Education Opinion

Observations from a Critical Friend

By Susan Graham — July 14, 2009 6 min read
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I couldn’t help but smile at his teacherly soul when Jay Mathews wrote:

It has been a while since I had a guest columnist in this space. I have never before turned the blog over to one younger than my own children. So let me introduce Catharine Bellinger, a Princeton sophomore who has plans to start a campus journal on education policy.
I suggested she practice with a topic provocative enough to get her in trouble, a good place for all writers to be. My question to her, inspired by her experiences in the D.C. schools, is: “Should middle class parents send their kids to KIPP?”

But as I read Bellinger’s piece, I had some concerns. My first response as a reader was to call her on some issues. My second response, as a mother of young adults, was to let it go since, as someone who writes about education policy myself, I understood that the pushback can be daunting and after all, she’s young. My third response was that of a teacher. A teacher understands that an assignment without feedback is a wasted opportunity. And so, since this young woman wants to be taken seriously, I believe she deserves and can handle an honest critique.

So, Catharine, can we talk writer to writer? Mathews asked: “Should middle class parents send their kids to KIPP?” Here are some observations:

The US Census Census sets the median income at $50,740. How far below that mark is “impoverished” and how much does it take to be “affluent?” You mentioned parents who are “poor and never came close to attending college.” According to the US Census, college graduates represent only 24 % of Americans over 25 years of age. You risk offending a great many people by implying that those without degrees are victims of poverty and inadequate education. I was just a little older than you and teaching in one of the poorest communities in Texas when a parent corrected me by explaining, “There is a difference between being poor and not having a lot of money.”

The KIPP AIM Academy school where you observed and the National Cathedral School that you attended have minuscule populations and are extreme outliers on the education spectrum. What about everything else in between? While KIPP’s “high expectations, more time in school, power for principals to make crucial decisions, a commitment to excellence and the relentless pursuit of high achievement” are commendable, these are buzzwords that are used in the mission statement of almost every school system in the country. KIPP has achieved some remarkable results, but there are currently some serious and important questions being asked about the program. It might be helpful if you offered some response to those concerns. Your anecdotal observations from your student-experience perspective are fresh and thoughtful, but as a teacher and a writer, I have to warn you: It’s a data driven research-based world out here, and without statistical evidence to support your observations, the policy pundits will eat you alive.

You give examples of some of the instructional strategies in both KIPP and NCS classrooms. Have you determined that these are unique to these settings? A broader observation might reveal that the focus and strategies you saw in KIPP’s AIM school are in line with the instructional models used by most public middle schools. The traditional lecture and discussion format you experienced at NCS is not uncommon in upper-grade high school classes at most public schools. Since AIM and NCS are both highly respected schools, we can assume that the teachers in both schools are using appropriate strategies for the cognitive development levels of their students. Readers who have a teaching background may perceive this as a rather naïve understanding of pedagogy. You’ll strengthen your arguments among practicing educators and other stakeholders if you take time to become more familiar with common strategies and best practices.

People who read online education journals and blogs such as Mathew’s Class Struggle are accustomed to having links that support and verify the information sources. You singled out “education professor and policy blogger Jim Horn” for your opposing view. Your statement that “he has given no indication so far that he has spent any time inside a KIPP school” was pretty aggressive, especially since you build your own case on what you observed at one KIPP school and the National Cathedral School. It made me curious about Horn -- I thought he sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite place him. You didn’t give me a link so I did my own googling.

While you’re a ninteenish (?) college sophomore and he holds a PhD. in Education with a long career and some serious credentials, I don’t fault you for your David versus Goliath approach. But in my own search I also found this: “Horn is a talented, acerbic writer and a well-informed analyst. I cherish his blog because he is, by far, my most persistent critic.” Jay Mathews. By pushing against someone with strong credentials that your own patron acknowledges as a worthy and knowledgeable policy sparing partner, you may distract your reader and damage your own credibility.

Anticipate how your own words might be turned against you. I get it (and I would have probably enjoyed it), but there is a potential embarrassment for NCS if “One history teacher adopted a Schwarzenegger-esque accent and proclaimed herself “our German mother” while teaching us about the Vikings.” The Vikings were Nordic, not Teutonic; and Gov. Schwarzenegger is of Austrian, not German, heritage. Can you see how that could be scored as a ding for accurate content knowledge at a prestigious private school? And regardless of political alignment, some might find offense in a teacher who mimics the speech patterns of an immigrant English Language Learner who has managed to amass a personal fortune and become the governor of California. Do you see how that could be spun into cultural insensitivity and elitism even though that was not your intent? It’s the sort of Achilles heel that detractors seek out in order to discredit you. It allows them to redirect the discussion toward a flash point, and it result in rifts with allies. It’s unfortunate and it’s petty, but it happens. Be careful.

Finally, let’s go back to your writing assignment. Mathews asked you “Based on your experience, should middle class parents send their kids to KIPP?” Did you really address that question? You did a good job of describing and comparing the instruction at the two schools. You outlined the advantages of the programs. But that doesn’t go to the heart of the issue. I guess I might ask, “Since private school can be a huge drain on a family’s expenses in our current economy, would you suggest that your NCS classmates’ parents send their younger children to KIPP for K-8 and then apply to NCS for high school?” That’s harder, and, as Mathews warned you, it could draw fire from several sectors, but if you’re serious about journalism or policy, it comes with the territory.

Okay, now I’m imagining Catharine reading this. I’m guessing that her first reaction might be defensive and that she may even be angry. I’m worried that her second reaction will be disappointment and that her feelings could be hurt and she’ll be discouraged. But I’m hoping that her third reaction will be reflective and that she’ll see my observations as constructive criticism and understand that my intent is to help.

Catharine said, “…ten years from now, the choice for parents may seem very different than it does today.” She described two good choices, KIPP and prestigious privates that share a common focus on preparation for highly selective universities. I am counting on bright, committed young people like Catharine to help us figure out how to bring such opportunities up to scale. But I also hope she and her peers will realize the importance of developing other education options that result in meaningful work, sustainable income, and responsible citizenship. We need more than one way to win.

I hope they’re willing to ask the hard questions and seek the complex answers that will allow every child to have the education that’s right for them -- because the tens of millions of public school children in America should all have choices that allow them the opportunity to discover their gifts, expand their knowledge, and follow their passions.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.