Family traditions contribute to a sense of comfort and belonging. Learning about traditions helps us understand how families, and even whole societies, can come together. In this episode, host Heidi Higgins invites students and families to share their thoughts and ideas about their own families.
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Kevin: According to a study from the American Federation for Children, 78% of parents believe that they should have influence over what is taught in K-12 classrooms, while 71% wish they had a more significant role in creating the curriculum. How can school boards, teachers and parents navigate the increasing polarization of K-12 education? What role should parents have in school curriculum? And how can parents and educators work together to provide a quality education for all students, regardless of background? This is What I Want to Know. And today, I'm joined by Robert Pondiscio to find out.
Kevin: Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in K-12 education, teaching curriculum, and school choice. He became interested in education policy after teaching at an underfunded school in the South Bronx. Robert is a former journalist and has published several books, including “How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice.” Today, he joins us to discuss the role of parents in their children's education inside and outside the classroom. Robert, welcome to the show.
Robert: Thanks, Kevin. Nice to see you.
Kevin: Well, it's always good to see you. Let's talk a little bit about your work in the education space. And I know you, and I've known you for years, but I actually didn't know that you taught in the South Bronx. That must have been an interesting experience back then.
Robert: Yeah, it's kind of my accidental career in education, I guess is how I would say it. I was coming home from work on a blue day, and I was seduced by an ad on the New York City Subway system for the Teaching Fellows. I'll never forget this. The tagline on the ad was, "Do you remember your first grade teacher's name? Who will remember yours?”
Kevin: Oh, wow.
Robert: I'd just become a dad. I'd written a bunch of books for young readers about the internet and online services, so everything just kept coming up education. And as I say, this ad caught me at the wrong moment. I'd been involved in the media world for 20 years; I was starting to think, "Okay, what else should I be doing?" And so the idea of literally, Kevin, a two-year mid-career public service stint — go teach in a low-performing school for a couple of years as a giveback phase of my career — it just kind of stuck; I did it. And then two years turned into five; five years turned into a second career in education.
Kevin: Now, when you saw that ad, you said you were going or coming from work. Where were you working at the time?
Robert: Yeah, I was the Communications Director for Business Week Magazine at the time. I'd had, again, a 20-year media career. But yeah, I ended up teaching at what was literally the lowest-performing school in the lowest-performing school district in New York City. So it was kind of a trial by fire, but also a front-row seat for how we are educating the most disadvantaged kids in the country. And honestly, it made me a literacy guy. I mean, again, I was 40 years old, or about to turn 40, when I started teaching, and I had not set foot in an elementary school since I'd been an elementary school student, so more than 20 years. And I've described this trajectory as going from saying willing suspension of disbelief. In other words, the way I was being taught to teach reading to struggling readers just did not resemble anything I remembered from my own elementary school education.
But I thought, "Well, okay, it's been a while. What do I know?" That turned into skepticism, and then it turned into militance and anger. In other words, I learned, mostly on my own, about reading and literacy, and discovered, on my own, the work of a guy named E. D. Hirsch Jr., whose name might be familiar to some of our listeners. Yeah, this was the guy who wrote “Cultural Literacy,” I think, almost 40 years ago. And I've told this story so many times, Kevin. I mean, Hirsch was the one guy whose work described what I saw in that South Bronx classroom every single day. Children who could decode, a word I didn't know at the time, but who could read out loud the words on the page, but struggled with comprehension. And Hirsch was the guy who had said, "Look, it's background knowledge; it's vocabulary; it's language proficiency." The way I was being taught to teach reading to my fifth graders was, "Oh, it's about student engagement. The curriculum doesn't reflect their experiences; they're not interested in it."
And Hirsch was like, "No, it's background knowledge." And whenever I would bring up Hirsch's work in professional development or my grad school classes or whatnot, almost invariably, somebody would say, "Oh, that's that dead white guy stuff. Nobody takes that seriously." And I'd be like, "Wait, whoa, whoa. That's not what his work is about at all. It's about schema, background knowledge." In other words, we were doing nothing at all to prepare kids to read with comprehension. Education is almost siloed. You have policymakers in one silo; you've got education researchers in another silo; and then you've got classroom teachers, practitioners, in a third silo, and there's precious little interaction between those three silos. They don't talk to each other.
So on my best days, I think I filled the cracks in between that. And because I've been a teacher, I think that gives me not just the standing, but almost a way of talking to teachers that helps explain policy to teachers and explain teachers to policy. I mean, the one thing I will say about the work that I did in the South Bronx as a teacher and becoming a Hirsch disciple, the whole ed reform movement, which you were obviously and are quite a big part of, that was really catching fire at about the same time I disappeared off into the South Bronx. And I remember being stunned when I started setting foot in the education reform world after leaving the classroom by how agnostic, to pick one word, policymakers were about classroom practice, and how hostile teachers were to policymakers. And I was the guy who was like, "Look, what happens in the classroom matters."
Kevin: I remember early on, when I criticized charter schools, a handful of charter schools that weren't working, someone called me and said, "I thought you were a charter school guy." I mean, in other words, you're supposed to defend the whole movement to the death no matter what. But the real reality is we're supposed to be in this for kids. So the mechanism to help kids should be to always question if it's not helping kids. And I have seen in your writing, in your work, your willingness to take on even those allies. And it's not really which system or which approach is building the best mouse trap. But my goodness, does it remain effective throughout?
Robert: I mean, you hit the nail on the head. There's a tribalism associated with this, that if you're a choice or charter guy, you must always be a choice or charter guy. If you're a traditional public school person, you must always be a traditional public school person. And it's as if we cannot admit for one moment that there's a downside to the policies and practices and whatever that we favor. And I find that lack of nuance not just maddening, but a little bit dishonest. I mean, look, for what it's worth, maybe this is my journalism background speaking. You're supposed to give a 360 picture; you're supposed to cover all sides, tell the complete story, and then let intelligent, thoughtful people decide. But somehow, I guess the way to say this is that all of this work, whether it's practice or policy or research, has really teetered into advocacy too many times. And look, I'm an unrepentant choice and charter guy, period, full stop. But that doesn't mean that they're perfect; it doesn't mean they're a magic bullet; it doesn't mean it's right for every single kid.
And look, it really doesn't mean that we should walk away from the public school system. I tell my choice friends this all the time. It's like, "You realize that the vast majority of American children go to traditional public schools and probably always will. So you cannot just wash your hands of those kids." And what you sure as heck can't do, Kevin, is root for them to fail because it advances your argument for choice. That's a really bad idea. Talk about not doing what's right for kids. We're going to demonize... Look, and I want to be clear here, I'm not making apologies for second-rate public schools, but the last thing any of us should be doing is being gleeful when they fail kids because those are our kids.
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. And to that point, let's go back to that South Bronx classroom, that school. And as you came out of that experience and you started to get immersed in the school choice-charter school world, many of us entered the world, as I'm sure you did, thinking it would help engender and push and promote and lead to change in the traditional system. After 20, 25 years, has it made a difference, the choice world and the choice perspective?
Robert: That's a really great question. I mean, it's certainly made a difference for certain subsets of American children, like all these little community-responsive schools, which I'm sure might be great. There's the same old-school entrepreneurial energy about them that we saw when KIPP was starting in a church basement or whatnot 25 years ago. So that's all well and good, but it's interesting to me that, okay, this is going to sound cynical, forgive me, but I mean, if you think about 30 years of education reform, standards, accountability, testing, et cetera, what do we really have to show for it? Not a lot. I sometimes joke ruefully that 17-year-old NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress — it looks like a dead man's EKG. I mean, it hasn't moved since the Nixon administration, at least not in a way that you'd expect to see results for all of the disruption and energy that's gone into reform.
So what is the one real shining star, the one thing that the ed reform movement can claim as an unalloyed victory? I think it's urban charter schools. So have they made a difference? Yeah, they have, but maybe not as much as we would have liked. Interestingly, this is a long-winded way to answer your question. I almost am tempted to think the jury's still out, that the big difference maker has been COVID. In other words, if you think about what's happened the last couple of years, you've had everybody's education disrupted in a way that it hasn't been before. You've had the relationship that the average American has with his or her school in play in a way that it has never been before. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One, just the simple disruption. You expect schools to be there, you expect them to be open and accessible, and kids' lives have been thrown into chaos for the last couple of years.
Then you had the phenomenon of Zoom school, where, and I alluded to the black box of the classroom a few moments ago, well, now that black box was open on your laptop on the kitchen table for a year. So mom and dad got to see what kids were doing all day. And in some instances, that was a good reflection on education, and sometimes it was not. So look, for 20 years now, I've been the guy saying, "Hey, can we talk about what the kids do all day? Can we talk about curriculum? Can we talk about instruction?" Well, we didn't need to talk about it anymore; you could open the laptop and see it in your home. So now we're talking about it, for good or for ill. So that's probably made a difference. I mean, when I say the jury's still out, you've seen the numbers, I'm sure, that I have, just the number of kids who've exited the public school system.
We don't really have a good sense yet of what they're doing, whether they're learning, how they're doing. But as I said before, I mean, the relationship that we have with local public schools is now in play in a way that it probably has not been in any of our lifetimes.
Kevin: The parent, the energized parent of today, post-COVID, yeah, they want their kids to be academically proficient, but they want other things, too, that we may have missed. So speak a little bit about this new parent voice, that isn't just looking at test scores or how we look in world rankings or the NAEP scores. But there are other aspects of schooling that are troubling, that even those who are engaged in the choice and charter movement, I think, and I'd be interested to get your opinion, seem to miss.
Robert: I happen to take the parenting movement seriously, and not everybody in our world does.
Robert: Okay? And there are a couple of reasons for that. One, having brushed elbows with ostensible experts in this field, you have a bit of a crisis of confidence that maybe they don't always know what they're doing. And while we are all stakeholders in education — that's why we socialize the cost of it — parents are first among equals. And then we have this thing called local control: 13,000, 14,000 school districts, which are supposed to be under local control. We are not intended to defer to the expert class to just say, "Leave your kid enrolled; we'll take care of the rest." So parents have a say; they're not wrong to want a say; they are not wrong to challenge the expertise and orthodoxies of the professional class. I mean, that's just the way we roll in this country. I mean, we are supposed to be self-governing, and that extends all the way down to local school boards.
So I'm not dismissive at all of parents wanting a say and to being more active and activist in school districts. Now, does that mean that they're always right? No. Does that mean that the teachers are always right? No. But we have this dynamic system that, in the push and pull of these various forces, something good should happen in the space in between. Or, at the very least, it just simply will not do for educators to say, "Just trust me and send more money." It is never going to be a bad thing when parents get involved, get engaged, and say, "Hey, wait a minute, what's going on in this school? Who do you think you are? Where did you get this idea that you can do X with my kid?" I can't say it strongly enough. It doesn't mean the opinions are going to be sophisticated, but I'm never going to be that guy who says, "Hey, parents, just sit down and let the pros take care of it."
Kevin: So the real question is, how involved should parents be? How hands-on should they be? What is the right balance? Because I do think, Robert, that not only do far too many traditional school districts miss this and are dismissive of parents, but frankly, there are a lot of choice and charter schools that sometimes just barely extend beyond using parents as props. So what is the right balance to make sure parents' voices are heard on behalf of their children, particularly in this political environment?
Robert: The long story short is, as I think, there is, on a good day, maybe miscomprehension between parents and schools, and on a bad day, hostility. And that is not a public school thing; I think that's an education thing. I don't have data in front of me, but I think there is data to show that, that teachers at large have fairly low expectations of parents. And I think from the reform perspective, one of the real achievements of the ed reform movement is it's just become absolutely unthinkable to hold low expectations of kids of color. But we sure as hell have not given up those low expectations of parents. In other words, the soft bigotry of low expectations has not gone away; it's just found a different surface to adhere to. That's an ongoing problem.
Kevin: Yeah. Robert, I have one last question. I really appreciate your time. We could talk forever on this, and we may end up having to do that, but this is what I really want to know. Post-COVID, in this brave new world, where parents are up in arms, they're very focused, school board folks are on their heels, administrators, some administrators, both in the charter and the traditional public school world, are saying, "We don't want to change; we're going back to the old normal." How can we all figure out the best way to have productive conversations so that our children benefit? What will break this log jam? Or are we in a place where it just has to play itself out?
Robert: If there were more predictability about what kids do all day, well, then there'd be more of a clearer lens through which to judge whether or not it's effective. We say, "Well, we've got reading scores, we've got math scores for really complicated reasons that we just don't have time to go into." Those are imperfect measures; they don't really tell you very much about the quality of instruction inside. But I mean, I think something good can come of this movement, where all the eternal verities of education are in play. I mean, it's a bromide, I'm sure you know this. For decades now, people have given low marks to public education in America, but high marks to their child's school and their child's teacher. Teachers are still among the most trusted professions in America, but the actual number of Americans who say they trust the teachers has dropped a lot.
So what I described earlier as being this relationship is in play, well, something good could come of that if we keep our heads. In other words, if we have a moment of sobriety here, where we say, "Okay, what do we want kids to get out of education in America? What should they be learning? What's ideological? What's not ideological?" As a slight digression, Kevin, I'll say, whenever people lament that we're having a moment where the culture wars have taken over schools, I kind of chuckle and think, "Wait a minute. Have you ever been to a school? Do you know what we do here?" What we are doing here all day is expressing to kids what we value and what we condemn, the best that has been thought and written and whatnot. That's culture. I mean, it is literally an institution for transmitting cultural values to children. So it is not a surprise that we're arguing about these things right now; it's a surprise that we haven't been arguing about them until now, and in the way in which we are.
So that's not going to go away, nor should it go away, but it does call on all of us to have, I think, a slightly more sober, thoughtful, please, calm conversation about our expectations of American education.
Kevin: Yeah. And this is not just a hopeful statement. I agree with much of what you said. I do think that for all the bloodiness out there post-COVID, all the angst we're going through with parents, that at the end of the day, this is the dark before the light. I really believe that there will be a settling out period where we will focus on what children need as opposed to what systems need to do better. Robert Pondiscio, thank you so much for all you do, and thank you for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Robert: Thanks, Kevin. I really enjoyed it. Let's do it again.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media, that's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous; thank you for joining What I Want to Know.