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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nick Kristof Strikes Again, and Gets It Wrong Again


I can think of few journalistic practices more damaging and wrongheaded than the reporter who helicopters into a complex problem for a few days, sniffs around a bit without really understanding the context in which he or she is observing, and then drops an "expert opinion" editorial on the matter. No one in my recent memory appears more prone to this, and more badly misled, than the NY Times's periodic editorial contributor, Nick Kristof, particularly with regard to education.

Back in 2002, Mr. Kristof dropped himself in on some schools in Shanghai and then wrote a ridiculous column on China's "super kids" whose schooling and intelligence were apparently going to bury the U.S. competitively in the future. He could not have gotten the Chinese education system more wrong in 750 words than he did at that time; reading his 2002 column today is still an embarrassment for anyone who really understands what's going on in the Chinese education system.

Now, Mr. Kristof has inserted himself into education once again, and just as foolishly, with his latest contribution to the NY Times. In an October 15th piece oddly entitled "Democrats and Education" , Mr. Kristof elects to beat on that favorite old dead horse of education critics, that the problem with US education is bad teachers and their unions who simply won't let schools get rid of them.

In his article, he talks about NYC's system where "failed teachers" are sent at full pay to "rubber rooms," clearly not understanding that the purpose of such centers is to hold teachers against whom potentially serious allegations of misconduct (such as, for example, sexual misconduct or verbal or physical abuse of students) have been made while their cases are being investigated. Whatever one may think of rubber rooms, they are not holding pens for teachers who have merely been judged incompetent.

Of course, Mr. Kristof trots out a couple horror stories about bad teachers to "prove" his point, and there's certainly no argument here that abusive teachers who degrade their students or show up drunk do not belong in classrooms. As his column progresses, he slyly manages to conflate the clearly unacceptable behavior of his "horror stories" with the term "ineffective teachers," as though the U.S. education system is suffering from an epidemic of school-based child abuse. Ineffective and drunk (or telling a failed suicide that next time the student should cut his wrists more deeply) are not equal.

Anyway, these horror stories are old news, and Mr. Kristof writes as though he just discovered this issue. Beyond making it easier to remove such "ineffective" teachers, what are his solutions? Two of them are more charter schools and "objective measurement to see who is effective." Of course, while calling for better teachers with better compensation, he conveniently ignores the fact that under NCLB, teachers of all stripes and levels of ability are being hamstrung by precisely those types of measurement systems, all of which begin with state-defined standardized exams which place enormous pressure on school administrators and teachers to show ever-improving results.

The damage these exams are doing to real education is incalculable, since they distort both teaching and curricula by narrowing content, detracting from coverage of other subject areas, and focusing on test-taking rather than education as an exploration and learning experience.

In his closing, Mr. Kristof writes, "I’m hoping the unions will come round and cooperate with evidence-based reforms, using their political clout to push to raise teachers’ salaries rather than to protect ineffective teachers," as if this is the essential either/or choice. It's merely another false dichotomy -- the two items have nothing to do with one another.

More charter schools, more "objective" measurement of teachers' value added based on standardized exams, less intrusion from the teachers' unions -- this is what Mr. Kristof wants the Democrats to be doing. Sadly, President Obama (through his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan) appears to be working from Mr. Kristof's playbook, acting more like a conservative Republican than the Democratic reformer for whom we thought we had voted. --Steve Koss

See also the letters to the editor in today's Times, in response to Kristof's column here.

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