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Does education reform have to be impersonal?

Do education reformers rely on "impersonal" solutions, as a recent New York Times op-ed argues? Not from what I've seen in DC. Teachers care about students, but the effects of their caring are hard to measure. And caring may not be enough.

Photo of teacher and student from Shutterstock.

Today's education reformers ignore the "inherently complicated and messy human relationships" that are at the core of education, says Berkeley professor David Kirp in Sunday's New York Times. Instead, he claims, they turn to ostensibly simpler and neater strategies that rely on competition between schools or the transformative power of technology.

Predictably, Kirp's piece has unleashed a storm of commentary and an avalanche of tweets. Those who place themselves in the ed reform camp have assailed the flaws and oversimplifications in Kirp's argument.

They note that few if any education reformers treat test scores as "the single metric of success," as Kirp asserts. They point out that Kirp overlooks the fact that many charter schools actually do get better results for low-income African-American students.

And they express bafflement at his claim that reformers focus on "markets and competition" to the exclusion of factors like talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum. In fact, much of education reform (a term so broad and loaded it should perhaps be retired) is directed towards creating those very things.

I agree that, like many articles that get a lot of attention, Kirp's suffers from exaggeration and a lack of nuance. At the same time, though, he's hit on something, albeit with a blunt instrument.

The importance of caring

Kirp's basic point is that for education to be effective, schools need to foster personal "bonds of caring" between teachers and students. I imagine most if not all teachers and administrators, including those who consider themselves education reformers, would agree.

I've met teachers in DC's charter and traditional public school sectors who have not only formed personal bonds with students, but who probably would have done so even if some misguided "reformer" had explicitly tried to prohibit them. And I've seen those teachers chafe against a system that doesn't always acknowledge the importance of those bonds or reward their formation.

At a high-poverty DC public high school, one teacher told me about a student who had come to him with a request. Holding out the program from a funeral, the boy asked if the teacher could "fix" it. Eventually the teacher came to understand what the problem was: The boy's mother had told him that the deceased was his father. But the program failed to include the boy's name in the list of survivors.

The teacher recruited a more tech-savvy colleague to try to figure out a way to insert the boy's name so it would look like part of the program. In the end, the only way to do that was to retype the whole document, carefully matching its font and formatting. The teachers stayed far past the end of the school day in order to have the new program ready for the student by the next morning.

The teacher who told me this story was making a point: the DC Public Schools teacher evaluation system has no way of taking into account teachers' willingness to extend themselves on behalf of their students. And no doubt stories like this could be found many times over, in DC and elsewhere.

I'm sure students benefit in many ways from knowing their teachers care about them personally. And a teacher who doesn't care about her students as individuals probably isn't going to be very good at her job.

Caring may not be enough

But it's hard to know, and especially to measure, what effect those personal bonds have on students' ability to learn. Even the most caring teacher may not be equipped to teach effectively, possibly because of a lack of training or support.

And, surprisingly, in some instances personal bonds can actually get in the way of teaching. One study found that a computer program that gave students feedback on their writing actually produced more positive feelings, and more improvement, than feedback from a human instructor. Apparently students didn't take the criticism so personally when it came from a machine.

In a broader sense, of course, Kirp is right that personal connections between teachers and students are crucial. But, as with any one element of education, they're not sufficient. We also need to figure out ways to assess whether teachers are actually teaching and students are actually learning.

The tension, as always, is between the bright clean lines of standardization—whether in testing, curriculum, or teaching methods—and the messy individualization that's necessary when you're dealing with real people who vary greatly in their needs and capabilities.

We haven't yet figured out the right balance between the two, but people—including some who identify as education reformers—are definitely working on it.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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Thank you for such a reflective post.

I'm glad that the human element in teaching is finally getting some attention in our country.

Despite its good intentions, the Gates Foundation has done nothing but fuel No Child Left Behind & Race to the Top. Data is not everything when it comes to teaching young people.

Standardization is boring. Master teachers know this & can compensate for it. More importantly, children know this & respond positively when a class is interesting and a connection is made. I hope that the "reform" movement figures it out as well.

by mch on Aug 21, 2014 12:35 pm • linkreport

Wendell Berry writes wonderfully on big data. I recommend him. Especially his speech receiving the Jefferson Award.

More to the point, while I myself do not have "hard data," the reform efforts, in a way, feel less impersonal than, say, New Orleans. Certainly N.O., which is lamentably ground zero for the private profiting off public schools. There are lots of scandals in the charters, as there probably are in the publics too. But just the veneer of efficiency, effectiveness and honesty that they rely on, well sometimes it's enough to turn your stomach.

No doubt in DC it *feels* less impersonal partly because Michelle Rhee is gone.

Anyway, I note that the writer is a rep of charter schools. For those fighting the fight against charters, I wonder if that ship just hasn't sailed. Sad that the public schools weakened (and were allowed to) to the point that they became easy pickins.

by Jazzy on Aug 21, 2014 2:09 pm • linkreport

Jazzy - Not sure what you mean when you say I'm a "rep" of charter schools. I am on the board of a charter school, but I'd say that's different from being a "rep" of charter schools in general. And when I write, I'm not representing anyone or anything but myself.

by Natalie on Aug 21, 2014 2:18 pm • linkreport

@Natalie - By being on the board you are pro-actively supporting the mission of an individual charter as well as, it seems to an observer, the more general broader mission of the charter school movement. Your role as a board member of a charter makes a statement about your support of at least one charter school if not the broader movement.

Maybe the charter you help govern is extra special and unique in the niche it fits wrt student body. I personally can think of one or two like that. However one could assert that whatever role the charter plays could and should be filled by a traditional PS.

A lot of people think the charter movement weakens the traditional public system to the detriment of kids and communities. That's the big factor in the controversy/conflict. It seems you don't feel that way. If you did, and thought a strong traditional public school system was a priority, then, it seems to logically follow, you wouldn't be on the board of a charter.

IDK. Your being a board member seems like a statement of strong support for the charter movement. No? It's more complicated than that?

by Tina on Aug 22, 2014 3:24 am • linkreport

I was once on the board of a private school. That did not mean I was a representative of that private school in policy discussions, let alone a representative of private schools in general, nor that I was against a strong public school system.

While charters are not the same as private schools, I do not think that one being on the board of a charter school means they oppose a strong traditional public school system. Some people believe the charter movement weakens the traditional public system. Others do not, and even feel it strengthens it.

by JewDishooarySquare on Aug 22, 2014 8:51 am • linkreport

I appreciate this post and the comments it has inspired. This work is so complex, that we can't be trapped by the simplicity of "either/or". We must endeavor to find and create "both/and". Improving education requires BOTH attention to personal connections AND measurable outcomes. Natalie serves on the board of a charter school AND volunteers her time and money to DCPS. As parents, we understand that we can be BOTH firm with our children AND love them at the same time. These things aren't mutually exclusive. The education debate needs to move beyond these simplicities.
Kaya Henderson

by Kaya Henderson on Aug 22, 2014 10:05 am • linkreport

Philosophically speaking, I could not agree more, on the danger of either / or thinking. Caring and accountability surely need not be an either / or choice. But policy making is often either / or, as in policy makers must choose between alternatives that benefit some people, and harm others. Politics is not a win-win game. In the case of education reform in our city, either a student attends a charter school, or a traditional school. It is simplistic, I would argue, for any policymaker to argue that the isolated decisions of individual parents do not impact the city as a whole. When motivated families move from traditional to charter schools, the concentration of emotionally and educationally challenged students at the traditional schools increases. This accelerates the flight of motivated families. No matter how good the teachers and administrators at a school with a high concentration of "at-risk" kids, they will lose motivated families to charters or out-of-boundary lotteries. Perhaps my argument is not clear- likely, I realize - but charter / traditional IS in many ways an either / or. Does anyone really believe that we will have both a rapidly expanding charter sector and a healthy traditional public school system (at least east of the park)?

by Aaron Hanna on Aug 22, 2014 12:56 pm • linkreport

Yes, well there are still many places (in the country - parts of municipalities) you won't find charter schools. Those are often the same places you also won't find Walmarts. I'm not opining on these places, just pointing out their existence and what they do and don't have.

The "dangers of either/or thinking" must warm the cockles of every charter proponents' heart.


Well at any rate, as I said, the charter movement in DC does seem to be a tad more moderate than the predations going on in NOLA and to a lesser extent, NYC.

We once had something good in this country with public schools. Once upon a time...

by Jazzy on Aug 22, 2014 1:16 pm • linkreport

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