showing people the difference they can make

The title of this post is a quote from Anthony Cody, in his response to a comment I posted on his fascinating blog. But I am starting in the middle of the story….

Mr. Cody starts off by saying:

Two weeks ago I traveled to Seattle and spent most of the day meeting with leaders of the Gates Foundation, discussing their work around education reform. I have been critical of the impact their agenda has had, but they expressed an interest in opening up a dialogue. This blog post will be the first in a series of exchanges that will explore some of the key issues in education. We plan a process where we will take turns posting our perspective on a given theme, followed by a response from the other party. All posts will be carried here, and at the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog. We will ask everyone to join in a lively discussion. The education reform debate has deteriorated at times—our goal is to engage in a constructive conversation, to turn down the heat, and to seek a bit more light.

In the weeks to come we will get into some nitty gritty issues, such as what it means to “measure” teacher effectiveness? What is the role of poverty in relationship to education reform? What is the purpose of a k-12 education? And what role should the drive for profit play in our schools? But as our starting point, we are going to take a narrower focus, and tackle something a bit more concrete. This first exchange will focus on these questions: How can educators create a strong professional culture in our schools? How do we build the teaching profession?

What follows are ten posts, 5 each from Anthony and representatives from the Gates Foundation spanning July 23rd to September 3rd. There is a ton to read – it took me a couple of days to wade through the tennis match and most of the comments left by a handful of community members (I have no idea who they are). In the end, I was extremely impressed by Anthony Cody’s persuasive and very well-supported arguments, in stark contrast to the brief, almost dismissive efforts of the Gates Foundation that left me feeling like they were playing the “you’re ok, I’m ok” game.

If nothing else, the exchange makes several items extremely clear to me:

  1. The Gates Foundation is really, super-ultra-heavy into metrics and assessment. They are like hand-and-glove with Khan Academy on that count
  2. The Foundation’s singular drive for metrics has made them a major proponent of Common Core
  3. There is a common fascination to focus on a small piece of the pie (ie, the 20% correlation between teacher effectiveness and student achievement) and shrug our shoulders at the other parts we consider “too hard”
  4. When education is viewed as a business and managed as a business, it will fail to attain its goals
  5. Anthony Cody obviously brought his A-game in these exchanges; the Foundation was found quite lacking in their responses

As I mentioned to Anthony, the way he starts with teacher effectiveness, moves to the purpose of education and then dances to issues like poverty really strike a chord with me. He has put into words (and charts, graphs, quotes and just plain rock solid common sense) what I have been itching at in my own inner self lately. These things are very much connected. The puzzle pieces of our social ills start to fall into place a bit more; certain folks want to build a $20million jail that is bigger and “better” because that solution is so much easier than addressing the root issue of why so many folks (and why so many latinos and african americans) are incarcerated in the first place. The City is razing and tearing down homes in “troubled” neighborhoods because that is so much easier than trying to go into those neighborhoods and form relationships and try to learn what can be done about the issues. We socially promote our kids through school even if they can’t read because to hold them back would rain down fire and brimstone. But it is all one vicious cycle; until we do the hard work, we are going to be stuck.

As I said, I could not possibly read all the “Living in Dialog” material in one sitting. But I do invite and encourage you to read as much as you can. It is entirely fascinating. After digesting as much as I could, I asked Mr. Cody “what  do we do next?” His response is genuine and simple:

I think your work at the community level is taking us to where we need to go — back to our neighborhood schools. We need to find out what each school needs, and pull together to provide it.

The biggest tool in fighting apathy is showing people the difference they can make. That is most possible on the ground level, where we can get involved, create relationships, and see the results of our efforts.

So this is what I intend to do.

Quicklinks to articles (because it is a pain to try to find them on your own, I think) – GF stands for Gates Foundation, AC for Anthony Cody:

  1. How Do We Build the Teaching Profession?  AC  GF
  2. How Do We Consider Evidence of Student Learning in Teacher Evaluation?  GF  AC
  3. Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring It? AC  GF
  4. What Is the Purpose of K-12 Education?  GF  AC
  5. What Happens When Profits Drive Reform? AC  GF [no response, yet?]

5 Responses to “showing people the difference they can make”

  1. Karen Says:

    ‘The problem with achievement-gap mania is not that it is necessarily wrong; the problem is that its self-confident purveyors have been uniformly uninterested in the cost, complications, or consequences of their crusade. The result has been to effectively stifle debate, alienate most parents from the school-reform agenda, and insist that a flawed, mechanistic vision of schooling ought to steer our course in the 21st century.

    The response to this problem cannot be to dispute the moral claims of our most vulnerable children. Rather, the solution is to ensure that these claims are placed in their proper context — weighed against the competing claims of other children and of society at large. The obligation of serious reformers, then, is to rekindle the debate. They have a responsibility to help lawmakers, educators, and foundations understand that, while achievement gaps are important, they are just one challenge in a vast education landscape. Reformers must insist that the demands of gap-closing crusaders be subjected to rigorous, careful scrutiny. And they must re-open the world of education policy to fresh ways of envisioning what American schooling can be.

    Only then will we be able to move beyond No Child Left Behind and the frustrations and failures that have followed. In the end, deciding that school is the place where we teach poor children to read and do math — and that everyone else will be left alone to figure out the rest — seems an impoverished and ultimately self-defeating agenda for education reform in the 21st century.’

  2. charlesdschultz Says:


    I have a very similar experience in my line of work. It is not uncommon for database specialists to become so absorbed in one area of performance tuning that they quickly lose sight of the bigger picture, sometimes spending an inordinate amount of time chasing down the littlest of problems at the expense of higher priority objectives. The articles “achievement-gap mania” sounds very similar.

    I am glad you quoted the last three paragraphs of this article – the first 95% of it is one very long rant. 🙂

    I think my biggest issue is that lots of people are talking (and talking and talking), but very few people are actually walking the walk.

    Actually, I have another issue with the words of Mr. Hess; he doesn’t give me a whole to hang on to. Yes, it is good to be reminded that we should not get our heads stuck in the sand (which is what NCLB seemed to have done, and apparently a whole host of education reformers). But what does Mr. Hess say we should do? He seems to point the finger at reformers and places the responsibility on them to “rekindle the debate” and “re-open the world of education policy”. It is really hard for me to know what to do with a solution like ensuring “that these claims are placed in their proper context”.

    So as to avoid being a black kettle talking to a pot, here is my own version of a “solution”. We need to form relationships. Get out and actually talk to people. Talk to those who “flight” to other educational systems. Talk to those who are on the free and reduced lunch programs. Talk to those who are perfectly happy. Talk to the teachers. We can theorize about “best practices” and what “the research shows” until we are blue in the face – that’s what we have a University for. *grin* I am much more interested in what actually works for us here in Champaign-Urbana. I want to feel the tires on the ground.

  3. The future of Education « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] stated in several previous posts (ie, 1, 2, 3), I have observed an emphasis on “data-based student metrics”. And now we are seeing […]

  4. Houlihans report « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] next steps are to “show people the difference they can make.” I am working in two directions; 1) working with the administration and the board to build […]

  5. Yes you can « A citizen’s blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] We as a community have a lot of tax issues coming up, possibly on the order of several hundred million dollars – what are you going to do about it? The Citizens for Peace and Justice has been extremely active and vocal about the County Jail issue. They are a couple drops in the ocean; I am sure a few more would be appreciated. I think they are on the path of “showing people the difference they can make.” […]

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