Sunday, June 29, 2014

John King's Story

Listening to people tell their story often gives us a clue what they are thinking about, how they do the connecting of certain dots. That was my reaction to watching this video from a Manhattan Institute appearance by John King. Sometimes people who are sincere about wanting to fix education in this country (I do not assume all reformsters are cynical profiteering greedhounds) make connections between things that simply don't make sense. But by looking at their stories, sometimes we can see what The Dream is for education.

The whole business is introed by Charles Sahm, a deputy director at the Institute with whom I've had some entirely pleasant email correspondence, and his intro contains one notable nugget-- apparently the Manhattan Institute is planning to release rankings of every school in the country next year. Swell.

Norman Atkins Leads Off

But next up, to introduce John King, is Norman Atkins of the Relay Graduate School of Education and Uncommon Schools. Between his intro and the beginning of John King's speech, we get a full version of the John King Story.

Atkins opens by observing that "teacher training" is now a "politically incorrect" phrase. "So we have to be careful with our language." He's just saying, I guess.

Atkins sets up an analogy by referring to the group that launched Uncommon Schools as a dream team, and John King was Michael Jordan. But he's going to tell a story.

Labor Day, 1999. John King (who would have been about 24) and Evan Ruttle (sp?) were getting ready to open Roxberry Prep, one of the country's most swell charter schools. John had worked for two or three years (my sources say two) at City on the Hill Charter School. So it's been a long day, but late in the day, they noticed that the student name stickers on the lockers were "put up in a really sloppy fashion." King declared that unacceptable, so in the wee hours, they were fixing the stickers on the lockers. And while they were doing that, King was describing the vision for teaching each of the core subjects at Roxberry, based on all the work they had done preparing the school. In Atkins telling, this involved scouring the international standards and national standards "such as they were" and Massachusetts standards. King had figured out the arc of lessons and units and "was narrating this with tremendous energy and detail." And at that moment, Roxberry Prep was born.

So here's one piece of The Dream-- a school that is squeaky-perfect, completely planned and controlled by the people who run it. Also note-- given all the illustrative stories Atkins could pick to show how King injected greatness into Roxberry, he picks a story without any teachers or students in it.

Classroom Is Key

Atkins quotes Sol Stern to Sol Stern, saying "the primal scene of all education reform is in the classsroom." One of the reasons we're in so much trouble in American education, says Atkins, is many of the people in charge of education haven't spent time in the classroom." But we are blessed in New York to have a leader "who knows instruction and what goes on in the classroom better than anybody."

Someday I'll have a chance to send out a reformster questionnaire, and one of the questions I'll ask is "How do you think people best acquire knowledge of how to do classroom instruction?" Because on the one hand reformsters think teachers (particularly experienced ones) have no knowledge worth consulting. On the other hand, John King, who taught in a public classroom a grand total ONE year, and only two more in a charter classroom, somehow knows more about classroom instruction than God. 

Atkins says that one of the reasons that King is beloved is that he would plan down to every small detail the instruction for the entire year in his school and our schools. He would do this with high standards, and plan the entire year in detail for the students to achieve that.

Well, one can certainly see how that might lead to an education commissioner who likes the idea of canned online day-by-day lessons on engageNY. But what reason do we have to believe that this is good teaching? Certainly I should not walk into the classroom and pull today's lesson out of my butt, but if know exactly what I'm doing on the 150th day of school before I have even met my students on the first, I am NOT a great teacher. I am a content delivery specialist, and my students are little cogs who are supposed to mold themselves to fit my program. I have already built my square hole; all you pegs had better shape up, no matter what shape you started out as.

Educational Rock Star

Also, according to Atkins, King was out and about in his schools a great deal, popping into every classroom on a daily basis, "managing instruction." He continues to do this as commissioner. He isn't just watching teachers, but his eye is on the students, seeing what they're learning and if they're learning. He's asking would this class be good enough for my kids. He is also a master at giving feedback; his visits are not evaluative with your career on the line, but a way to get better. Imagine having someone "so brilliant" come into your room and give you "incredible" feedback.

This is another part of The Dream. A necessary ingredient for excellent schools is rock star leaders, educational geniuses who can lead all the lesser beings. Reformsters like to talk about teams, but what they invariably describe is a benevolent monarchy. A brilliant creates and directs a vision, and the rest of the plebes fall in line and implement it.

I expect this is why King has spent his whole career gravitating to charters-- because in a charter, the ability to control everything, every detail, every teacher, every student, is so much greater. You can teach exactly the kind of students you want with exactly the teachers you want teaching exactly as you want.

Boosting Common Core

John asks questions, and the core question is "Is this good enough?" Always positive, but never satisfied. And always told the truth. Being the "captain" for education is hard, but we need a truth teller because we are lying to ourselves. 80% think other people's schools are failing, but our own schools are great. "There's something not right about that." By plugging CCSS, King is exposing that what we're doing isn't good enough.

Why is that a good idea? Again, I'm no fan of building educational camels in committee, but what if there aren't enough geniuses to go around? What if the genius isn't right all of the time? What if somebody passes themselves off as a genius but is actually a gigantic tool? And doesn't this tend to result in schools that are organized around the genius and not the students?

Atkins now attaches King to the tradition of Horace Mann. Mann wanted common schools for everyone; King wants Common Core for everyone. Atkins defines Common Core as "highest possible standards for all our children." Atkins name-checks Steiner and Cerf who both suggested that John's intro include a reference to his courage. When other states are ducking away from CCSS, King has the courage to stay the course.

King Tells His Story

The Dream is always of high standards, and we continue to cling to the unexamined (by reformsters) assumption that CCSS represent high standards, not to mention the unexamined assumption that such a thing as a single set of standards that will fit our entire nation of children is even do-able, or could even bring about results. None of those assumptions have been proven correct. Repeatedly pushing them forward is not the same as proving them.

King leads off with his story. And make no mistake-- King's story is a hell of a story. Mother passed away when he was eight, leaving King with a father who was dying of Alazheimers, King credits public school teachers with saving him. And he doesn't do it in a vague, general way-- he routinely names the guy. Mr. Osterweil was challenging and exciting and King says that in his class, they had the Common Core before it was the Common Core. They studied Shakespeare. They would read the New York Times every day and summarize the articles, and King benefited forever after from the academic work and the discipline. They had a classroom that was stable, challenging, and nurturing.

It is a great story, even if usually skips over the part where he was thrown out of Phillips Andover ivy league prep school. And the fact that King equates Common Core with Mr. Osterweil's class shows yet another disconnect in the CCSS love-fest. Because, of course, Mr. Osterweil's class was like that because Mr. Osterweil was free to do what he judged best for his roomful of students.

What I wish King would ask himself is, what would happen to Mr. Osterweil today? How many of those lessons that King cherishes would be put aside for test prep. How much time would he have to spend teaching the required lessons from the state; would Principal King let Mr. Osterweil set his own program, or would King have the lessons all planned out in detail, first day through last, before Mr. Osterweil even came back from summer break? How stable and nurturing would the class be when Mr. Osterweil had to guide his charges through this week's punishing and demoralizing test. I'd bet that King is confident that Mr. Osterweil would be found highly effective on his modern evaluation, but I'm not so confident. If Mr. Osterweil had the wrong assortment of students, or was unable to use his most effective techniques because Principal King's program didn't allow for them, would it turn out that King's favorite life-saving teacher was rated ineffective?

Just how many more Mr. Osterweil's are out there, and what is Commissioner King doing to make sure that they be the best classroom teachers they can be?


  1. The Manhattan Institute is a far right "think tank" or propaganda mill. Why would I waste my time on viewing something from a disreputable outfit with a clear agenda? The Manhattan Institute believes in destroying public education, just like the rest of them.

    There are NO benign or sincere people in this movement, understand? They are cultists who believe the end justifies any means. Their "end," of course, is destroying the public sector. The public sector is bad simply because it is public.

  2. Uhhhggg!
    So much reformista history leads back to Boston and Massachusetts! (Of course, we have the Havahd Graduate School of Ed where these people are doing terrible things to schools and education, their consciences protected by their ignorance and that ignorance by their arrogance.) And we have the Pioneer Institute reformistas from the late '80's, which normal people used to think were a bunch of kooks, who now look pretty tame. And our commish of Ed is Mitchell Chester who also just happens to be president of PAARC - no conflict of interest there, just move along!

    And now it's John King who got his start at City on a Hill, which last year graduated, as per the Edushyster, a total of 4 boys! King's school is actually spelled Roxbury Prep, though I prefer your spelling - sounds so bucolic - kinda like Mayberry.

    1. oops! forgot the quotes:
      "These new people are doing terrible things to primary school education, their consciences protected by their ignorance and that ignorance by their arrogance." Kelvin Smythe,