Doug Lemov’s Creation Myth

So Elizabeth Green wants to tell us why Americans stink at math, an article promo for her book—apparently builds on all the negatives she incorporated in the article Building a Better Teacher, the hagiography on charter consultant Doug Lemov that served as a launching point for his book. I hadn’t read “Building a Better Teacher” since I began blogging, so I refreshed my memory and was about to click out to write a furious article on journalists functioning as little more than PR hacks…

….and then the phrase caught my eye, “After a successful career as a teacher, a principal and a charter-school founder,”

Well, hey now. I knew that wording, often used to obscure the fact that the person in question hadn’t done much time in teaching. Back when I wrote the Wonks piece, I’d done Lemov the mild credit of assuming he was someone who could properly call himself a teacher.

As her tweets make obvious, Green is doubling down on Great Lemov, so I decided to take an upclose look at his resume, so Green’s readers, and Lemov’s (what, you didn’t know he had a book coming out in few months? It’s, like, a complete coincidence!) can have some context.

I started with Green’s original NYTimes article, supplemented with her book—I don’t have an early copy, but Google Books is very obliging—however, it’s possible that the search wasn’t perfect, and I try to keep that in mind throughout. Then I compared Lemov’s version, as told to Green, to Lemov’s resume, page 1,2, 3, 4. (The PDF was here, but now that link is auto-sent to a home page.)

After getting a degree in English from Hamilton College in 1990, Lemov taught English at Princeton Day School, a private school in New Jersey, as an intern the first year (image here). His resume doesn’t make much of his teaching experience; it’s just one element of his job stressing the additional responsibilities he was given: peer counsellor, Admissions Assistant, soccer coach. This is pretty normal for teachers who are on their way to administration; they aren’t as interested in the nuts and bolts of what and how they teach as they are in moving into leadership positions.

He then left Princeton Day School for National Public Radio, where he was a production assistant for shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition, and worked with Robert Siegel on The NPR Interviews. I can find no mention of this job hop anywhere in Green’s writing on Lemov. Checker Finn describes Lemov as a“former journalist” but no mention of NPR. In all the NPR interviews with Lemov after the 2010 launch, I can’t find any mention of this association. There’s no way to describe this absence without making it sound sinister, which is not the case and not the point.

But with NPR unmentioned, there’s a 3-year hole in Lemov’s resume, and Green fills it. In 1994, says Green, when Doug was in grad school at Indiana University, he was assigned to tutor Alphonso, an illiterate football player whose grades just didn’t match his abilities. The football tutor supervisor told Lemov that poor Alphonso’s troubles were all the fault of his high school, and Lemov was filled with “moral outrage” that spurred him to action.

In fact, according to his resume, Lemov didn’t go to Indiana University until 1996, and got his MA in 1997.

If this is true, then it’s hard to see how Green’s account of APR’s founding could have happened. In her version, Lemov called up Stacey Boyd in 1994, and they vowed to start a school, the Academy of the Pacific Rim. Boyd, another reformer who married Scott Hamilton, yet another reformer who got the KIPP guys their bootstrap money, confirms this story. In founding the Academy of the Pacific, Green says, Boyd and Lemov “discarded” all sorts of education “conventions”, heeding the “horror stories” told them by teachers coming from traditional schools, and jettisoning any hint of progressive education from their doors and creating a “Learning Guarantee”. Even the architecture was different: “the school occupied the second floor of the Most Precious Blood parochial school.”

Green is offering up the “Stacey and Doug founded APR” origins story of the Academy of the Pacific Rim, also promulgated by Checker Finn and Green, as well as Boyd herself, to say nothing, of course, of Lemov.

But then very casually, Green mentions other “founding board members” had “attended Asian schools” and “handed the charter over to Stacey, who had taught in Japan, with a mandate to blend the best of East and West.” Checker, too, briefly mentions other founders.

In the second APR origins story which, unlike Lemov and Boyd’s claim, is well-documented, Academy of the Pacific Rim was founded by Dr. Robert Guen, a Chinese dentist, and a host of community members, who went through tremendous effort to produce one of the earliest charter applications, began in 1994 but delayed to 1995 to make a stronger pitch. The community founders clearly anticipated a primarily Asian school, although they promised to seek a diverse class. The original 1995 application shows the founders had not yet hired a principal. One of the core founders, Robert Consalvo, says he “was very involved in the running of the school, especially in the early years, when he would typically speak with administrators a couple of times each week to ensure that the concept for the school was successfully translated into action.” In addition to the charter application, an Education Week story and Katherine Boo’s New Yorker article, “The Factory”, use this version. Note that both these stories use the same student, Rousseau Mieze, who Green also features. Note also that neither story mentions the influence or “founding” work done by Boyd and Lemov.

The original application for the Academy of Pacific Rim has hundreds of signatures, all looking very Chinese and many supporting letters, often written in Chinese (the links are just samples, the application has 40 pages of letters and signatures). Clearly, the school was originally intended to be an Asian school, vows of diversity not withstanding. Original plans called for the school to be located in Chinatown, but when the lease fell through, the school opened in Hyde Park. No mention of a desire for different architecture initiated by Boyd and Lemov. In fact, the school was originally going to be co-located with Don Bosco Technical High School.

The Chinese American community was not enthusiastically supporting a school for underachieving Haitians. Boo’s New Yorker piece says that Robert Guen was looking for a school to serve Asian students, who he felt were overlooked in Boston’s “black-and-white politics”. Perhaps because of the building move, black students signed up en masse and very few Asians showed, despite their initial overwhelming interest. (Given Guen’s obvious intent, all credit to him for not only continuing his work with the school after the demographics changed, but for sending his own daughters to it.)

Given the extensive documentation and timing of Guen’s efforts to start APR, it’s hard to see how Lemov could have been involved. Boyd’s history after she left Hamilton but before she started working at APR is hard to pin down. She graduated from Hamilton in 1991, probably (I’m guessing) taught middle school in Japan for a year or so, was at Edison Projects in 1992 to 1994 or so. I can find no footprint of Boyd at Edison, nor can I find a resume or other reference with an explicit date for her Harvard graduation with an MBA and MA in Policy, although the most consistent story is that she graduated two weeks before she started at APR. Best guess she probably worked at Edison for a couple years as well, assuming she did actually work there.

So were Lemov and Boyd merely two of the earliest APR employees in 1997 and, if so, is their self-description as “founders” accurate? Or were they working summers to help out? Given their utter absence in the early documentation, it’s reasonable to wonder if Guen just hired Boyd, who brought in Lemov. One might also wonder if Boyd hired on to lead a school of overperforming Asians, based on her one year in Japan, or a school of underperforming low-income blacks, based on her work at Edison?

Stacey Boyd beamed out of APR after a year and moved to San Francisco, starting Project Achieve in late 1998. Lemov replaced her as principal, after a year of teaching occasionally; his primary focus that first year appeared to be Dean of Students, aka AVP of Discipline. He left to go work for Charter Schools Institute at SUNY—a government job, as Vice President of Accounting. According to Peter Murphy , a charter school advocate, Lemov was in charge of overseeing charter schools’ academic accountability. After two years of this, he went to Harvard for his MBA, then became a consultant. This makes sense. Many’s the lad who went to work at a government job to learn how the game is played then parlayed that knowledge into a gig persuading eager customers to please his replacement.

Green gets this backwards, by the way:

….three years after APR opened, he decided to leave for business school at Harvard, where he hoped to learn skills to improve school accountability. ..Eventually, Doug put the idea into practice at a new dream job, managing the accountability system for charter schools across New York State

(emphasis mine).

Lemov’s involvement in the Academy continues beyond his reign as principal; although he is working for a charter governance program (in a different state), he is listed as a board member in 2002 and 2003 (but not as a founding trustee).

Maybe reformers call themselves “founders” if they are early employees. John B. King, NYC czar of public schools, writes in his dissertation that the founding group behind Roxbury Prep, of which he, a black and Puerto-Rican teacher, was a member, spoke “explicitly” of their goals in the charter application. But Michele Pierce, who graduated from Stanford’s Teacher Education Program was the person identified to work with founder Evan Rudall to run the school, modeled after their work at Summerbridge. I found a google search of King mentioning that Evan Rudall decided to delay a year, and that King joined the team in spring of 1999 (same website, can’t even see the cached version, just the text from google). So King wasn’t involved in the charter application and wasn’t technically a founder, either.

If you came here looking for a smoking gun, some sort of declaration that Lemov is a complete fraud, leave disappointed (or reassured). Assuming they can’t be explained, none of these discrepancies are fraudulent so much as self-serving. But that’s really the question—why did he bother to obscure his actual resume?

Why would Lemov deny Guen and the APR founders their place in history? Why would Green fail to mention Lemov’s two or more years at NPR?

Lemov’s resume from 2000 on has no classroom time. Zip, nada, zilch. Look at the first two pages of his resume. The man spent the ten years before Green launched him as a consultant, and he wasn’t advising his clients on the finer points of teaching. He visited classrooms, yes. He trains principals and teachers, yes. But on what basis does he claim expertise, other than all those visits? And what kind of teacher calls charter governance a “dream job”?

My best guess: Lemov can’t really sell the image of a man fascinated by teaching, so obsessed by the subject that he went out and studied teachers for hours and hours, dedicated to discovering, as Green puts it, “an American language of teaching.” His real resume makes it much harder present himself as an innovative dreamer (and dreaming about teaching, not checking schools’ test scores), given that he appears to have been more of an….employee for his first twelve years. His little creation myth lends credibility to his teaching primer and allows him to sell his charter system as an education option whose founding members are dedicated to all aspects of learning. He doesn’t want to be seen as someone who sought to escape the classroom as quickly as possible; he’s got to be the guy who dreams of the perfect lesson. His resume forces us to take his word for his real values. The creation myth has the evidence built right in.

Of course, Lemov can push whatever creation myth he likes. The real shame is that he’s gotten Green to help him. While many “anti-reform” folk complain about Chalbeat’s relationship with Bill Gates, I wonder whether she’s acknowledged the potential bias in taking money from SeaChange Capital, a primary investor in Uncommon Schools, Lemov’s organization.

But I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, too.

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16 responses to “Doug Lemov’s Creation Myth

  • Tort

    Nice reporting.

    A plethora of players on the educational game board, without any real understanding of what takes place in a public school classroom.

    On the day after the 40th anniversary of former President Nixon’s resignation from his office, I say one thing about public education policy and politics: Follow The Money.

    Thanks, E.R.

    • educationrealist

      Yes, it’s astonishing how big a deal money is in the reform movement. I’d never considered, really, that it was more than a minor factor.

      • Mark Roulo

        The amazing thing to me is how *little* money can cause public schools (maybe private schools, too, but I don’t know) and school districts and state departments of education to completely turn things over.

        The extra funding provided for Common Core is how much? A few billion dollars per year? Spread out over 50 states with K-12 budgets of $500B? So offering funding on the order of 1% can change how things are done? Really????

        No Child Left Behind looks similar in terms of additional funding offered compared to the changes made.

        Or am I missing a huge stick somewhere (always possible)?

      • educationrealist

        Schools deal with a lot of unfunded mandates, particularly in special ed. Many states don’t give their schools anywhere near enough money to comply with IDEA. However, I suspect that the states figured the CC would be proforma, not to be taken seriously, when they first signed up.

        It’s an interesting question, though. Fundingn isn’t one of my stronger areas of knowledge in ed.

      • DensityDuck

        ” I suspect that the states figured the CC would be proforma, not to be taken seriously, when they first signed up.”

        Which has pretty much been how most of the Obama administration’s policy initiatives have turned out, so why should anyone have expected CC to be different?

  • Mark

    I still don’t get it. He observes successful teachers. He looks at their techniques and records them, developing a taxonomy for teachers. He finds drills so teachers can make techniques their own. You do this ad hominem piece.
    Can’t argue against his ideas, can you? Instead, “follow the money” and “take a look at his first years as a teacher…”
    So, what would be wrong with him videotaping thousands of hours of great teachers and coding those in a qualitative study of successful teachers, then using that study to make better teachers? Do you even have an answer or response to that study?
    I keep hearing teachers who belong to what Elizabeth Green aptly called the Culture of Autonomy piss and moan about what he is doing. New teachers who are hungry for support love this work, but the ones who consider themselves marvelous paragons of teaching piss and moan the most. How dare someone suggest good teaching has techniques!
    This is amazing crap you are selling.

    • educationrealist

      I can and do argue against many of the ideas in the book with his name, whether they are “his” or not. I think good teaching has techniques. But the good ones aren’t original to Lemov (or whoever gave him the list he uses), and no good technique is absolute.

      Also, plenty of new teachers aren’t hungry for support. I certainly wasn’t. Many others aren’t. The ones who are hungry for answers are often the ones that have no base of talent and ability to fall back on, and so substitute his management techniques for teaching.

      He didn’t do anything approaching a qualitative study. No research supports the techniques, as he readily admits. My previous post is, in part, a response to the techniques he uses, which I largely find repulsive.

      The issue I’m raising here, about both Lemov and Green, is that they are creating a mythology. Green is creating a myth that she’s interested in teaching, when she’s just talked to a couple people. Lemov is creating a myth that he was ever a teacher, that he has any understanding of it that can be used to create the taxonomy. They are both using each other.

      I don’t really care one way or another about Lemov, although I find Green’s hagiography offensive. The larger issue isn’t Lemov, but the determination of reformers to find “journalists” who will sell their swill as fact.

      From what I hear, though, Green ultimately rejects Lemov in the book. Of course, she apparently rejects him for reform math. One false god for another, if true. But Green, she has to have a God to sell that book.

      • Jess

        I really beg to differ with the statement that most teachers aren’t hungry for support and that if you’re looking for answers you lack talent and ability to fall back on. You admitted yourself that you haven’t taught a cohort of students that Lemov or the KIPP schools primarily serve. You mostly teach well behaved students. Have you ever written a blog entry about classroom management or discipline? It doesn’t sound like discipline is an issue in your classroom.

        I spent my first working as a librarian at an elementary school that had a 30% suspension rate (personally it should have been higher, sometimes I’d observe two students commit the same crime and one would get a suspension and the other would not). I definitely needed help to be even minimally effective in that environment. One of the challenges of being a specialist at an elementary school is that you only see the students for about 45 minutes a week so it’s much harder to establish your authority and create consequences that meant anything.

        As for Lemov it doesn’t surprise me that he’s another educational expert with almost no experience being an actual educator. Most books about teaching tended to focus on abstract thinking about teaching. His book is more pragmatic and focuses on teaching “hacks.” I’ve tried some of his ideas out but found that they did not promote enough higher level thinking. I’ve shifted away from using his books (I’ve also changed schools) but his books served as a crutch when I needed one.

        It was funny I was on Lemov’s blog one time, One teacher was complaining he was the only teacher using teach like a champion techniques at his school. He complained that when he wrote disciplinary forms for missing homework and dull pencils the principal basically didn’t care. Apparently being a champion means whining to your admin for really basic things?

      • educationrealist

        ” You mostly teach well behaved students.”

        I’ve taught in nothing but Title I schools–well, one of my schools wasn’t technically Title I, but it was a declining enrollment school and took in expelled kids from all over the area, so it may as well have been. Discipline most assuredly was a tough issue for me, not because I didn’t have good classroom management, but because the kids were brutal. Here’s one write up: https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/who-i-am-as-a-teacher/

        I’m sure you did need help being even minimally effective. It’s a common problem with well-meaning souls who go into teaching thinking that all kids wanted was someone who *cared*. But as you discovered, TLAC only “works” if everyone in the school, from admin on down. It also pretty much works only for a certain age, if it works at all, and with kids whose parents desperately don’t want their kids to go back to the school with “bad kids”. https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/parents-and-schools/

        If you’re not surprised that he’s not a teacher and don’t mind, then why is he misrepresenting himself to be someone who *did* teach?

        Finally–not much problem with some of his techniques. They’re just not original to him (eg stand still while giving directions).

      • Jess

        There’s title 1 schools of all stripes, some have more behavioral issues than others.

        I didn’t become a teacher because I thought I could save the day because I *cared.* I became a librarian because I think access to quality literature and access to information are important parts of education. (there’s been some interesting studies about the correlation between reading performance and access to libraries) I didn’t want to work at a dysfunctional school but my options at the time were limited. Interestingly enough, I was always rated as effective by the school’s evaluation system even if I knew that in practice I was not yet effective. I’ve since switched to a different title one school with a very cohesive and organized approach.

        I never said that I didn’t mind. I do mind finding out he’s another charlatan type who has little to no classroom experience yet claims he’s an expert. I argued that having evolved and improved more as educator helped me to realize his approach was rudimentary (and the videos. It’s like you’re watching the inner workings of a cult)

  • Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk. | educationrealist

    […] 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). […]

  • Manabu Watanabe

    I am a Japanese and have read the NY Times article “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?”.

    Unfortunately I have to say that Ms. Green’s account of Japanese education is very misleading, as pointed out also by Dr. Tom Loveless in the Brown Chalkboard blog.

    So I wrote her a letter and put it in my blog: http://jukuyobiko.blogspot.jp/2014/08/big-doubts-on-ny-times-article-why-do.html

    I would like to correct misunderstanding, because it is very sad to see that many people are discussing based on the misleading report.

  • Relay Graduate School Indoctrination | Seattle Education

    […] has a doctorate in business from Harvard and two degrees in English. As far as I can tell from digging through articles and bios on Mr. Lemov, he has four years teaching experience. Three of those […]

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