Apr 16Liked by Natalie Wexler

The last sentence of your piece is so powerful! In staff meetings and PDs, I want to stand on the table and scream. Our school in New York City is so concerned with ADDING phonics and phonemic awareness, but they’re removing science periods to do it. All kids aren’t the same and can’t be held to the same generic standard of achievement, but we can use the science to unlock and develop every child’s potential! Teachers aren’t miracle workers in the sense they can’t turn all students into geniuses, but they can use methods that work to help every student become productive, curious lifelong learners. The only way is to build knowledge so they’re not spending their lives googling and relying on everything they consume, not trusting themselves, and unable to synthesize information because they’re so busy looking up all the vocabulary they need to comprehend something. It seems like common sense. I’m not sure why it’s so hard for school leaders to get on board with!

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Shouldn’t we consider the validity of the NAEP reading assessment in light of the results of the recent study Wexler describes? What does it ask students to do . . . read excerpts about ideas they most likely know not much about? Time for a paradigm change in assessment.

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There's an astounding book called "Marketing Warfare". It teaches reformers to stop foolishly thinking about how righteous their cause is, and to instead start focusing on what sort of strategy one must practice in order to win wars. It divides combatants and their respective enemies into four groups:

* Market leaders practice defense against large competitors.

* Large competitors practice offense against market leaders.

* Small competitors avoid direct confrontation by practicing flanking against large competitors and market leaders.

* Tiny factions avoid direct confrontation by practicing local guerilla warfare against everyone.

Like it or not, you and all the school reformers put together are a tiny faction. You are up against a behemoth that has $100 billion per year to spend. In this battle you are not even analogous to an ant fighting an elephant. The public schools don't even need to bother spend their pocket change to crush you; their adherents and associations can do it in their free time. In fact, all of us put together are so small that they don't even have to bother noticing us.

Your strategy, like most reformers I presume, is to stoke outrage so that the public schools will have to respond to you. But the public schools' most effective strategy will be to pretend you don't even exist, no matter how loud you get. That strategy has worked for the public schools for the past 80 years, and there's no reason to believe that it's going to stop working now.

Your only option for battle is guerilla warfare. This means:

* You don't waste your resources in a head-to-head battle to reform the public schools.

* Instead you succeed by convincing parents to subvert the public schools entirely.

In short: you cannot reform the public schools; you can only sidestep them. You must get people to bypass them. The schools do not yet have the power to force our children into them. The schools cannot stop you from teaching your own children to read. They cannot gender-transition your child if your child is not attending them. At least not yet. With leaders like our current ones at the helm of our government, we may soon see a day when sending children to public school is not an option, and teaching your own child to read is a crime.

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If you want a nice summary of the 80-year-long failed battle to get the schools to teach decoding, and a recommentation of what parents can do to circumvent the schools entirely, check out: http://mychildwillread.org/

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Apr 22·edited Apr 22

I don't read Yglesias as endorsing the death of education reform. Rather, I think he's describing how the major political parties have effectively given up on education reform. In other articles, he endorses several things that improve learning outcomes (including things not directly related to teaching or curricula, such as quality school lunches and air conditioning), as well as the idea that public school districts should be implementing practices from charter schools that are demonstrably effective, and that charter schools that improve students outcomes should be allowed to expand.

Having read a lot of Freddie DeBoer's writing on education, I ask myself some questions when reading your writing (which I find very persuasive and inspiring!):

Even if the curricula you endorse decrease the test score gap, is there strong evidence that this would also decrease the gap in longer-term life outcomes? This is where I think DeBoer's point about the relevance of relative performance vs. absolute performance comes into play. It seems at least plausible to me that relative performance is what is valued in the marketplace, and so the relatively low performing may not benefit from their absolute performance improving.

Related: It seems pretty likely to me that, even if everyone where taught the same background knowledge needed to reach some level of reading comprehension, there will still be students who are just not good at academics, and I worry that, in the current climate in which college is seen as the only pathway to success, we are overlooking other educational pathways that would give the non-academically gifted a more viable set of skills. I don't think this is an argument against knowledge-building curricula, but I would want to factor this concern in if I were designing a k-12 program that worked for most students. The current system massively privileges academic skills over other skills, such as skilled manual labor.

EDIT: Just to be clear, these questions are not intended to refute any of your arguments, which I find persuasive. Were I in charge of a school or district, I would implement something like the Core Knowledge curriculum. But I think there are questions about what we expect out of our educational system that should factor into how and what we teach.

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I think you are misrepresenting what Freddie deBoer is saying. Making a statement such as "deBoer’s premise that there’s not much schools can do to alter an individual’s intelligence because it’s largely determined by genes." is not an accurate or fair description of his claims.

First, deBoer does not think that it's impossible to improve schools or education. He has repeatedly argued otherwise, and has pointed out that in fact all students learn much more than they did 30 years ago. He has also explicitly discussed the fact that students who were locked out of school suffered learning loss, so he clearly thinks that schools can make a difference.

Instead, deBoer argues that what is really important is a student's position *relative* to others. Suppose Taylor is outscoring Bob by 30 points. If we have an educational intervention that boosts Bob's score by 30 points, that's great! But that same educational intervention also tends to boost Taylor's scores by 30 points as well, so the relative difference between the two of them stays the same. deBoer also argues that the relative ranking is what's really important, because ultimately we're in a competitive marketplace for things like jobs or college admissions.

So deBoer doesn't really disagree with you that it's possible to improve the quality of education. He might even enthusiastically endorse a knowledge-based curriculum (I can't speak for him, obviously, but there's nothing in his statements that would necessarily contradict that. Where he does differ with you is that we can close the gap between low- and high-achieving students by education.

Of course, you're welcome to disagree with deBoer's claim. Perhaps he is just wrong. But you do have a responsibility to accurately state what his claim is, and you haven't done that here.

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