Education reformers and I agree. Here’s my alternative. What’s theirs?

In the October 19 Huffington Post Justin Snider described how five education writers feel about the potential impact of Waiting for Superman:

Toward the end of our discussion, Errol St. Clair Smith gave the five of us — Jay Mathews, Diane Ravitch, Valerie Strauss, Debra Viadero and me — a multiple-choice test on what the lasting impact of Waiting for ‘Superman’ would be on U.S. public education. Four of us — all but Ravitch — opted for choice “D,” that the film would prove to be “another example that when all is said and done, much more will be said than done.” (Ravitch, ever the contrarian, picked “None of the above.”)

Education writers and I agree, but I believe those who tear something down should offer something to replace it. Journalists are in no position to suggest what should replace the problems they write about (low test scores, bullying, grade inflation, poor literacy, low level of STEM knowledge, etc.). They rarely go into classrooms, and they are neither teachers nor policymakers, so it is not their job to improve education, only to comment on its good parts and bad parts. What could be easier than that? Public education has plenty to cheer about and plenty to condemn.

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“At Risk” Students and Public Schools

“Cut the Crap” blogs expose language (some call it “educationese”) that obscures more than it clarifies. This blog cuts the crap about labeling students “at risk.”

We are all inadequate in some ways, so there is nothing inherently wrong with a term that says some students are “at risk” of failure. There is something inherently wrong, however, with a term that highlights student vices while hiding both their virtues and the vices promoted in public schools.

In Education Policy Brief (2009, V7, N4) Cable, Plucker and Spradlin go further by suggesting the label itself harms students:

Negative stereotypes are detrimental to students. A recognized quote by Robert Bierstedt depicts how students feel they are perceived by others has a very profound effect: “I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.” Calling students “at-risk” may place students in more jeopardy than any other factors that may be harming them.

This blog cuts the crap about “at risk” students by putting its meaning in the context of the six-virtue definition of the educated person.

“At risk” crap #1 – Students are “at risk” of school failure because they score poorly on standardized tests (ignorance), skip classes (weak character), or don’t cooperate (selfish).

Cut the crap – Although schools don’t tolerate ignorance, weak character and selfishness, they tolerate, model and teach three other vices — intellectual incompetence, fear of truth, and pride. “At risk” students are those who don’t display understanding that is unimaginative, strong character that is fearful of truth, and generosity that emerges from pride.

“At risk” crap #2 – Some alternative programs aim to return “at risk” students to regular school programs by re-doubling efforts to teach the public school combination of understanding that is unimaginative, strong character that is fearful of truth, and generosity that emerges from pride. These programs rarely succeed because the adults in the lives of “at-risk” students have always modeled ignorance, weak character, and selfishness.  That is why teachers often say: “Now that I have met ‘Johnny’s’ parents, I know why he acts the way he does.”

Cut the crap – Regular public school teachers model and teach understanding, strong character and generosity as they overlook intellectual incompetence, fear of truth, and pride. Teachers in successful “at risk” programs do the same thing with different virtues and vices. They value student imagination, courage and humility, as they overlook ignorance, weak character and selfishness in “at risk students.”

When the six virtues define what it means to be educated, and when school personnel recognize both the virtues and vices taught in public schools, they know how to program for “at risk” students. It is simple. Educators should value “at-risk” students’ virtues and overlook their vices, just as teachers do for students who are not labeled “at risk.”

The Associated Press story about Chicago Urban Prep School for Young Men describes what that looks like:

Charter School Irony

The 2010 Department of Education is encouraging charter school start-ups. Where are the charter school successes that merit this kind of federal support?

Some are “the charter schools operated by the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).” These are the words of David Brooks ( His article started with praise for specific HCZ charters, but it turned into a promotional piece for the idea of charters.

I am for charter schools, too; but Brooks and I like them for different reasons. Continue reading →