Sara Mosle, New York Times Commentary, January 31, 2013 – Can the school reform movement accept constructive criticism? Gary Rubinstein hopes so. Mr. Rubinstein joined Teach for America in 1991, the program’s second year, and has now been teaching math for 15 years, five of them in some of the nation’s neediest public schools and 10 more at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He has a bachelor’s degree in math and a master’s in computer science, has written two books on classroom practice and at one point helped train new corps members for Teach for America. For years, he was a proponent of the program, albeit one with the occasional quibble.
Then, in 2010, Mr. Rubinstein underwent a sea change. As he grew suspicious of some of the data used to promote charter schools, be became critical of Teach for America and the broader reform movement. (The education scholar Diane Ravitch famously made a similar shift around this time.)
Mr. Rubinstein, who knows how to crunch numbers, noticed that, at many charter schools student test scores and graduation rates didn’t always add up to what the schools claimed. He was also alarmed by what he viewed as misguided reforms like an overreliance on crude standardized tests that measure students’ yearly academic “growth” and teacher performance. Mr. Rubinstein, who favors improving schools and evaluating teachers, says using standardized test scores might seem “like a good idea in theory.” But he also thinks the teacher ratings based on the scores are too imprecise and subject to random variation to be a reliable basis for high-stakes hiring and firing decisions.
Given his long alliance with Teach for America, Mr. Rubinstein knows many of the program’s alumni who have become marquee players in school reform. In Houston, he became friends with his fellow T.F.A. teachers Dave Levin and Michael Feinberg, who went on to start KIPP, the nationwide chain of charter schools. Mr. Rubinstein worked briefly under Michelle A. Rhee before she became the chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public schools. At another point, he met Michael Johnston, the former charter-school principal who is now the Colorado state senator who helped push through one of the nation’s most aggressive testing schemes for teacher evaluations. Along the way, Mr. Rubinstein got to know Wendy Kopp, Teach for America’s founder.
He’s now written a series of “Open Letters to Reformers I Know” on his blog, hosted by teachforus.org, in which he shares his unease about the direction of current school reforms. The letters are unusual, partly for their personal tone and evident admiration of some of the recipients, and partly because attempts at dialogue like this are increasingly rare as bitter debate rages among educators who support charters and testing and those who don’t.
Michael Petrilli, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a pro-charter education analyst with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, worries about this lack of exchange. He recently conducted an analysis of Twitter and the tens of thousands of followers of Ms. Rhee, who is pro-charter, and Ms. Ravitch, who is anti-charter, and discovered that only 10 percent overlapped. Just as conservatives gravitate to Fox News and liberals to MSNBC to hear their preconceived notions and biases confirmed, Mr. Petrilli speculates that those in education are now preaching solely to the converted, a phenomenon known in the media world as “narrowcasting.”
Worse, in Mr. Petrilli’s view, those who follow Ms. Rhee tend to describe themselves in their Twitter profiles as policy makers or otherwise removed from the immediate realities of the classroom, while Ms. Ravitch’s devotees are typically self-identified practitioners: principals and teachers on education’s front lines. Surely these folks should be talking to one another, but in Mr. Petrilli’s experience, they often aren’t.
“A lot of people in the reform community say, ‘We know what we need to do; we just need the political will to do it,’ and I think that’s wrong,” he says. “We need to be much more humble. We’re now in a position where a lot of reforms are being enacted; they’re playing out in the real world, and it’s crazy not to listen to teachers, to the problems that might need to be addressed.”
Mr. Petrilli’s wisdom derives from hard experience: “I went through this with No Child Left Behind,” he says. “We put so much effort into cheerleading and making the case for it, we didn’t address the inevitable problems.” Mr. Petrilli now recognizes that the law might have been stronger and worked better had its supporters been more open to input and constructive criticism from the start.
Perhaps proving Mr. Petrilli’s point, only two of the eight recipients of Mr. Rubinstein’s “Open Letters” — Mr. Johnston and Ms. Kopp — have replied so far (although a third, Jon Schnur, a former presidential education policy adviser and the executive chairman of America Achieves, had already promised to do so before being contacted for this article and says he still will). However, Mr. Johnston chose not to publicly answer some of Mr. Rubinstein’s more pointed criticisms. For example, Mr. Johnston has stated that the alternative school he helped establish and where he was a principal “made Colorado history by becoming the first public high school in which 100 percent of seniors were admitted to four-year colleges.”
As Mr. Rubinstein notes, the claim is technically accurate but misleading because the school also had very high attrition rates before its students graduated. This is the kind of data distortion Mr. Rubinstein disparages: “There were actually 73 10th graders,” Mr. Rubinstein writes, “who had dwindled to 44 seniors — a pretty relevant detail.” The school apparently couldn’t meet the needs of a good proportion of its original students. Many of those who left presumably ended up back in traditional public schools, which often become the dumping grounds for students whom charters can’t, or won’t, teach and then are solely blamed for these students’ failure.
Still, Mr. Rubinstein concedes that even 44 graduates out of 73, in many low-income communities, amounts to “a story about kids beating the odds.” But why the need to exaggerate the sales pitch instead of acknowledging the more complex, challenging picture?
At the heart of all Mr. Rubinstein’s “Open Letters” is a plea to his old friends and colleagues, many of whom long ago left the classroom, to remember just how hard teaching is and to remain honest and transparent about what they have and haven’t accomplished, not only to keep faith with those teachers and principals entrusted with the tough job of implementing reforms but also so we can know what truly works and doesn’t and why, in order to build on real, not imagined, gains.
For those who wish to be part of the solution, Mr. Petrilli advises more genuine dialogue: listening to those whose views one opposes and “staying open to the possibility,” he writes, “that they might, nevertheless, have a few smart things to say.”