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.

 

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13 responses to “How the Other Half Learns: Teacher Origin Stories

  • Theodore Whitfield

    What made you “utterly despise” *The Battle for Room 314″?

  • Michael Pershan

    I’m so excited to read the book (it’s in from the library) and this post is sharp. I’m excited to read your reviews!

  • ScarletNumber

    > I have a friend (no, really)

    Judging from your Twitter feed, I’m surprised you have any friends. At least your self-aware enough to make that parenthetical reference.

  • Eddie

    Just discovered the USAFA study Ed! Do you know it? Carrell & West, 2010 “evidence that professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement teach in ways that improve theirstudent evaluations but harm the follow-on achievement of their students in more advanced classes.” Would love to see your thoughts on this, apologies if you’ve already addressed.

  • Roger Sweeny

    from the Pondiscio link:

    “In sum, there is a moral bankruptcy to the way we talk about education and opportunity that requires us to argue that our preferred fixes and flavors will work for every child, and that what benefits one does not disadvantage another. But the ideas and policies we have debated for the past several decades are forces governed by Newtonian physics; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It is an oversimplification, but only a mild one, to suggest that the entire apparatus of education, reform and advocacy exists mostly to deny this reality …”

    Alas, that can be said for a distressingly large amount of politics and advocacy (and scholarship that is actually advocacy) about so many things.

    However, as someone who has taught Physics, I don’t think the Newton analogy is correct. The economic concept of “trade-offs” would be more appropriate. Some trade-offs are good. Some are bad. Few are equal.

    Anyway, looking forward to your thoughts. On your recommendation, I’ll get a copy of the book.

  • sthomson1971

    Ed, this is pretty off-topic, but for an adult who was a very poor math student and never got past college algebra, but would like to improve, is there a book or online course you wold recommend?

  • How The Other Half Learns: The Secret Sauce | educationrealist

    […] again, all these articles are just discussions of various aspects of  Robert Pondiscio’s book, which  I […]

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