Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk.

No, I’m not going to argue that education policy wonks must all spend time in the classroom. But it’s instructive to look at the major names in educational circles today and see what kind of teaching experience they have.

Andrew Rotherham was a corporate trainer, a curriculum designer who “taught civics to high school students” as a curriculum designer (which means he did demo classes?), and from there, went into full-fledged wonkery.

Diane Ravitch began life as an editorial assistant and then an education historian before she began wonking.

Arne Duncan played professional basketball player in Australia, where he spent time with underprivileged children before he ran a non-profit education foundation and then supervised Chicago’s schools.

Linda Darling Hammond spent a year teaching English as a public school teacher in a mostly white Pennsylvania suburb.

Andrew Smarick has no teaching experience, but he was a co-founder of a KIPP school that was closed.

Checker Finn taught public high school for a year, and by his own admission, quit because he was a terrible teacher.

Mike Petrilli had what looks to be a job as a camp counsellor.

Michelle Rhee was a public school teacher for two years and lied misrepresented let people think she had raised test scores. Her classroom management skills were so poor that she made her students wear duct tape to keep quiet. (It’s also possible that Rhee is lying about that story, since no one can really believe she wouldn’t have been fired for that stunt. If she lied, though, it means that Rhee’s so ignorant about teaching that she thinks the story is believable.)

Rick Hess taught in Baton Rouge for two years, and then quit in part because he wasn’t able to teach the AP Econ course he wanted to, even for free.

John Chubb wasn’t a teacher or even a businessman when he got involved with Edison Schools, but by golly, he wants us to have the best teachers in the world. Who apparently aren’t at Edison.

Alfie Kohn emphasizes that he has been a teacher,but keeps most of his teaching career away from the watchful eye of Google. He does mention that he taught “existentialism to high school students”. Cough.

Rick Hess publishes a list of highly visible edu-scholars; of the top ten on the list, only five have any experience in teaching, according to their CVs, and just one, Larry Cuban, has had extensive experience teaching and leading public schools.

I can only think of three educational experts with extensive K-12 teaching experience—Cuban Tom Loveless, and Deborah Meier. None of the three have spent much, if any, time in government, nor have they sought to influence public policy to any large degree (as opposed to Moe, Hanushek, Darling-Hammond, and so on). Meier is a pure play teacher-administrator (if she even has an advanced degree, her bio doesn’t mention it).

Obviously, my list is incomplete; I read a great deal and tried to get a representative group. But I’d be surprised if I’m missing more than one or two counterexamples. It’s hard to find an educational expert with extensive teaching experience who isn’t at least skeptical about the current brand of reform. Cuban, one of my favorite education wonks, is mildly progressive edge, Loveless is moderate Democrat, Meier a committed progressive. On the other hand, if reformers have any well-regarded educational experts with more than a decade in public schools, it’s a well-hidden secret.

So where are the teachers in the debate? Well, as I’ve written before, teachers are, as a group, astonishingly uninterested in policy. Even union issues engage maybe 20-30% of the teachers at any meeting I’ve attended; the rest are checking their watches. This is a function of personality. Wonks and teachers are from opposite ends of the spectrum. Teaching appeals disproportionately to concrete thinkers interested in the immediate payoff, attributes largely antithetical to the average policy wonk job.

When you run into actual, honest-to-god teachers out there pushing ideas, they usually fall into these categories:

  • Teach Like I Do Marketers: Rafe Esquith, Doug Lemov. These guys have no research or stats to back up their claims; they are lauded as good teachers because their methods impress powerful edupundits. They write a lot of books or consult. (ETA a couple years later–and it turns out, Lemov never did much teaching).
  • It’s the Curriculum, Stupid, aka the Core Knowledge folk (Robert Pondiscio, Jessica Lahey, Barry Garelick, etc): I have nothing bad to say about these guys; they are earnest, somewhat right, but absurdly unrealistic because they mostly work with high-achieving kids. They also have something to sell: the value of the Core Knowledge curriculum. (Note: I originally wrote that CK wanted to sell the curriculum. Robert Pondiscio notes in the comments that the Core Knowledge curriculum is free, and can be downloaded. Fair enough, and I welcome the news, and the correction. However, I believe it’s fair to say that they are still advocates, and in that limited sense, “selling”. I am a fan of CK, fwiw.)
  • Bandwagon Reformers: The “I did my two” sorts who are in the process of getting out by writing an op-ed as a job application. Some of them went into teaching sincerely, and are really pissed at all the pink slips they’ve been getting, winning cites from reformers looking to shore up their credibility. (Look! Real teachers agree with us!) Short shelf lives, as a rule. Either they get that reform think tank job, or they quit teaching.
  • Diane Ravitch’s fan club: The name says it all. Well, I do like Gary Rubenstein, but his obsessive focus on TFA and reform gets a bit old. He needs to branch out.

So most teachers found in the debate have something to sell, or are firmly in one of the two major camps.

What I don’t run into very often are full-time teachers who read a lot about policy, engage with the data, put it up against their own experience working with the average kid (mid to low ability), and then opine about that policy based on their own analysis, which includes both their experience and their knowledge of existing educational policy.

That is, we don’t hear from teachers much as subject matter experts. Few of them are interested in policy because they aren’t wired that way. Most of the rest out there agitating have an agenda.

I can’t think of many teachers who write on policy, period. Some who do have jobs at the top end of the teaching totem pole, which means they don’t have a clue what it’s like to teach low ability kids—and their opinions show this lack. Patrick Welsh writes pretty well about policy and really uses his experience to inform his policy opinions, although I don’t often agree with him. John Thompson left teaching recently, I think, but taught at high-poverty Oklahoma schools for a long time, and it shows. Paul Bruno, also writing on Alexander Russo’s blog, is a middle school science teacher working with “underserved” populations. Both Thompson and Bruno are well-read on policy, skeptical of most bromides, and have views informed by their teaching without being purely dominated by it. (Note from a decade later: Bruno went back to academia and is now a professor.)

Part of the problem, of course, is that teachers can get fired or otherwise penalized if they have opinions too far outside the mainstream. I’m not the only teacher who thinks cognitive ability shapes the large outlines of academic achievement and that low scores in “failing” schools are caused neither by insufficient money nor bad teachers but fundamentally flawed expectations. And while Richard Posner agrees with me, I’m not going public with my views any time soon.

The larger educational policy world doesn’t really think about teachers as analysts. Progressives are convinced they do care about teachers, and view with suspicion any teacher who rejects their expertise. Reformers think most teachers are union hacks. Both progressives and reformers are constantly calling for an upgrade in teacher qualifications, which means they think teachers are too stupid to have anything of value to offer—except as props.

So here we are: Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, wonk. And without a concentrated effort to get teacher expertise into the debate, things won’t change.


About educationrealist

26 responses to “Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk.

  • Charles Wooten

    You say, very truly:

    “Part of the problem, of course, is that teachers can get fired or otherwise penalized if they have opinions too far outside the mainstream.”

    I used to have a blog called the Principal’s Office. I got into trouble when a parent of an autistic child thought I had disparaged parents of autistic children for not getting vaccines. She contacted my superintendent and that was that. I renamed my blog, the File Cabinet, but have pretty much stopped posting. I’ll probably revive it somewhat, when I retire, in about 3 years.

    Taught 10 years, principal for 17. I’ll probably go back into the classroom when I retire.

    Keep up the good work!

    • educationrealist

      Yes, the whole issue of teaching and blogging is why I’d remain anonymous even if I weren’t a Voldemortean. It’s entirely random, what can get you in trouble. I never say anything disparaging about my students, but know so many administrators who look askance upon it (in large part because they’re worried about parents) that I find it easier to remain lightly anonymous. Anyone who desperately wanted to figure out my name could, but at least it’s not something to be found via google.

      Principal. Ick! Go back to teaching! What subject?

  • Robert Pondiscio

    Tickled to see myself on the “earnest, somewhat right” list. But two corrections: 1. I taught at the lowest performing school in NYC’s lowest performing districts, so I didn’t work with “mostly high-achieving kids.” In fact, I didn’t work with any. 2. I’m not selling the Core Knowledge curriculum . It’s free. You can download the “Core Knowledge Sequence” here:

    Click to access CKFSequence_Rev.pdf

    Even the more comprehensive Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum which CK piloted in NYC and elsewhere is online under creative commons license on the Engage NY website.

    In general I won’t disagree to strongly with your overarching criticism: ed policy sure could use a bit more “front lines” perspective. Personally I try to avoid waving the bloody shirt, and those who do wave it too often fall into the trap of being purely oppositional, mocking or condescending. In general, the signal-to-noise ratio from all sides can be a bit overwhelming.

    Happy New Year and thanks for your perspectives. Keep ’em coming.


    • educationrealist

      Robert, I knew you had taught at a low achieving school. I wasn’t talking about your experience but the use of Core Knowledge. From what I’ve seen, most of the schools using CK are high achieving. That’s because the big gripe against CK is its “cultural homogeneity” (which, for the record, is not a gripe I share). Good to know that CK is free. I’ll fix that.

      To be clear, I am not really criticizing the lack of teachers in the ed policy debate. I understand it for the reasons mentioned. I do think there should be more effort to find teachers with the analytical desire to really engage with the issues, understanding that such teachers are rare.

      • Robert Pondiscio

        Yes, a lot of schools using Core Knowledge are high achieving. But they don’t always start out that way. You can argue — I certainly have — that the schools that need it most are the ones where children are the least likely to grow up with educated, affluent parents, especially non-English speakers. The entire point of the curriculum is to endow those kids with the “cultural literacy” than is a precursor to effective reading, writing, speaking and listening. The reason I became a Core Knowledge advocate was precisely because of my teaching experience: E.D. Hirsch was the one guy whose work explained what I was seeing in my South Bronx classroom every day. The bottom line: the “sweet spot” of Core Knowledge has always been low-income, minority kids and those who are least likely to obtain broad background knowledge and vocabulary in their daily interactions with literate adults.

        You are probably right that cultural homogeneity is a big gripe against CK, but I hear that far less that I used to. The field is gradually acknowledging that language proficiency is dependent upon shared knowledge, vocabulary, references, etc. It’s complicated, as you know, and I don’t wish to oversimplify But to a certain degree it’s inevitable: if you want children to be fluent in English, it can’t happen in the absence of a shared body of knowledge.

      • educationrealist

        I absolutely agree with you about the importance of content knowledge, and have no beef with CK in general. I actually wrote about my own foray into content knowledge here:

        and the realization that kids needed specific instruction in memorization here:

        While I agree that CK is ideal for low income kids , I would be surprised (and pleased) to know that this is a big part of its current audience. Do you have numbers on that?

        I remember you saying once–at least, I think it was you–that CK and others who push curriculum are ignored in the reform debate, and I agreed. My skepticism about CK is based purely on its political impossibility–that is, at no point will this country agree on a shared set of knowledge. That’s precisely what got kicked out of school back in the 70s and 80s, and the reason that CK isn’t targeted more is, I fear, because it is still viewed as “fringe”. If shared content knowledge and teaching content was ever adopted as a serious learning goal, duck as the identity folk start throwing things at you.

      • Robert Pondiscio

        I probably said curriculum is ignored in the reform debate. Because it is. There’s a wonderful old Simpsons episode where Montgomery Burns decides to create an award for employees “For Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.” Same thing in education.

        “It’s about great teaching!”
        “Right. But what do they teach?”
        “They teach….excellence!”
        “OK, whatever.”

        The argument I always make is that it’s really not important to have any one “shared set of knowledge.” If education as an enterprise agreed that shared knowledge was fundamental to literacy and a key instructional goal just about every state and district would agree that kids should learn their shapes and colors, the parts of a plant, the three branches of government, and myriad other topics. I’d guess 99.44% would be utterly uncontroversial and show up no matter who was writing the curriculum.

        So politically, my answer is “Fine. You don’t want mine? Then let’s agree that there must BE a curriculum and you decide what body of knowledge you want literate kids in your state, district or school to know. We’d end up in pretty much the same place anyway.

      • educationrealist

        I disagree. Fluency in American founding fathers is going to help reading ability much more than fluency in early African tribal leaders, to pick a random example. Knowledge of Shakespearean plays and the Bible much more helpful to background content knowledge than Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

        Local control would ultimately be unworkable, politically. First, in many diverse districts–and I do mean diverse, not 80% URM–they simply wouldn’t agree. Whites would demand something akin to CK, Hispanics and blacks would bewail the cultural homogeneity. Second, it simply would make comparisons impossible.

        However, I am making it sound as if these issues are unique to CK. In fact, I am pessimistic about educational policy in this country because we can’t get past the racial disparity issue, full stop. So it’s more “here’s the problems that come up with CK” rather than “CK is uniquely a bad idea because…”

  • Roger Sweeny

    One reason so few teachers try to be wonks is the same reason Oscar Wilde gave for why he didn’t believe in participatory socialism, “It would take too many evenings.” Teachers don’t get paid to give policy advice and they don’t get release time to develop policy advice.

    Moreover, there is a tremendous psychological difference between teaching and wonking. In a classroom, even uninvolved and unmotivated students believe that, when it comes to the subject matter of the course, the teacher is right; she knows what she’s talking about. I think that matters a lot to teachers. In a policy debate, lots of people will tell that same teacher she is wrong and doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

    • educationrealist

      I don’t think that’s true. Most teachers aren’t hung up on being right. (unlike, say, me). I think, though, they have exceptional faith in their own experience, and less likely to trust recommendations driven by general data.

  • Castillian

    The funny thing is, most ‘diverse’ literature (Morrison, Achebe, many Latin American authors) likewise assumes traditional Western knowledge on the part of the reader, from Biblical references to titles based on a Yeates’ poem.

  • larrycuban

    I read your recent post on teachers and policy and wonks. I also read “Push the Right Button.” I liked that and want to know whether you would permit me to use it as a guest post. LARRY

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  • barryg99

    Just for the record, I’m not part of CK, and I do teach low achieving students.

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  • surfer

    Yeah, you definitely get the rear echelon hero vibe from these edupolicy types.

    David Coleman is another. Just a typical McKinsey Rhodes Harvard neoliberal. No time in the trenches. Bet he has Chelsea Clinton’s personal email though.

    At least the TFAers and Peace Corps types get their mouths a little rubbed in the dirt of reality. There is something about this set of juice-box McKinsey Rhodes elite types that wears on me. Nice kids. very personable. But really don’t know what they don’t know.

    I’m trying to get more info on Debra Hughes Hallett. She has been doing curriculum design and teaching teachers for about the last 20 years (seemingly with no real teaching of her subject). That is pretty much a bad sign. But it’s hard to really tell what her earlier teaching experience was. Definitely seems to have specialized in watering down calculus. Pushing pre-calc at Harvard. Maybe in her teaching experience, she emphasizing making courses easier and that was well received by students (just a speculation). I really doubt she could do that much to prep students for hard, external tests though. (Something Escalante craved, loved the external valiation.) Eduformers instead always want to shift the testing to cover up their lack of performance in new methodologies–confounding experiments by changing two variables at once.

    • surfer

      One minor thing about DHH that took me back. She an article or even a published piece arguing some of the reform stuff (against the pushback) and she had an example student situation. And it was HYPOTHETICAL. Strange not to have some gritty real war story to prove her point. And the way she wrote up the example was very vague and full of that limp eductrat tone. I think even if you wrote up an example, I would be able to smell the chalkdust in it.

  • Chris Doeller

    Good insights
    Time to republish this again and again. Since the original publishing, nothing has changed in the ed-wonk world. No media insiders, policy insiders nor politicians have made one inch of progress in correcting the problems in our ed system. Your insights expose one of the reasons why.

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