Tag Archives: Robert Pondiscio

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,  but 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 just the ones standing up in front of a classroom.

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.


Four Obvious Objections to Direct Instruction

Recently, I defended teachers from Robert Pondiscio’s accusatory fingerpointing. Why no, sir, twas not teachers at the heart of the foul deeds preventing DI’s takeover of the public schooling system.

I don’t have any great insights into why DI isn’t more popular. But any reasonable person should, without any research, have several immediate objections to accepting the Direct Instruction miracles at face value. Hear the tales about Project Followthrough and spend ten minutes reading about this fabulous curriculum, and a few minutes thought will give rise to the following obstacles.

The weird objection

I’ll have more to say later, hopefully, about the roots of Direct Instruction. But no research is necessary to see the B. F. Skinner echoes.  Direct Instruction looks much more like conditioning than education.  A curriculum sample (I can’t make it bigger, click to enlarge):


You’re thinking good heavens, those “signals” are just optional, right? Nope. This video , without prompting, tells the viewer that yes, “signals” are required.

Recently Michael Pershan observed that ” while schools are primarily in the business of teaching kids as much as we can, it’s not anyone’s only priority. There are other things that teachers, administrators, parents and kids value besides instructional efficiency.”

Yes. Many of us value public schools that don’t feel like a cult.

The age objection

From the meta-analysis that’s given rise to all the recent stories:

The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations.

It’s behind a paywall, but I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ve never heard of Direct Instruction implementations at high school.  High school is leagues harder than elementary school and middle school. How would DI work?

Teacher script: “Hamlet Act One Scene One Word One What Word?”
Class: “Elsinore!”

Or math:

Teacher script: “Y=mx + b is the slope intercept form. Word m What Word?”
Class: “Slope!”
Teacher: “Word b What Word?”
Class: “Intercept!”

How many subjects have been broken down to that level? How many books have they scripted for instruction? Or is the high school curriculum like this US History sample, a few questions every paragraph?

I don’t know. I’d guess the researchers don’t know, either.

If DI’s curriculum isn’t entirely defined for high school students in all subjects, then how can the claim be made that DI works for all age levels?  How can we be sure that the gains made in elementary school aren’t subject to the dreaded fadeout? What if DI is simply a good method of teaching basic skills but won’t address the gaps that arise in high school?

Maybe answers–good answers, even–exist, maybe DI works for fifteen to eighteen year olds, maybe Romeo and Juliet can be broken down into tap-worthy chunks. Or maybe those writing paeans about Project Followthrough have no success stories about older kids to tell.

The money objection

There’s a new meta-analysis [that] documents a half-century of “strong positive results” for a curriculum regardless of school, setting, grade, student poverty status, race, and ethnicity, and across subjects and grades.–Robert Pondiscio(emphasis mine)

If it works for all income levels, why aren’t rich kids using it?

I mean, surely, this incredible curriculum is what they use at Grace Church School or Circle of Children to teach these exclusively and mostly white little preschoolers how to read. Distar is the gold standard at  exclusive Manhattan elementary schools. All the teachers are going word one, what word? (tap) and all the little hedge fund progeny obediently repeat the word, or Word.

Except, of course, that’s not the case at all. Check all the websites and you’ll see they brag about their inquiry learning and discovery-based curriculum.


Zig Engelmann has written that he focused his attention on the “neediest” children, but that his curriculum helps all students achieve at the highest level. In which case, Zig, go sell your curriculum to the most exclusive private schools. Public schools spend much time arguing that poor children deserve the same education rich children’s parents pay for.

The race objection

I almost left this section out, because it is necessarily more detailed and less flip than the others. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone can hear about DI the miracle and not ask about race, so here goes.

About thirty years ago, Lisa Delpit wrote a stupendous essay, The Silenced Dialogue that just obliterated the progressive approach to education, effectively arguing that underprivileged black children needed to be directly taught and instructed, unlike the children of their well-meaning progressive white teachers.  As I looked up her article to cite  her comments about the “language of power” I realized that Delpit actually discussed this using the context of Direct Instruction (Distar is the primary Engelmann brand):


Note that Delpit, who so accurately skewers progressives for withholding the kind of information that black children need, then rejects the notion of “separating” students by their needs.

She wants it both ways. She wants to acknowledge that some kids need this kind of explicit, structured curriculum while denying the inevitable conclusion that other kids don’t.

DI claims that all kids, regardless of race, see strong improvements.  But take a look at the videos, like this one from Thales Academy, and notice all the students reciting together. They all learn at exactly the same pace?



So I’m going to spoil alert this one. A quick google reveals that Direct Instruction doesn’t allow a student to progress until he or she has mastered the level, and yes, there is ability grouping.

History suggests that the students who move forward quickly will be disproportionately white and Asian, while the students who take much longer to reach mastery will be disproportionately black and Hispanic.

In fact, public schools are strongly discouraged from grouping by ability, and by discouraged I mean sued into oblivion. So how can Direct Instruction achieve its great results without grouping? And if DI helps all races equally, then won’t the existing achievement gap hold constant?

It’s quite possible that DI is an excellent curriculum for at risk kids, particularly those with weak skills or a preference for concrete tasks. It’s not credible that DI instituted in a diverse school won’t either lead to very bored students who don’t need that instruction or the same achievement and ability gaps we see in our current schools.

As I said, these are the relatively straightforward objections that, I think, make a hash out of Robert Pondiscio’s claim that teachers, those foul demons of public instruction, were the source of all DI discontent.  Next up, I’m going to look at some of the actual data behind the claims.


Why Not Direct Instruction?

Robert Pondiscio calls it the Rodney Dangerfield of curriculum as he berates the teaching community for disrespecting and neglecting  Zig Engelmann’s Direct Instruction program. Despite showing clear evidence of positive educational outcomes, Direct Instruction has been at best ignored, at worst actively rooted out for over forty years.

And whose fault is that?

..Direct Instruction, however effective, goes against the grain of generations of teachers trained and flattered into the certain belief that they alone know what’s best for their students.

Emphasis mine own, because oh, my goodness.

Trained and flattered.

Trained and flattered?




I’ll leave you all to snorfle.

I do not dispute that many teachers think DI is creepy and horrible.  Here’s a fairly recent implementation [tap] that might [tap] help [tap] explain why [tap] teachers shudder. Word one, what word? Oorah!

But now, a question for serious people who want serious answers that don’t require the pretense that teachers are trained and flattered and capable of shutting down educational developments they dislike: why isn’t Direct Instruction more popular?

I’ve read Zig Engelmann’s book, Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backwards System,  and he doesn’t blame teachers. He thinks teachers are backwards and not terribly bright, but argues that most teachers introduced to his curriculum love it.

No, Engelmann puts the blame elsewhere.


For example, Direct Instruction unambiguously won Project Follow through. Originally, the program director had intended to identify winners and losers, to prevent schools from picking weak curriculum. But ultimately, the results were released without any such designation. Such a decision is well beyond any teacher’s paygrade.

According to Engelmann, the Ford Foundation was behind the effort to minimize his product’s clear victory. The foundation awarded a grant to a research project to evaluate the results.

The main purpose of the critique was to prevent the Follow Through evaluation results from influencing education policy. The panel’s report asserted that it was  inappropriate to ask, “Which model works best?” Rather, it should consider such other questions as “What makes the models work?” or “How can one make the models work better?”

Engelmann believes that Ford Foundation wanted to feel less foolish about funding all sorts of failed curriculum. I have no idea whether that’s true. But certainly Project Follow Through did not declare winners and losers, and thus from the beginning DI was not given credit for an unambiguously superior result.

Teachers didn’t turn Ford Foundation against DI.

But Engelmann and Becker were expecting decisionmakers to appreciate their success even if Project Follow Through didn’t designate them the victor. Becker wrote up their results for Harvard Educational Review, expecting tremendous response and got a few responses bitching about the study’s design.

I mean, cmon. Teachers don’t read research. That wasn’t us.

Engelmann and Becker fought for recognition all the way up the federal government food chain,  including politicians, and got no results. Shocking, I know.

Zig reserves his harshest criticism for district superintendents, describing a number of times when his program was just ripped out of schools despite sterling results. Parents, teachers, principals complained. One principal was fired for refusing to discontinue the program.

Throughout his memoir, Engelmann seems extremely perplexed, as well as angered, by his program’s failure, and to his credit is still determined to pound down the doors and win acceptance. His partner, Wesley Becker, was less copacetic. After years of rejection by his university and policymakers, Becker left education entirely and drank himself to death in less than a decade.   A few disapproving elementary school teachers aren’t going to induce that degree of existential despair.

Teachers didn’t kneecap Direct Instruction curriculum because it imposed an “intolerable burden” upon them, as Pondiscio dramatically proclaims. No. Decisionmakers killed DI programs. Time and again, management at the federal, state, and local level refuse to implement or worse, destroyed existing successful programs.

Blaming teachers and educators for what are manifestly management decisions is not only contradicted by all the available evidence, but failing to engage with a genuine mystery.

Why have so many districts refused to use Direct Instruction? Why has it been the target of so much enmity by power players in the educational field?

Those are questions that deserve investigation.


I did some more digging and have some data to talk about. I also want to discuss Engelmann’s book, since he often contradicts the claims made about his program.

But I’ll leave that for another day, because every so often I like to prove I can get under 1000 words.


Grant Wiggins

Curriculum is the least understood of the reform efforts, even though parents have more day to day contact with curriculum than choice or accountability. This is in large part because curriculum advocates don’t agree to the degree that accountability and choice reformers do, but also because teachers have far more control over curriculum than most understand. As Larry Cuban explains, curriculum has multiple layers: intended, tested, taught, and learned. Curriculum battles usually involve the intended curriculum, the one designed by the state, which usually creates the tested curriculum as a manageable subset. (Much of the Common Core controversy is caused by the overwhelming difficulty of the tested curriculum, but leave that for another time.)

But intended and tested curriculum are irrelevant once the doors close, and in this essay, I refer to the taught curriculum, the one that we teachers sculpt, whether we use “the book” (actually just pieces of the district approved book), use another book we like better, or build our own.

To the extent most non-educators know anything about curriculum advocacy, it begins and ends with E. D. Hirsch, otherwise known as “the guy who says what my nth grader should know”, author of a book series he eventually transformed into a curriculum for k-6, Core Knowledge. Hirsch offers one Big Idea: improving student background knowledge will improve their reading comprehension, because only with background knowledge can students learn from text. But, the Idea continues, schools ignore content knowledge in favor of teaching students “skills”. To improve reading comprehension and ongoing student academic outcomes, schools must shift from a skills approach to one dedicated to improving knowledge.

Then there’s Grant Wiggins, whose death last week occasioned this essay as an attempt to explain that we’ve lost a giant.

The media proper didn’t give Wiggins’ passing much notice. Valerie Strauss gave his last blog sequence a good sendoff and Edutopia brought back all their interviews with him. Education World and Education Week gave him obits. It doesn’t look as if Real Clear Education noted his passing, which is a bit shocking but perhaps I missed the mention.

Inside education schools, that world reformers hold in considerable contempt, Wiggins’ work is incredibly influential and his death sent off shockwaves. Since 1998, Understanding by Design has been an essential component in preparing teachers for the professional challenge of deciding what to teach and how to deliver the instruction.

Prospective teachers don’t always understand this preparation will have relevance to their lives until their first year in the classroom. Progressive ed schools would never say anything so directly as “You will be faced with 30 kids with an 8 year range in ability and the textbooks won’t work.” Their ideology demands they wrap this message up in hooha on how insensitive textbooks are to the diverse needs of the classroom. Then, their ideology influences the examples and tasks they choose for instruction. Teacher candidates with an instructivist bent thus often tune out curriculum development classes in ed school, rolling their eyes at the absurd examples and thinking keerist, just use the textbook. (Yeah. This was me.)

Usually, they figure out the relevance of curriculum instruction when they get into the classroom, when they realize how laughably inadequate the textbook is for the wide range of abilities and interests of their students. When they realize the book assumes kids will sit patiently and listen, then obediently practice. When they realize that most of the kids won’t bring their books, and that all the well-intended advice about giving consequences for unprepared students will alone result in failing half the class, never mind the problems with their ability. When they realize that many kids have checked out, either actively misbehaving or passively sitting. Worst of all the teachers experience the kids who are eager to learn, try hard, don’t get it, and don’t remember anyway. Then, even after they make a bunch of adjustments, these teachers realize that kids who do seem to be learning don’t remember much—that is, in Cuban’s paradigm, the learned curriculum is wildly different than the one taught (or in the Wiggins universe, “transferred”).

The teachers who don’t quit or move to charters or comprehensives with a higher SES may remember vaguely hey, there was something about this in ed school (hell, maybe that’s just me). So they go dig up their readers and textbooks and suddenly, all the twaddle about diversity and cultural imperialism fades away and the real message becomes legible, like developing invisible ink. How do you create a learning unit? What are your objectives? How will you assess student learning? And at that point, many roads lead to Wiggins.

Grant Wiggins was impossible to pigeonhole in a reform typology. In 1988, he made 10 proposals for high school reform that leaned progressive but that everyone could find some agreement with. He didn’t think much of lecturing, but he wrote a really terrific analysis of lectures that should be required reading for all teachers. (While I also liked Harry Webb’s rejoinder, I reread them in preparation for this essay and Grant’s is far superior.) He approved of Common Core’s ELA standards, but found the math ones weak. In the space of two weeks in 2013, he took on both Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch, and this is after Ravitch flipped on Hirsch and other traditionalists.

Grant Wiggins was more than ready to mix it up. Both his essays on Hirsch and Ravitch might fairly be called broadsides, although backed with research and logic that made both compelling, (perhaps that’s because I largely agreed with them). His last two posts dissected Hirsch supporter Dan Willingham’s op-ed on reading strategies. While he listened and watched teachers intently, he would readily disagree with them and was rarely gentle in pointing it out. I found his insights on curriculum and instruction absolutely fascinating, but rolled my eyes hard at his more excessive plaints on behalf of students, like the nonsense on apartheid bathrooms and the shadowing experience that supposedly revealed the terrible lives of high school students—and if teachers were all denied the right to sarcasm, as he would have it, I’d quit. He didn’t hesitate to say I didn’t understand the lives that students lead, and I told him right back that he was wrong. More troubling to me was his conviction that most teachers were derelict in their duty and his belief that teachers are responsible for low test scores. But what made him so compelling, I think, is that he offered value to all teachers on a wide range of topics near to our needs, whether or not we shared all his opinions.

I knew him slightly. He once linked to my essay on math philosophies as an example of a “learned” teacher, and read my extended response (do I have any other kind?) and took the time to answer. Then, a few months later, I responded to his post on “teacher job descriptions” with a comment he found worthy of pulling out for a post on planning. He then privately emailed to let me know he’d used my comment and asked me to give feedback on his survey. That was a very big day. Like, I told my folks about it.

In the last week of his life, Grant had asked Robert Pondiscio to read his Willingham critique. Pondiscio, a passionate advocate of all things content knowledge, dismissed this overture and declared his posts on both Willingham and Hirsch “intemperate”. Benjamin Riley of Deans for Impact broke in, complimenting Grant and encouraging the idea of debate. The next day, Daniel Willingham responded to Grant on his site (I would be unsurprised to learn that Riley had something to do with that, and kudos to him if so). Grant was clearly pleased to be hashing the issues out directly and they exchanged a series of comments.

I had been retweeting the conversation and adding comments. Grant agreed with my observation that Core Knowledge advocates are (wrongly) treated as neutral experts.

On the last day of his life, Grant favorited a few of these tweets, I think because he realized I understood both his frustration at the silence and his delight at finally engaging Dan in debate.

And then Grant Wiggins died suddenly, shockingly. He’ll will never finish that conversation with Dan Willingham. Death, clearly, has no respect for the demands of social media discourse.

Dan Willingham tweeted his respect. Robert Pondiscio wrote an appreciation, expressing regret for his abruptness. If the general media ignored Grant’s passing, Twitter did not.

I didn’t know Grant well enough to provide personal insights. But I’m an educator, and so I will try to educate people, make them aware of who was lost, and what he had to offer.

Novices can find plenty of vidoes on his “backwards design” with a simple google. But his discussions on learning and assessment are probably more interesting to the general audience and teachers alike—and my favorites as well.

Reformers like Michael Petrilli are experiencing a significant backlash to their causes. Petrilli isn’t wrong about the need for parent buy-in, but as Rick Hess recently wrote, the talkers in education policy are simply uninterested in what the “doers” have to offer the conversation.

Amen to that. The best education policy advocates—Wiggins, Larry Cuban, Tom Loveless–have all spent significant time as teachers. Grant Wiggins set an example reformers could follow as someone who could criticize teachers, rightly or wrongly, and be heard because he listened. If he disagreed, he’d either cite evidence or argue values. So while he genuinely believed that most teachers were inadequate, teachers who engaged with him instantly knew this guy understood their world, and were more likely to listen.

And for the teachers that Grant found inadequate—well, I will always think him in error about the responsibility teachers own for academic outcomes. But teachers should stretch and challenge themselves. I encourage all teachers to look for ways to increase engagement, rigor, and learning, and I can think of no better starting point than Grant Wiggins’ blog.

I will honor his memory by reading his work regularly and looking for new insights to bring to both my teaching and writing.

If there’s an afterlife, I’m sure Grant is currently explaining to God how the world would have turned out better if he’d had started with the assessment and worked backwards. It would have taken longer than seven days, though.

My sincere condolences to his wife, four children, two grandsons, his long-time colleague Jay McTighe, his band the Hazbins, and the many people who were privileged to know him well. But even out here on the outskirts of Grant’s galaxy of influence, he’ll be sorely missed.

Content Knowledge and Reading Comprehension: Bold Talk and Backpedaling

Empty buckets seldom burst into flames. –Robert Pondiscio, Literacy is Knowledge.

People who push curriculum as a solution are generally pushing content knowledge, and they’re pushing content knowledge as a means of improving reading comprehension. Most of these people are in some way associated with Core Knowledge, the primary organization pushing this approach. They aren’t pushing it for money. This is a cause.

Pondiscio’s piece goes to the same well as E. D. Hirsch, who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation to promote the cause of content knowledge in curriculum, Lisa Hansel, the CK Foundation’s current Pondiscio, and Daniel Willingham, who sits on the board of Core Knowledge.

Pondiscio even borrows the same baseball analogy that Hirsh has used for a decade or so, to illustrate the degree to which content knowledge affects reading comprehension. Many Americans are unfazed by “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game”, but might be confused by “I’ll see how the wicket is behaving and then decide who are the bowlers I’ll use in the last few overs.”

We can understand content if we have the background knowledge, Hirsh et. al. assure us, but will “struggle to make sense” of reading if we’re unfamiliar because, as Pondiscio asserts, “Prior knowledge is indispensable”.

Let’s take a look at what some people do when they read without requisite content knowledge. (you can see other examples from my early childhood here).

Let’s pick another sporting event—say, the Kentucky Derby, since I don’t pay much attention to it. I googled, saw a headline at Forbes: “Final Kentucky Derby Futures Wagering Pool Opens Today”.

I don’t watch horseracing, I don’t bet, I know about futures because they were a plot point in “Trading Places”, but until that google I had no idea that people could bet on who won the Derby now, in advance. And now I do.

I was not confused. I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of prior knowledge. I constructed knowledge.

But Pondiscio says that any text on horse-racing is a collapsing tower of wooden blocks, “with each block a vocabulary word or a piece of background knowledge”, to anyone unfamiliar with horseracing. I have too few blocks of knowledge.

Robert Pondiscio would no doubt point out that sure, I could figure out what that Kentucky Derby headline meant, because I knew what the Kentucky Derby was. True. I’ve known what the Kentucky Derby was ever since I was 9 or so. I didn’t get the information from my parents, or my privileged life (I grew up decidedly without privilege). I read through all the Highlight articles at the doctor’s office and picked up a Sports Illustrated out of desperation (the internet is a glorious place; I just found the article) and then did exactly what Pondiscio suggests is impossible—read, understood, and learned when before I knew nothing.

I first knew “derby” as a hat, probably from an Enid Blyton story. But I had recently learned from “The Love Bug” that a derby was also a race. What did racing have to do with hats? But now I learned that horse races could be derbies. Since horses were way older than cars, the car races must have gotten the “derby” idea from horses. Maybe jockies got hats when they won horse races. (I learned many years later, but before today, that I was wrong.) I not only built on my existing knowledge base, I learned that the Kentucky Derby was a yearly horse race almost a century old and the results this year were upsetting. No one expected this horse to win, which probably was why people were upset, because just like the bad guy had a bet with the Chinese guy in “The Love Bug”, people made bets on who won. The article also gave me the impression that horses from Venezuela don’t always win, and that lots of horse races had names.

Pondiscio gives another example of a passage requiring background knowledge: the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Oddly enough, I distinctly remember reading just that sort of passage many years ago back in the fifth or sixth grade, about New Amsterdam first being owned by the Dutch, then control going to the English. I knew about Holland from Hans Brinker, which I’d found in someone’s bookshelf, somewhere, when I was six or seven. So New York was first founded by the Dutch–maybe that’s why they called the dad Mynheer in Legend of Sleepy Hollow just like they did in Hans Brinker, because according to the cartoon I’d seen on Wonderful World of Disney, Sleepy Hollow took place in New York .And then the English took it over, so hey, York must be a place in England. So when done, I knew not only that the Dutch had once been in the New World, but that other countries traded colonies, and that while we all spoke English now, New York had once been Dutch.

I didn’t carefully build content knowledge. I just got used to making sense of chaos, grabbing onto whatever familiar roadmarks I saw, learning by a combination of inference and knowledge acquisition, through haphazard self-direction grabbing what limited information I could get from potboiler fiction, magazines, and limited libraries, after gobbling up all the information I could find in schoolbooks and “age-appropriate” reading material. And I learned everything without prior knowledge other than what I’d acquired through previous reading, TV and movies as came my way. I certainly didn’t ask my parents; by age six I acknowledged their expertise in a limited number of topics: cooking, sports, music, and airplanes. In most important topics, I considered them far less reliable than books, but did deem their opinions on current events useful. Yes. I was obnoxious.

My experiences are not unique. Not today, and certainly not in the past. For much of history, people couldn’t rely on information-rich environments and supportive parents to acquire information, so they turned to books. Using vocabulary and decoding. Adding to their existing knowledge base. Determinedly making sense of alien information, or filing it away under “to be confirmed later”.

But of course, say the content knowledge people pushing curriculum. And here comes the backpedal.

E. D. Hirsch on acquiring knowledge:

Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

That describes almost exactly what I did for much of my childhood. But this is the same Hirsch who says “Reading ability is very topic dependent. How well students perform on a reading test is highly dependent on their knowledge of the topics of the test passages.” Nonsense. I scored at the 99th percentile of every reading test available, and I often didn’t know anything about the topic of the test passage until I read it—and then I’d usually gleaned quite a bit.

Pondiscio slips in a backpedal in the same piece that he’s pushing content.

Reading more helps, yes, but not because we are “practicing” reading or improving our comprehension skills; rather, reading more is simply the most reliable means to acquire new knowledge and vocabulary.

This is the same Pondiscio who said a couple years ago:

What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

Well, which is it? Do they think we learn by reading, or that we only learn by reading if we were fortunate enough to have parents who provided a knowledge-rich environment?

Take a look at the Core Knowledge promotional literature, and it’s all bold talk: not that more content knowledge aids comprehension, but that content knowledge is essential to comprehension.

I’ve likewise tweeted about this with Dan Willingham:

Me: Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that reading doesn’t enable knowledge acquisition.

Willingham: if you have *most* of the requisite knowledge you can and will fill in the rest. reading gets harder and harder. . . ..as your knowledge drops, and the likelihood that you’ll quit goes up.

Me: The higher the cog ability, the higher ability to infer, fill in blanks.

Willingham: sooo. . . hi i.q. might be better at inference. everyone infers, everyone is better w/ knowledge than w/out it. yes?

So Willingham acknowledges that IQ matters, but that as knowledge and IQ level drops, engagement is harder to maintain because inference is harder to achieve. No argument there, but contrast that with his bold talk here in this video, Teaching content is teaching reading, with the blanket statements “Comprehension requires prior knowledge”, and attempts to prove that “If you can read, you can learn anything” are truisms that ignore content knowledge. No equivocation, no caveats about IQ and inference.

So the pattern: Big claims, pooh-poohing of reading as a skill that in and of itself transfers knowledge. If challenged, they backpedal, admitting that reading enables content acquisition and pointing to statements of their own acknowledging the role reading plays in acquiring knowledge.

And then they go back to declaring content knowledge essential—not useful, not a means of aiding engagement, not important for the lower half of the ability spectrum. No. Essential. Can’t teach reading without it. All kids “deserve” the same content-rich curriculum that “children of privilege” get not from schools, but from their parents and that knowledge-drenched environment.

And of course, they aren’t wrong about the value of content knowledge. I acknowledge and agree with the surface logic of their argument: kids will probably read more readily, with more comprehension, if they have more background knowledge about the text. But as Daniel Willingham concedes, engagement is essential as well—arguably more so than content knowledge. And if you notice, the “reader’s workshop” that Pondiscio argues is “insufficient” for reading success focuses heavily on engagement:

A lesson might be “good readers stay involved in a story by predicting” or “good readers make a picture in their mind while they read.” ..Then the children are sent off to practice the skill independently or in small groups, choosing from various “high-interest” books at their individual, “just-right” reading level. [Schools often have posters saying] “Good readers visualize the story in their minds.” “Good readers ask questions.” “Good readers predict what will happen next.”

But Pondiscio doesn’t credit these attempts to create engagement, or even mention engagement’s link to reading comprehension. Yet surely, these teachers are simply trying to teach kids the value of engagement. I’m not convinced Pondiscio should be declaring content knowledge the more important.

Because while Core Knowledge and the content folks have lots of enthusiasm, they don’t really have lots of research on their product, as Core Knowledge representatives (q6) acknowledge. And what research I’ve found never offers any data on how black or Hispanic kids do.

Dan Willingham sure seemed to be citing research lately, in an article asking if we are underestimating our youngest learners, citing a recent study says that we can teach young children knowledge-rich topics like natural selection. He asks “whether we do students a disservice if we are too quick to dismiss content as ‘developmentally inappropriate,'” because look at what amazing things kids can learn with a good curriculum and confidence in their abilities!

Of course, a brief perusal of the study reveals that the student populations were over 70% white, with blacks and Hispanics less than 10% total. Raise your hand if you’re stunned that Willingham doesn’t mention this tiny little factoid. I wasn’t.

Notice in that study that a good number of kids didn’t learn what they were taught in the first place, and then a number of them forgot it quickly. Which raises a question I ask frequently on this blog: what if kids don’t remember what they’re taught? What if the information doesn’t make it to semantic memory (bottom third of essay). What evidence do the curriculum folks have that the kids will remember “content” if they are taught it in a particular sequence? (Note: this essay was too long to bring up Grant Wiggins’s takedown of E. D. Hirsch, but I strongly recommend it and hope to return to it again.)

Like reformers, curriculum folk are free to push the bold talk, because few people want to raise the obvious point: if content knowledge is essential, instead of helpful, to reading comprehension, then no one could ever have learned anything.

But contra Pondiscio, empty buckets do burst into flames. People do learn without “essential” content knowledge. Even people from less than privileged backgrounds.

Here’s the hard part, the part too many flinch from: Smart people can learn this way. All anyone has ever needed to acquire knowledge is the desire and the intellect. For much of history educated people had to be smart and interested.

In recent years, we’ve done a great job at extending the reach of education into the less smart and less interested. But the Great Unspoken Truth of all education policy and reform, be it progressive, critical pedagogy, “reform” or curricular, is that we don’t know how to educate the not-smart and not-interested.