A close look at education news from inside a charter school

On the eve of the publication of his new book about Success Academy, Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio shares praise and concern about education journalism.

A well-known education columnist and contrarian, Robert Pondiscio worked in journalism until a mid-career shift to classroom teaching. After five years in the classroom, he joined the Core Knowledge Foundation. More recently, he’s been on staff at the Fordham Institute. He still teaches high school, part-time.

Curious about the sharp changes in charter school coverage, as well as standout test score results for New York City’s Success Academy when the Common Core first came out, Pondiscio was determined to find out how the network of charter schools was getting such strong, uniform results — even as it expanded.

The result is his new book, How the Other Half Learns, which takes us through a year in the life of a charter elementary school. The book publishes September 10.

In the following interview, Pondiscio describes how he came to write the book and tells us his views on what education coverage gets — and misses — about schools like Success Academy.

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The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Alexander Russo: What’s your general sense of where education journalism is now, from 30,000 feet?

Robert Pondiscio: I think it’s reasonably solid. Frankly, it’s probably better than we could reasonably have expected. At a time when newsroom staffs are under so much pressure, to get as much coverage of education as we do is unexpected and refreshing. It doesn’t suck.

AR: And how about the quality?

RP: It’s damn hard to do what I did for this book, which is to spend hundreds of hours of unstructured observation time in a school to really understand a school’s culture and its approach to teaching and learning. That’s not a reasonable thing to expect from a daily reporter, though it’s what you kind of have to do if you really want to understand it. But all the other stuff, the structural coverage, is pretty solid.

AR: What’s this “structural” coverage that you say dominates the coverage — what does it get at, and what does it miss?

RP: Most education coverage still tends to be about structures — funding, demographics, charters versus traditional schools, teacher quality, testing — the apparatus of schooling as opposed to what might be going on inside classrooms. But the question that has guided me for over a decade is “What do the kids do all day?” Finding the answer to that question is enormously important. It is under-covered because it has to be under-covered. It’s hard to get access and spend the time it takes.

Previous interviews and columns about education journalism include Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, edtech guru Doug Levin, PDK head Josh Starr, and edtech writer Audrey Watters.

The New Yorker among several other news outlets has featured stories about Success Academy over the years.

AR: What was your starting point on understanding Success Academy, the New York City-based charter network that’s the focus of your book?

RP: At the at the risk of oversimplifying, I think Success is kind of emblematic of education journalism’s take on charter schools and ed reform more broadly. There was this kind of halo effect moment to charter school coverage in the late 1990s and early 2000s where they were the shiny new thing. And there was a lot of breathless coverage of KIPP and Teach For America and on and on. And obviously, that kind of warm fuzzy coverage was not nuanced and not really accurate. But then we kind of went the opposite direction, where charters are terrible and they’re privatizers and they do all these horrible things. And that’s no more accurate or satisfying.

AR: Do you think the media coverage played any role in accelerating that shift from silver bullet to convenient scapegoat? Was there anything that the media could or should have done differently?

RP: There’s a natural cycle to news coverage from “bold new idea” to “inevitable disappointment.” You want to be the person who finds the answer or writes the takedown. That’s just the game. Also, in the absence of deep expertise, we tend to be overreliant on advocates and their dueling narratives, and whether we admit it or not, we tend to be more accepting of one narrative and skeptical of the other—that’s just human nature. Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug.

 

From Pondiscio’s new book: “Principal Elizabeth Vandlik started the day by announcing ‘deliverables’ for every teacher, which she and her assistant principals expect to see when they enter a classroom. Students should be ‘on task’ at least 95 percent of the time. Teachers are expected to notice off-task behavior 100 percent of the time and, without prompting, take corrective action to refocus and reengage inattentive students. Every time.”

AR: Was there any coverage of Success that stood out to you as being particularly strong?

RP: Yes. Charles Sahm did a really nice 2015 piece in Education Next that was fairly close to my own take. The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead also spent a lot of time inside Success schools and produced a strong effort, though I think she was wrong about Success embodying progressive education. There’s very little about Success Academy that would meet Dewey’s test for progressive education. Success is a lot closer to old-fashioned Catholic schooling.

 AR: What was the specific moment that shifted you to a full-blown book project?

RP: First, I got interested in the fact that Success Academy was about to graduate its first class of seniors. I thought, “Let’s use that as a device to look at the kind of education the kids have gotten.” But then came that series of Kate Taylor pieces in The New York Times, including the “got to go” list and the video of a kindergarten teacher harshly reprimanding a little kid, which was a manifestation of this kind of turn in the coverage of charter schools. So my pitch to Success Academy was quite simple. “Right now, somebody in this town is offering Kate Taylor a book contract to write about Success Academy. Do you want to read her book, or do you want to read my book?” Not to say that I was promising a warm fuzzy view. But I am a teacher, I’m experienced in urban education, and I’m a good observer of teaching. If there are good things going on, I will see, and if there are bad things going on there, I will see them too. I’m just in a better position as an educator myself to write a fair book than somebody who is not an educator.

AR: Now that you’ve written the book, how similar was the Success that Taylor and others have described from the Success that you observed?

RP: Regardless of your view of Success Academy and Eva Moskowitz, you will have that view validated significantly. But I hope you will have it challenged as well. In an entire year, I only heard a teacher raise his voice to a student once, and it’s in the book. The pressure and teacher turnover, that’s a real thing. It’s brutally challenging, and the time commitment is prodigious. As to pushouts, in the school where I was embedded, the staff made strenuous efforts to bring students into the fold. There were also instances that could easily be interpreted as a kid being pushed out.

Previous columns about Success Academy coverage include With viral “rip & redo” video, both the New York Times & Success Academy could have done better, and PBS NewsHour issues on-air apology over Success Academy segment.

The New York Times has published a series of articles about Success Academy in recent years.

AR: What if anything can be done to help reduce what you describe as “nuance-averse” takeaways and the dueling narratives in education journalism?

RP: It would help to hire reporters with classroom experience. There are literally millions of us out there. In policy debates, I never want to be the guy who waves the bloody shirt and says, “If you’ve never been a teacher, you have no right to tell teachers what to do.” In a publicly financed system, the public gets a voice. But because of the complexity of schooling and the bewildering number of moving parts — not just school culture, curriculum, and pedagogy, but culture and context more broadly — it helps to have someone covering education who can appreciate the challenges because she’s faced them personally.

AR: What lessons should education journalists take from your experience, whether they’re writing about controversial charter schools or not?

RP: I think we spend too much time trying to answer the question “What works?” or “What’s effective?” The better question is “What’s effective for whom and under what circumstances?” I think we have this idea in our heads, consciously or unconsciously, that there’s a correct way to educate kids, just like there’s a correct way to perform gallbladder surgery, wire a lamp, or change a tire, and that any variation from that needs to justify itself. I don’t think that’s right. One way to challenge that thinking is to spend more time talking to parents, particularly those who seek out and are satisfied with something that might not be what you’d choose for your own child. You don’t have to agree or be persuaded. But you have to understand what’s driving their choices and respect them.

AR: Do you have any favorite education writers, journalists or otherwise, whose work you admire or appreciate?

RP: The New York Times is usually good. Dana Goldstein and Erica Green, particularly. Eliza Shapiro’s piece showing that New York City knew early on that De Blasio’s Renewal schools weren’t working and kept kids in them anyway should have gotten even more attention. However, the kinds of things I value the most – writing about teaching and learning and research – mostly comes from within the field. Writing that informs classroom practice almost has to come from practitioners. There are well-known figures like Dan Willingham, Doug Lemov, Tim Shanahan, and Dylan Wiliam, and active teachers like Blake Harvard and Greg Ashman who I learn a lot from. There’s also a whole cadre of teachers from all sectors who have been drawn to a movement called ResearchEd. Completely focused on the work and utterly non-ideological; they’re my tribe.

For more about inadequate coverage of classroom education, read last year’s interview with APM Report’s Emily Hanford and look forward to a forthcoming piece from Natalie Wexler coming in a few weeks.

To learn more about how the media covers education, follow The Grade on Twitter and Facebook.

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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