Friday, April 24, 2015

Nicholas Kristof's Tourist Balls

When a tourist is visiting a place, just passing through, but they feel that they must share their infinite wisdom with the natives and tell the natives How Things Should Be Done-- that takes big balls. Big tourist balls.

Your second cousin Fred who came to stay for a long weekend and wanted to re-arrange your entire kitchen? Tourist balls. The summer people who want to re-arrange the downtown of that quaint village in which they live one month out of twelve? Tourist balls. The European colonizers who wanted to remake all African civilization in their own image? Huge tourist balls.

Nicholas Kristof was in the New York Times yesterday announcing that it's time for reformsters to move on.

The zillionaires are bruised. The idealists are dispirited. The number of young people applying for Teach for America, after 15 years of growth, has dropped for the last two years. The Common Core curriculum is now an orphan, with politicians vigorously denying paternity.

K-12 education is an exhausted, bloodsoaked battlefield. It’s Agincourt, the day after. So a suggestion: Refocus some reformist passions on early childhood.

And at this point I was already steaming. My most immediate response was, "Ooooh! Iddums all tuckered out?? Poor iddle iddums." But I pressed on.

He offers three reasons that early childhood will be the new black next season.
First, tiny minds are malleable, so we can better shape them into what we want. All we have to do is "coach" parents to "stimulate" their children. And, without naming it, he uses Raj Chetty's totally bogus research that suggests that even though it looks like the results of early childhood boosts disappear in the teens, they actually reappear in the twenties in the form of cash. [Update: Kristof asserts, via Twitter, that I've missed the reference here. Fair enough. Doesn't make me any more convinced. ]

Second,  he cites all the research and anecdotal evidence that charters make magical gains appear with poor kids. Well, he doesn't so much cite it or examine it so much as he waves his hand and suggests its over there. 

Third, early childhood would be easier to work on because it's not so politically charged. So getting bipartisan money for early childhood ed should be easier.

There's a whole discussion to be had about how to do early childhood right (spoiler alert: it doesn't involve formal instruction and Pearson standardized tests). But I'm too angry about Kristof's giant tourist balls to have that discussion right now.

Kristof manages to say one or two things that aren't stupid-- like this:

Education inequity is America’s original sin. A majority of American children in public schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and they often get second-rate teachers in second-rate schools — even as privileged kids get superb teachers. This perpetuates class and racial inequity and arises in part from a failed system of local school financing.

But then he immediately goes on to say this:
But fixing K-12 education will be a long slog, so let’s redirect some energy to children aged 0 to 5 (including prenatal interventions, such as discouraging alcohol and drug use among pregnant women)

This is the theme of his piece. He opened by noting that education reformers have been working at this for twelve whole years! Twelve!! Think of it. But now it's just oh so hard and it turns out that you can't just breeze in like some miraculous drive-by do-gooder and just fix things. There are real problems! And some of them are hard to solve! Gosh, those of us who work in education had no idea.
So clearly it's time to pack up and move on.

Look, I believe there are a handful of reformsters who know better, and I'm sure plenty of them mean well. But this is just too much. I'm pretty sure that I read Kristof more often than he reads me. But I have a message for him anyway.

Dear Mr. Kristof:

Does a decade seem like a long time to work at education? Does working at education seem hard? While we're at it, have you noticed that water is wet?

This-- this "well this has been difficult, it's time to move on"-- THIS is why from the first moment reformsters showed up on the scene, teachers across America rolled our eyes, squared our shoulders, and turned away. Because we knew that the day would come when the tourists decided they wanted to pack up and leave. Because you were not in it to get the job done.

Reformsters were never the white knights or the saviors of education. The vast majority of reformsters were the people who swept into a home, pulled all the furniture out from the wall, burned the drapes (because you don't want these old things) and started to tear the floor up. Then somewhere around day three, you declare, "Man this is hard, and this couch doesn't fit against that wall (which we had told you all along)" and so you pack up, drive away, and leave the residents to put things back together.

You think twelve years was a long time? I've been at this for thirty-six, and I have plenty more to go because there's still work to do, and as long as I can do it, I will. Plenty of my colleagues have done and will do the same. You think educating in the face of poverty and lack of resources and systemic inequity is difficult? Many of my colleagues have been doing it for decades. But reformsters have been so sure that they didn't need to listen to the locals. They and their giant balls knew better than any stupid teachers.

Doing the education thing takes a lifetime. In fact, it takes more than a lifetime-- that's why we've constructed an institution that provides continuity above and beyond what we could get from any single human being.

You think that the education thing is hard, "a slog," after just a decade! You amateur. You dabbler! You tourist! Has the education reform movement "peaked"? Well, guess what! Education has not. We are still working at it, still striving, still doing our damnedest. When reformsters have moved on because it's hard and challenging and a slog and not just as fun as it was a whole ten years ago, we will still be here, doing the job, educating students and doing it all in the midst of the mess created by a bunch of wealthy well-connected hubristic tourists with gigantic balls.

You think education is hard? What the hell do you think dedicated teachers across this country are doing with their entire adult lives?!!

So get out. Go. Move on to the next big opportunity and screw around with that until you're all distracted by the next shiny object. Education is not the better for your passing through.

Education needs people who will commit, people who are in it for the marathon, not the sprint, people who are willing to dedicate their whole lives to teaching because that's the minimum that it takes. Students and communities need schools that are permanent stable fixtures, not temporary structures built to long as a reformster's attention span.

It's hard? You've peaked? You want to move on to other things?

Get the hell out, sonny. The grown-ups have work to do.


  1. Thank you Peter. One of your best, which is saying a lot! Do check the comments on Ravitch's post about the Nick Also, I followed your link to Agincourt. It wasn't a draw, it was a huge victory for the English. Huh?

  2. This comment (below) at Kristof's facebook page really angered me. (I don't use FB so can't comment there.) I live in one of those rural midwest school districts where the majority of the kids get reduced price lunches. We have excellent teachers, truly excellent! I moved to this district purposely from a wealthy exurb of Boston and my children are doing much better now thank you very much. His tourism is nothing more than a quick drive through a place where he didn't expect he'd have to get out a passport.

    Nicholas Kristof: "Look, all teachers are not above average. Half are above average and half are below average. Not all are first rate. Some are second rate. Same with teachers, journalists, students and everybody else. And teachers are drawn to better working conditions, like everybody else, which means that many prefer to work in districts with higher pay, smaller classes and better work conditions. That's why researchers see that, on average, teachers in the wealthy districts are more effective. Sure, sometimes the wealthy districts err and hire an ineffective teacher, but mostly they get it right--and of course that creates inequity. That doesn't mean that many teachers in poor districts aren't excellent and committed, but there's an obvious gap--and that's why parents vote with their feet and prefer to put their kids in wealthy districts."

    1. 1. He's confusing "average" with "median." OK, that was pedantic.

      2. He may have a point about pay and conditions. Hence the importance of the federal initiative to shower money in huge quantities on schools in poor neighborhoods to lure in really committed teachers, as well as equipping poor schools with extra outreach and food services and - oh, wait, sorry, that never ever EVER happened.

    2. Teachers aren't more effective in wealthy districts; kids learn easier.

    3. Yes indeed. It goes back to the old belief that education alone can "fix" high-poverty neighborhoods. I guess the school can become ground zero for transforming the neighborhood, but only if it also acts as a health clinic, food bank, social welfare network, etc. etc. etc. And that costs mega $$$$.

  3. Dear Mr. Greene:

    Oh, Honestly. This is why you'll never make any big bucks, Peter. Mr. Kristof is generously giving us the tips about where to invest next, and all you do is whine about it.

    Anyone out there who is on board with the new next big market for ground-floor investing, join me. We will be on the lookout for the following or similar:

    Pearson Toddler Division
    Lil' KIPP
    Success Academy Charter Daycare
    and, last but not least:
    Nurse For America


  4. Nurse for America! Brilliant. Love it.

  5. Such a good post, and one that *so* needs saying.

    There is something so immature in this kind of reformster "passion." It's not passion; it's enthusiasm. The rhetoric borrows from corporate and military problem-solving approaches, and it's all about the thrill of breaking stuff up and getting things *done." Hence all the semi-macho rhetoric about "bottom lines" and "bucks stopping here" and "dialing it in" and "problem-solving." Kids not able to read and write? "Goddamit, Hank," growls the take-charge-kinda-guy in a suit, "just find the problems and fix them by 9:30 tomorrow or you're fired." Accountability! Data! Results analysis! Let's get this stuff out in the open and deal with it, once for all.

    But in most human institutions, there *is* no "once for all." Trying to help people towards a useful, active and cheerful life is like trying to carry a huge comforter down the road. You grasp one corner, and another one sags. You pick that one up, but you overbalance. You set an impossible goal - EVERY student will walk out of my room transformed! - and however close you get, you keep your eyes fixed on the gap between the ideal and the reality, and keep nagging at it. There is no end. You're always progressing, but never finishing.

    This is not purposeless. A whole tradition of humanities has made clear that the point of life is to always strive, not necessarily to finish. And there's a hell of a big difference between bad policies and good ones, between a society that doesn't even bother and one that never stops trying.

    But to reformsters, it must sound so exhausting and pointless. What, there ISN'T a single fix? Sheesh. Forget it then. They have the kind of enthusiasm that gets you through a clearly defined mission - say, landing on the moon. And that's great and so on, but when the mission is "Students will be strong critical thinkers," I can tell you there will never be an "Eagle has landed" moment. And if you can't deal with that, you need to go somewhere you can make yourself useful.

    1. Thank you! It's what you said, only I have never mastered the art of pith....

    2. Haha! Nor I the art of elaboration. : )

  6. Once again, someone with no pedagogical background who arrogantly thinks he can "fix" education.

  7. I'm disappointed that you didn't find a way to work in a particular Betty White quote. Otherwise, well said, sir.

    1. Dear Andrew Evans:

      I guess I'm not up on my Betty White. Please say the quote, or No Fair! I want to know!!!! I love Betty White!

  8. Reformsters find education hard? Hardly. They find it hard to monetize, s'all.

    They thought it would be a cakewalk and we pushed back. We have to continue to do so because they are only heading into ECE (Early Childhood Education) because they think parents of little kids are naive and gullible, wanting what reformsters will tell them is best for their children.

    Parents of babies, toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners need to be made aware as each step of this takeover of little lives is happening. Let ECE be the new frontier for the Opt-Out movement.

  9. "Education inequity is America’s original sin."

    No, it's not. America's original sin is a two-fold one. It is the double whammy of slavery (and its generational legacy) and the treatment of the original peoples of this land. As well, it is not education inequity that is really the problem - it's income inequality. My belief is that you will not solve one without the other and that is the likely reason that you only see pockets of change rather a mass moving of the needle.

    1. Dear Ms. Westbrook:

      Yes. Have worked-taught- in poor communities and also worked -taught- in Native American Communities, I know you are correct.

      I will work for any candidate for president who wants to put his/her "shoulder to the grindstone" and work to reverse income inequity. It will be a hard job to do with all of the entrenched (paid off) legislators. That person should also understand that all the "reform" ideas in education are only opportunities for some favored person to make a profit.


  10. How it looks when you piss off a real teacher. Thanks, Peter!

  11. I think you missed the point of Nicholas Kristoff's article. Wasn't it more about investing in early education and less about getting education reform right?

    1. The fear is that it's not about investing in education to get it right but rather about the profiteers and data overlords switching their interest to early ed because they've milked the rest of it dry.

  12. I understand your disdain for carpetbagging reformsters, and appreciate your desire to administer a thorough smackdown, but is Kristoff really a suitable proxy? He has always seemed to me to be more focused on income inequality broadly, and his suggestion that the reformsters turn their fickle attentions elsewhere might not be such a bad thing for the K-12 set...