School Choice & Charters Opinion

Ed Reform Needs a Nixon-to-China Moment

By Deborah Meier — November 12, 2013 5 min read
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Today, Robert Pondiscio, the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, joins Deborah Meier on Bridging Differences. He will blog with her for the next month or more.

Thanks Deborah, for inviting me to blog with you at Bridging Differences. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to engage with you here over the next few weeks.

Let me tell you about two of my friends in education, Chris Lehmann and Doug Lemov. I admire them both personally and professionally, although you could hardly imagine two more different characters. Chris is the son of a labor lawyer who founded the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a progressive magnet high school in Philadelphia. Doug is revered in the world of so-called “No Excuses” charter schools. I’ve been a big booster of his work, especially his book Teach Like a Champion.

Doug is as quiet as Chris is gregarious. I sense they would bond over their love of sports, teaching, and kids, but as far as I know, they haven’t met. They probably won’t. And that’s a problem.

Most of my post-classroom work, both at the Core Knowledge Foundation and at CitizenshipFirst, the civic education initiative I’m developing at Democracy Prep Public Schools, has revolved around curriculum and instruction—what teachers teach and what kids learn. Professionally, I’m a more closely aligned with Doug than Chris. Teaching for several years in a low-performing and often chaotic South Bronx elementary school inclined me to value Lemov’s work, as well the high expectations and purposeful tone of the charter schools (Doug hates the term “No Excuses”) most closely associated with his approach to teaching.

I’m certainly a lot more prescriptive about curriculum than educators like Chris Lehmann tend to prefer. And SLA embodies many of the things I’ve been skeptical about—project-based learning, inquiry instruction, and a focus on education technology, for example.

About a month ago I spent the day at Chris’s school and came away deeply impressed. The students were energetic and engaged. The teachers were warm and attentive and ran their classrooms with a relaxed and effective ease. I doubt any of them have ever told a student to track the speaker or to correct their SLANT. A traditionalist like me might not fully embrace the environment, with kids hanging out or horsing around in the hallway, but no matter. It’s clearly a very good school and serving kids well. Everyone I met wanted to be there.

Perhaps it surprises readers of Bridging Differences to see a No Excuses charter enthusiast praising the opposite of some of the movement’s orthodoxies, but there ought to be nothing surprising about it. One of the unfortunate effects of our polarized education climate is that it makes enemies of people who might be able to add value to each other’s work. We force each other into a defensive crouch, protecting our favorite flavors of schools from attack, admitting no weakness, and becoming hostile to those who have different ideas of about how schools should be organized, funded, run and evaluated. Different and valuable ideas.

Speaking last month at the Character Education Partnership conference in Washington, New York Times columnist David Brooks bemoaned the loss of humility in public life and remarked how he distrusted people who think they have all the answers. “If you think you have the truth by the short hairs,” he noted, “other people are just in the way.” He’s exactly right. And it’s a pretty good description of the boxes we have built for ourselves in education.

I’m disheartened and increasingly disengaged from the flame-throwing rhetoric of education “debate” and wishing for something of a Nixon-to-China moment, where those of us who disagree about structural reform can at least have the opportunity to learn from each other on instructional reform.

Mind you, this is not capitulation. There are ideals I will cling to with both hands and not let go of: a knowledge-rich core curriculum; safe and orderly schools staffed by competent and committed adults; schools where educating for citizenship is as important as for college and career. I don’t want to abandon the ideas and models to which I’m dedicated. I simply want to improve them. It does me no good at all to pretend that I alone hold the keys to achieving these ends. I do not. But I’m out of patience with militancy; a mindset that defines someone as an ideological enemy and then rejects their ideas—all of their ideas—out of hand.

My visit to SLA made me a little wistful. I worry sometimes that the No Excuses model, poorly implemented, can seem to encourage compliance more than engagement. I want to see more of the energy and enthusiasm that I witnessed at SLA in my school and others like it. By the same token, I think the students at Chris’s school would get more out of the things SLA does well if they came in the door with a broader and deeper academic background.

I don’t think this is heresy. When we become cheerleaders for a particular type of school or approach, or worse, when we delight in the failure of our antagonists because it benefits our arguments, we have lost our way. Schadenfreude is a guilty pleasure and cannot be countenanced when children’s education and life outcomes get caught up in our battles with one another.

I’m not naïve, and I’m not a dreamer. The answer to “Can we all get along?” is sometimes, “No.” I regret the rancor, but it’s the opportunity cost that bothers me more. I’m tired of seeing smart people of good will and deep humility—people like Chris Lehmann and Doug Lemov—precluded from seeing each other’s work and taking what they can from it.

So what say you, Deb? How can we create opportunities for people who may argue passionately and from deep conviction about ed reform to acknowledge their deep and unbridgeable differences, and still take what they can from each other on curriculum, instruction, student achievement, and engagement?

I’m ready. How about you?


Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City’s South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.