The Personal Touch of Relinquishment





David Kirp has a piece in the New York Times today: Teaching is not a Business. You should check it out. 

My take on his piece:

  1. Language: Dan Willingham has written about how the education debates often use one of two types of rhetoric: either Romantic era words (nurture, relationships, whole child, etc.) or Enlightenment era words (rationality, logic, evidence, etc.). Kirp leans on Romantic era language in a manner that I find overly loaded, though perhaps he would make a similar critique of my writing.
  1. Straw men: As Ryan Hill noted on twitter, Kirp sets up many straw men (arguments he imputes to reformers that few reformers make), as well as just false assertions, such as: high stakes testing should be single metric of success; market or technology based reforms are “impersonal” and disregard educators; firing teachers and coaching teachers is mutually exclusive; challenging curriculum goes undiscussed (common core standards and associated curricula are many things, but undiscussed is not one of them). One could go on. I found this to be the weakest part of Kirp’s piece.
  1. Charter School Data: Kirp notes that charter schools perform at about the same level for traditional schools. What Kirp does not mention is that, in 2013, CREDO conducted the nation’s largest quasi-experimental charter school study. The study covered twenty-seven states and covered 95% of students that attend charters school in the entire nation. It found that African-American students in poverty who attended charter schools achieved nearly two months of extra learning per year. CREDO has conducted similar studies in urban areas across the country, nearly all of which have demonstrated that students learn more in charter schools than traditional schools. In Indianapolis, students in charters schools achieved nearly three months of extra learning. In New York City, three months; in Los Angeles, three and a half months; in New Orleans, five months; in Newark, nine months; in Boston, twelve months. 
  1. Voucher School Data: Kirp claims that Milwaukee’s voucher program has led to no real academic improvement. As it happens, students in the voucher program graduated high school and enrolled in college at rates 4-7% higher than similarity situated students in non-voucher schools. 

All told, I’m unconvinced by Kirp’s piece. Unlike Kirp, I view structural reform as a way to increase the quality of relationships that educators have with each other – and with their students.

The best charter schools are known for their strong cultures and extensive support for teachers and students. Many traditional urban school districts, on the other hand, are known for their contentious labor environments and poor working conditions.

Perhaps if we had more structural reform, we would also have more of the personal touch that Kirp rightfully desires.

14 thoughts on “The Personal Touch of Relinquishment

  1. Ethan Gray

    I’m glad you pointed out the frequent and egregious use of straw men in the Kirp piece. I’m sure district traditionalists are as sick of being called defenders of the “status quo” as we are sick of being called “corporate reformers.” We all ought to strive to rise above and recognize the complexity of our situation and proposed remedies.

    While I agree, of course, with the call for “structural reform”, I also worry that by continuing to talk about structure, portfolio, governance, etc we perpetuate the notion that we are proponents of technocratic change. In reality, I think what we are proposing is a world in which – as you suggest – the personal touch is more prevalent. Is it structural change to believe that educators should run schools? Yup. But it is also teacher, student, and parent centered change.

    The result is structural reform. The message is power for educators to meet the needs of students that they know best. A message I’ve heard from you more than just about anyone else!

    1. nkingsl

      Ethan, thanks for your comment! You make a good point that “structural reform” is probably not the best way to talk about empowering families and educators.


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  4. John Thompson

    You don’t deny that testing is having a devastating effect on our schools, do you? Neither do you deny that it has done disproportionate harm to poor children of color, driving the personal touch out of too many schools? And, surely you don’t question the quality of Kirp’s scholarship do you?

    1. nkingsl

      Hey, John. Good to hear from you.

      Yes, I deny that testing is having a devastating effect on our schools (this is an area where I know we disagree).

      I wasn’t commenting on Kirp’s scholarship. I was commenting on his NYT piece.

      I hope you’re well.


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