The Pondiscio Kerfuffle Pt 2: We can fix it…right?

In my previous post about last week’s ‘Pondiscio Kerfuffle’, I wrote that Robert Pondiscio’s piece for Fordham cast absolutely valid lights on ed reform’s current ‘Markets-Equity’ tangle and that it’s about time those in the reform bubble got called on such blind spots. (NOTE: The waves caused by the Pondiscio, by the way, are hardly done rippling. For three valuable perspectives in the days since my first post, check out Derrell Bradford, Rick Hess, and Martin Perez; for shorter takes happening more continually, keep an eye on your Twitter feed.) In this follow-up, I’ll focus more on a concern — an anxious sadness, more like — that struck me while reading the Pondiscio That Will Live in Infamy and the reactions it inspired.

Specifically: However the structural reformers come out the other side of this kerfuffle, I’m very concerned to watch so many of the best thinkers and voices in practical/instructional reform drawing battle lines between one another. Allow me to unpack my concern step by step.

  1. By ‘practical/instructional reform’, I mean the wing of ed-improvement that focuses on improving teachers’ actual practices. This side seeks to create the best schooling possible for all kids using research and evidence bases to (a) dislodge long-upside-down approaches to instruction and classroom management and (b) build more right-side-up practices from the classroom upward.
  2. Concerned as they are with what they see as the best ways forward for American Education (e.g., matters like school choice, professional accountability mechanisms, teacher-labor strategies, improvement-by-innovation, etc.), structural reformers don’t tend to focus much energy on ground-level practical reforms. (In fairness, however, as many of the structural reformers have so little experience in actual classrooms and/or familiarity with strong educational research, they simply might not know how or why certain approaches are upside-down. And if they don’t know this, they can’t really know why those approaches produce so little in terms of student gains. They just know they don’t like the outcomes they see, make faulty assumptions about what needs most urgent attention, and work vigorously on repairing the wrong things.)
  3. Due to my professional experiences, study, and interests, I see myself in the practical/instructional reform wing. My book, for instance, gives fuller elaborations of what I mean by upside-down vs right-side-up practices, as well as how the structural reformers often blow past them to focus on their own perceived system-flaws. The main difference between me and the structural reformers, really, would be this: while I advocate for and believe in many of the same things structural reformers do, I tend to do so with an additional level of practical nuance. In my view, for example, school choice is only as good for students as the schools out there to be chosen. Similarly, I believe strong teacher evaluation is a good thing…but only as good for shaping effective practices as the criteria being evaluated. And so on.
  4. In the U.S., structural reformers are more visible and influential. Huge foundations bent on changing outcomes in American Education back their work, their ranks are filled with undeniably brilliant and driven people, and they have indeed changed the game they set out to change. Show ten random Americans pictures of Michelle Rhee and Dan Willingham, and, well, I’m fairly sure I know who’d come out as more recognizable and for what reasons.
  5. With #4 in mind, we all in American Education are very fortunate to have practical/instructional champions within the bubble of structural reformers. It’s a fairly small crew and they’re sometimes hard to identify (they have uncanny abilities to function in both reform worlds — as I say, very talented), but they’re there. I’m thrilled they are, too, because we here in the practical/instructional reform wing need their unified talents to reach, as it were, the congregation and not always just our fellow choir members.

Now back to the beginning: having watched several fine thinkers with established reputations in both wings of American ed reform square off against each other last week, I became saddened and concerned for the future of the practical/instructional messages. As so few in Education’s general public seem aware of these messages already, the last thing we need is division among agreeing voices.

On those agreeing voices rent apart in last week’s kerfuffle, take three: Pondiscio, Chris Stewart, and Ben Riley. When each named and criticized one another via social media and/or in posted pieces, my blood pressure spiked. If forces like these etch each others’ names onto their ‘Do Not Collaborate With, Ever’ lists (please, everyone: DON’T), well…so much for ever reaching the congregation.

But check out the power of their overlap, just so you can see how someone like me, a faint voice in the instructional/practical wing (read again: the more obscure one), can get so excited about the potential of their unification.  First, see Chris Stewart in ‘Education that Patronizes the Poor Isn’t “Progressive”‘, a piece that appeared at Citizen Education in January 2016:

We can wait for the poor to discover for themselves the alphabet, letters, calculus, astronomy, and the base knowledge that is passed generation-by-generation to the offspring of the rich so they can rule the world, but that conceit positions poor children to be self-confident dunces in a world of learned opportunists. That ideology, which is meant to free the poor, becomes the key that locks their cell.

There will be no revolution of illiterates. If there were such a revolution it would be quelled by the knowing class. Liberation has never been formed on a rejection of knowledge, and there will be no jubilee based upon jingoistic, self-pleasing ignorance. It is unlikely that the poor will experience all that Freire and Franz Fannon and James Baldwin would have them experience if they have not learned to read, write, and compute well enough to decode the world that has them bound.

Then Pondiscio, in his essay from Education for Upward Mobility:

Unless schools address knowledge and language deficits directly and aggressively, there is no reason to expect anything other than for kids who grow up in a state of language poverty to remain there. Left unaddressed, this can be harshly determinative for low-income children and devastating to their educational opportunities and earning potential.

As well, the six guiding questions of the Ben Riley-led Deans For Impact’s great Science of Learning resource provide a first-rate packaging of principles Pondiscio has raised and addressed for years (see here [SoL’s ‘How Do Students Understand New Ideas?], here [SoL’s ‘How Do Students Solve Problems?’, and here [SoL’s ‘What Are Common Misconceptions About How Students Think and Learn?’] for just three such alignments).

Clearly, it’d be hard if voices like these three — or any other combination of like-talented, like-passionate ed-improvement figures — became divided past the point of working productively together, for my pet improvement causes or any other. I sure hope some of the battle lines put down in the last week can be pulled up soon, some handshakes exchanged, and all bruised parties looking forward together with Derrell Bradford‘s excellent closing lines in mind:

So let the dust settle, friends, as this too will pass. Remember it. Learn from it. But our work on behalf of kids remains and it will not get done without all of us.

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