Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Zenith

(This is part 2 of my brief (hahahah) history of the rise and fall of modern education reform. This part is longer because much more happened. Unlike the events in part 1, I experienced the Obama reforms as a teacher, having graduated from ed school the year of his inauguration. I began blogging the year he was re-elected.)

Bipartisan Achievements

Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 while simultaneously blasting NCLB and praising charters and merit pay for teachers. In practice, he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kept giving reformers everything they wanted–although in fairness, reformers got increasingly nervous about their gifts as his presidency matured.

Ironically, given the general sympathy that the Obama administration had for education reform, a new version of the ESEA was impossible throughout most of the Obama presidency. This proves to be an extremely significant limitation.  Arne Duncan and Obama, rather than force states to live with the unpopular mandates, invited the states to submit waivers asking to be exempt from the penalties. This gave the Obama administration considerable power to force states to adopt policies the federal government wanted. Conservatives were unnerved by what most would considera a violation of Section 438 of the General Education Provisions Act banning any federal control over state educational choices.

Bribing the States, round I: Race to the Top, Waivers

First up was Race to the Top, enacted as part of the economic stimulus plan of 2009, in which over $3 billion was set aside for rewards to competitive bids. Compared to the moon shot by Arne Duncan, the competition demanded compliance with most key aspects of education reform. Of the 500 points awarded,  313 of them (63%) were for teacher effectiveness (138 points), adopting “common core” standards (70 points), supporting the growth of “high quality” charters (55 points) and intervention into low-performing schools (50 points).  Schools that didn’t promise to  fulfill ed reformers’ wildest dreams didn’t stand much of a chance. From the link above: “Between 2001 and 2008, states on average enacted about 10 percent of reform policies. Between 2009 and 2014, however, they had enacted 68 percent. And during this later period, adoption rates increased every single year.”

Around 2010, it became possible to observe two developments that were in fact completely forseeable to everyone back in 2001, when NCLB was signed.

First, NCLB allowed states to define proficiency and then penalized schools that didn’t meet that definition.  That might not have been a problem except for the second development:  no matter how easy the tests got, 100% proficiency never happened. And the gaps were the usual ones.

But now  2014 was squarely in sight and closer and schools well outside the usual urban dystopias were getting hammered into program improvement.

Since a new ESEA was still politically impossible, the Obama administration began offering “waivers” from the consequences of extended failure to meet NCLB,   in exchange for setting their own higher, more honest standards for student success:

  • State must adopt college and career ready standards
  • Schools must be held accountable
  • Teacher and principal evaluation systems

Some education reformers (the conservatives) were concerned about the quid pro quo nature of the waiver requirements.   Other education reformers (the neoliberals) pishtoshed those concerns, saying (much as they said later about immigration) that Congressional gridlock made the waivers and demands logical and reasonable. A typical debate, in which  Andrew Rothernam, neoliberal reformer from the Clinton administration, rationalized the Obama waivers  “This dysfunction matters because when NCLB was passed in 2001, no one involved imagined the law would run for at least a decade without a congressional overhaul.” (translated, good god, no one took that nonsense about 100% proficiency, we expected to modify it before then!)

Obama announced the waivers in February, 2012, and by July of that year 26 states had waivers, with another 9 awaiting approval. A year later, all but seven states had waivers. Jerry Brown and the California team flatly refused to intervene in “failing schools” or evaluate teachers by test results and never got a waiver (although a few districts applied separately and got one).

While we refer to the testing consortiums (consortia?) as the Common Core tests, I was surprised to learn that the original competition for the grants was part of Race to the Top. Arne Duncan announced the winners, PARCC, which had 26 states signing on, and SBAC, which had 33 (some states joined both), in 2010.

The tests, almost more than the standards, excited education reformers. No more would individual states be able to dumb down their tests to reach NCLB standards. All the states would be held to the same standard.

But it wasn’t federal mandates, of course. No, no. This was all voluntary!

Bribing the States, round II: Common Core

The Common Core initiative was originally the brainchild of Janet Napolitano when she heading up the National Governor’s conference, documented in 2007’s Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring US Students Receive a World-Class Education (note: it’s kind of amazing how hard this document is to find. All the links to it reference the NGA doc, but that’s been deleted. I think this is the only existing online copy). She convened a group, and they came up with a set of five action items, three of which you can see reiterated above in the Obama waiver, because they were basically copied.

But it would never have gone anywhere had not Gene Wilhoit (head of school superintendant organization) and David Coleman, described in the link ahead as “emerging evangelical of standards” but actually little more than an ex-McKinsey guy with an assessment display (display. not design) startup  went to see Bill Gates, whose enthusiasm should have been a big neon light of warning, given his track record. Gates funded the development of standards. Coleman used the money to start “found” Student Achievement Partners and hire Jason Zimba, an ex-business partner who now worked for Coleman’s mothert(or, was a professorat Bennington College, where Coleman’s mom was president). Zimba, Phil Daro, and William McCallum wrote the math standards. Coleman and Susan Pimental wrote the ELA standards. The original Benchmarking report stated that the standards would be based on the American Diploma Project, but for reasons I don’t understand and might be interesting for someone else to explore, Coleman and crew rewrote a lot of it.

As the history shows, education reformer groups–those involved with accountability and choice–weren’t directly involved in the birth of Common Core, although it’s also clear from the verbiage in the Benchmarking report that education reform initiatives like teacher value-added measurement, charters, and school takeovers were very much in political parlance at that time, and very much bipartisan.

But education reformer groups loved the Common Core because they saw it as a way to bail them out of the two serious failures of NCLB described above. As Rick Hess observed in a five-year retrospective of Common Core, “The problem with that is if you had hard tests or hard standards you made your schools look bad. So there was a real, kind of perverse incentive baked into NCLB [to make the tests easier]“.  Hilariously, Michael Petrilli, who was in the Bush administration and was a key bureaucrat in the passage, has often said he disagreed that the 100% proficiency goal but “his boss” forced it on him. So now that NCLB was in a bind, the ed reformers were all for Common Core bailing them out.

The waiver process is often blamed for the rapid adoption, but in fact every state but Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, and Virginia had adopted Common Core standards by  2012, and all of those but Wyoming had done so long before Obama announced the waivers. Apart from the conservatives “in principle” objections, the original hullaballoo over heavy-handed federal interference was teachers’ outrage at a president–a Democrat, no less–using money to bribe states into evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores.

Regardless, states eagerly adopted the Common Core standards and in 2012, all seemed right in the world of education reform.


Technically, all of the above was the Obama Administration’s bribes to the states to change their governance.  These are just some specific cases or other items of interest.

Tennessee won the Race to the Top, getting $500 million to enact First to the Top. Initiated by Governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, carried through by Bill Haslam, Republican. Tennessee’s application promised two things of note, First, it would use its existing, longstanding teacher evaluation system (TVAAS) and use it as a formal evaluation tool, responsible for 35% of teacher evaluations. Then, in order to invervene in “failing” schools,  it set up a state-run district, the Achievement School District, creating a  as opposed to a state taking over a district. The lowest performing schools were simply placed in that district. The stated goal of the ASD was to take schools from the bottom 5% and “vault” them to the top 25%.  In 2011, Haslam appointed Kevin Huffman, ex-TFA teacher and executive, as well as Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband,  as Commissioner of Education.  The first ASD superintendent was Chris Barbic, former TFA teacher and founder of Yes Prep, another charter system in Houston.

Mark Zuckerberg went on Oprah in 2010 and, with great fanfare, donated $100 million to Newark, New Jersey schools.  Chris Christie appointed Cami Anderson, alumni of TFA management,  as superintendent of the district in May 2011. A year later, Anderson signed a contract with the Newark Teachers Union giving bonus pay for higher test scores or teaching math and science (although teachers could choose to be paid traditionally). The pot was sweetened with a lot of back pay which, to put it mildly, was not what Zuckerberg wanted the money to be spent on.

Michelle Rhee got a lot of attention, bragging of giving DC schools a “clean sweep”, dumping all the “bad” teachers and administrators who didn’t get test scores up. Eva Moskowitz was dumping students who didn’t get test scores up. Joel Klein left his NYC post in 2011; Bloomberg’s pick of Cathy Black, a woman with no teaching or administrative experience, was extremely unpopular. Bloomberg gave up on Black after four months and appointed Dennis Walcott, who was accepted at face value as an improvement. School turnaround consultant Paul Vallas ran the Louisiana Recovery District (mostly New Orleans Schools) for 4 years.

Education reform generally became more popular in Democratic circles, given Obama’s strong support.  Steven Brill’s article The Rubber Room called attention to NYC’s practice of housing teachers who’d been removed from the classroom but couldn’t actually be fired.  Waiting for Superman, a documentary promoting choice and blasing unions and tenure, opened to universal praise by media, politicians, and other thought leaders. In 2010, Obama openly supported the dismissalof a Rhode Island high school’s entire staff, saying, “our kids get only one chance at an education, and we need to get it right.”

All this criticism kept building. 2012 was a nadir year terms of establishment discourse about public school teachers, although their reputation among the public seemed largely unchanged. It became increasingly popular to attack teacher tenure, again by both Democrats and Republicans, and certainly in the generally left of center media. Many states had agreed to evaluate teachers by test scores and both major unions had signed onto the Common Core standards, although teachers themselves were very doubtful.  A preponderance of politicians and academics were more than willing to agree that teacher quality needed to improve, that tenure might be problematic, and that teachers should be judged at least in part on test scores.  The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, pitting union president Karen Lewis against Rahm Emmanuel, and media sympathies were entirely with Rahm. Governor Scott Walker ended collective bargaining for public workers (except cops and firefighters!).

One major setback: DC’s 2010 election, in which black voters booted Adrian Fenty, the media-popular mayor, largely because they wanted to get rid of Michelle Rhee, who stepped down the day after the election. Her successor, Kaya Henderson, kept firing teachers, but she’s black, which might have made a difference. Rhee immediately announced a new organization, Students First, and let Richard Whitmire write an admiring biography.


In 2008, California made algebra I the “test of record” for eight graders, meaning that 8th graders would take an algebra end of course test or the schools would receive a penalty towards average yearly progress.

High school exit exams mostly held constant; this 2008 Edweek article actually says that fewer than half of the states required exams, but that may be because of lawsuits. California, for example, was sued constantly about the use of the CAHSEE in the early 2002.

Charter Growth, Choice, TFA

Just one state, Washington, authorized charters during the Obama administration. Absolute growth was still slow through  2011,  but then recovered from 2012 to 2017. As a percentage, though, the decline from 2001 to 2011 was steep, slowed slightly but still declined through 2017.  By 2012, charter advocates began pushing the suburban progressive charter, realizing that growth would continue to slow if they couldn’t disengage white folks from their beloved public schools. Suburban charters were (and are) popular with whites in racially diverse areas, particularly in the south; for example, Wake County charter schools were 62% white in 2012.

When the 2007-2008 meltdown hit, TFA recruitment soared ever higher as elite grads sought shelter from a horrible job market. Relay Graduate School began in 2011, basically providing a teaching credential for new hires of inner city charters.

In 2010, Douglas County (major Colorado suburb) began a highly contested investigation into a voucher program, one that would give public money for all private schools, including religious ones. The school board ultimately supported a move forward, despite a split community.

And that’s the end of the very nearly straightforward rise of education reform. It’s impossible to cover every major development, but I really tried to look at advances in every major area.

I’m going to call 2012 as the peak of the era, for reasons I’ll go through in the next post. It’s not that all progress stopped. It took four more years before education reformers even began to consider how badly they’d been beaten. But most of them would realize that they were now fighting significant opposition that they couldn’t easily dismiss.

Something I’ve mentioned before: it’s amazing that Republican media folk, as opposed to education reformers and even politicians, still talk like it’s 2008-2012. There’s really no understanding in the pundit world how badly they’ve been beaten.

Working on the next; hoping to get it done before the new year. I will go back and edit these if something significant occurred to me.



Bush/Obama Ed Reform: The Road to Glory

The utter collapse of ed reform in 2016 and beyond really hasn’t received much notice in the mainstream media, although the conservative branch of the old movement certainly talks about it. So prompted by Spotted Toad, I’m expanding (of course), the rise and eventual fall that I began in response to a question in a comments section.  As an aside, if you haven’t read Spotted Toad’s outstanding article referencing this collapse, do so after finishing this piece, however long it becomes, the better to appreciate his sublime analogy.

While education reformers were of both the left (Howard Fuller, Theodore Sizer, Andrew Rotherham) and right (Checker Finn, Rick Hess), the Republican party eventually seized the agenda and made it their own. Most teachers (raises hand) considered the GOP adoption as a weapon to weaken teachers’ unions, but motives aside, the school reform movement was traditionally considered as conservative policy, primarily because teachers, whose unions are very much of the left, were the opposition. But ultimately, education reform efforts in this era were shared and then arguably taken over by Democrats.


Understand that there’s always education reform going on in our country, so I’ll be specific: in the late 80s/90s, several highly influential books created momentum for specific public school reforms. Public education was, these people argued, corrupt, inefficient, incompetent, and expensive. Proposals to address its failures fell into three categories, broadly. First, give parents public money to spend freely on their own educational choices. Second, invest and examine instruction and curriculum. Finally, tie up federal education funds with demands that the dollars are being spent well, holding schools accountable. (For more on choice and accountability, see my thoughts here.)


During the Clinton administration, Democrats were still eager to prove they weren’t McGovern leftists.  California and Minnesota already had authorized charter schools by 1993, when Clinton became president. Clinton and Congress passed a new version of the ESEA, Charter Schools Program, which gave a whole bunch of federal money to charter schools. From the start of Clinton’s presidency to the end, charter school growth increased by 1, 992 schools–literally, from 1 to 1, 993.

I was surprised to learn while preparing this piece that most states had authorized charters during the Clinton administration–by my count, 36 states had charter laws and charter schools by the time Clinton left office.

One of the two most famous charter chains and the only one that really tries to reach throughout the nation, KIPP, was founded in 1994–and arguably created the market for charters as selective schools for inner city African Americans and Hispanics whose public schools were chaotic and/or academically undemanding.  KIPP’s success, which was originally evaluated without controlled comparisons, seemed miraculous and charter advocates saw an immediately compelling “killer app” (to use the parlance of  the times). While many advocates were honestly interested in improving educational outcomes for poor African American and Hispanic students, it’s hard to believe they would have gotten as much funding for their efforts if wealthy conservative organizations didn’t see the growth of charters as a way to wipe out teachers’ unions and their Democratic party donations. It’s hard to escape noticing that neither educational advocates nor charter funders have ever been much interested in improving academic outcomes for poor whites.

Alternative Teacher Credentialing

In 1990, billionaire Ross Perot gave half a million dollars to Wendy Kopp to help her get a new organization,Teach for America, off the ground. Based on the premise that the education gap was created by ignorant teachers, Kopp got corporate funding and political support by making it attractive for elite college graduates to teach for a few years in inner city schools. TFA attracted idealist 22 year olds who also, pragmatically, saw the value of a TFA stint on their resume–as Kopp herself put it, she wanted TFA to be the equivalent of a Rhodes scholar award.

It was during the Clinton era that it first became common to think of public school teachers as dull mediocrities. Credential tests for elementary school teachers started to show up in state requirements by the late 1980s, and the Higher Education Act of 1998 required them. Eager to dethrone ed schools as a means of teacher production, education reformers succeeded in including a requirement for ed schools to publish their credential pass rates, certain that outrage at teacher incompetence would push parents and politicians to join with reformers in demanding alternate education credential paths.

Republicans had been targeting teacher tenure and unions as the obstacles to educational excellence since at least “A Nation at Risk”. But Terry Moe, a Democrat, started making such heresy popular among Democrats (at least the neoliberals, as some called them) in the late 80s. Increasingly, critics of  teachers held them responsible for student test scores, and compared them unfavorably to non-union charters.


Another notable development during the Clinton era was the high school exit exam, although the media really only began to notice during the Bush and Obama administrations. A number of states had very simple exit exams (called MCE for minimum competency exam) in the 1970s, but the “Nation at Risk” report led to the cancellation of many of these. Texas instituted a more difficult test in 1985; that’s the earliest I could find of a more typical high school exam requirement. But the rise of the modern high school exit exam is definitely linked to the Clinton administration. Somewere between 24 and 26 states required a high school exit exam by 2002, and increasingly these exams required passage for a diploma.

(note: I added the above the next day.)

Ascending to Glory

In 2000, George W. Bush’s election put school reform in the driver’s seat. For the next dozen years, reformers achieved almost all of their major policy goals with two consecutive, supportive presidents–as my title notes, the era will be named after them. There’s at least one book on the subject already.

No Child Left Behind

The decade started with the rewrite of ESEA famous enough to get its own name: No Child Left Behind.  NCLB was bipartisan; Democrats George Miller and Edward Kennedy were co-sponsors. Accountability was always a key component in the education reform agenda. In a nutshell, NCLB required that all students in all categories score at proficient or higher by 2014,  leading to the absurd demand that all students be above average. Schools that didn’t meet what was called “adequate yearly progress” in state-defined proficiency were put on “program improvement’;  students were allowed to go to any other public school that accepted them. Oddly enough, the threat of students leaving wasn’t all that terrible, as students who wanted to go to charters were already leaving, and public schools weren’t terribly interested in accepting students outside their geographic district. But there was plenty left that was horrible about program improvement, including the never-ending relentless focus on test scores.

TFA had solid growth during the Bush era, although it wasn’t the soaring rates that they’d see next term.


Absolute growth slowed from 2001 to 2011.  As a percentage, though, the decline from 2001 to 2011 was steep, slowed slightly but still declined through 2017. Part of this is because most states had authorized charters before the Bush administration; from 2001 to 2008 Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Wyoming authorized charters.

However, charters saw a major boost because of a natural disaster. Education reformers were a little too ecstatic about the “opportunity” provided by Hurricane Katrina, when the Louisiana legislature summarily fired the vast majority of New Orleans teachers, 71% of whom were black women, in order to turn New Orleans’ schools over to the State Recovery District. (More than half of these teachers never taught again.) New Orleans became a predominantly charter school district after that, and less than 50% of its teaching population is black (as of five years ago).

New Orleans became the crucible for education reformers. Finally, they’d been able to completely scrub (one might say bleach) a school district and redefine it the way they thought schools would run. Overwhelmingly, they believed that New Orleans would serve as an impetus for more cities to go full charter, or at least full-scale choice.

Another famous charter network, Success Academy, was founded in 2006 when Eva Moskowitz lost her election for the NYC council and needed a backup job.

Charters were still being primarily targeted as a method to improve black and Hispanic student outcomes, but Summit Prep in the Bay Area, California was began as a suburban charter in 2003.


School and district takeovers continued to be an important strategy to institute charters and choice. TFA alum Michelle Rhee was appointed the head of Washington DC schools by mayor Adrian Fenty after the DC Board of Education was stripped of its power.  Joel Klein, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support, instituted choice throughout the NYC school system and supported dramatic growth in charters.

The outcry against ed schools got stronger, aided in no small part by the National Council on Teacher Quality (which, in my view, is the educational equivalent of the Southern Poverty Law Center). Founded in 2004, NCTQ is well-known for providing research fodder for sympathetic education reformers that is generally ignored by teachers, even more than they ignore most research.

NCLB built on the 1998 Higher Education Act to require that all states define “highly qualified teachers” that test in through credential test or other rigorous standard.  In many states, middle school teachers had to meet the same requirements as high school teachers (although existing teachers were grandfathered in). The credential test created significant challenges for new black and Hispanic teachers.

One crushing blow, however, to ed school critics, was the failure of the 1998 HEA to create an ed school ranking system. Ed schools were required to publish their graduates’ credential test pass rate which critics expected to be low for many schools. This, they hoped, would create a ranking system and thus an opening for alternate credentialing programs to break the near-monopoly of university-based ed schools. Alas, ed schools bit hard on a bullet and simply denied diplomas to any ed school candidates who couldn’t pass the credential tests. Thus, the vast majority of ed schools had a 100% pass rate, and alternative ed school programs simply copied the prevailing requirements. Curses! foiled again.

However, this new ed school policy, coupled with NCLB’s demands for teacher quality, led to many black and Hispanic teachers losing their jobs. In the 90s, ed schools simply issued diplomas to everyone who completed a program, leaving the credential test an open issue. Teachers who couldn’t pass the tests (a disproportionately black and Hispanic population) just applied for an emergency credential and kept teaching with that, sometimes for years. No Child Left Behind eliminated the emergency credential, thus forcing teachers, sometimes with a decade or more experience, to take the credential tests.


So this became much longer than I expected. I split it into two sections.

How the Other Half Learns: Cannon Fodder

Consider the case of Elena Ortiz (a pseudonym):

Things are ragged and rough in Ortiz’s classroom, noticeably so compared to the others I’ve seen. She struggles to keep her students focused and engaged, and unlike in nearly every other classroom, there is no full-time assistant teacher to help her maintain order….(emphasis mine)

She walks out in October.

….Ortiz freaked out [and leaves her job permanently]. Whether it was over Adama, the cumulative stress of leading a classroom with a large number of challenging students, the lack of a second teacher in the room, or some other factor, no one is able or willing to say. Nick Carton [an assistant principal] has been pressed into service teaching second grade; a full-time assistant teacher, Brandon Whitaker, has arrived from the network. (emphasis mine)

A bit later:

When the meeting [to discuss the weak second grade reading results] breaks up, [principal] Vandlik and McDermott [Kaitlin McDermott] ask Belkin [Laura Belkin] as to stay behind. Her data is stronger than the rest of the team’s; they enlist her to take the lead in grade-level planning and improve her colleagues’ practice. At the same time, they assure her that they want to support her continued growth as a teacher, not just put the onus on her to get her colleagues up to snuff.

Belkin was, at the time, a five year Success Academy veteran.  Ortiz was a second year teacher who had never taught second grade before. Belkin had Tyrone, who she was allowed to bribe for occasional good behavior, while Elena Ortiz had Adama, a kid the school was determined to eject.  (Tyrone vs Adama).

So Ortiz had the toughest kids, no assistant teacher–but her replacement gets an assistant teacher.

Is it completely irrelevant that Belkin’s alma mater is top 50 Boston University, while Elena Ortiz went to Hudson, a regional teacher’s college?  That when Vandlik chose an AVP to get downgraded to a second grade teacher she chose Nick Carton, from a state New York school, instead of Amy Young, from Columbia, or Kerrie Riley, from a highly ranked liberal arts school?

Long before Ortiz walked out, it was clear from Pondiscio’s reporting that she was cannon fodder. Shoving cannon fodder into the line of fire, giving weaker teachers less support–that’s a practice by no means unique to Success Academy principals. I have seen teachers in this position. I have been in this position. In my second school, I was given a substantial chunk of the weakest, most challenging students, and no one thought it was an accident. It’s how principals often use the least desirable teachers in their school.

Given that Vandlik runs a school for a woman whose entire self-image is based on high test scores, I can see she might prefer to segregate the strongest students with the most valuable and experienced teachers. Use the more disposable teacher with the kids who probably aren’t going to make it to third grade.

Up to here, it’s all properly Macchiavelian. However, the rest of the story is just bad management.  Create a dumping ground, sure. But perhaps it’d be better to be sure the teacher has plenty of support, rather than singling her out for less support. Perhaps come down hard on any assistant principals that snark about her,  calling her “delicate” and asking if “she’s going to go over the edge” without ever acknowledging that she’s given the far more difficult task with less support and less experience.

And if that teacher up and walks out mid-year, then why compound the staffing difficulties by shoving the most dispensable of the assistant principals into the line of fire? “Vandlik thought it would benefit Carton…to gain hands-on experience with curriculum,culture, and classroom”. Ha, ha.

Nick Carton is much smarter than that. He quits Success Academy at Christmas break, realizing that he’s not one of Vandlik’s chosen. So once again, Bronx I is short a second grade teacher and is down to one AVP.  This time, though, Vlandik gets lucky and hires an excessed NYC public school teacher–in fact, she puts two fulltime teachers in the class and give them full support.

Perhaps she should have given that support to Elena Ortiz in the first place.

Later, Pondiscio learns that Ortiz might have left because principal Vandlik wanted her to lie. Adama’s parents have retained Nelson Mar, a lawyer who has often taken on the charter network for its many abuses. He was there to meet with Ortiz and Vandlik on what turned out to be Ortiz’s last day.

“We get there, we’re waiting, and 4:45 comes, 4:50 comes, we see Ms. Vandlik walking back and forth. We’re like, ‘Well, this is strange.’ Usually they’re fairly prompt about starting a meeting,” Mar recalled. Ortiz walked up and told them that she’d just quit her job. “She said, They want me to say that Adama did this and did that and I can’t say that,'” Mar said. “The thing that I remember distinctly was that she said, “They want me to lie, and I’m not going to do that.'”

Four different staffers with whom I discussed the matter expressed skepticism, even incredulity, that Vandlik would ask Ortiz to lie…Others noted Ortiz herself had had a rocky tenure at the school and was erratic even before her flameout. One former colleague suggests she was looking for an excuse to quit.

Pondiscio reached out to Ortiz but she refused to interview with him. Given his clear sympathy for Vandlik, who he refers to as “very good at her job”, and his readiness to allow a bunch of Success Academy staffers to stab Ortiz in the back, I don’t blame her in the slightest.

Pondiscio concedes that “the story Adama’s parents tell cannot  be dismissed.” But it’s not the parents, but the parents’ lawyer who told him that story, which is a different matter altogether. And unlike all of Vandlik’s defenders, the lawyer uses his own name. Would a lawyer make such a charge, leaving himself open to a litigious, aggressive charter network, if he couldn’t back it up?

Moreover, even before Nelson Mar’s story, Pondiscio reports that Elena Ortiz walked out “during a prep meeting with the leadership team prior to the sit-down with Adama’s parents”.  Teachers, even teachers on the edge, don’t storm out before a parent meeting without significant cause.

Pondiscio’s own evidence strongly suggests Ortiz was outraged by something that occurred during the meeting, and it was the last straw for her. I find it entirely believable that Vandlik asked her to lie. It’s consistent with Success Academy practice of dumping students who’ll hurt their test scores.

But leave aside that question and I still wonder why Pondiscio is so admiring of Vandlik, who he consistently presents as competent, assured, and impressive.

My read: Vandlik created the entire second grade staffing fiasco through her own mismanagement and obvious favoritism. She seems to have a ranking system, and treats teachers and staff based on her own priorities, rather than on needed support.  She gave the lead teacher, Belkin, the most resources rather than offer more support to a teacher with more difficult students. Then, when the second grade team confesses they aren’t working together, she not only doesn’t hold the lead teacher responsible, but rather calls Belkin aside to tell her not to feel she’ll be held responsible for the two other losers on the team.

Staffing a school is by far the most important job a principal has. Vandlik seems completely unaware that she created the second grade mess, and is content to let her staff badmouth the teacher struggling to handle difficult kids without support.

Disclosure: I’m a teacher who doesn’t trust principals. (My own admins are gods, naturally). Vandlik is exactly the sort of person I dislike on general principle. I like creative people, not control freaks. There literally isn’t a single moment where I’m not rolling my eyes every time Pondiscio goes ooh-ahh over some impressive Vandlik maneuver, like answering the phone or telling a parent off. But I’d argue the data supports my interpretation.

As always, I want more data. Pondiscio doesn’t seem to have checked for any patterns in which second graders were kept back, and whether these students were disproportionately assigned to particular teachers. He doesn’t appear to wonder if perhaps Belkin’s better results were a product of classroom assignment rather than superior teaching. He doesn’t ask why Elena Ortiz didn’t have an assistant teacher. He seems to share the negative opinion of the struggling teacher, which might explain why he repeats the trash talk to cast doubt upon possibility that Vandlik told a teacher to lie. It may be he knows more than he’s writing, information that would lead to judging Ortiz more harshly, Vandlik less so.

Missed opportunities.

All three of the assistant principals have left Success Academy. Nick Carton is now principal of the school that hired him away. Amy Young is an assistant principal at another charter. Kerrie Riley is in senior management at KIPP.  Meanwhile, Kaitlynn McDermott,  who Pondiscio says is “not unlike the Wolf the character played by Harvey Keitel in the movie Pulp Fiction who shows up to try to clean up”–well, she left as well.  So in the end, favoritism doesn’t seem to pay off. I suspect most staffers see Success Academy as a place to come from, not stay.

But to every rule there is an exception: Laura Belkin is still teaching at Success Academy.

In my last article, I argued that principal education profiles suggest the school is  grooming some teachers for leadership roles and the rest–well, if they returned after one year, that was kind of a surprise. Anyone who wants to work for Success Academy should read How The Other Half Learns to get an inkling of what might await those teachers who aren’t targeted for, er, success.

How the Other Half Learns: The Path to Principal

In How The Other Half Learns, author Robert Pondiscio points out that it’s easy to tell the educational pedigrees of Success Academy teachers, as teachers name their classrooms for their alma maters.

Bronx I classrooms include Marist, Fordham, the University of North Carolina, and Iona.[Two teachers teach] in Hunter College,….one kindergarten classroom is named ‘BMCC’: Borough of Manhattan Community College. However Success Academy is achieving its results, it has little to do with luring the best and brightest with Ivy League pedigrees to inner-city classrooms.

Literally, the next page, he writes of Eva Moskowitz observing at another school.

 …she introduces me to principal Lavinia Mackall, a Vassar grad…

So first, this is a pretty peculiar ranking system he has going there. Maybe it’s that New York thing.  Pondiscio lumps top 30 school UNC-Chapel Hill, a school that admits just 1 in 5 applicants, with Fordham (74) and University of Massachussetts-Amherst (64).  He then he compounds the absurdity by including Marist, Iona, and BMCC, perfectly good schools, I’m sure, but, well, US News stops counting in the 200s and none of them have numbers.

So if his point is that Success Academy isn’t bringing in teachers from top-ranked schools, it would be more convincing if he didn’t dismiss any school out of the top 10.

And then right after celebrating the merely selective schools the teachers attend, off he goes to visit principal who’s a Vassar grad.

Which got me wondering. Where do Success Academy principals come from? Pondiscio makes it clear that teachers aspire to leadership roles and mentions several promotions of that sort. But not all, he says, celebrating Kerri Lynch for being a committed teacher:

She’s not a Teach for America corps member with a two-year obligation to honor and an eye on law school public policy, or Wall Street. Somedeay she might think about school administration, she says, but not yet.

Kerri Lynch is now principal at the Bensonhurst school, and has been since 2018. Given that most principals spend a year in “leadership training”, odds are decent Lynch was already planning her next move when Pondiscio interviewed her. Of course, it’s also possible they just needed a warm body, given Success Academy’s attrition rates. In any event, committed teacher is now boss woman.

While almost all public school administrators began life as teachers, the percentage of all public school teachers that become administrators is quite small. Principals might make more money,  we don’t consider it a promotion as opposed to a whole new job. I contend that no great teacher would ever become a principal. It’s a fine job, but it ain’t teaching.

In most states, public school administrators must have credentials. Charter school principals have no such requirement, and at Success Academy at least, teachers who don’t leave seem to want to become principals Well, not so amazing. The people called “teachers” at Success Academy are only standing up in front of a classroom. Which is part of teaching, but not the only part.

The mere existence of a curriculum changes the job of a teacher from instructional designer to instructional deliverer.

Well, no. Real teachers can ignore a curriculum, follow it faithfully, or anything in between. Pondiscio doesn’t like this approach though, and makes it clear that he wants teachers doing other things.

American teachers spend an average of twelve hours per week gathering or generating instructional materials. Those are hours not spent studying student work, developing questioning strategies, anticipating students’ misunderstanding and challenges, working with individual children on their strengths and weaknesses, building relationships with parents, or…staring at an empty plan book and wondering “What should I teach this week?”

So first, Pondiscio’s cite of 12 hours comes from a 42 second youtube video made by a New Hampshire teacher. I think the teacher is referring to this study, which was written by a consultant, and the paper is for sale, not for open review. Not perhaps the best cite. Even assuming it’s a valid study, Pondiscio’s list of things teachers ought to be doing instead is a bit loaded.  For one thing, it’s pretty clear that Success Academy teachers aren’t given the autonomy to develop questioning strategies. And a key point of anticipating student  misunderstanding is to develop materials that help avoid or give students practice at learning why they have these misunderstandings,which is pretty pointless if you have to deliver curriculum that someone else developed.

(Besides, and forgive me for pointing this out, it’s pretty obvious that Success Academy just dumps the students who spend too much time misunderstanding.)

From a real teacher’s vantage point, Success Academy teachers are marionettes: delivering a curriculum they don’t control, constantly under supervision. The only aspect of their day that isn’t nailed down is how many times they have to call a parent to make them come control their kid.  Moreover, Success Academy basically doubles the cost of a classroom by giving most (note the most) teachers an “assistant teacher”. There’s not much intellectual or creative challenge to being a Success Academy teacher.

So it seemed to me likely that Success Academy has very few career teachers and that making it to principal was a primary career path. I decided to see how many principals I could look up. I found 40 some current principals and that many past principals. A few have dropped off the map: Danique Day Loving, well known as the first principal of Harlem 1, Carry Roby, founding principal of Upper West, Christina Danielson of Rosedale. But I could find the alma maters, hiring date, employment history, for every principal except Roby, who went back to Minnesota but has no other footprint. (Danielson might still be at Success Academy; unless they make the papers or have a Linked In page, it’s hard to find SA teachers or other staff.)


Given that Success Academy runs mostly to elementary schools, the female skew isn’t surprising. Black male principals hit way above their weight.


Now here it gets interesting, if still not surprising. Just 1 in 4 men make it to principal from the teacher role, while 75% of female principals came through teaching. Nearly 70% of all SA principals came through the teacher position, but gender clearly plays a role in path to principal. Moreover, while most principals got the job within five years of coming to Success Academy, it’s clear that men got there quicker than women. Still, if you run into a Success Academy principal, it’s even odds she’s an ex-SA teacher who got there in three to five years.

Now we get to the reason I began this research project. Before you mock me for the granularity of the ranking, understand that I used to tutor kids for college admissions and the competition for top 100 schools has increased over the past decade to an extent I find hard to comprehend. Getting into a top 100 school might not be Harvard, but it’s not nothing. Besides, I just went through all the principals in my own very large district and I only found one with a BA from a top 100 school.


(note: grad school rankings were interesting. 9 Teachers College, 2 Harvards, any number of Top 30s, but just as many went to Touro or Relay. Couldn’t find any data about Roby.)

So nearly half of all SA principals ever hired went to a top 50 school, 75% went to a ranked school, and over half of all principals began life as teachers. Incidentally, one of the principals attending a top 10 school was then Bronx I chief Elizabeth Vandlik. Pondiscio was so amazed that she was once a Chicago construction worker that he forgot to mention she probably worked before, during, or after her time at University of  Chicago (#6).

While I’m certain that Pondiscio is correct about the humble alma maters of many teachers, it’s also pretty clear that Success Academy considers teachers a vital source of principals and that SA principals are very likely to have come from selective schools.  So clearly, a good chunk of the teachers are also coming from selective schools–which Pondiscio in no way denies. I’m just exploring the data.

What all this suggests: some teachers are hired with an eye to their future in Success Academy. Some aren’t.

Next up: what happens to at least one teacher who wasn’t.

How the Other Half Learns: The Case of Tyrone and Adama

I observed in my last piece that Robert Pondiscio’s theory in the excellent How the Other Half Learns is, well, wrong. Success Academy doesn’t cherrypick parents. I came to this conclusion from the book, not from any external source. Pondiscio’s an honest reporter of the facts he sees, even if he doesn’t always connect what to me seem obvious dots. Multiple times in the book his own observations contradict his claims.

Consider Tyrone and Adama.

In an early chapter, the Bronx SA administrators have a special meeting to discuss Adama, a “troubled and challenging student” in teacher Elena Ortiz’s second-grade class.

The meeting turns into an ad hoc seminar on elementary school behavior management. [Principal] Vandlik cautions Ortiz not to bribe the boy to behave himself.

“You’re like, ‘Class, fold your hands. Adama, you folded your hands. Star!’ It’s not ‘If you fold your hands, I’ll give you a star.” The idea is to recognize and praise children’s positive behavior, not to bargain with them. The overarching goal is to keep the child from being removed from the classroom…”

Exactly 100 pages later, in a different second grade classroom, Laura Belkin, senior teacher at Success Academy, with all of five years experience, is completely ignoring Vandlik’s dictum against bribery with a consistently disobedient second-grader, Tyrone–with her boss’s complete support.

who is wearing an impassive expression and holding a thick stack of realistic-looking dollar bills, play money that Belkin and assistant teacher Alex Gottlieb distribute to the boy as positive reinforcement. “He’s on task, doing well, counting his money, and working,” Vandlik notes. “This is where it’s key to find out what works for a kid, because he’s motivated by nothing except money and sneakers, and we obviously can’t be giving him sneakers every day….He’s just very motivated by the cash.”…Tyrone’s behavior plan isn’t solving all the boy’s issues; it’s a struggle to keep him engaged and on task, but Vandlik is optimistic.

In fact, Vlandlik promises to get Belkin more fake money.

Later that day, Pondiscio notices Tyrone in the hallway, refusing to go to science class.

A second grader who is out hanging around, refusing to go to class. This is a big deal for a high schooler, and evidence of extreme defiance for a second grader.

Does Vandlik call his parents, insisting that they drop everything and rush down to the school to demand their son comply? Does she call the parents at all? Does she walk him firmly to science class, and reprimand Belkin’s failure to keep him in line?

She does not.

Vlandlik finds him lurking in the hallway and privileges Tyrone by allowing him to accompany her on the classroom visits and be a helper, identifying students who are “ready to learn”. A group that manifestly does not include Tyrone.

This disparate treatment foreshadows each child’s future at Success Academy. Adama’s parents remove him from the school after the administrators continually called emergency services to take him away. They also report his parents to Administrative Children Services, who investigated the parents for child abuse.

Tyrone is promoted to third grade.

While the school clearly considers Adama a real problem, Pondiscio makes it clear that Adama’s behavior was “not the only difficult child in a given classroom, nor on any given day even the most obvious behavior problem.” In fact, when a new second grade teacher comes in and lists students with behavior challenges, Adama isn’t mentioned.

So Tyrone is bribed constantly to behave with no penalty calls to parents, while Adama is tagged as priority one on day one as a troubling student and hauled away with 911 calls.

That this is a brutally obvious double standard doesn’t even seem to occur to Pondiscio, who seems instead to admire Vandlik’s decision to “incorporate” Tyrone into her review of classrooms.

We get no more information about Tyrone, apart from the news of his promotion. But  we catch several more glimpses of Adama–including why he has a teacher’s aide, or paraprofessional.

A common sight in schools with large numbers of special education students, ”paras’ are often assigned to support individual students with serious challenges related to executive functioning,  emotional self-regulation, and other behavior issues. (emphasis mine)

At a different point, Pondiscio describes Adama in class:

When Ortiz taps his shoulder….Adama returns momentarily to his book, The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. It’s a challenging read for early in second grade, and far above Adama’s reading level; he appears to be pretending to follow along, and not convincingly. (emphasis mine)

Here again, I wish that Pondiscio had spent more time giving us a sense of the students’ intellect. Because honest to god, I instantly wondered if Tyrone is allowed to flout the rules because, well, he’s smart. Maybe he’s reading at Level Z, or whatever a better than average leveled reading letter is for second grade. Meanwhile, it’s not impossible that Adama has the capacity for a “proficient” test score. It’s just not incredibly likely.

I have no proof  that Tyrone is allowed to flaunt regulations because Success Academy doesn’t want to bump a high scoring student. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why Pondiscio wouldn’t wonder about it.  Surely the different treatment warrants more investigation. Certainly,  more information would either confirm my nasty suspicion or banish such treasonous thoughts from my brain.

A more skeptical observer might have noticed a continual pattern to Success
Academy’s ruthless rules, and wondered if Drunk Mom and Abusive Dad are parents of high-ability kids who, like Truant Tyrone, get a pass from all the stringent requirements imposed on the parents and kids that need more work to get past the “proficient” baseline–or can’t make it at all. Again, I have no proof of this and it may in fact not be the case. It’s just the first thing I’d wonder about, given how much of Success Academy’s survival depends on their great test scores offsetting their abusive treatment of kids and parents.

Had I been allowed in, I’d have instantly recorded every students’  reading levels and tracked them through the year. And when I came back the next year to watch opening day, I’d have checked off how many kids returned, and what their scores were.

What I want to know, as I’ve written before, is:

  1. Are the weakest students leaving the schools?
  2. Are specific students improving their demonstrated abilities during their tenure at the schools?
  3. Are alumni still doing well after they leave school?

Pondiscio had a chance to answer the first two questions, but again, he focuses most of his attention on the adults, both teachers and parents, and only ever interviews parents on motivation or history. That’s a shame.

How The Other Half Learns: The Secret Sauce

Once again, all these articles are just discussions of various aspects of  Robert Pondiscio’s book, which  I highly recommend, even if I disagree with every conclusion he reaches.

As I mentioned in my last piece, Pondiscio focuses far more on the parents than the students. This is consistent with his longstanding conviction that parents are a key determinant in educational success.

His theory, which many reviewers have discussed, is that Success Academy achieves its results by letting parents select themselves their school, and by doing so the children are primed for success:

The common criticism leveled at Moskowitz and her schools is that they cherry-pick students, attracting bright children and shedding the poorly behaved and hardest to teach. This misses the mark entirely. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents. (267)

and again:

[Success Academy] starts with the raw material of a self-selected group of mostly low-income parents who win a seat in the lottery, and then ensures and re-ensures multiple times prior to enrollment that they are sufficiently motivated, attentive, and organized to come to meetings, confirm their interest, get their children fitted for school uniforms, solve transportation logistics, and take other small but non-trivial steps, which test their commitment, motivation, and organizational skills, guaranteeing that the families who choose Success are walking in with their eyes wide open..(page 323-4)

But the data, and Pondiscio’s own observations, don’t support this proposition.

Take a look for starters, at Bronx I’s attrition:



(2011 and 2012 are anomalous; given that Success Academy doesn’t accept new students after 4th grade, it seems they rebuild their numbers by absorbing students from other schools.)


There’s plenty of writing about Success Academy’s attrition, whether it’s better or worse than other charters or other public schools, but I don’t care about any of that.

It’s the attrition itself that’s the problem. The school is hemorrhaging students.  Surely the whole point of selecting parents is to achieve a stable school population?  Why select for parents if you’re planning on dumping up to half the kids?

So if Success Academy is cherrypicking parents, they’re doing a terrible job.

Besides, Pondiscio’s observations suggest frequently that despite all those multiple re-ensurances he describes,  parents are still wholly capable of ignoring procedures.

On both first days of school that Pondiscio witnesses, Bronx I’s principal dedicates a full administrator position to ensuring that any kid out of uniform is turned away.

All those parents walking in with their eyes wide open and still one parent didn’t notice that her kid’s socks were the wrong color. Another brought her kid to school in the wrong shoes. The next year, one kid gets kicked to the curb because his mom didn’t buy him a tie on time, and another has been eliminated from the school permanently for missing dress rehearsal.

All these parents had to go through the same idiotic, insulting, rigid routines to make it to first day, yet they still missed any number of rules that had been restated endlessly. So no school for their kids that day–and in one case, permanently.

Another parent somehow missed the fact, mentioned in every orientation meeting and printed in practically every form she filled out, that she was responsible for picking up her child early on Wednesdays. When she learned of this weekly requirement, she told the school her child just wouldn’t be coming to school on Wednesdays.

One mom made it through all that compliance twice–had two kids at school. She showed up drunk at school at 8 am, asking why her son got a uniform infraction for not knowing how to use a belt–and said she didn’t know how one worked, either. Hilariously, another one was furious because her son’s teacher is gay–the “woke” teachers’ huffy responses make it clear they only want their efforts to benefit parents with progressive values. Less hilariously, another father managed to follow all those rules and get several kids into Success Academy but had no problem beating his older daughter. Pondiscio cites director Eva Moskowitz’s memoir, in which she calls in a student’s grandmother to berate his mother for not complying with the six books a week read aloud. Leaving aside the revolting behavior of both grandma and Control Freak in Charge, this recalcitrant mom also made it through the gauntlet without somehow realizing that she’d committed to read to her kid.

Parents aren’t the secret sauce of Success Academy.

As Pondiscio documents, many parents follow all those moronic rules, convinced that the school that’s got it all together is the school for their child, determined to be compliers, anything it takes–and it’s not enough.

There are hundreds of complaints and news stories on Success Academy nastiness to all the parents that did everything right.  Even some of the compliments don’t sound all that great. The abuse stories are horrible, particularly  Success Academy’s Uber routine–it just ignores the law, confident that the NYDOE will just ignore the problems until an impartial observer comes in and finds both the school and the DOE at fault, forcing the DOE to pay for compensatory tutoring.

The three frequent strategies for dumping the kids on the “got to go” list–or “special friends” as Bronx I refers to the problem students are 1)  endlessly calling emergency services to remove the child, 2) reporting the parents to state protection agencies for failing to put their children in special ed classes, 3) when all else fails, forcing the child to repeat the grade more than once, even if the child passed.

Read all the horror stories and notice that none of them involve parents who refuse to follow procedures.

Pondiscio interviewed a targeted boy’s mother.  Success Academy wanted her son, Adama, out. The school suspended Adama frequently , called 911 to cart him away, and reported the parents for abuse and neglect.  While the schools frequently call parents and demand they show up and monitor their child, Bronx I administrators refused to let Adama’s parents come to monitor, because he didn’t misbehave when they were around.  This was all before Pondiscio began observing. By December of his second grade year, the school had called 911 three times in one week and reported the parents again to ACS. The parents gave up and pulled Adama out of school.

[Adama’s story] fits a troubling pattern of parents who have claimed that they were told that Success Academy does not offer special education services or the classroom settings that their children need; or that suspensions were meted out so frequently that work schedules and routines were disrupted, wearing families down and eventually forcing them to give up and pull their children out. (page 300)

Pondiscio then recounts the almost identical charges that made their way into a complaint filed against the Success Academy schools with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:

There is a sameness to the allegations in the lengthy OCR complaint: A Harlem 4 student required to repeat the second grade three times and on multiple occasions. A Harlem 3 student recommended for 12:1:1 special education placement, which the school did not provide. A Bronx 1 student held over in the same grade three times. Staff urging parents to remove their children and enroll them in DOE schools. In nearly every case, the OCR complaint alleges that staffers pressured parents to remove children altogether rather than working with them to develop strategies to help them be successful.

What Pondiscio doesn’t mention is the outcome of the case. Nearly four years later, the case seems to have disappeared entirely–at least, I can find no media reports of its disposition.

You might think the case is simply over, but it took the USDoE nearly four years to respond to a notorious Success Academy FERPA case, in which Eva Moskowitz brutally revealed a students’ entire discipline history in a rather shocking (at least to those of us in the field) privacy violation.  State education monies will be spent funding professional development to be sure that the rest of her very nearly temporary staff knows the laws that Eva couldn’t be bothered to follow.

So perhaps eventually the January 2016 DOE complaint will get an answer. Long after the feds have funneled millions to Success Academy, of course.

I don’t recite all this history to revisit the many claims against Success Academy’s nastiness which, full disclosure, I believe every word of.

I mention it because Drunk Mom’s kids got to stay. The elementary and middle school principals collaborated to help her in order to avoid calling the state protective agency on a woman who is inebriated at 8 am and announces that she doesn’t know how to put on her second kid’s belt. Abusive Dad’s kids weren’t targeted for removal. But Adama, whose parents drank every drop of Success Academy Koolaid, followed every rule,  were shining examples of immigrants who want their children to benefit from our educational sytem, parents who offered to visit often to help the school help their kid learn to behave–he got kicked out.

If you demand that engaged and committed parents send their children to school with the children of disengaged and uncommitted parents, then you are obligated to explain why this standard applies to low-income black and brown parents–and to only them.

Leaving aside the idea that engaged and committed parents deserve more than disengaged and uncommitted parents (like I said, Pondiscio is oddly uninterested in the students themselves), it’s completely untrue that Success Academy is rewarding engaged and committed parents with a good education for their children. In many cases, the schools are kicking out these parents’ kids, and in others, those parents are running away from a school that “has its act together”, odd behavior, given the “guarantee” that they went into the school  with “their eyes open”.

Turn it around and posit that Pondiscio is completely wrong on this point and the data all hangs together nicely. Success Academy isn’t cherrypicking parents. They’re cherrypicking kids, just like the critics say. Kids who have a good chance of scoring proficient get to stay, even if their mom shows up drunk or their dad beats up the kids. Kids who won’t make the cut will get kicked to the curb, no matter how worthy their parents, how eagerly they comply with uniform, homework, and communication directives.

That’s what’s consistent with the data.

But why, the discerning reader asks, would Success Academy come up with all those idiotic rules if they aren’t cherrypicking parents?

A couple reasons.

First, genetics. Success Academy doesn’t seem to be sorting for geniuses, or even inordinately intelligent kids. As I griped, Pondiscio doesn’t give us much of an intellectual sense of the students, but I can’t help but think he’d mention it if any of them were exceptionally bright.

Success Academy’s sweet spot is probably the bubble kids. Slightly brighter than average kid–the Tiffany, in Pondiscio parlance–with ferociously determined, aspirational parents who are willing to do anything to get their kids away from the knuckleheads.  Select for those, and odds are better than average the kids will have enough ability to be pushed up to proficient. And if they aren’t, hey, then dump them.

But those same aspirational parents also make it easier for Success Academy to play what many see as its shell game.

The obedience and compliance demands aren’t the reason the schools get great test scores.  But the obedient and compliant parents who aren’t experiencing rejection are thinking not “god, there but for the grace of god go I” but “Heh. One more kid who can’t cut it. More teacher time for my kid.”

I have no proof of any of this, other than the data, which is manifestly inconsistent with a parental selection strategy, and Pondiscio’s own anecdotes, which clearly show that many parents aren’t meeting the very objectives he says Success is selecting for.

A few years back, I wondered how Success Academy achieved its numbers without cheating. Pondiscio has straightened that out for me, but probably not the way he wanted to.

How The Other Half Learns: Who are the Students?

Years before I became a teacher, I found kids of all ages interesting on an intellectual level.  I enjoyed seeing the different ways that their intelligence manifested. I remember the moment I realized my son, just four, was extremely bright, capable of synthesizing a wide range  of information and coming up with interesting conclusions–and this despite the fact that he didn’t read until he was over six, and was always slow on speech milestones. A few years later, I was playing a card game with my twin niece and nephew and realized they, at age two, were out there on the IQ scale, but in different ways: my niece solves problems, my nephew instantly grasps and files away information.

The three proved out my predictions, all with  SAT or ACT scores in the 95+ percentile. My niece has a nursing degree (getting into a nursing school is cutthroat competitive these days), my nephew graduated from a top 20 school with a degree in linguistics. (My son’s history is here.)  Recall that I’m the only college graduate in my family of origin, so degrees aren’t really in the family tradition.

But kids don’t have to be unusually intelligent–or relatives–to capture my interest. My articles are filled with student profiles and class profiles in which I try to give a sense of the intellectual presence in the room, in the interaction. I link in a bunch at the end as a demonstration.

I wanted to know more about the students at Bronx Academy 1, and in this way, How the Other Half Learns disappoints. We get no real insight into the students’ intellectual lives.

This is a shame, really. Why, after all, do we care so much about these charters? Because of their academic results:

If you are a black or Hispanic child in a New York City public school, you have a one-in-four chance of passing the state English Language Arts exam. At Success, 82 percent of black and Hispanic students passed in 2016–a rate that easily outpaces even the 59 percent rate of Asian and white students citywide. In math, 93 percent of Success Academy’s black students and 95 percent of its Hispanic students passed their math test, with 73 percent scoring at Level 4, the highest level.

The Big Question, one I hoped I’d get some insight into: to what extent is Success Academy creaming? Are the charters taking some of those 1 in 4 black or Hispanic students who would pass the ELA exam anyway? Are they taking ordinary kids of average skills and beating enough information into their heads to barely get them past the “proficient” rating? Or are they taking barely literate children and turning them into excellent readers?

Pondiscio argues that Success Academy selects for parents, not for students. It’s certainly true that the school is vetting for parents who can be instantly available on demand, willing to put up with truckloads of excessive and unpleasant demands, which are clearly designed with the same goals that Van Halen had when banning brown M&Ms.  Because he sees parents as central to Success Academy, Pondiscio interviews several, uncovering their own educational history.

But the book has very little insight into the children themselves.

On Tiffany, the student whose needs gave Pondiscio the entire focus of his career:

Her eyes are on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; her homework neat and complete. She has grown up hearing about the importance of education. She believes it, and her behavior shows it. She gets praise and good grades. (emphasis mine)

With the exception of “bright”, which appears to be more about mood than intellect, Pondiscio describes Tiffany primarily by behavior and intent, not ability.

I would trade most of the parent interviews, which all sound the same (“I hated school, I was passed on, I was a drug addict, I fell into a hole, I made something of my life, I need to save my kid, I don’t want my kid to be passed on the way I was, I love the discipline, the end”), for a series of student conversations throughout the year.

Instead, give me evidence the students are developing intellectually. Show me that these are interesting, aware, educated children with an interest in the world around them. Better yet, show me that some kids went from picking their noses to discoursing eloquently on the reasons for a blue sky, all thanks to Success Academy’s brilliant teaching and curriculum.

Interview fourth graders, both those who scored proficient on the third grade test, and those who missed the mark. Are those students who failed still in the school, or were they cut from the program? Are the ones who passed noticeably more developed than the ones who didn’t–assuming they’re still in the school?

I want to hear from all those students who were forced to repeat grades. Did they ever move forward, or did all of them eventually transfer? It’s completely obvious that Success Academy is forcing students to repeat as a way of enticing them to drop out, but do any of them ultimately pass? How are their results?

Tell me stories about the kids who apparently have been spoon fed six books a week for years. What do the kids think about all this reading time? Do the parents actually meet their commitments? What books do they read? Do the parents read the same books more than once? What are their favorite stories?

But Pondiscio gives very little insight into the minds that Success Academy is supposed to develop. For the most part, the students are props. He does provide a description of one pseudo-discovery math class, but his focus is on the teacher, not the students.

When he does provide detail, the results undercut the Success story. (heh).  For example, a student takes a reading test:

“So what did you learn in this book?” she asks. Luis begins to rattle off random facts from memory. Whales send messages to other whales. They communicate with “whistles and burps and…” he struggles to recall a word. “They click,” he says finally. Syskowski presses for more. “What other information did you learn about whales?” Luis describes their ability to “bounce sounds off of fish” to find food. “A blue whale is as big as 25 elephants. They’re the giants of the sea,” he adds, a phrase that comes directly from the book. To ensure he’s demonstrating reading comprehension, not just prior knowledge, Syskowski asks Luis to show her evidence for the facts he’s just cited. …

“….How are whales like people?” she asks. “They find food. They send messages to each other,” the boy answers. “They have babies.” And how are they different? Luis twists his face and looks to the book to jog hism emory. “When people need help with something, they don’t cry or whistle or click. They just call for help. Like on the phone,” he answers. “And whales can’t speak. They speak, like, whale….Is that all of your questions?”

The word for this display is regurgitation. You don’t see a Luis who is interested in whales, enthusiastically telling his teacher about cool whale facts, but rather a Luis desperately trying to “empty his head of all that he’s just read.” Luis isn’t fascinated by whales or constructing background knowledge. In fact, the kid doesn’t seem interested in reading at all. He just wants the reward–to be moved up a level in grading. I’m sure Luis is an adorable little boy, but his reading comprehension skills do not strike me as a ringing endorsement for the Success Academy regime.

On a second grade field trip:

Some boys are trying to impress Ibrahim’s dad, Solomon, a Nigerian immigrant, with everything they have learned about Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the bridge. “He got ill and died,” one says….Showing good teaching instincts, [Solomon] pushes for more. “How do you know that’s not the Queensboro Bridge?” he demands. “Tell me how you know.” The boys point out that it’s a suspension bridge but seem at a loss to “prove” that the suspension bridge in front of them is Roebling’s masterpiece. They just know.

I have to take Pondiscio’s word for it that the only fact of note retained from the Roebling reading is not that he fought in the Civil War, made several major advances in bridgebuilding,  or that he lived to 89 before dying of an illness.  Nor could they tell the dad that the Queensboro Bridge isn’t a suspension bridge.

In an already famous anecdote from the book, the kindergarten teacher  tells a kindergartner that his book review (a pencil sketch and a few words) doesn’t make sense and that he can’t play with the “blocks” the next day.

Why not describe the “book report”? What did it say? What was the picture of? How did it compare to the other sketches? What words did the kids know well enough to write?

I never get the sense that Pondiscio is interested in the kids themselves–not because he doesn’t care about them, which he clearly does. But for whatever reason, the kids don’t seem important to his story. Ability  and individualism doesn’t make much of an appearance. Parental character is all:

If Eva Moskowitz is to be charged with creating an opportunity for parents…with more ambition for their children than means, it is a curious charge. If you demand that engaged and committed parents send their children to school with the children of disengaged and uncommitted parents, then you are obligated to explain why this standard applies to low-income black and brown parents–and to only them.

This is an egregious statement on many levels, but for now, consider it purely as insight into Pondiscio’s mindset.

Those familiar with Pondiscio’s writing won’t be surprised. Regardless of what he actually believes, he doesn’t often discuss students in terms of their abilities, as opposed to what methods he wants to use to teach them. In one well-known earlier article, he wrote that students can’t be educated with the “lighting of the fire”, as many teachers say, because “empty buckets seldom burst into flames.” As he wrote in the book, he first turned to the Core Knowledge Foundation because he became convinced that, to quote Dan Willingham, “the wellspring of reading comprehension is common knowledge”. (This always gets near suggesting that kids must be taught knowledge before they can read about it, even though both Pondiscio and Willingham protest whenever this is pointed out.)

Meanwhile, he’s got dozens of articles on the importance of giving parents choice.

“Adult self-interest is the heart of this debate, and the ideological question is whether we trust poor parents to exercise it. ” (Let Poor Parents Choose Too)

“That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values.” (Putting the evidence cart before the school choice horse)

“About the last thing I want to do is spend the next several years arguing about whose approach to discipline is ‘right.’ The salient question ought to be, ‘Which is right for you?'” (When it Comes to School Discipline, Let Parents Choose)

“I’m strongly biased toward school choice. I defer deeply to parental prerogative.” Deborah Meier, Libertarian?

Even in the book, even when talking about Tiffany, it’s about what her parents did: “She has grown up hearing about the importance of education.” Tiffany didn’t decide this for herself.

Give parents the ability to choose, Pondiscio believes, and they will find the best education for their children. How he squares this with the many caring, ambitious, committed parents who chose Success Academy, jumped through all those idiotic control hoops only to deal with months of harassment once the school targeted their child for expulsion, I don’t know.

I don’t see students as empty buckets. I see them as individual agents with capacities from their parents’ ambitions and desires. For that reason, I wish Pondiscio had dumped all those parent profiles (to say nothing of the Moskowitz power meetings) and spent more time in the book recounting student stories. Let the readers know more about the young people who actually deliver the test scores needed to maintain the Success Academy reputation–and whether they display the intellectual presence we want those scores to represent.

I want to reiterate that I like the book and strongly recommend it. These pieces are just offered up for discussion–the difference between teachers and policy advocates, maybe.


The kid who can do arithmetic in his head but can’t manage basic algebra.
The kid who trusted me more than a math teacher who knew a lot more math.
The kids who had to build a business plan for a basketball team and started by looking up shoe prices.
The kid who asked questions without ever expecting to understand the answers. 
The kid who came back two years after his SAT scores were worse than his worst fears. 

Seeing the link between algebraic equations and graphs just before the weekend.
Figuring out the Third Dimension
The electoral college and Trump
Reading aloud to my ELL class.
Advising students on their narratives









How the Other Half Learns: Teacher Origin Stories

I have a friend (no, really), a lawyer with no interest in or knowledge of education policy. As we’re both avid readers, we often send each other books to check out. A couple years ago, we started an exchange in which each would send the other a book on a topic that they wouldn’t normally read. I picked  Hope Against Hope, by Sarah Carr, which he loved. The next year I chose Ben Orlin’s first book, and I’m not sure he’s recovered. Lawyers really don’t like math. I thought he’d like the pictures, at least.

This year  I chose How the Other Half Learns, by Robert Pondiscio.

My actual review is short: Buy it. Read it. Pondiscio spent a year observing Success Academy Bronx 1. His observations are far more thorough than the two  other education books by “journalists” I’ve discussed on this site. He’s honest, deeply analytical, and always willing to question or offer multiple interpretations. No matter where you stand in the charter wars, even if you’ve never given a thought to education policy, you will find it valuable, interesting, and insightful.

My writing output has been ridiculously low this year, but it’s my plan to write a series of observations on the book. Consider them discussion topics. Things I noticed that the author didn’t seem to, or that he did notice and dismissed, or that he noticed and endorsed.

As you read, however, never forget why Robert Pondiscio was in a position to write this book.

He went into teaching after 9/11, inspired by an advertisement. He got six weeks of training through the New York Teaching Fellows program.

He struggled as a fifth grade teacher in the South Bronx, the lowest performing school in New York City.  His story is well-known to people who follow ed policy; he’s told it many times and recapped it in the opening of his book.  He turned to teachers and administrators for advice, but found it lacking. For anyone who’s read the horrorshow stories in The Battle for Room 314 (a book I utterly despised), he says his own experiences were familiar.  He had a miserable time managing classrooms until he read Ron Clark’s book, The Essential 55.

Here’s a line that sums up his public portrayal of his teaching experience:

“I used to damage children for a living with that idealism.”

Stung by his failure, Robert went into education policy.– “It is not an overstatement to say that our failure to help students become good readers and writers is why I became a curriculum reform advocate.”

He is driven by the memory of Tiffany, an eager former student totally invested in her education, a student he was explicitly told to ignore because she was already at grade level. While Tiffany grew up to graduate from a state college, Pondiscio still counts her as a failure, thinking that with her drive and determination, any private school would have gotten her to Harvard.

When he read of E. D. Hirsch’s work:

Teaching elementary school in a low-performing South Bronx elementary school convinced me that E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s views on literacy are unimpeachably correct. His work described precisely what I saw every day in my fifth grade classroom: children whose lack of background knowledge and vocabulary contributed disproportionately to their reading comprehension struggles. I was so electrified by Hirsch’s insights, which no one in my district or grad school seemed aware of or much interested in, that I resolved to work for Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation and to spread his essential ideas.

And so gave birth to his education reform career, first with Core Knowledge, and now with Fordham Institute. He teaches civics, another long-standing interest of his, part time at Democracy Prep–that is, at a charter, not the wild-and-woolly anything goes world of public schools.

This is all well-documented by Robert himself and if I’ve gotten anything wrong, it’s not because I decided to fill in the blanks but just my also well-documented inattention to detail.

Robert Pondiscio is a consultant and advocate and author in education precisely because he considers himself a failed public school teacher and wants to change the world to save the kids he couldn’t.

Successful teachers don’t usually leave the field. They certainly don’t leave the field to become advocates arguing that public education is broken.

Always remember that people who get book deals have a story someone thinks will sell.

“I’m a successful teacher. I love my job. I’ve never been  beaten down by soulless administrators. I disobey rules and policies that aren’t good for my students. I wake up every day  confident I’m helping my students learn how to navigate life and learning. Here are my ideas on education policy.” is not a story that sells.

You should read this outstanding book. But as you read Pondiscio’s recommendations and conclusions, never forget that he advocates charters as lifeboats, as Dale Russakoff puts it.. He believes children need to be rescued from low income schools, that these schools are responsible for low achievement scores, that teachers are failing these students so profoundly that charters are essential lifeboats helping students escape the Titanic of public education, no matter the cost. He believes Success Academy’s methods are worth enduring.

None of these beliefs mean that he’s wrong, inaccurate, or biased in his observations. Nor am I convinced he was an actual failure as a teacher, as opposed to someone who was simply frustrated at achieving less than he wanted to.

Just remember that successful teachers, with happier origin stories, given the opportunity to observe Bronx 1, would have written of a very different year.

But they don’t get book deals.

Hey, under a thousand.


Evaluating vs Solving

Most math teachers start their year with algebra review. I like the idea of “activating prior knowledge“, as it’s known in ed school, but I never want to revisit material as review. It’s so….boring. Similarly, others “reteach” students if they didn’t understand it the first time and again, no, I don’t do that.

The trick is to wrap the review material in something new, something small. It’s wrapping, after all. For example, suppose the kids don’t really get Power Laws 1, 2, and 3 the first time you teach them, even though you went through them in insane detail and taught them both method and meaning. But you give them a quiz, and half the class is like, what means this exponent stuff? so you grit your teeth, yell at them, flunk most of them on that quiz, and go onto another topic for a week or so. Then one morning write ¾ on the board and ask “How would I write this with exponents?” and through the explanation you take them back through all of the power laws.

But I’m not here to write about power laws, although if you want advice on the best way to teach them, even if it takes longer, there’s no better tutorial than Ben Orlin’s Exponential Bait and Switch.

I’m here to explain how I integrate what we usually call “algebra review” into my course, while additionally teaching them some conceptual stuff that, in my experience, helps them throughout the course. Namely, teach them the difference between evaluating and solving functions for specific values.

Evaluate–what is widely recognized as “plugging in”. Given an input, find the output. Evaluate is Follows P E MD AS rules–well, technically P F MD AS, but who can say that? Note–I am pretty sure that “evaluate” is a formal term, but google isn’t helpful on this point.

Solve–well, technically it’s “plugging in for y”, but no one really thinks of it that way. Given an output, find the input(s).  Follows the rules of Johnny Depp’s younger brother, SA MD E P. (I hope I retire before I have to update that cultural reference). And really, it’s SA MD F P, but again, who can say that?

Things that get covered in Evaluate/Solve:

  • Remind everyone once more that addition/subtraction and multiplication/division run left to right, not one before the other. SAMDEP reinforces that, as I put the S first for the mnemonic.
  • “Evaluate”–Evaluating purely arithmetic expressions is middle school math.  At this stage of the game, the task is “evaluate the equation with a given value of x”.
  • “Solve” –Solving is, functionally, working backwards, to undo everything that has been done to the input. Right now, they know how to “undo” arithmetic and a few functions. They’ll be expanding that understanding as the course moves forward.x
  • Hinted at but not made explicit yet: not all equations are written in function format. I believe that, given an equation like  3x + 2y = 12 or x2 + y2=25, the terminology is “given x=4, solve for y” or “given y=3, solve for x”, but I’m not enough of a mathie to be sure. Feel free to clarify in the comments.
  • As I move into functions, this framework is helpful for understanding that evaluating a function must have one and only one answer, whereas solving a function given an output can have more than one input. It’s also useful to start capturing the differences between absolute value and quadratics, which aren’t one to one, and lines and radicals, which are.
  • The “PE” in PEMDAS and SAMDEP stands for exponent, but in fact the laws must be followed for every type of function: square root, absolute value, trigonometry, logs,  and so on. Informally, the “E” means “do the function” or “undo the function”, depending on whether evaluating or solving. So evaluating y=4|x-5| -6  with x=1 means subtract 5 from 1 (the “parenthesis), then take the absolute value (the “exponent”), then multiply by 4 and subtract 6. Solving the same equation would be adding 6, dividing by four, then undoing the absolute value to create two equations, then adding five in each one. (This is more complicated in text than explaining it with calculations on a promethean.)
  • YOU CAN’T DISTRIBUTE OVER ANYTHING EXCEPT MULTIPLICATION. This one is important. Kids will change 2(x-1)2  to  (2x-2)2 to 4x-4  with depressing speed and while many of them will make the last mistake in perpetuity, I’ve found that I can break them of the first, which also helps with 3|x+5| not turning into|3x+15|. For some reason, they never distribute over a square root, but plenty will try to turn 3cos(3x) into cos(9x).

Here’s a bit of the worksheet I  built.


I have found this prepares the groundwork for an indepth introduction to functions, which is my first unit. So when they’ve finished Evaluate and Solve, followed by Simplify ( more on that later), the functions unit:

So by the end of the unit the students can graph f(x) = 2(x-1)2 – 8 , as well as find f(3) and a if f(a)=10, and understand that the x and y intercepts, if they exist, are at f(0) and f(x)=0. They can also do the same for a square root or reciprocal function. Then I do a linear unit and a quadratic unit in depth.

Function notation, particularly f(a)= [value], is much easier for the students to understand once they’ve worked “evaluate” and “solve” with x and y.

This also helps the students read graphs for f(4) or f(z)=7.


Back in January, a Swedish guy living in Germany, as he describes himself, read the vast majority of my blog and then summarized his key takeaways and some critiques. His 6 takeaways are a pretty good reading of my blog, but he’s completely dismissive of my teaching and pedagogy, saying I’m mathematically naive and often, due to my ignorance, end up creating more confusion teaching needless information to my students. He explicitly refers to The Evolution of Equals and The Product of Two Lines, but I suspect he’d feel similarly about The Sum of a Parabola and a Line and Teaching With Indirection.

I’m really sure my students aren’t confused. I get pretty decent feedback from real mathematicians. There are legit differences between teachers on this point that approach religious wars, so there’s that.

Besides, these sort of lessons do two things simultaneously. They give weaker kids the opportunity to practice, and the top kids get a dose of the big picture.

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve written. Trying to fix that.


Primer on Direct Instruction: DI vs. di

(If you already know what the title means, feel free to comment on ways I could make this explanation clearer. If you have no idea what the title means, then I hope you find this primer helpful.)

Over the past couple years, I’ve been unnerved at academics and other highly educated people using the term “direct instruction” in completely inaccurate ways. It’s becoming increasingly common to see someone start by reciting research on Direct Instruction and then morph to discussing direct instruction.

It’s a complicated topic for outsiders, and detangling it in terms that don’t rely on background knowledge isn’t easy. But I’m giving it a shot.

To begin with, what kind of teaching is not considered direct instruction in any way?

University-based ed schools overwhelmingly emphasize and often even demand what is variously referred to as  complex instruction, discovery-based learning, open-ended discourse. I’m going to call the whole category “progressive strategies”.  This pedagogical approach argues that only good teaching forces the student to engage with the material, that simply conveying academic content as  “passive” consumption provided by the “sage on the stage” is the wrong way to go about education. At best, their argument goes, the student simply absorbs the lecture or content as a rote matter, at worst, the student shuts down and rejects school altogether, feeling uninvolved and disconnected. Progressive strategies begin with John Dewey, but took on increased importance as ed schools began to argue that the achievement gap was exacerbated by teachers’ inability to engage students with “authentic inquiry” and “rich problems”.

A clarifier: “method of instruction” and “curriculum” are entirely different animals. Teachers can commit to one method of instruction or mix it up. They can use a textbook that mixes up instruction methods, going from direct to inquiry based, or textbooks that use only one method. Or they can build their own lessons using whatever method of instruction they like.

Curriculum means the specific sequence of lessons. Textbooks are a form of curriculum; however, many teachers just use textbooks as a source of problem sets without actually using the curriculum itself. Other teachers go through every problem in the book. Some formal curricula use entirely progressive strategies: e.g., CPM at the high school level. Quite a few elementary school textbooks are entirely inquiry based.  So progressive strategies can either be a method of instruction or encased in a formal curriculum that districts purchased.

The term “direct instruction” dates at least to 1893. Over time, the term splintered into a variety of meanings that center around the difference between curriculum and method of instruction.

Direct Instruction, hereafter referred to as DI–the body of curriculum built by Zig Engelmann (RIP).  DI’s reading curriculum won a major government competition intended to improve results for disadvantaged children.

DI is a collection of formal, highly scripted and formatted curricula–lessons, textbooks, sequencing, the works, for English and math (none of which are referred to as DI individually).  DI curriculum is primarily created for elementary school, through middle school in a few topics.  Teachers have to teach reading explicit text with sound cues. The students are grouped by ability and can only move on when they have proven mastery. The DI curricula in total was recently the favorable subject of a meta-analysis that I wrote about last year.  While DI is generally considered effective, it is not popular, some of the reasons for which I discuss here.  It has not been easily adopted, and has often been ripped out of schools despite the active resistance of principals and parents. 

di–The most important thing to understand is that di is not DIdi is an instruction strategy, not a curriculum. The only curriculum discussed specifically in this article is DI, above. The next most important thing to understand is that there isn’t one di, but several, which shall be categorized by subscripts.

dib — Broadly, direct instruction is any form of conveying information that is teacher-led. The teacher provides procedures, content, or methods verbally, or by providing materials that directly instruct the student–videos, readings, worksheets. Lectures are direct instruction. Explanations are direct instruction.  Written procedures are direct instruction. What most people think of when they hear the term “direct instruction” is the broad definition, the one that dates back to 1893.

dir –More narrowly, as the achievement gap proved resistant, researchers have tried to quantify specific methods of explicit instruction that work best in terms of improving academic outcomes for disadvantaged or low-performing students. Over time, some researchers began formalizing prescriptive strategies (not curriculum) of straightforwardly conveying information. As these methods derived from formal research, we’ll call these di.

Explicit Direct Instruction is a common research-based strategy. Barak Rosenshein referred to his methods of effective teaching as direct instruction. The bag of methodological tricks advised with the research on cognitive load theory  is another.  These are  prescriptive methodologies (eg, “I do, we do, you do” of EDI). They aren’t curriculum, but they aren’t “just tell the kids what to do” of dib , either. They also apply almost purely to procedural content, which means they are used almost exclusively in math, some applied science, and maybe grammar and phonics. You can’t use EDI  or worked examples when teaching history or literary analysis.

di–The last subscript of di is only distinct because its adherents make it so.  There are people, some of whom are teachers, many of whom are not, most of whom have access to a mainstream audience through various media outlets, who hold progressive strategies in contemptuous disdain.  People of this mindset use “direct instruction” to describe the method they actively support over progressive strategies. These people are wont to say “I believe in direct  (or explicit) instruction” or “I believe in traditional methods”.  dii  advocates see progressive methods as at best ineffective, at worst harmful or destructive. They feel that education schools are destroying America’s schools by indoctrinating teachers into a failed instruction technique.

It’s important to realize that this is an ideological position, not a curriculum or a strategy. In actual practice, most dii  teachers use dib  , although some may subscribe to a particular dir . They are stating an ideological position (hence the i subscript).

So DI curriculum exists outside of the di pedagogical strategies, and two of the three di strategies exist in planned and formal opposition to the progressive strategies that dominate in education schools. Got it?


Everything up to this point has been an honest attempt to describe the categories simply, without boring you to tears with unnecessary details. I’m not the first person to describe this ambiguous term–several explanations have been linked in throughout this essay and for just one more,  here’s Larry Cuban on the topic. I did not invent the DI/di nomenclature, nor am I the only person to categorize them (e.g., Rosenshein’s group of Five), although the subscripts are mine own.

I’m writing about these terms because very few of these explanations address the penetration levels of these strategies.

Add up all the teachers using strict versions DI curriculum , dir  strategies, or any formal, committedprogressive strategy.  What percentage of American teachers would that be?

No one knows. Everyone outside the DI/diproponents would agree unhesitatingly that the combined total is very small. Progressive advocates certainly know they’re in the minority.

My own guess would be about 10% of all the high school and middle school teachers and almost all of that number would be progressive teachers. DI curriculum barely exists for high school, and while districts periodically commit to various di strategies, they never follow through for long.  Others put the total number higher.

Everyone I know of agrees that the numbers, whatever they are, are higher in elementary school, if only because there are numerous elementary DI and progressive curricula and elementary school teachers are more committed to textbook use than middle and high school teachers are. I’d still place it low, at something like 15%, but it may be as high as 30%. Others would argue for more, but in my opinion that would be stretching the definition. Again, this percentage is combined  DI/dir and progressive strategies.

Understand my numbers aren’t counting as progressives teachers who run through  an occasional inquiry-based lesson, or who demand their students demonstrate they understand the “why”, nor am I counting as DI/dir the teachers who lecture or work an example on the board. I’m talking about full-throttle discovery all the time, or “word what word?” or “I do, we do, you do” every day without exception. It’s….not many teachers.

This debate, which consumes almost all schools of education, no small number of researchers, and and the bulk of education reformers, is almost entirely irrelevant to most actual teachers and their practice.

In the real world, most teachers use dib , without a conscious, fully formed method of instruction or pedagogical philosophy.

You’re thinking wait, ed schools mandate progressive strategies, but very few teachers use them?


So this entire argument punches far outside its weight class. The research gets translated into mainstream publications and the di folks, those ideologically committed to fighting progressive strategies, are very good at getting published.  (I make that sound sinister, don’t I? No, I’m admiringly envious.)

I don’t know whether the DI/di confusion is cause or effect but increasingly I’m seeing a lot of highly educated people with a very consistent set of beliefs:

  1. Most teachers use progressive strategies.
  2. Research shows direct instruction is more effective than progressive strategies.
  3. If more teachers used direct instruction, students would learn more, like they did in the past when schools were more successful.
  4. Teachers refuse to use direct instruction because they are a) brainwashed, b) lazy, c) ideologically driven, d) some other reason involving their low status brain power

These beliefs are either completely false or, at best, incomplete. I sometimes wonder if these beliefs lead to the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of the world thinking that K-12 education is an easy fix–just get those damn teachers to explain things clearly, and we’ll see a huge boost in academic outcomes.

But it’s not that simple. Nothing in education is ever simple. For example, the more heterogeneous the class ability, the more likely it is that whatever method the teacher uses is going to hamper some students while at best only slightly helping others. There isn’t a smart kid on the planet who is ideally served by a steady diet of DI or di*, and disadvantaged, low-skill student can at worst be actively harmed by progressive instruction methods.

So next time you read an article on DI/di*, see how well the writer manages to make these distinctions clear–and remember that regardless of the  writer’s intensity level, most teachers don’t care in the slightest.

Note: Michael Pershan was invaluable in giving me feedback on this piece, and Tom Loveless gave me some important data. Their help should not be construed as agreement. Thanks to both.