear everyone else discussing the book in class.

    It is obvious that reading is good. It is obvious that the grapheme-phoneme relationship is fundamental to reading. It is obvious that learning new words is good. It is obvious that learning about the world is good. So it is not surprising that most teachers, in their classrooms, do at least some stuff that is useful. That may not be a very high bar--"do at least some stuff that is useful"--but it is high enough, along with the out-of-school factors, to mean that it is really, really hard to show that one particular change will make a significant difference.

     What's the takeaway? Maybe we should be more modest and less certain of our rightness, and maybe we should be focusing more on what matters most?

    For me, the fact that no particular change in practice can be shown to have "clear positive unambiguous impacts on student reading achievement" means not that we teachers shouldn't try to do a good job in our classrooms, nor that we shouldn't research and talk and write about the effects of different approaches to literacy, but that we should be more modest and understanding in our discourse. Over the last decade and a half, Bill Gates poured billions of dollars into education reform ideas that were founded, he thought, in solid "scientific" data, but all of which went absolutely nowhere. Gates money and influence has probably had a positive impact in other realms, like the fight against malaria (malaria has killed a large fraction of all humans ever to have lived, and yet between 2000 and 2015 deaths from malaria went down by 60%). Bill Gates should probably be focusing his efforts on public health, not education.

    So maybe we too (and by "we" I mean "I") should be spending our time thinking and talking about other stuff--stuff like, for instance, climate change. Our planet is heating up, it's having major impacts on human life and well-being, and we should all be doing what we can to raise awareness of the problem and its potential solutions. I do hope to work on that more*, but I'm still an English teacher, so I will keep thinking about teaching and reading and writing; I will just try to do it, all the more, in a spirit of humility and good cheer. And I will keep reminding myself and others that a lot of what really matters is outside of the schoolhouse. 

    *Personally, I have tried to help by advising the Environmental Action Club at my school, by adopting a mostly vegetarian diet and talking about why I did it, by riding my bike to work and telling everyone else how convenient it is and how great it makes me feel, by putting solar panels on my house and telling everyone I know to do the same, by planning a switch to solar-driven electric heat pumps for heating and cooling and telling others how great this will be, by supporting housing and zoning reform that would allow more people to live in great walkable neighborhoods like mine, and by giving money to Environmental causes and political candidates who support them. But none of this is enough, and I should probably be spending my time thinking and writing about climate change rather than literacy education.

    Friday, July 9, 2021

    Deus Ex Scholia Redux: Is Education the Biggest Social Justice Issue?

    Someone I know and respect tweeted out yesterday the following: "The biggest social justice issue is education."

    This is an interesting contention. As a teacher, I would like it to be true. When I do a good job as a teacher, I like to feel that I am making the world better, that I am helping people. As an American, I want to believe that our schools, arguably our largest communal endeavor, can be a force for good. And as someone who loves ideas, conversations and books, I want education to help everyone love those things.

    But I'm not sure what follows from thinking that school is important. The tweet that I saw went on to say that "it has nothing to do with who gets into Yale or Stanford. It's what's happening in the early grades. Always shocking to me how little activists outside of the ed world talk about this." The presumption here seems to be that one really good way to work for social justice would be to do something to change the structure or implementation of early grade education. Again, that feels reasonable, even important. But I don't know what it means in practice, and whatever it means I am skeptical about its impact. 

    It's hard to improve society by improving schools, mainly because it's hard to improve schools

    In the years I've been a teacher, NCLB failed, the Common Core failed, and the Gates foundation spent billions of dollars on various initiatives (small schools, measuring teacher effectiveness, hyping the Common Core, etc.) and, by its own account, failed. And these recent failures are not surprising, since education reform basically always fails.

    And yet, we keep trying to change our society by changing our education system. Partly, perhaps, because hope springs eternal in the human breast, but also because making direct, material changes to our society would cost material resources (i.e. money and power), and we want to make changes that are about changing techniques, not about shifting resources. In other words, we want to fix poverty by doing a better job of teaching poor people how to fish, even though their local streams have few fish in them, rather than by changing the ecosystem so that there are more fish everywhere, and/or (especially in the meantime), just giving them some fish directly. 

    Effective Ed Reform might actually cost a lot of money

    Arguably, one ed reform measure that didn't fail was my own state's much-lauded 1993 Education Reform Act. This is interesting history, and I want to think about it more, but my working hypothesis (and I'm sure lots of people have made this argument) is that while the 1993 law is remembered (even in its wikipedia page) as being mainly about introducing new state standards, new charter schools, and new standardized testing, in fact the most important thing it did was dramatically increase state funding for poor school districts. Unfortunately, these funding levels weren't maintained, and some of the improvement (in testing gaps, for instance) seems to have been lost.

    What about the Science of Reading?

    I'm not sure (because it's Twitter, the argument wan't spelled out), but I think the tweet that prompted my musings about Ed Reform may actually have been about reading instruction. There are a lot of people out there who believe very strongly that the early-grade reading instruction in US schools is almost universally terrible--that kids simply are not being taught the fundamental relationship between letters and sounds. There is probably some real truth to this. While my own children's schools certainly seemed to put a fair amount of focus, in the K-2 years, on grapheme-phoneme relationships, there also do seem to be some crazy ideas circulating widely (e.g., three-cueing). The questions, for me, are: (a) How much would a switch to best practices in K-2 reading instruction improve reading ability in, say, 10th grade? and (b) How much would an improvement in reading ability make a difference in social justice?

    I am not super optimistic on either point, partly because large-scale ed reform has a history of not living up to its hype (see above) and partly because I don't see much evidence of shifts in reading scores either at the school level (when I've asked for examples of districts that have adopted science of reading practices and seen significant score improvement, the examples I've been offered have been few and, in my view, not super impressive) or at the national level (for example, both England and California have tried to make some changes systemwide, to very little noticeable effect, though I'm sure it's true, as always, that implementation has not been great).

    But I hope to look into the reading question a bit more deeply over the next few weeks, and maybe what I will learn will change my mind. It would be great if we could change some stuff in our schools and make our society better and more humane. Unfortunately, I think our best hope is to try in a more direct way to make the society better. (In the same way, while I am not against anti-racist education, and I am even on my English department's anti-racist committee, I think it's much more promising, if we want to reduce the harmful effects of historical and structural racism, to try to make some structural changes in our society--e.g. do some things that less unequal societies do, like higher minimum wages, stronger unions, easier voting, national health care, anti-pollution regulation, etc.)

    In the meantime, if anyone has good stories about ed reform or SoR success stories, I'm looking for good reading material.  On SoR, I've read books or many long pieces by Gillingham, Stanovich, Seidenberg, and Hanford, but I know there's more stuff out there...

    Friday, July 2, 2021

    Poverty and Educational Achievement: the importance of having enough

    Everyone knows that, on average, poor kids do worse in school and on reading tests. Poverty is highly correlated with school success, and in fact despite the perennial search for unicorn schools that can magically bring poor kids up to the level of rich kids, I have never seen any evidence of a school that can bring a non-cherry-picked population of poor students to the level of achievement of many schools full of non-poor students. I've written about this here and here. Today I want to highlight a couple of studies that point to why poverty has such powerful effects. But first, I want to highlight a few common but misguided responses to the fact that poverty plays a huge role in educational achievement. 

    The first response is to write off the difference as simply genetic, and therefore impossible to change. Beyond being probably just wrong, this response is not socially acceptable, so you don't see it said explicitly very often, but I do think it's an unspoken assumption that underlies some of our inaction.

    Another response is to blame the individual students or their families. If they aren't rich, it's their fault, because they didn't follow Benjamin Franklin's precepts: work hard, be abstemious, and save money. Like the genetic response, this is a mostly unspoken excuse for inaction.

    A third response is to blame teachers, or teachers' unions, or schools. This is absurd, since there is literally no school that actually manages to overcome poverty and educate non-cherry-picked students up to the level of low-poverty districts, but its absurdity doesn't prevent its being a favorite idea of education reformers everywhere. They get to cloak their elitism and greed in the guise of social justice.

    A fourth response, which is in some ways the most interesting, is to suggest that what sets the rich kids apart is that they are given extra help and cultural "enrichment" by their families. I hear this one all the time from well-meaning colleagues. Rich kids get trips to Europe, and to museums, while poor kids go to the broken down playground down the street. Rich kids go to artsy summer camps in Maine, while poor kids go to the Y. Rich kids get tutoring, while poor kids sit in front of the TV. There may be something to this, but it makes it seem like the difference between poor kids and rich kids is that the rich kids get something extra, and I don't think that's true. 

    It's not that rich kids are getting something extra, it's that poor kids aren't getting enough.

    When I was a kid, my family did not go to Europe. I didn't attend expensive summer camps. My mom was on food stamps for a while. My parents worried about money. They ended up doing fine, but they were always incredibly frugal. I never had a tutor (though to be fair I did have highly educated parents who were around a lot). What I did have was about a million books, and lost of time to read them, and not many worries about my material comfort. I was pretty sure I was going to get enough to eat.

    Two recent studies show the importance of getting enough:

    1) Study 1: Kids read better when they're fed better

    SNAP is the government program that gives low-income families a debit card with which they can buy food (people still refer to the program as "food stamps"). This is a great program, but it doesn't provide all that much money (less than $150 per person per month). The debit card is credited once a month, and families often find themselves running out of money as the month goes on.

    In North Carolina, the money is credited to different families at different times, depending on the last couple of digits of the recipient's social security number. This allows for cool natural experiments like the one in the paper I read. A study by a Duke professor compares students' standardized test scores to when the students' families received their SNAP benefits. It turns out that scores are at their worst just before and just after the benefits are credited, and the scores are best about two to three weeks after the money arrives.

    In the words of the study authors:

    Student reading test scores appear to peak in the period from the 15th to 19th day post-SNAP receipt, and student math test scores appear to peak in the period from the 20th to 24th day post-SNAP receipt.

    This interesting result suggests that nutrition matters to testing--and, by extension, very likely matters to learning as well. It doesn't matter a huge amount (something like 3% of a standard deviation), but it is easy to imagine a relatively small effect snowballing over time and creating a reverse Matthew effect, since if you fall behind by even 0.5% every year, by the time you're a senior in High School you will be behind by 6%, and it's likely that even at peak performance, kids whose families receive SNAP benefits will be less well-fed and more stressed in general.

    2) Study 2: The stress of poverty takes up mental bandwidth

    This study, by a few economists, two of whom wrote a book about this effect, is a bit further from education, but has larger effect sizes. These scholars did experiments designed to study how the stress of worrying about money affects cognitive performance. The results were more dramatic than I would have expected.

    In one set of experiments, the authors asked shoppers at a mall in New Jersey to consider how they would handle a financial issue--for example, “Your car is having some trouble and requires $X to be fixed. You can pay in full, take a loan, or take a chance and forego the service at the moment... How would you go about making this decision?”)--and then, while they were considering the financial issue, to perform some basic cognitive tasks. If the financial issue was relatively easy (e.g. the car only required $150 to fix), then rich and poor people performed equally well on the cognitive tasks. If the issue was more difficult (e.g. the car required $1500 to fix), then rich people scored much, much better on the cognitive tasks, probably because the poor people were worrying about how they would come up with the $1500.

    In another experiment discussed in the same paper, the authors gave cognitive tasks to small-holding sugarcane farmers in India before and after the harvest. This is a naturally randomized experiment, since different farmers harvest their sugarcane at very different times, over a several month period, according to when the sugarcane mills, which have a limited capacity, can process their cane.  The time before the harvest is not a time of poor nutrition, but it is a time of financial pressures (for instance, the farmers pawn items at a much higher rate). In this time of financial pressure, the farmers were much, much worse at cognitive tasks than they were during the relatively flush period after they harvested and sold their crop.

    In these experiments, poor people who were thinking about money pressures performed far worse on cognitive tests than when they weren't thinking about money, and worse than people who had enough money that they didn't have to think about it.

    Fortunately, these studies point to a relatively simple solution: reduce poverty!

    It seems obvious to me that the solution to the poverty problem is not better education; rather, the solution to the education problem is less poverty. Just as we know, from studying public health, that the most important factors in a population's physical health and longevity are not the quality of the hospitals and doctors, so, in education, the most important factors in academic performance are not the quality of the schools and teachers. Just as my cousin wants to be an excellent doctor, so I want to be an excellent teacher. But as a society, we need to pay more attention to educational public health, and restructure our society so that, as in other rich countries, poor children are less poor. As a bonus, these policies would make us healthier, too!

    Saturday, June 26, 2021

    New study of universal preschool has confusing results...

    I've been thinking a lot this past week about reading, vocabulary, and poverty, but I haven't gotten my thoughts in order. In the meantime, I want to note an interesting recent study of universal preschool that raises some interesting questions about what school is good for. The pandemic has taught me that school is important in all sorts of ways, and this study goes along with that lesson.

    Preschool leads to more schooling, but test scores don't go up

    The new paper, which came out last month, is about the long-term effects of a universal preschool program in Boston. The study finds that preschool enrollment significant boosts high-school graduation, SAT-taking, college attendance, and reduces juvenile incarceration. Interestingly, the study finds that preschool enrollment does NOT have a detectable impact on state achievement test scores. This is an interesting paradox: universal preschool keeps kids in school longer and gets kids to college, but it does not measurably increase their test scores. How could this be?

    This finding--that increased attachment to school does not have a detectable impact on test scores--is extremely counterintuitive. School is supposed to make you better at reading and math, and if preschool makes you more likely to stay in school, more likely to go to college, more likely to take the SATs, more likely to stay out of trouble, those behaviors should lead you also to get more of schools benefits, and you should do better on reading and math tests. That this apparent increase in attachment to school does not lead to higher scores seems to suggest, disturbingly, that school itself does not necessarily lead to higher scores. This uncomfortable suggestion reminds me a paper from a couple of years ago about the "summer slide."

    The summer slide is famous, but it might not really exist

    The "summer slide" refers to the idea that students--especially less privileged students--not only fail to make academic progress over the summer, but actually slide backward. This idea has long been accepted as an established truth. Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, states the idea this way:

    "America doesn't have a school problem. It has a summer vacation problem." (Outliers, 260)

    The idea is that the gap between rich kids and poor kids narrows during the school year, and then widens during the summer. According to a 2019 paper (von Hippel and Hamrock), this isn't actually true: 

    "If summer learning gaps are present, most of them are small and hard to discern."

    The 2019 paper is an interesting reminder of how much measurement matters. Learning gaps were thought to widen over the summer not only because testing regimes used different tests for different grades, and scores on the different tests were hard to compare, but also because how you measure the gap affects how much a gap changes. Scaling test results in different ways results in dramatically different accounts of how much a gap widens or narrows:

    Ultimately, von Hippel and Hamrock's paper suggests that "reading and math gaps grow substantially more in the first five years of life than they do in the nine years after school begins." 

    If the gap is established in early childhood, shouldn't preschool help?

    Von Hippel and Hamrock's 2019 paper concludes with a call for investment in early childhood: 

    "The growing interest in early-childhood programs—such as preschool, home visits, and new-parent training—is justified. It is vital to invest in early-childhood programs, and it is just as vital to understand why some early-childhood programs succeed in shrinking gaps, whereas others fail to realize their potential."

    This makes sense. But, to come back to the paper about preschool, if preschool can help, why didn't universal preschool in Boston raise test scores?

    What is the point of school, after all?

    Right now, we don't know why the test scores didn't go up. But one deep question this study raises is: What is the point of school?, is the purpose of school to raise test scores, or is it to help students attain other skills or qualities (persistence? obedience? cooperation? organization?). Is it maybe okay that test scores didn't go up? I don't really like that idea, since I think academic skills are fun and useful, but I am open to the idea that school has different kinds of benefits as well, and maybe those are more important.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2021

    Deus Ex Scholia (or, Michael Lewis has a bad idea)

    Post-pandemic, I'm coming back to this blog as a place to think through questions about education and literacy. Because education matters, but it's not always obvious how it matters, nor how it can be improved.

    Deus Ex Scholia

    It's always amazing how many fairly sophisticated people have naive and simple-minded ideas about school. I listened not too long ago to an interview, about America's pandemic response, with the writer Michael Lewis. It was mostly smart and interesting, but there was a moment that stopped me short.

    Lewis and the host were talking about whether or not different policy responses to COVID actually made much difference, given that states like Florida, whose policies were quite lax, didn't seem to have much higher rates of transmission. Culture is, it seems, at least as important as policy. But what can you do to change the culture? This is an interesting question, so I started listening more carefully.

    Talking about policies that might actually make a difference, Lewis said, "I’ll be God for a minute and institute reforms that sound kind of technical, but I think would have massive consequences." The first two things Lewis would do as God could conceivably actually make a difference: first, turn many leadership positions in the Federal government from political appointments to civil service positions with a longer tenure, and second, reward the little people who are doing the hard work. 

    So far, so good: those things wouldn't be easy to accomplish, but they are interesting and slightly unusual ideas. But when Lewis offered his third suggestion, I laughed aloud. I'll quote the paragraph in full:

    Number three, I reintroduce civics into the American curriculum. So every kid needs to know — you can’t get out of the eighth grade without knowing what the Department of Energy does and things like that. We start to educate again the population about what the public sector is. There’s such a branding problem right now. There’s such a screwed up notion about what it’s for and what it’s not for.

    This ought to be self-evidently absurd, but unfortunately it's the kind of thing you hear a lot from people who want to change the culture.

    When little children or simpletons think a cultural phenomenon is dangerous, they say, "There ought to be a law."

    At a somewhat higher level of sophistication, people realize that maybe a "law" is a crude form of coercion, or they think that a law won't be passed unless people's beliefs change first, so they say, "Let's teach about this in school." As if this would be easy, as if you could make sure that the teaching on the subject that ended up in school wouldn't be the exact opposite of what you want, and as if, even if you could teach what you wanted, the teaching would be effective. I'm skeptical about each of these assumptions (and I'm not alone)!

    Is school material or cultural? (Yes.)

    School is important, but it's not always important in a simple, straightforward way, and it can't always be changed in a simple, straightforward way. We want kids to get better at reading, so we spend a lot of time "teaching" them to read. When this doesn't work as well as we want it to, we critique the way we're teaching them, but not whether direct instruction is the best way for kids to learn. When kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds perform dramatically differently on tests, we decide that it is school's job to fix this difference and we introduce new layers of programming, or we de-track our classes, or we change the curriculum. When this doesn't work as well as we want it to, we critique the way we are teaching, but not whether school can actually be expected to compensate for large inequities outside the schoolhouse.

    The deus ex scholia method of solving social problems in the world is as absurd and unsatisfying as deus ex machina method of solving plot problems in a narrative. In fact, it's much less satisfying, since the deus ex scholia method just puts off the solution into the future.

    I tend to see cultural problems as downstream of material problems. If we want to solve cultural problems, let's make sure people have good-paying jobs, reliable health insurance, and housing that doesn't cost a fortune (and smaller-bore material changes like the ones Michael Lewis mentioned could also be helpful).

    Does that mean that schools aren't important? No, of course not. Schools can make a difference, but in schools, too, the material is as important as the cultural. Direct instruction in literacy or rhetorical techniques is useful, in small doses, but most of what students need is actual practice in reading and writing and speaking. Don't ask, what is the teacher saying; ask, what is the student actually doing?

    I'll be thinking about these questions more in future posts. For now, it's summer, and I'm going for a bike ride.