Every child is different! Different cookies for all!

In this op-ed on the74 from a charter management operator and private school choice program director in Florida, their argument for the supremacy of school choice hinges on this tautological formula:

“We don’t think one option is necessarily better than another. Every child is different. Therefore, we need a diverse set of learning options to meet the needs of every child.”

I had to stop and read that seemingly indefensible and pithy line. 

“Every child is different.”

What does this really mean? Every child is different in what sense? 

Of course, every child is not the same person, therefore each one is a distinct human being. Each has their own set of fingerprints, their own personality, and so on. But one would assume that what the authors really mean here is that every child LEARNS differently. Therefore, apparently, that means different types of schools can address different types of learners.

I’ve been a teacher of special education for 7 years, so I think I have some sense of a few of the differences and challenges that some kids can face in learning. But I would not go so far as to claim that every child learns differently. In fact, I would rather claim that most kids learn far more similarly than they do differently, in whatever way you construct the meaning of “different.”

The authors seem to agree with this in the end, as they close their piece with a call to unity: 

“Let’s continue to have healthy debates about choice, accountability, and everything else in our space. But let’s also remember that our common goals far outweigh whatever differences we may have.”

The primary difference between children seems to lie in the levels of pre-existing and acculturated knowledge and skills that they bring to a classroom. But that doesn’t mean they learn differently. It just means they come to a school at different levels of academic performance, language, and ability.

Some schools do a better job at meeting kids where they are and educating them (some charters, some district, some private). Some schools do a great job at weeding out kids with lower skills and knowledge so they can maintain the appearance of high performance (Ahem, probably quite a few private schools).

So the issue may really be more about quality (regulations) and admissions policies than it is about choice.

I know I sound pretty nit-picky here, but I think it’s important to call out fallacious statements like this. I’m totally on board with increasing the diversity of QUALITY options for low-income parents. But I’m not on board with increasing school choice just because “choice.” Nor am I on board with the idea that different kids need different schools. 

There’s a name for that. It’s called “segregation.”

There’s a whole lot of processed food in our grocery stores. Tons of options for how to increase our obesity rates and decrease our life spans. Every human being is different! Different cookies for every person!


Smorgasbord: Some Important Stuff

Buffet Train Lunch

On the necessity for deliberate practice of foundational writing skills in classrooms.

“The idea behind progressive mastery is to protect students from what confuses them until they have mastered each individual component.”

Connect this to what I wrote about Hochman’s writing method.


Air pollution is damaging our nation’s children in the one place they spend some of the most time in and should be most protected in — our schools.

A critically important piece from The Center for Public Integrity on the invisible–and thus largely ignored–health risk of air pollution. Many schools, especially here in NYC, are built right next to busy roadways. The long-term health costs are incalculable, and all it would take would be a high grade air filter that can remove 90 percent of the pollution. And forcing old diesel trucks off of our roads. This may sound like a pipe dream, but California has already led the way.

Says one baffled Californian:

“The technology is well established, the installation is straightforward and the maintenance is simple,” said district spokesman Sam Atwood, who doesn’t recall officials from other states getting in touch to learn from his agency’s experience.


As in the office, so in the classroom. Empower students to design their spaces.

“When workers were empowered to design their own space, they had fun and worked hard and accurately, producing 30 per cent more work than in the minimalist office and 15 per cent more than in the decorated office. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted to an experimenter.”


A special education teacher discovers the power in scheduling for effective collaboration.


“Most people struggle with the idea that medicine is all about probability”

An important ProPublica piece on the hit and miss nature of many medicinal and surgical interventions. Most will do no harm —a few may gain benefit—and some will be harmed. There’s some parallels to consider with education here.

“If we really wanted to make a big impact on a large number of people. . . we’d be doing a lot more diet and exercise and lifestyle stuff.”


Kevin Carey outlines the generally poor results on vouchers.

“while vouchers and charters are often grouped under the umbrella of ‘school choice,’ the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less ‘private’ that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

Interactional motivational scaffolds are more effective than other scaffolds.



“conversing with a child in an elaborative way could help them remember more about their lesson”


Need to remember something? Use weird visual cues to trigger your memory. Classroom teachers, take heed.


We blame a lot of problems on immigrants. But maybe it’s time to point the finger at the “longstanding native-born Americans” as the real source of the problem.


Daniel Kahneman comments on a blog post. The world changes.

Kahneman responds to a blog post, noting that he was overzealous in his interpretation of studies on social priming. This is important not only as an encapsulation of the “replication crisis,” but furthermore for those of us who have read and been heavily influenced by Thinking Fast and Slow.


Wind turbines inspired by insect wings are 35% more efficient.


Accountability for the Long-Term


I receive a monthly newsletter from bcg.perspectives that I scan for any relevant connections to school systems. Their work often centers on business policy, but sometimes their work has either a direct or indirect connection to the education sector.

A recent post,”Gauging Long-Term Impact in the Social Sector” on developing a system of long-term evaluation for a large international nongovernmental organization (INGO), there are lessons well worth considering in developing systems of long-term accountability for schools.

The INGO discussed, named SOS Children’s Villages, works towards “improving the situation of children who are at risk of losing, or who have already lost, parental care” across 134 countries.

The assessment methodology that SOS Children’s Villages developed jointly with BCG evaluates two elements of the programs’ long-term impact: the nonfinancial (or all-around) impact on the individual program participants and the community and the financial impact on society. The determination of the long-term impact on individual participants is based largely on information gleaned from interviews of former program participants by external researchers. This is supplemented by qualitative research conducted through focus group discussions with former child participants and their caregivers. . . 

The programs’ long-term financial impact on society is gauged by the programs’social return on investment (SROI), a comparison of the programs’ total costs and benefits to society. . .  The calculation of societal benefits is based on easily quantifiable elements.

This combination of intensive qualitative and correlated quantitative data gathering seems to make great sense when considering systems for school accountability. Many school systems have been relying primarily on isolated testing data — but why not go straight to the source, and interview the ones we most seek to impact? The students and families and community. And then correlate that with longer-term impacts via “social return on investment”? What are the long term outcomes of students after they graduate?

Raising test scores is wonderful. But enriching one’s community and society over the long-haul is the true goal of education. Developing better combinations of quantitative and qualitative evaluation of our school systems that can help us determine long-term impact is key to not losing sight of that higher purpose.

Lessons for both liberals and conservatives from Flint

By abarndweller (AC Spark Plug, Flint Michigan) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What happened in Flint is absolutely appalling.

Imagine the horror of a mother in Flint, knowing your child has been irrevocably poisoned. Poisoned as the direct result of the decisions of civic “leaders” whose very job, ostensibly, was to serve and protect you and your children. A poison, lead, that is insidious because it manifests in a slow and invisible devastation of decision-making, attention, and behavior that can all too easily be blamed on your child. And will be, because our society always blames the poor for their suffering. It’s so much more convenient to be able to dismiss someone’s suffering—their humanity—outright, without thought or empathy or even that moment’s worth of consideration, due to skin, or appearance, or where they may happen to live.

This is so wrong on so many levels. Beyond the inestimable human cost of the state’s failure, there is a damage that may outlast even the children whose bodies and brains have been poisoned. That damage is the fear and complete and utter mistrust of government that any family in Flint will never forget and will pass on to future generations.

When a community of people no longer can trust their government at any level, this is a damage that will not be fixed by an apology, nor by a formal indictment (and I sincerely hope that Snyder and his myrmidon are prosecuted for their crimes—especially in light of recent information), nor by any immediate action and intervention. What Michigan governor Snyder has wrought upon his people is criminal not simply for the poisoning of his constituent’s bodies and minds that he has been elected to serve, but furthermore for the stain he and his administration have left on civic institutions that his citizens can no longer trust. It will take generations to rebuild that trust.

In an article in Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick squarely blames the Republican party, et al, for this crime:

“I hate to get all MSNBC-y, but this man-made disaster can be traced to one fact: Republicans not giving a [expletive] about poor kids as much as they give a [expletive] about the green of the bottom line.” [Edited for language]

I frequently have much the same reaction to the Republican party myself, yet I think it’s all too easy to lay the blame on a political ideology or party in such a knee-jerk manner. In fact, later in the very same article, Rodrick presents some evidence for liberals such as myself to consider. When describing the historical context for how Snyder came into office, he writes:

“There was a $20 million budget deficit, as Flint was having difficulties meeting the pension requirements of union retirees who had worked in a more prosperous time and with a much larger tax base.

I have the same urge to belittle conservatives and the austere and even inhumane policies they often seek to perpetrate. Yet I fear that liberals (well, really, any of us humans) can all too easily get caught up in a rapturous cycle of blame and shame, rather than acknowledging the complex, deeper, and ongoing issues confronting civic leaders and representatives.

The context for what led to the situation in Flint will continue to recur in other cities. As our elderly population increases, the financial burden for health care and pensions will also steadily grow, stressing already taut public budgets. As Robert Guest argues in an article in an article in the Economist on the “millenial” generation:

“Throughout human history, the old have subsidised the young. In rich countries, however, that flow has recently started to reverse. . . . Within families, intergenerational transfers still flow almost entirely from older to younger. However, in rich countries public spending favours pensions and health care for the old over education for the young. Much of this is paid for by borrowing, and the bill will one day land on the young. In five of 23 countries in Messrs Lee and Mason’s sample (Germany, Austria, Japan, Slovenia and Hungary), the net flow of resources (public plus private) is now heading from young to old, who tend to be richer. As societies age, many more will join them.” [Bold added]

At some point, something’s got to give. Many liberals dig in their heels against any consideration of cuts or changes to pensions or health care, or privatizing the provision of some public services, without considering how those amenities will be paid for, and by whom.

Furthermore, our infrastructure is decaying, most especially in older East Coast cities like Detroit (where schools are literally falling apart, such that teachers are resorting to “sick-outs” to protest the decrepit conditions), Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. But even in younger cities, such as Seattle, updated infrastructure to prepare for potential catastrophic earthquakes is needed.

At some point, something will give, as it has in Flint due to decaying water infrastructure and poor political decisions by state officials. Many conservatives dig in their heels against any and all investments in public infrastructure and the necessary regulations to provide accountability and oversight, without considering how a failure to make such investments will impact future generations.

So there are lessons to draw from Michigan for both conservatives and liberals alike which will be increasingly salient to our rapidly changing cities and states:

  • There are very real financial issues looming due to unsustainable allocations to pensions, health care, and other large administrations of public funds (such as education).
  • There are very real infrastructural and environmental issues looming due to a lack of long-term planning, foresight, and investment.

Pragmatic solutions do not frequently come from ideological partisanship. And yet, our country often appears unable to get beyond superficial political polarization of real issues, preferring, instead, to elect leaders who play into and intentionally manipulate our fears to gain power. Unless we can learn to take our civic institutions and responsibilities seriously, we may well witness more horrors wreaked upon our citizens as the result of unscrupulous governance in the oncoming decade.

Charter vs. District Systems

By NASA’s Aqua/MODIS satellite (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=6204) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Neerav Kingsland looks at the recent findings on professional development via the TNTP Mirage report and the Rand Corporation study, and comes to the conclusion that “Professional development only seems to lead to student achievement increases in charter schools!”

I noted in a recent post that in the TNTP study, teacher effectiveness and growth was notably more observable in a CMO, and I hypothesized that this could be attributable to some charter networks having more tightly managed systems of assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

But to suggest that this is an innate quality of charter schools is questionable. There is absolutely no reason for a district school not to be in possession of such qualities, and indeed, many do.

Kingsland argues for NOLA-style systems, in which the government merely regulates, rather than operates, schools, with the idea being that the private sector can conduct operations more efficiently and effectively. But there’s a potential, and possibly critical, issue with such a system: a lack of coherency.

Within a well-managed district, on the other hand, there is potential for greater coherency. A state or central office can provide specific direction on operational shifts via policy that all district schools would be expected to adhere to.

Kingsland asks, “is it more likely that we can achieve major gains in districts or scale highly effective charters?,” I think he’s created a false dichotomy. I think the more interesting question is, “How can we achieve major gains by leveraging federal, state, and district policy to implement effective and coherent systems, content, and practices across all schools?”

A NOLA-style system might be able to make swift initial gains, due to well-managed networks putting into place strong systems of assessment, feedback, and practice. But it’s certainly feasible that a well-managed district system can make even bigger gains over the longer haul.

I disagree, therefore, with Kingsland’s position that charter schools are inherently superior in enhancing teacher effectiveness and promoting student achievement. In fact, I charge that a NOLA-style system may ultimately run up against its innate incoherency, at which point, large-scale gains would stagnate.

I could be totally wrong on this, of course, and admit that this is conjecture and based on my own values. It may be that a NOLA-style system may end up leading to greater coherency in operations due to competition, and thus, best practices evolve through demonstrated gains in one organization and subsequent adoption by those who are attempting to compete.

I may also be overstating the ability of district schools to establish coherency, given constraints in operating within often volatile political contexts.

The problem is, of course, that while NOLA has demonstrated significant academic gains on tests since moving into a private sector operated system, it’s still purely conjecture as to whether the same benefit would transfer to any other district simply due to a  structural change. It’s also still conjecture that those gains can be solely attributed to a structural shift to private sector operation, rather than the simple mechanism of distributing students across geographical boundaries.

But let’s assume for the moment that Kingsland is correct that a private sector operated school system is the optimal system. I would still argue, even in such a case, that this doesn’t mean that such a system will necessarily scale effectively into different social and political contexts.

In the face of great complexity and uncertainty, we can hedge our bets by planning for robustness, rather than optimality.

The question therefore becomes: what is the most robust? A school system operated by the public, or a school system operated by the private sector?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.

Viewing Economies with a Gardenbrain, and Schools as Ecosystems

Alerted by a tweet from The Browser, I discovered an article on how we should view economies not in traditional, simplistic, and mechanistic ways, but rather as complex ecosystems. The authors, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, term this framework the “Gardenbrain,” as opposed to the “Machinebrain” that we typically ascribe to economies, such as rationality and efficiency, with the inevitable result that economic fundamentalists view regulations as impediments to the functioning of a meritocratic free market. From the Gardenbrain perspective, Liu and Hanauer suggest the following:

What we require now is a new framework for thinking and talking about the economy, grounded in modern understandings of how things actually work. Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren’t simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic. An economy isn’t a machine; it’s a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not.

Note how parallel their argument is to the argument Will and I first made to introduce Schools as Ecosystems as a framework for looking at schools! Here’s what we said on GothamSchools back in February:

We propose a fundamental shift in the framework and language we use to discuss educational reform. Instead of a framework that views students as products, we propose a framework in which the products of education are viewed as the contexts and content of schools themselves. The schools we produce should be positive and nurturing learning environments where students are engaged in a rich, coherent curriculum. Rather than view our students as widgets, we’d do better to view them as vibrant, dynamic organisms, and view the school, by extension, as an ecosystem. While such a model would make it harder to quantify school quality based on a simple numerical scale, it would enable us to have more productive conversations about systemic education reform, and to take action in targeted ways that will have a sustainable impact.

Later, here on this blog, I also talked about how viewing a school as an ecosystem is another way of recognizing the school as a complex adaptive system. Schools, like economies, are nonlinear and highly unpredictable, and defined primarily by the quality, interdependence, and complexity of their relationships.

Using the framework of the Gardenbrain, Liu and Hanauer then go on to demonstrate how this fundamental shift in mindset can apply to practical considerations for the well-tended regulation of an economy. All of these great suggestions align with a perspective that ecosystems (man-made or curated ones, such as gardens) must be intensively managed, as opposed to left to self-regulate.

Here are the implications for policy from the standpoint of the Gardenbrain — all of which have pertinence to education policy:

  • The necessity for regulation: “Gardenbrain allows us to see that an economy cannot self-correct any more than a garden can self-tend.”
  • The necessity for taxes: “recognize taxes as basic nutrients that sustain the garden. A well-designed tax system — in which everyone contributes and benefits — ensures that nutrients are circulated widely to fertilize and foster growth.”
  • The necessity for spending: “To spend tax dollars on education and health is to circulate nutrients through the garden.

On the Centralization of Governance

In his thought provoking response to my post Beyond Ideology, Will notes that though there is a trend in current ed reform measures towards centralization of power, at the same time we are presented with a paradox inherent in regulation. Regulatory power is both necessary to protect democratic freedoms and property of the commons, yet can simultaneously become detrimental to democracy by freezing out local communities (in this post, I am going to concentrate on the first part of that equation).

In light of this paradox, Will ends his piece asking “how then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities?” I feel that forwarding solutions to this problem is essential to promoting our vision of schools as ecosystems. This is parallel to the “tragedy of the commons.” How do we regulate something that belongs to all in a manner that protects long-term benefits while yet protecting local individual and community freedoms and rights?

I don’t know any clear answers to these questions or problems. But I have the sense that there is no one, monolithic right way to govern or regulate something, and that best governance practices may differ dependent on contexts and the nature of what is being regulated. Some things may be best governed through federal policy. Some things may be best governed by local community control. Some things may be best governed by being left up to the whims of market forces. I think this openness to fluidity is applicable to governance of public schools as well. Some aspects of public schools may be best left to the autonomy of  a local school or district to choose. Some aspects are perhaps better directed as a centralized process.

In politics, there are those who are fairly universal in their prescription that issues are best determined by federal policy, or on the other side, by state policy. Not to oversimplify this, but I think immediately of the Articles of Confederation. They were too weak. A stronger, more centralized government was required in order for our economy and nation to flourish. But the debate that eventually engendered the subsequent Constitution seems to live on today. Jay P. Greene’s arguments against the Common Core Standards (my response here), for example, appear stolidly due to a rejection of the intrusion of the federal government upon what he perceives as the state’s rights.

I believe that a centralization of standards such as the Common Core is in fact necessary to the continuation of our democracy. If we cannot agree upon standards of common skills and knowledge that we would expect our students to achieve, I’m afraid achieving the solidarity of vision and capability necessary to maintain a democracy will be unfeasible (for more on this, read E.D. Hirsch, Jr.; he explicates this much more eloquently than I can). What we would be left with is the chaotic mess of individual teachers and students struggling in the isolation of their classrooms with disconnected and disparate ideas, inevitably leading to inequity, as I argued in my post on GothamSchools on the need for a coherent core curriculum. My main point in that post, and I will repeat it again — because I believe it strongly — is that “without a systematic approach to the core content we teach, then we are systematically failing our students.”

So in this case, I see centralization as necessary to provide the systematic guidance and direction for schools in determining what sequence of topics to follow as they make curricular decisions. That doesn’t mean that I think we all have to agree on everything. It just means that we have to agree to the foundational topics necessary to gain academic understanding of a given content area. For example, in the most recent AFT American Educatoran article on the difficulty of teaching such a core topic as evolution in biology notes that if teachers do not have the confidence and knowledge to teach essential scientific facts, and “if students come to think that science is simply a matter of one’s opinion, and that those opinions come from our values and faith, then it will be impossible for science to provide trusted, unbiased information to citizens and policymakers.” [Bold added]

My point in bringing all this up is to challenge the idea that centralization of power or decision-making is necessarily a bad thing. The deeper question, then, is the one that Will brought up in his post: “how then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities?” I’d like to dig deeper into some potential avenues of thought about involving and engaging local communities in democracy and governance in my next post on this topic.

The Paradox of Regulation

I found Mark’s recent post on ideology quite interesting, particularly the question it raises about community control of schools. As I wrote in my comments, it seems to me that education reform is currently geared towards increased centralization of power, with local communities given little say in the direction their neighborhood schools may take. Mayoral control, the Common Core standards, No Child Left Behind: the dominant trends in education policy all seem designed to freeze parents and communities out of their children’s schools.

In principle, there’s a lot wrong with this approach. Most of us think parents should have some say in how their children are raised, and as Americans we all probably have some knee-jerk, “don’t tread on me” distrust of centralized authority. This distrust of government raises an interesting paradox, which I’ll call the paradox of regulation.

On one hand, if we believe in real democracy, we must believe that communities should have significant power over community institutions like public schools. On the other hand, we’ve often seen that without some regulatory authority, local communities often pursue policies that are fundamentally anti-democratic (such as the radical privatization-of-public-schools experiment taking place in Louisiana). Similarly, without federal intervention, discriminatory policies like Jim Crow might still be the norm in much of the U.S.

So, things to start to get circular: without regulation, communities may pursue policies that disenfranchise large segments of the population. With regulation, communities may be frozen out of the political process; regulation thus becomes another form of disenfranchisement.

Certainly, No Child Left Behind and mayoral control (as practiced in New York City, for example) have been practiced with such contempt for democracy that many educators would be rightly skeptical of the role of any centralized authority in public education. That said, regulation is necessary; it protects public resources like schools (and ecosystems) from those who seek to do them harm. How then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities? I don’t know the answer, but the current approach, wherein central governments impose policies upon communities, regardless of those communities’ concerns, has created a poisonous political climate. This is bad for teachers, students, and schools.