Equity & Diversity Opinion

In John Merrow’s Education Reform Land, Copycats Rule

By Anthony Cody — October 14, 2011 6 min read
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In his September 28 reflection on Education Nation, John Merrow has provided us with a distillation of the solution being offered to improve learning in our low-achieving schools. Copy KIPP.

For those who have not reviewed the methods at KIPP, Merrow describes them for us.

KIPP kindergarten teachers explain to their kids why they are going to walk in a line and why they are expected to be quiet in the halls. Lots of regular teachers just tell the kids to line up and be quiet. The first way is respectful and creates shared responsibility, while the second seems likely to create behavior problems down the road.

Hmmm. This does not sound too revolutionary. I do not know very many experienced teachers who resemble the “regular teacher” Merrow describes.

But there is a bigger picture here. John Merrow tells us that teachers need a new story.

I suggest a narrative that is tougher on schools but also closer to reality. It's this: "For as long as anyone can remember, there has been close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents were rich, poor or somewhere in between. On one level, that seems to mean that schools basically do not matter. Only money talks.
However, we know that's not true because we have in front of our eyes hundreds of examples of schools and teachers that do change lives."
So do not be mad about schooling's failure to dramatically improve the lives of all 15 million children living in poverty. Instead, imitate the successful places, people and practices. Find out what's keeping educators from imitating success. Eliminate the obstacles and -- here's where you should get mad -- get rid of the educators who refuse to be copy-cats."

First, we have an argument known as “reductio ad absurdum.” He takes the fact that indeed socioeconomic status and family support have been found over and over again to be by far the biggest determinants of educational success, and exaggerates it so he can dismiss it. Arne Duncan is fond of a similar trope, accusing those who speak of the significance of socioeconomic status of saying that “poverty is destiny.” In fact, nobody actually says that there is a 1:1 correlation between income and outcomes.

Merrow and Duncan would have us choose between two extremes. Either we must believe poverty is destiny and schools make no difference, or schools are capable of overcoming all obstacles (if only they are willing to get tough on those who fail to copy KIPP).

Can’t our brains work better than this? Is it not possible that schools matter, and that teachers can make a difference, but schools alone are not, in most cases, able to make up for the effects of poverty? Poverty does not have to be absolute destiny in order to have a pervasive and persistent effect on student outcomes. Apparently, Merrow finds it necessary to dismiss the impact of poverty in order to “hold these schools accountable.”

Merrow seems to believe that the fact that exceptional schools exist somehow wipes out all that we have learned about the negative impact poverty has on students. Some schools have good results in spite of the poverty of their students, therefore any school can have similar results if they simply follow the example set by these role models.

Richard Rothstein has addressed this argument rather well:

It seems plausible that if some children can defy the demographic odds, all children can, but that belief reflects a reasoning whose naiveté we easily recognize in other policy areas. In human affairs where multiple causation is typical, causes are not disproved by exceptions. Tobacco firms once claimed that smoking does not cause cancer because some people smoke without getting cancer. We now consider such reasoning specious. We do not suggest that alcoholism does not cause child or spousal abuse because not all alcoholics are abusers. We understand that because no single cause is rigidly deterministic, some people can smoke or drink to excess without harm. But we also understand that, on average, these behaviors are dangerous. Yet despite such understanding, quite sophisticated people often proclaim that the success of some poor children proves that social disadvantage does not cause low achievement.

For some reason, we must have solutions for the achievement gap that do not require any social change beyond the school walls.
The schools and the teachers that work there must work these miracles alone, or at best with the assistance of some social services. Never mind all the decades of research that show the effects of poverty. Just look at these cherry-picked schools that prove it can be done. (But don’t look too hard, because often they do not stand up to much scrutiny.)

Then we have the only actionable part of his recommendation. Get rid of teachers who refuse to copy the wonders of KIPP. Is instilling the fear of getting fired truly the best way Merrow can think of to spread these practices? In taking this approach Merrow joins people like Michelle Rhee who find it necessary to fire people in order to show how serious they are. “Getting rid” of a significant number of teachers has not been shown viable method of improving classroom practices, especially when our most challenging schools already suffer from atrocious levels of turnover.

To be fair, there is something to be said for emulating others. Good collaboration is all about sharing what works, and teachers are fond of “stealing” good ideas from one another. I created a web site years ago to share my lesson ideas, and certainly do not object to people copying whatever they like. The sorts of things that Merrow cites as worthy of copying seem to focus on classroom procedures. This is an area where KIPP excels.

But to suggest that we will eliminate the gap between privileged and poor when we have rid our schools of anyone unwilling to copy these techniques? I do not think so. I know John Merrow has spent a lot of time in schools, but I rather doubt that this level of explicitness is the key to success in KIPP schools. I think it might have more to do with their longer school day, their insistence on parental involvement, and the fact that they recruit students willing to “work hard and be nice.” The middle school where I worked for 18 years could not insist on these things, nor could we exit students who did not go along with the program. In fact, we had to enroll the students who were bounced out of KIPP and other charter schools in the area.

I have a different standard for excellent teaching. The best teaching emerges from a thousand acts of improvisation. But like the most powerful jazz, great teaching is built on a practice of sound fundamentals. A good teacher does need to learn how to line children up to walk in the hall, how to distribute and collect papers, call on students and orchestrate the work of cooperative groups. But once we have mastered these basics, which certainly can and should be copied from those who are proficient, that is when we begin to improvise and inspire.

Classroom improvisation is not some individualistic act of rebellion. Neither is it a solo performance. It is all about understanding our students, and taking advantage of opportunities to catch and engage their interest. It is about being willing to deviate from the formal curriculum to delve into themes and topics that emerge from the students themselves. The best teaching is an investigation into the big question which never has the same answer twice, “What will excite and engage my students?” What caught fire last year may not be so great the second time around, but every time we succeed, we have a riff to remember. Even then the key is not our great idea, it is the way we are able to excite our students to think for themselves and generate ideas. Our students know when we are teaching THEM, as individuals. We show this when we respond to their interests and concerns, and build on THEIR genius.

The most advanced professional growth for teachers comes from the all-too-rare chances we have to share our successful - and failed - attempts to engage our students, and help them grasp challenging concepts. This becomes systematic when we collaborate with others through processes like teacher action research or Lesson Study. The aliveness this gives our classrooms makes them exciting places for both students and teachers. Teachers who engage their students this way, and who continually investigate and collaborate to find new approaches are never bored, and are far less likely to suffer from the burnout that makes teacher turnover so high at many schools (including charters like KIPP).

I am not against teachers mastering techniques to line children up to walk in the hall, or any of the other things that allow us to focus on learning in the classroom. I am disappointed, however, that someone with as much knowledge as John Merrow has would mistake this for some sort of systemic solution to inequities in our schools.

Contrary to Merrow’s suggestion, we will not eliminate the achievement gap by firing those who refuse to be KIPP copycats. We must, of course, demand competence in the basics of good instruction, procedures and class management. But the educators who have the greatest success in our most challenging schools are those who actively investigate what will work best with their students, and are willing not just to copy, but to improvise. And we should not diminish the challenges these teachers face by suggesting that mastery of KIPP’s handbook of techniques will be enough to overcome the effects of rising levels of poverty.

What do you think? Does Merrow’s narrative offer anything new? Will firing those who refuse to copy KIPP close the achievement gap?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.