Here Is Where The Heart Is

In a time of profound polarization, one issue that has elicited bipartisan agreement is that the recently released results of the Nation’s Report Card are grim.  Pundits, lawmakers, wonks, and activists disagree sharply on the causes – depending on who you ask, it’s lack of funding, or the loosening of accountability standards, or too much testing, or school choice, or not enough school choice.

Arriving on the scene just in time to complicate everyone’s narratives is Robert Pondiscio’s new book, How The Other Half Learns.  He seeks answer a deceptively simple question:  what do the kids actually do in school all day?

Education policy people, as Mr. Pondiscio accurately notes, are often curiously incurious about this fundamental question.  Exceptions to this rule tend to be former teachers, as Mr. Pondiscio himself is. 

Teachers know there is not a single answer to this question – it’s just about as messy as the human condition itself.  Understandably, then, it’s hard to imagine many schools being as willing as Success Academy’s Bronx 1 was to fling open its doors to a reporter for an entire school year. 

Success Academy was founded in 2006 by Eva Moskowitz, and has grown to 47 campuses, serving 17,000 students across The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.  Prior to reading this book, your perspective on whether these charters are shining paragons of academic achievement in urban public schools or they are paternalist institutions of factory model education would likely depend on your underlying moral foundations, a framework described by Jonathan Haidt and others.  Like authority over subversion? You’re gonna love the classroom management that Bronx 1’s teachers execute (mostly) consistently. Value care over harm?  You’re gonna hate what happens to Adama. 

And guess what – this book won’t change your mind about Success Academies, or about “no-excuses” charters, or about “teaching to the test.”  It might cause you to do something even more essential, which is to question why your preference for fairness and equity trumps a working-class family’s preference for authority and safety.

What kids do in school all day — what they do at Success Academy, or at elite preparatory schools, or homeschool co-ops – they live in community, learn norms, forge identity, create, blow off steam, and yes (as Mr. Pondiscio vividly reminds us), vomit.

These are things that humans do in community, and they are the essence of what it means to be in a political order, with all its tensions and limitations.  Take these lucid observations from the closing chapters of the book:

1) “…We expect too much of schools.”  2) “If a government takes its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, so does a school.”  3) “But schools are not values-neutral.”

What would it mean if school reformers contemplated the implications?  On the one hand, we’d understand immediately that no community can achieve perfect equity of outcomes without systemic violence and deprivation.  On the other hand, we’d quickly see that no political order endures without the generally shared agreement that “this is how we do things here.”

These are, in fact, fundamental lessons most engaged citizens would hope that civics courses would impart to students (that civics education is in crisis is yet another point of consensus between the factions).  But Mr. Pondiscio’s sights are set higher: he wants us to note that schools themselves serve to teach these lessons implicitly and indelibly.  In a setting where their individual gifts are as a matter of policy neglected, as Tiffany, one of Mr. Pondiscio’s early students at a district school experienced, what lesson do they learn about whether their contributions matter?  On the flip side, for students who have behavioral challenges, what lesson do they learn if their teachers are afraid of them because they lack the specialized skills to address their needs? 

Success Academy is unapologetically focused on academic achievement as measured by state standardized exams.  Mr. Pondiscio concedes his own ambivalence about this, an ambivalence which I share.  But the parents who are there want that thing.  They don’t have to worry that their child will be marginalized for caring about learning.

Schools that are formed around a distinctive set of values or mission “vastly increase the odds of students acquiring academic and civic knowledge, skills, and sensibilities,” according to Ashley Berner. Spoiler alert: school culture turns out to be the secret sauce at Success Academy. Mr. Pondiscio goes one step farther than this anodyne assertion and reveals the ingredients that make up that sauce – family self-identification, sweating the small stuff, making hard decisions, and the full buy-in of all the grown-ups.

What are the kids doing all day?  They are learning how we do things here


My first op-ed at The Hill was published on Saturday. It’s on the importance of policies that support work-based learning for high school students. Internships in high school were a very important part of my education, as were a number of the paid jobs that I had.

In my research on career and technical education, I’ve been coming up against this idea that academics and vocational education are two separate worlds, two separate paths. Certainly from the policy and funding perspective, we treat them differently.

Usually, the way this is framed — and certainly the way I framed it in this piece — is that students who pursue a CTE pathway are not losing out on academics or the opportunities that an academic pathway can offer. In other words, we’ve oversold “college for all.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the mantra should be “CTE for all.”

Kids who are interested in academics should be encouraged to learn a skill or a trade. I think this is where liberal arts colleges can find a way to survive and thrive in the 21st century. I’ve been noodling on this concept for a while, then a tweet from Nassim Nicholas Taleb perfectly crystalized it for me:

Liberal arts colleges that can deliver excellent, rigorous, real academic instruction as well as find ways to advise and encourage their students to graduate with certifications in more practical areas may find that there are significant benefits for the employability of their alumni.

This could be accomplished through partnerships with coding academies, employers, online schools. There are likely countless other mutually beneficial arrangements.

BUT, that’s not really where the true value of a liberal arts education combined with a trade-focused apprenticeship would lie.

It would arise from the combination — or cross-pollination — of multiple disciplines and modes of seeing the world, the creative collisions of concepts within the minds of individual students. This is where the unexpected insights to solve real-world problems will emerge.

Cognitive science is providing good reason to believe that developing multiple specialized domains is one of the key ways that our brains can come up with the most creative and surprising leaps. I think the debate about CTE vs. academics has been drastically underinformed on the developments in cognitive science. I think this is where I’d like to concentrate my research over the next few months.

Schools of Trade-offs

There have been predictions that the higher education bubble will burst for at least a decade now — I remember really awakening to the issue because of some excellent writing on the subject by George Leef back in 2008-2009.

The problems are multifarious but many critiques start with the unsustainable amount of college loan debt that U.S. students have taken on ($1.5 trillion, second only to the amount of mortgage debt), but I think the issue is in the way we talk about it is the real root of the issue.

Teachers and schools and parents tell students about the famous wage benefit of the B.A. or B.S. They hear ad nauseum that successful people have college degrees, and popular culture sends a similar, reinforcing signals that the only meaningful rite of passage to adulthood is a four-year-long residential college or university experience.

Higher education used to be a niche product. Thank goodness there is now broad access to this option. But we don’t have to go so far in the other direction to use as a measuring stick for success “college for all.”

It is naive to expect higher education to meet the needs of the majority of employers or even for society’s need for entrepreneurs. But by telling students that their worth (both self-worth and potential value-add to the economy) are dependent on this one path and giving them “free” money to attend a four-year institution, are we at all surprised that many of them are pretty dissaffected? That many are sympathetic to the idea of “free” college tuition or the blanket forgiveness of student loans? They did what their parents and society told them to do, and many are worse off because of it.

If a student attends college or university because she wants to challenge her mind to learn rigorous academic subjects, taught by serious professors, she ought to have many good options for where she can obtain this kind of education. Instead, the vast majority of higher education institutions are not set up to appeal to these students.

That’s simply because a good number of students choose not to pursue these subjects. As a life-long fan and promoter of the liberal arts, I am fully aware of this fact, and fully comfortable with it.

If the marketplace weren’t weighted the way it is (through the federal student loan system) towards attending four-year colleges/universities, students would have to actually take into account the costs of their educational decisions. This would lead to the closure or reorganization of some higher education institutions. It would also force those that remain to choose what their value proposition is — a rigorous education in the arts and sciences or an equally rigorous training in technical (or applied) subjects.

Each path has its benefits and drawbacks. There is no way for bureaucrats in departments of education or school districts to make this kind of call for each student that they are charged with preparing. The only answer is for each student to make these kinds of trade-offs for himself, and the only way for him to make this decision with skin-in-the-game is for him to be able to see and (to the extent possible) bear the full costs and benefits of each path.

I think in the end that reframing the conversation we have about post-secondary education is the first step. A few proposals:

  • Raise awareness among teachers, school leaders, and parents that the rhetoric that they use to describe post-secondary options is extremely important. Panning technical school or setting up expectations that the “best” outcome is attending a four-year college can be very easy positions for college-educated adults to slip into conversation. But students internalize these kinds of signals.
  • More specialized high schools. Choice policies can support this goal, and if students attend schools that actually value their interests or pursuits, they are more likely to be successful.
  • Make it a little harder to get into college debt. Not impossible, just harder. College debt is particularly pernicious in cases where a student doesn’t even emerge with a degree, so policies that make this burden less likely may be worthwhile.
  • Online education options are better and better all the time. Let’s consider what this may mean for students getting high quality, lower cost courses in high school and beyond.
  • HR departments at major employers can reconsider using the B.A. or B.S. as a screening mechanism for hiring.
  • Support systems, like the Texas State Technical College, that get an amazing ROI for their graduates in terms of employment in middle-skills jobs. This system is an example of how public dollars can be spent efficiently to meet workforce needs of employers while also benefitting students with widely recognized (as opposed to proprietary) credentials.

I’m glad I was able to begin a liberal arts education as an undergraduate. I want serious liberal arts pursuits to flourish, but we will continue to see these subjects founder as long as they are forced to compete in a zero-sum game against “liberal arts lite” — disciplines that are specifically designed to appeal to students with weaker academic preparation or interest.

We will continue to see widespread disaffection as well as long-term economic repercussions as long as students (influenced both by policy and cultural expectations) use time and resources on majors that give them neither a real grounding in traditional arts or science disciplines nor the mastery of any technical domain.

It’s time to stop talking down the kinds of preparation that can enable people to live meaningful and rewarding lives. It’s time to stop communicating, implicitly and explicitly, that gaining a technical certification is somehow a less than optimal outcome for any given student.

It is possible in one life to gain both a liberal arts education and to gain technical proficiency in, say, coding. It obviously doesn’t have to be a binary choice for an individual, but it does seem clear that relying on a single delivery system (four-year colleges/universities) to provide both is simply not reasonable, and isn’t the approach we take in other areas of significant investment in our lives.

Disaggregating the sources from which we get various learning will only make the providers of these options better, lower the costs, and multiply our choices. It will also give education providers an ability to specialize and professionalize in ways that they haven’t been able to before.

A Thousand Flowers vs. Bloom’s

Of all the things that are “taken for granted” in the world of education, Bloom’s Taxonomy has to be at the top of the pyramid — pun intended.

2001 version of Blooms


In 2017 Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools published a very intelligent take-down of this educational holy cow.  He makes the observation that knowledge/remembering being at the bottom of the pyramid is misleading for a lot of teachers — they assume that this position means that it is a “lower” cognitive skill.

Ron Berger’s critique at EdWeek instead points out that modeling and creating are the ways we typically learn outside of the traditional K12 setting.  By putting them at the top of the pyramid, teachers may wait too long before engaging students in these kinds of activities.

The pyramid, first published in 1956, is basically a progressive model for understanding the learning process.  In my experience, even schools that do not consider themselves progressive still employ the framework without too much hand-wringing.

Cognitive neuroscience is showing us that these processes really can’t be split into neat levels.  Knowledge needs to be used in order to make it stick, and this in turn leads to greater understanding.  By chunking processes that have become automatic through practice, our brains are then able to take on more and more complex tasks.

Bloom’s Taxonomy makes an appearance in a recent ed policy paper published by the Pioneer Institute and authored by Theodor Rebarber and Neal McCluskey.   It contrasts the results of two educational reform initiatives that have gained traction since the early ’90’s.  The first is the standards-driven approach, which culminated in the Common Core State Standards.  The second is the school choice movement, exemplified by “voucher” programs, Education Savings Accounts, and charter schools.

In first part of the paper that the authors document what I think is sometimes an underappreciated dimension of CCSS.  Namely, that they instantiate Bloom’s Taxonomy in law.  The authors then take a close look at how CCSS math standards have actually lowered the bar for math proficiency vs. international benchmarks.  This happens because students are expected to take the abstract step of talking about how they solve problems vs. demonstrating the ability to solve problem.

The authors did not apply a similar scrutiny to the ways in which ELA Common Core Standards have incorporated Bloom’s Taxonomy as they were out of the scope of the analysis.

Based on what I’ve seen of the ELA standards, I think the same issue is at work.  The goals of the Common Core program were lofty and the designers meant well.  In some places, the standards may have improved instruction.  But the damage to education is that a particular pedagogical approach, en vogue in the 1950’s, has been instantiated into law.

As much as I’ve promoted better understanding of the science of learning among leaders and teachers, I wanted to just take a second to note that no matter how “settled” the science of phonics, knowledge-building, field trips, or anything else I like is, I don’t think any of it should be mandated.  I think that in a free society we should speak up about what we think, share it with people that we care about, and use persuasion, not compulsion.

I hope that my fellow-travelers who are (quite rightly) excited that (for now) phonics seems to be winning the reading war will remember what it was like to be on the losing side, and refrain from lobbying for  phonics instruction mandates. Doing so will lead to a backlash, and likely relegate phonics to the kooky fringes once again.