The best compliment I can pay a fellow education blogger is to confess professional jealousy. So I’d like to close out 2015 by saluting the education blogs and columns that made me green with envy.
I’m a fan of Tim Shanahan and devour every word he writes. My favorite Shanahan post in 2015 was his evisceration of a silly piece in the Atlantic on the “joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland” that—cliché alert—depicted the typical American kindergarten as a worksheet-happy hothouse. “The silly dichotomy between play and academic instruction was made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s,” he wrote. “It hangs on today among those who have never taught a child to read in their lives.” He singled out Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood professor, who is happy to tell anyone with a microphone that there’s no solid evidence in favor of teaching reading in kindergarten. “You can make that claim,” Shanahan concluded, “as long as you don’t know the research.”
I get jealous when somebody makes a smart observation about something hidden in plain sight, like Andy Rotherham did with his March column in U.S. News & World Report (where I’m also a contributor) pointing out that education reform is “dominated by people who not only liked being in and around schools, they excelled at academic work.” The result is an inevitable blind spot, with almost everyone focused on “how to make an institution that is not enjoyable for many kids work marginally better.” If you want to learn more about how to make school work for more Americans, Rotherham advises, talk to more Americans for whom school didn’t work.
Writing at the Seventy Four, Derrell Bradford wrote a smart piece noting that “Uber and charter schools are opposite sides of the same disruptive, empowering coin.” No surprise, therefore, that New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio dislikes them both. Hizzoner’s attacks on Uber “at the behest of the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) and its well-heeled, medallion-wielding financiers, Bradford wrote, “look stunningly similar to his volleys against the city’s charter school sector.” Both battles bloodied the mayor’s nose.
“The problem in American education is not dumb teachers. The problem is dumb teacher training,” noted UVA cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in a well-observed New York Times op-ed. “Policy makers have debated the best way to evaluate teacher effectiveness, but have shown little interest in the training that is supposed to make them effective in the first place.” Hear, hear. One hopeful development to address that oversight is a new coalition of education school leaders, Deans for Impact, which launched in 2015. Willingham was a major contributor to their “Science of Learning” report, a must-read for educators.
I’ve been banging the drum for curriculum as a reform lever for a long time. So it will surprise no one that one of my favorite blog posts of the year was Kate Walsh’s “Curriculum: The Great Divide among Ed Reformers” over at NCTQ’s blog, which called out reformers who refuse to take the nuts and bolts of reading instruction seriously. “I think the issue for some ed reformers is that other reforms are a lot more important,” she wrote. “I can’t quite figure out why there are still perfectly reasonable, rational people who aren’t willing to embrace the 2+2=4 connection between children learning how to read and every other outcome reformers fight for.” Me neither, Kate, but let’s keep at ‘em. Meanwhile reports like “The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform” from the Center for American Progress will hopefully help. So too “Curriculum Counts,” a report by the Manhattan Institute’s Charles Sahm, which looked at New York City’s curriculum choices in implementing Common Core. Sahm demonstrated the degree to which we are in the dark on the curricula used in our schools. Lastly, TNTP did its part to pry open the classroom black box with “How Do Teachers Really Spend Their Time?”
Few write as clearly about literacy as Marilyn Jager Adams of Brown University. Her post at the Albert Shanker Institute’s blog, “Knowledge for Literacy,” made a case that still needs attention: “If we wish to advance our students’ literacy, we must devote ourselves to increasing the breadth and depth of their domain knowledge.” At the Huffington Post, Karen Chenoweth covered the same ground in a terrific post, “Kids Love Knowing Stuff.”
Hey, teachers! Had enough of being told to be the “guide on the side?” That there’s no “deep learning” unless it’s student-led, small-group, hands-on, active learning? Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill disagrees (as do I). Her article Times, “Lecture Me. Really,” noted that a good lecture is not a recitation of facts—it’s the building of an argument. “Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize, and react as they listen,” she wrote.
Another ringing defense of traditional academics can be found in a surprising place: military academies. Jon Marcus of the Hechinger Report had a piece in the Atlantic noting that West Point and other service academies “are expanding their requirements in the liberal arts with the conviction that these courses teach the kinds of skills employers say they want, and leaders need: critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and communication.” You want Plato on that wall. You need Plato on that wall.
Oceans of ink were spilled on the protests that roiled Mizzou, Yale, Princeton, and dozens of other college campuses. Much of the criticism was mockery and contempt heaped upon students demanding “safe spaces” and the punishment of “microaggressions.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has covered the protests with an appropriately skeptical eye and respect for free speech. His piece noting the “weaponizing of safe space” was particularly excellent. For K–12 educators, the must-read was from NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, who described the oppressive intellectual environment not of college campuses, but of high schools where “only people in the preferred groups get to speak, and everyone else is afraid.” A post on his blog titled “The Yale Problem Begins in High School,” Haidt painted a sobering picture of students who “go off to college and learn new ways to gain status by expressing collective anger at those who disagree.”
In 2015, I began paying close attention to Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan. Posts like this one at the Times’s “Upshot” site are the reason why. “Urban Charter Schools Often Succeed. Suburban Ones Often Don’t,” was a clear and scrupulously fair take on what the research shows: “In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor, and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement,” Dynarski wrote. “By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than public schools.”
I’m a sucker for writers who willing to call out the hypocrisy of their own side. No one does it better than New America’s Conor Williams. His February piece at the Seventy Four blasted liberals who want to protect the relationship between housing and schools, while poor parents who try to skirt the system go to jail. “When I confront fellow liberals about defending the deeply hierarchical, inequitable link between real estate prices and school enrollment, they almost always say something to the effect of, ‘Why can’t we just make all schools great?’” Another Williams piece, an imagined hipster critique of “The Existential Horror of Teach For America” defies easy summarization, but trust me, it’s hilarious.
Speaking of the Seventy Four (and slaying education pieties), Matt Barnum eviscerated once and for all the hackneyed argument that we should somehow treat teachers the way we treat professional athletes. His wickedly funny sendup, suggested just the opposite: we should treat pro athletes the way we treat teachers. “Athletes should be compensated solely based on experience and whether they have a master’s degree in the sport that they play,” Barnum faux-argued. And let’s stop forcing veteran athletes into retirement and replacing them with someone with less experience and fewer credentials. “Our teams deserve experienced, qualified players—not young kids straight out of college or even high school who are supposedly faster and more athletic.” Game, set, match.