Gratuitous Superbowl Reference: What Does Tommy Brady Have to Do with School Reform?

Okay, I admit it: I don’t know much about sports. I DO know that toilet cleanliness isn’t the first thing I think of when I think of the Superbowl. So if Febreze can horn in on Superbowl frenzy with a stupid ad, then we here at ILYBYGTH feel compelled to try to make some connection to Tommy Brady, too. So here it is: The reason schools are so difficult to reform is because they don’t have clearly painted endzones.

febreze superbowl ad

Like sports? Clean your toilet!

Here’s what we mean: In football, unorthodox thinking gets rewarded, if it works. Coaches who come up with schemes that get the ball across the pylon win games. In schools, unorthodox thinking is much more difficult. Why? Because there isn’t a good way to prove that it works. People like Eva Moskowitz use test scores, but that is clearly inadequate. Would you want your second-grader to endure silent lunches?

Other folks suggest measuring the difference in student knowledge at the end of a year, compared to the beginning, but teachers and researchers howl in protest. With something as complicated as a student’s life, how can you say that you can measure the effectiveness of their classes that way?

In the end, we don’t have a clearly defined goal for what makes schools better, because we don’t have agreement on what counts as “good” when it comes to education.

  • Higher test scores? Sure. But we also want students to learn to think outside the box.
  • Winning at competitions? Of course. But we also want students to get practice working together.
  • Memorizing important information? That’s a good thing, IMHO, in spite of what generations of my progressive comrades have said. But I wouldn’t be happy with a school that did only that.
  • Getting into college? That sounds good, but in practice it usually tells us more about students’ families than their schools.

Bill Belicheck and Tommy Brady can wear ugly outfits, be old, and deflate their balls as much as they want. They will still be recognized as great, even by their worst enemies. They can point to accomplishments and measurements that everyone has agreed on.

With schools, we just don’t have that. So we end up falling into endless arguments without any way to point to a clear winner.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

How do the DeVoses spend their money? No surprise, they give a lot to evangelical schools, like a cool hundred grand to the Ionia School of Missionary Aviation Technology, at Politico.

What goes on in Eva’s Success Academies? At the New Yorker, a look at their “repressive” style.

The last of the Roy Moore saga?

What do teachers think? Peter Greene breaks down a survey about teachers’ political beliefs.

Sex and Jay-sus: An interview at R&P with R. Marie Griffith about her new book, Moral Combat.

It’s not as simple as it looks: How course placements at community colleges lead to higher-ed segregation, at Hechinger.Bart reading bible

Are conservative student groups unfairly targeted? The latest from the University of Wyoming.

Koch Brothers funding “Freedom” classes in public schools, at Tucson.com.

What’s wrong with charter schools? The ACLU charges Arizona charter network with excluding students.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Happy Monday the 13th! I hope you have good luck today. Here are a few of the stories and trends that passed across our desk this week:

Scales and schools: How do well-meaning reformers keep goofing? Why do they insist on “scaling up” good schools when it never works?

Red Dynamite: At Righting America at the Creation Museum, Carl Weinberg untangles the connections between creationism and anti-communism.Bart reading bible

Education culture-war news from the midterm elections: School board vote in Colorado dings vouchers.

Ahhh…Thanksgiving. The holiday to gather around a table and yell culture-war insults at our friends and family. At 3 Quarks Daily, Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse reflect on “familial angst” on Turkey Day.

Why are college students so touchy about free speech? As reported by IHE, a new survey says it’s because they’re Americans.

Arica Coleman looks at the career of neo-confederacy in American textbooks, at Time.

What’s wrong with charter schools? The Progressive examines the debates in North Carolina.

…and what’s wrong with “personalized learning?” EdWeek listens to three critics.

John Oliver takes on Ken Ham. Should Kentucky’s Ark Encounter receive tax incentives?

How Do You Keep an Iceberg Fresh?

The pattern is as old as school reform itself. When we find a school that works, how can we transport those successes to schools everywhere? Two recent stories underline the perennial misunderstandings about school and school reform that have always bedeviled well-meaning reformers. A good school is not something we can package, market, and ship. It’s as difficult as trying to tow an iceberg.

As I’m finding in the research for my next book, good people have always made this same goof. When Joseph Lancaster’s Borough Road School in London began showing decent results educating kids from low-income homes, he became an instant celebrity. Fabulously wealthy dilettantes visited the school and gushed. Back then, those folks were actual royalty.

borough road school 1817Soon, the young Lancaster started believing his own fundraising spiel. He promised the leaders of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia that his master plan could work in any school, anywhere. It couldn’t and it didn’t. The mistake Lancaster made—one of them, at least—was to assume that his limited successes were due to the specific methods he was using, rather than to his endlessly deep royal pockets and his authentic love and enthusiasm for his school and students.

These days, progressive teachers fume about well-meaning celebrities making these same sorts of centuries-old mistakes. In The Nation recently, Megan Erickson offered a scathing review of Eva Moskowitz’s self-promotional memoir. Moskowitz is hard to like. Among her many face-palm-worthy notions is the idea that she could package her program at Success Academy and use it to “fix” schools everywhere.

When Moskowitz connected with some wealthy backers, they hoped to help her do just that. As Erickson put it,

They wanted to figure out how to set up a school that cost no more to run than district schools but achieved far better results, and then replicate that model throughout the country.

As Lancaster’s story showed, it has never worked that way. School is an intensely local enterprise. Trying to package and replicate it will always be a losing proposition.

Don’t believe it?

Consider the story told this week by curmudgucrat Peter Greene. Greene looks at the deterioration of the AltSchool program. This intensely personalized school program for wealthy families has run into some problems, as Greene describes here and here.

The problem?…you guessed it: AltSchool is hoping to take an expensive program and cut it down to fit a replicable mass-market budget. As Greene laments,

Now that Ventilla has some things that sort of work, it’s time to sell a version of them to other schools and make some real bank.

Those schemes have never worked and they never will, just like wacky schemes to tow icebergs from Antarctica to hot deserts. Since at least the 1970s, attention-hungry politicians from hot places have always flirted with such plans. After all, they say, the icebergs are just floating around. With a little funding and pluck, icebergs could provide nice cool water for hot dry deserts.

Could it really work? No! I’m embarrassed to even spell it out, but I will. When you tow icebergs to the equator, the icebergs don’t like it. They break up. They melt.

What does any of this have to do with school reform? Like good schools, icebergs are intensely LOCAL things. They come about because of local conditions. So do good schools. Good schools are fueled by families who feel included. They are good because of the enthusiasm, energy, and dedication of teachers and staff. Good schools work because leaders make smart decisions that focus on supporting those good things and getting obstacles out of the way.

Trying to package those things up, slap a marketing label on them and ship them to other schools is not a smart way to create good schools, just like towing icebergs is not a good way to get ice. Of course, with enough money and energy, it might be possible to pull an iceberg around. You might even make it to the desert. But what you’ll be left with won’t be worth all the hassle; all you’ll get is a handful of lukewarm disappointment.