Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Poor Charlie

I've written about Charlie Rose before; if you're a non-cable watcher like me, his show is one of the few chances to see serious issues discussed seriously. I don't always like what I hear; I think Charlie tends a bit much toward fawning over CEOs and other big names, I believe him overly credulous when talking to the likes of Tom Friedman. But, even if the outcome is frequently disappointing, the attempt is worthwhile, and unlike any other to which I have access (I'm not sure what the heck Tavis Smiley is doing).

When I found out Charlie was going to have Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, on the show as he did last night, I expected to be disappointed. Charlie is not at his strongest on education, accepting too easily "common wisdom," foremost among those ideas that our high schools are terrible, our colleges are amazing, and education is the key to America's competitiveness in a global economy (I've talked about this here).

Some background: Kopp is the woman who, while at Princeton in the late '80s, had the idea that, if we could recruit young eager college graduates for a term of two years and put them into our low-performing schools, magic would happen and education would improve. This was actually a fine idea, a noble aim, and I give her credit for trying it and seeing it through some tough times.

However, it is fairly clear that 20 years of TFA has not transformed our schools, that we have not seen a leap forward in overall achievement - studies as to the efficacy of TFA have shown mixed results. I don't know enough about it to go further, except to point out that any program like this runs the risk of falling into the latrine problem. It's pretty easy to get young idealistic students to go to developing nations and dig latrines. They pick a spot with nice clean dirt, dig a trench, put some kind of facility around it, toss their shovels into the truck, and move on to the next village. It falls to the villagers to find the person who will maintain that latrine for the next 10, 30, 50 years, and that's where the whole thing founders.

So Kopp, who has been named one of TIME's Most Influential 100, an America's Best Leader by US News & World Report, and has received 8 (!) honorary doctorates, is doing good work of, I'm sure, some effectiveness but dubious universality. But she's bright, articulate, involved with education in 26 tough areas of this country, and Charlie clearly wanted to pick her brain about the problems of elementary education and how we might solve them.

And he got nothing. Oh, he tried, far harder than Charlie usually does, but he got nothing from Kopp but platitudes on setting goals, having expectations, blah, blah, blah. I usually don't look at comment pages before I write these posts, but I couldn't resist going over to Charlie's site to see what people had to say, and there were some people there who were disappointed that he wasn't tougher. But I'm comparing him to himself, and I thought he cranked it up, in vain. (One of the commenters pointed us to this article from Slate; it's highly critical of the program. The cynic in me wants to jump on that and say, "Aha!," but, again, I don't know enough to weigh in on one side of the issue or the other.)

What Charlie wanted to find out was how we improve our schools, what we've learned from TFA that we can apply to the problems of every school. Which techniques work? With near 20 years of experience, shouldn't TFA have tips and tricks that could help every teacher and every student? How do we train teachers and principals to do better (Kopp claimed that poor personnel is far more harmful than the attitudes of students and parents, which I found questionable)?

And Kopp stiffed him at every turn. Oh, she had anecdotes, and she told hero stories, and she tried to make us believe that, if we just turned our poor-performing schools over to TFA, wonders would occur. The audience, and Charlie, found out nothing about what we might actually do to improve our disappointing institutions of learning.

But, you know, what really did Charlie expect? It comes back to his insistence that the best way to find out something is to ask the most prominent person in the field, not necessarily the person who actually knows anything.

Wendy Kopp is the founder and CEO of Teach for America. She has never taught in a classroom, never had to create a lesson plan, never had to deal with a room full of students who are hungry or scared. She raises money, formulates visions, writes books and op-eds, accepts honorary degrees, wins awards, appears on talk shows. She is no more an expert on education than my mother's late cat.

Ask yourself: How many of the jobs in a Fortune 500 company could the CEO do? (This is not CEO-bashing for a change, just a realistic question.) How many even at the entry level? The answer would be minute, and that's perfectly correct. We wouldn't ask Jeff Immelt how to debug GE's accounting software, or how to construct an airplane engine, so why would we ask Kopp how to teach a classroom full of students?

But this happens all the time. These shows absolutely abhor the idea of talking to actual practitioners, especially in education (education is one of the few fields where people actually want to know how it is done and how it might be done better). They trot out the head of the National Education Association and ask questions similar to those Charlie asked Kopp. People, wake up! The head of the NEA is the boss of a labor union, not someone with any recent experience (if any) in the classroom.

Charlie, if you want to understand how classrooms can work, talk to Mrs. Samelius, who got a bunch of fifth-graders to diagram sentences, or Mr. Doele, who challenged his best students to take on tough assignments, or Mr. Bertsch, who took junior high students and turned them into competition-winning singers, despite the inability of most of us to, well, sing.

Education is the most frustrating field to watch, because it is the one that everyone thinks they understand, and nobody does. There are things we know for certain, such as language acquisition is remarkable up to the age of about 12. Do we, therefore, teach foreign languages to kids before they reach 12? Of course not.

And there are things we don't know. Does self-esteem breed success, or does success breed self-esteem? We don't actually have a clue, but that didn't stop us from creating self-esteem curriculums and spreading them throughout the country. Do computers really enhance the learning experience, or are they just nice-to-haves? Again, we're not sure, but we spend millions wiring up our most dysfunctional schools anyway (though this may have as much to do with providing more areas for in-service training).

There are a lot of commonly-held assumptions about education which need to be questioned, a web of very complex strands that contribute to its problems, and a lot of "experts" who are better at getting honorary degrees than in fixing the problems. Schools are so embedded within the larger social framework that it's highly unlikely that we can solve the former until we do something more substantive about the latter (though Kopp disagrees, she thinks her TFA'ers are independent of the rest of this world). This would be a worthwhile discussion to hold, not the spouting of platitudes; I hope we get there someday.

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