The Spreadsheet Solution

The NYSAIS heads conference is always valuable and 2010 was no exception.

I usually hear NAIS president Pat Bassett in a mega ballroom with all the flashing lights and hoopla of the annual conference. It was good to hear him in the more intimate setting of the dining room at Mohonk.  His talk – top trends to look out for – was, as usual, interesting and on target with the concerns of many schools.

The presentation later on Thursday was rather different.

We’ve been hearing for decades about the failure of the public schools. And the battles about education long pre-date the Sputnik era of anxiety (America is losing its competitive edge. Our future and our prosperity are at stake. It must be the fault of our schools. Stop the progressive rot. Raise the bar. Pile on the expectations. More tests. Higher standards. We need to race etc.)

Then America landed a man on the moon and everyone took a breather while schools digested the implications of the Great Society, Civil Rights and Vietnam.

The back-to-basics movement of the 1970’s and A Nation at Risk 1983 kicked the anxiety back into currency, a trend that accelerated with NCLB and has been given wings by the Race to the Top. The result of this is that we are now all thoroughly convinced that we have a crisis and only drastic action will suffice to fix it.

The effect of this relentless assault seems to be that – at least in urban areas – we are ready to hand over public education to private entrepreneurs. One proponent of doing just that – Whitney Tilson – was at the conference to explain why this was necessary and to give the one true recipe to bridge the achievement gaps between the US and the world and between rich and poor in America’s schools.

Tilson is a hedge fund manager, KIPP charter school board member, charter school advocate and one of the founders of DFER (Democrats for education reform) a group dedicated to political change and support of the Duncan-Obama agenda. He  seems tireless in his efforts to further his cause.

His talk was an hour long commercial for KIPP schools presented with a fervor that brooked no alternatives. No matter if the data are flawed, the solutions unproven and subject to question and the approach to education narrow and mechanistic – Mr. Tilson has the recipe for success.

Missing from Mr. Tilson’s talk was any notion about what it means to be educated. Missing too was any analysis of who serves to profit financially from the takeover of public schools.

He was speaking to independent school heads who, for the most part, would never consider his solutions for the children in their schools.

So – in addition to Mr. Tilson’s data (available on his website) I began to dig a little deeper.

The actual evidence tells another story. It seems that the “reforms” proposed by Mr. Tilson and other quick fixes to the school system actually don’t work.

Teach for America teachers are not more effective than their peers and leave the profession earlier.

Charter schools are not the silver bullet. Peer-reviewed academic research shows charter schools are not as effective as their advocates claim. Last year the CREDO National Charter Schools Study at Stanford University discovered:

17 per cent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 per cent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 per cent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.

Pay for performance schemes and the use of test scores to evaluate teachers are not effective.

These “reforms” so beloved and passionately espoused by Mr. Tilson  have been effectively countered by those who actually follow the facts. And refuted compellingly by education historian  Diane Ravitch.

Those “reforms” may not  work to help educate children. But they can serve to help to make people rich and funnel public money into private hands. For some of the more egregious stories go to Charter School Scandals. Even the underlying case for drastic reform is subject to question. Larry Cuban calls them Myths.

All  that notwithstanding – there are jewels in the charter crown and some notable successes just as there are outstanding examples of wonderfully exciting and creative public schools.  It would be remarkable if there weren’t. And the dedicated and idealistic young people who clamor to Teach for America are to be applauded for their efforts. Its wonderful that they have been drawn into the profession and want to make a difference in classrooms. It’s just that they are not actually superior as teachers compared with their non TFA peers.

All young teachers can benefit from the support of experienced colleagues and vice versa. Students need well-trained and professional teachers dedicated to on-going growth.  And school administrators need more than technocratic skills.

We all know that schools need improving – that is the case, always has been and always should be the case. And there is strong evidence that many urban schools are failing to educate the children in their care. That achievement gap is real and – just like the income disparity gap – appears to be widening. Efforts to narrow both are to be applauded.

Seems to me that those with expertise in financial matters could usefully devote their energies to narrowing that income and opportunity gap.

One question after is talk asked what those in the room could do to help. Mr Tilson’s  rather dismissive response was telling. Hard to see how seasoned and thoughtful educators – such as the diverse group of colleagues in the room – could help. The “reform’ crusade of which Mr. Tilson is a part tends to downplay the value of experience and to celebrate the young, the elite and the new.  Heads of  independent schools tend to be the opposite of technocratic.

Mr. Tilson told his story with slides dense with text and charts and stuffed with dismal data.  The economic woes of the country, its educational decline and its waning global competitiveness are dire and schools are a big part of the problem. Other factors – income inequality, poverty, technology and boom-and bust financial markets, – pale in comparison. We don’t need to ask questions about causes and possible solutions. Mr. Tilson already knows the one true way.

Sounds like a very convenient truth to me.

I was wondering why school “reform” has so captured the time, attention and money of hedge fund managers and others in high finance.  Barbara Miner has a “follow –the-money” explanation in which she quotes Mr. Tilson’s own explanation to the New York Times.  Certainly the teach-and-test mentality has provided the attractive spread sheet data over which to pour and seek fixes. Too bad the data are so flawed and narrow.

My own thoughts on the school reform wars include the following rather random observations:

  • We need to dial it down: For all the righteous zeal and passionate conviction – there is no one right answer. Complexity does not yield, cannot yield, to simplistic recipes.  The solutions will be many and will come from good people all of whom care sincerely about the future of the country and the educational success of all children
  • Technology is rapidly rendering some of the old debates rather arcane and irrelevant.
  • It is empty rhetoric to talk about a unified effort for reform if by that is meant “my way or the highway”.   A unified effort means more than claiming to speak for the majority – it means actually working with others to build for responsible change and commitment. It does not mean demonizing schools and the people in them. We need real and informed debate not slogans and canned recipes.
  • Good and evil, heroes and villains are the plots of Hollywood movies not public policy. We should be careful about using children as pawns in the debate and of selectively chosen data. The opinions of others do have validity and they may care just as much. There is no one right way.
  • Create allies not adversaries and that may mean stepping down from the white horse and talking with people rather than at them.
  • Be careful of creating and contributing to a climate of doom and despair. That only serves to polarize the debate leaving those in need of help  further behind. Public schools are the bedrock of democracy and we all need them to be as effective as possible. Name problems but don’t undermine the public trust.
  • Look at what does work – even if it not a perfect ideological fit with one’s firmly held  convictions.
  • Use more than mechanistic narrow test scores to identify those bright spots and shine a light on them wherever they are.
  • Avoid broad brush generalizations that do disservice those many desperately caring and dedicated professionals along the way.  Don’t undermine public trust to pave the way for increased privatization.
  • Avoid the simplistic notions of the clean-sweep, new-broom variety. There is good everywhere – look for it. Clean sweep reform generally does not work and creates such ill will that progress is hindered.
  • Shun the one-true-answer. There is no formula, no recipe, no solution in a box. Although a century of research and theory have identified many important variables in school success, there no simple one size fits all.
  • Don’t propose an educational philosophy for other people’s children that you would not want for your own.
  • Charter schools are not the way, the truth and the light. They may be part of the solution. They are not THE solution. Nor is anything else.
  • Great teaching is not amenable to simplistic accountability measures and paying teachers on the basis of their student’s test scores is inherently absurd. The art of teaching is not reducible to a few numbers. And the same applies to learning.
  • If you do want to insist on the “if-it-moves, test-it” carpet bombing approach to teaching and learning, then at least pay attention to the concerns of statisticians and evaluation experts before making decisions based on flawed and suspect data.
  • Look carefully at the actual consequences of the testing obsession – what is being lost and left out of the curriculum? And answer the question:  Why does it mean to be educated?
  • Think about what success means and what it looks like beyond the limitations of the test scores.
  • Look at the life of classrooms. Does what is happening there make any sense in the light of what we know from decades of research and theory about what children need and how they learn.
  • Shine a light on what works.
  • And yes – happiness does matter. Childhood only happens once and we should all work for it to be a memorable and joyful time of intense learning for all children.

But all was not lost. Following the spread sheet solution came the antidote: Ned Hallowell and his five step solution to all that ails all. On that – more anon

And the bottom line:  Thank-you NYSAIS and conference planners for creating such an interesting and provocative Mohonk 2010.


  1. Thx for this. I really enjoyed it.


  2. Tilson has struck me, through his writing and his speaking engagements, as a bully. He has never struck me as someone interested in inquiry. He has decided he has figured out the problem, and he seems to only be interested in data that reinforces his worldview.

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