It’s Not Just Edison

School 'reform' is failing because it's based on the faulty premise that public schools are failing and the teachers are bad.

The difficulties at Edison Preparatory School are just a symptom of a larger issue that should be taken in context if Tulsa parents, teachers and others want to understand public education and be part of a solution. The school “reform” movement championed by such heavy hitters as the Gates, Walton and Broad Foundations functions from the premise that American schools are failing and teachers/professional educators are not current on how and what should be taught; therefore, schools need to be transformed using such methods as charter schools, scripted teaching, “blended” learning and a business model for school administration.

While the players may be sincere about reform (I have my doubts since so much money is involved), these “reforms” are based on the invalid premise that public schools are failing and the teachers are bad. Therefore, the reforms aren’t working, even though the reformers have plenty of money to push their agenda. As the reforms begin to fall apart, many parents and teachers are crying foul.

The fact is that the United States has done a good job of educating everyone, including children with special needs, English language learners, homeless kids, wealthy kids and everything in between. In America, everyone K-12, has the right to an education. Other countries don’t educate everyone. And, if your only measure of how the U.S. is doing are standardized test scores, then the U.S. does fairly well when you compare apples to apples. Our kids are above the international average in all categories on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study ( Moreover, American kids in elementary and middle school have improved every four years since the test began in 1995. Even the PISA test ( shows that we’re doing pretty well. And, what is often not mentioned, as Mitchell Robinson writes here, “more American students take these exams than do students in other countries, and that US students from schools with low rates of poverty do extremely well–better than students in most other countries.”

In fact, when you look at only the U.S. schools with less than 10 percent free/reduced lunch, then we do remarkably well when compared with other countries.

While it’s true that urban school districts have struggling schools, that is not a problem of teaching, but a problem of poverty. The Gates/Walton/Broad Foundation and school reform movement’s solution has failed in other cities, yet Superintendent Gist (Broad, class of 2008) is implementing these same reforms in Tulsa, evidently with the school board’s blessing. Here is an enlightening article from Seattle  The excerpt below from the article will help you understand a little about what the Broad Foundation does, but I recommend going to the link and reading the entire piece. There are also many links for more information at the end of the article. Here is the rather long excerpt (emphasis mine):

A closer look at the Broad Foundation’s “investment” in education

The Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation form a powerful triumvirate. The combined net worth of the three families who operate these foundations is $152 billion. By strategically deploying their immense wealth through training school leaders, financing think-tank reports, and supporting “Astro Turf” advocacy groups, these three foundations have been able to steer the direction of education reform over the past decade.

The Broad Foundation is the least wealthy of the three, but has still spent nearly $400 million on its mission of “transforming urban K-12 public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition.” But what does that actually mean?

The signature effort of the Broad Foundation is its investment in its training programs, operated through the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems and the Broad Institute for School Boards. The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems is the larger of the two and consists of two programs: the Broad Superintendents Academy and the Broad Residency in Urban Education.

The Broad Superintendents Academy runs a training program held during six weekends over ten months, after which graduates are placed in large districts as superintendents. Those accepted into the program (“Broad Fellows”) are not required to have a background in education; many come instead from careers in the military, business, or government. Tuition and travel expenses for participants are paid for by the Broad Center, which also sometimes covers a share of the graduates’ salaries when they are appointed into district leadership positions. The foundation’s website boasts that 43 percent of all large urban superintendent openings were filled by Broad Academy graduates in 2009.

The Broad Superintendents Academy’s weekend training course provides an “alternative” certification process which has come to supplant or override the typical regulations in many states that require that individuals have years of experience as a teacher and principal before being installed as a school district superintendents.

The Broad Residency in Urban Education is a two-year program, during which individuals with MBAs, JDs, etc. in the early stages of their careers are placed in high-level managerial positions in school districts, charter management organizations, or state and federal departments of education. The Broad Center subsidizes approximately 33 percent of each Resident’s salary.

For financially struggling school districts, the Broad Foundation’s offer of trained personnel or services for a free or reduced cost is extremely appealing, and creates a “pipeline” of individuals with the same ideology who can be installed in central office positions.

How the Broad Foundation affects public school families

Broad and his foundation believe that public schools should be run like a business. One of the tenets of his philosophy is to produce system change by “investing in a disruptive force.” Continual reorganizations, firings of staff, and experimentation to create chaos or “churn” is believed to be productive and beneficial, as it weakens the ability of communities to resist change.

As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, a proponent of this philosophy has said, “…we can afford to make lots more mistakes and in fact we have to throw more things at the wall. The big companies that get into trouble are those that try to manage their size instead of experimenting with it.”

A hallmark of the Broad-style leadership is closing existing schools rather than attempting to improve them, increasing class size, opening charter schools, imposing high-stakes test-based accountability systems on teachers and students, and implementing of pay for performance schemes. The brusque and often punitive management style of Broad-trained leaders has frequently alienated parents and teachers and sparked protests.

Several communities have forced their Broad-trained superintendents to resign, including Arnold “Woody” Carter (class or 2002), formerly of the Capistrano Unified School District; Thandiwee Peebles,( class of 2002), formerly of the Minneapolis Public School District; and John Q. Porter (class of 2006), formerly of the Oklahoma City Public School District.

A number of other Broad-trained superintendents have received votes of “no confidence” from the teachers in their districts, including Rochester’s Jean-Claude Brizard (class of 2008), Seattle’s Maria Goodloe-Johnson (class of 2003); Deborah Sims (class of 2005) while Superintendent of the Antioch Unified School District (CA); Matthew Malone (class of 2003) while Superintendent of the Swampscott School District (MA); and most recently, Melinda J. Boone (class of 2004) Superintendent of the Worcester Public Schools (MA).

The Oakland Unified School District (CA) experienced a series of three consecutive Broad-trained, state-appointed administrators over a period of six years. The first, Randolph Ward (class of 2003), aroused huge protests with his plans to close schools and even hired a personal bodyguard for the duration of his tenure. Ward was followed by Kimberly Statham (class of 2003), and Vincent Mathews (class of 2006), all of whom left the district in financial shambles. A civil grand jury found that

“….the district was hampered by continuous staff turnover, particularly in the area of finance, numerous reorganizations and a succession of state administrators…After nearly five years of state management, OUSD’s budget remains unbalanced and the district’s future is unclear.”

Joseph Wise (class of 2003), formerly Superintendent of the Duval County Florida Public Schools, was found to have spent thousands of dollars on personal purchases while a superintendent in Delaware, before being fired by his Duval post in disgrace. While a finalist for the post of Superintendent in Washoe County in Nevada, Kimberly Olson (class of 2005) pled guilty of having engaged in war profiteering when she was a colonel in Iraq.

Chris Cerf (class of 2004), the acting New Jersey Education Commissioner, has been criticized for not identifying his involvement in a consulting firm which developed a secret plan to turn many Newark public schools over to charter operators. The Broad Foundation acknowledged that it put up $500,000 to pay for the plan.  Deborah Gist (class of 2008), Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, has supported the firing of all teachers in Central Falls and more recently in Providence, and is aggressively fighting seniority protections for teachers.

Denver, which implemented Broad/Gates reforms over 10 years ago, has been called a “failure” by long-time school board members, yet Tulsa is right now implementing those same types of reforms. Theresa Pena, who was president of the Denver school board when reform began, wrote (for those of you who read TPS’s strategic plan, this will sound familiar):

Almost 11 years ago, when I served on the Denver Board of Education, the board and then-Superintendent Michael Bennet published a lengthy manifesto detailing how we planned to transform and radically improve public education in Denver.

In 2007 our board believed we were starting a revolution. We were going to dramatically change outcomes for Denver students. We were going to construct a new educational system that served students first.

We believed that the goals in our strategic plan, known as the Denver Plan, would close the achievement gap and set a new path forward for all graduates of Denver Public Schools.

I am writing today to tell you that we failed. And, as a city and a school district we are still collectively failing our neediest students.

My conclusion calls into question the conventional wisdom about Denver Public Schools. Over the past decade, under the leadership of Bennet and his successor, Tom Boasberg, DPS has gained a national reputation as a forward-thinking, even visionary school district, which welcomes high-quality charter schools and grants the most deserving of its own schools unprecedented degrees of autonomy from the district bureaucracy. Enrollment has grown and student achievement has improved.

While elements of that sterling national reputation are deserved, and some real gains have occurred, they have been far too slow and inequitable. On perhaps the most critical measure of success, literacy in early elementary schools, low-income and minority students have improved at a much slower rate than their Anglo and higher-income peers. This has caused Denver’s abysmal achievement gaps to grow even wider.

In 2017 64 percent of students who did not qualify for free or reduced lunch were reading and writing at grade level compared to 26 percent of students who qualified for free and reduced lunch, a 38 percent gap. And only one of three low-income third-graders read and write at grade level.

Our aspirations of a decade ago have not been realized. Until and unless Boasberg and the Board of Education take concrete steps to fundamentally change the district to serve its students and schools, real progress will remain elusive. Over time, I have come to doubt whether this is even possible.

She goes on to say that promises from reform “failed on all counts.”

Is the TPS school board looking at how Broad reforms have played out in other cities? Are the members asking hard questions of Superintendent Gist? After all, she works for them, and the board works for us, the citizens and parents of Tulsa.

Are we blinded by the millions of dollars that foundations pour into reforming public education without asking what we want our schools to look like? Gates and Broad have no experience in education, yet they are making decisions that will transform public schools in this country. What is the point of accepting $1.5 million from the Gates Foundation so that TPS can develop a way to evaluate teachers before the district has even attempted to support those teachers? Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? Wouldn’t it be great if TPS could use that money to pay more teachers, reduce class sizes, provide specialized professionals who could work with children in trauma, pay for wrap-around services for all children, pay for classroom supplies, hire real education professionals as administrators, or any number of supports that teachers REALLY need? Or maybe actually talk to the teachers about what they need in their schools. Instead, teachers are burdened with more work, more students, unrealistic curricula and low pay — but they’re going to be evaluated by their third-grade students, thanks to Gates money. What about the $1 million from the Schusterman Foundation that went to the Boston Consulting Group for business consultants? Does anyone know the results? Exactly what did the outside consultants learn that will help support teachers in their jobs every day? What about the money that philanthropists donated to provide several Broad-trained administrators? Have those administrators been evaluated for their effectiveness?

Honesty and transparency are important in a democratic society, and public schools are the bedrock of democracy. Charter schools opening up next to, sometimes in the same building as, public schools do not perform the same function as public schools. When money is as limited as it is, why is TPS expanding charters rather than making the current public schools the very best that they can be? Charters, unlike regular public schools, don’t have to take every child who walks in the door; they don’t have elected boards that answer to the public; they aren’t part of the community and the neighborhood; they don’t have to take troubled children or children with disabilities.

Chicago teacher Ray Salazar writes in his blog White Rhino: A Blog About Education and Latino Issues, about school reformer Doug Lemov and his book “Teach Like a Champion,” a reformer bible. Salazar says that the extreme control outlined in “Teach Like a Champion” should not be the first objective of the teacher. “Meaningful learning” should come first.

Salazar writes (emphasis my own):

I believe in discipline.  I promote orderly hallways.  I am strict.  But I’m not oppressive.  Lemov’s strategies highlight the paranoia that many white teachers, and some teachers of color, feel when they enter our schools.  They fear.

I know not all white educators fear.  I know not all black and brown teachers are good.  I know a college-prep education encourages students; it does not dominate them.

Champion teachers maintain order because it leads to meaningful learning.  But Lemov rarely or ever discusses what is being taught.  He assumes the worksheets are valuable.  That’s a risky assumption in teacher training.

Lemov’s book contributes to the de-professionalization of teaching.  He sends the message that anyone can do it–if they read the right manual. (

Pedagogy of Poverty

I question why controlling, authoritarian methods and scripted learning are the best choices for children in poverty. Just because these methods might be easier for untrained teachers doesn’t make them good. While Gates and Broad and their ilk would have us think that their ideas are new, innovative and transformative, they are the same old Pedagogy of Poverty that Professor Martin Haberman wrote about in 1958, with a little technology thrown into the mix. Again, the excerpt below is long, but I feel it illuminates some of the assumptions and mistakes that even well-intentioned teachers and reformers might make.

Here is what Martin Haberman, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin, who first noted the Pedagogy of Poverty in 1958, says about urban teaching in “The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching”:

Why is a “minor” issue like improving the quality of urban teaching generally overlooked by the popular reform and restructuring strategies? There are several possibilities. First, we assume that we know what teaching is, that others know what it is, that we are discussing the same “thing” when we use the word, and that we would all know good teaching if we saw it. Second, we believe that, since most teachers cannot be changed anyway, there must be other, more potent, teacher-proof strategies for change. Third, why bother with teaching if research shows that achievement test scores of poor and minority youngsters are affected primarily by their socioeconomic class; affected somewhat by Head Start, school integration, and having a “strong” principal; and affected almost not at all by the quality of their teachers?

He goes on to say that the Pedagogy of Poverty has become entrenched in urban school districts and appeals to “several constituencies” which include:

  1. It appeals to those who themselves did not do well in schools. People who have been brutalized are usually not rich sources of compassion. And those who have failed or done poorly in school do not typically take personal responsibility for that failure. They generally find it easier to believe that they would have succeeded if only somebody had forced them to learn.
  2. It appeals to those who rely on common sense rather than on thoughtful analysis. It is easy to criticize humane and developmental teaching aimed at educating a free people as mere “permissiveness,” and it is well known that “permissiveness” is the root cause of our nation’s educational problems.
  3. It appeals to those who fear minorities and the poor. Bigots typically become obsessed with the need for control.
  4. It appeals to those who have low expectations for minorities and the poor. People with limited vision frequently see value in limited and limiting forms of pedagogy. They believe that at-risk students are served best by a directive, controlling pedagogy.
  5. It appeals to those who do not know the full range of pedagogical options available. This group includes most school administrators, most business and political reformers, and many teachers.


Unfortunately, the pedagogy of poverty does not work. Youngsters achieve neither minimum levels of life skills nor what they are capable of learning. The classroom atmosphere created by constant teacher direction and student compliance seethes with passive resentment that sometimes bubbles up into overt resistance. Teachers burn out because of the emotional and physical energy that they must expend to maintain their authority every hour of every day. The pedagogy of poverty requires that teachers who begin their careers intending to be helpers, models, guides, stimulators, and caring sources of encouragement transform themselves into directive authoritarians in order to function in urban schools. But people who choose to become teachers do not do so because at some point they decided, “I want to be able to tell people what to do all day and then make them do it!” This gap between expectations and reality means that there is a pervasive, fundamental irreconcilable difference between the motivation of those who select themselves to become teachers and the demands of urban teaching.

For the reformers who seek higher scores on achievement tests, the pedagogy of poverty is a source of continual frustration. The clear-cut need to “make” students learn is so obviously vital to the common good and to the students themselves that surely (it is believed) there must be a way to force students to work hard enough to vindicate the methodology. Simply stated, we act as if it is not the pedagogy that must be fitted to the students but the students who must accept an untouchable method.

In reality, the pedagogy of poverty is not a professional methodology at all. It is not supported by research, by theory, or by the best practice of superior urban teachers. It is actually certain ritualistic acts that, much like the ceremonies performed by religious functionaries, have come to be conducted for their intrinsic value rather than to foster learning.

The pedagogy of poverty is sufficiently powerful to undermine the implementation of any reform effort because it determines the way pupils spend their time, the nature of the behaviors they practice, and the bases of their self-concepts as learners. Essentially, it is a pedagogy in which learners can “succeed” without becoming either involved or thoughtful.

The Pedagogy of Poverty makes me wonder why reformers believe that children who live in poverty cannot be taught in the same way that their wealthier peers are taught. I doubt if Bill Gates would send his children to such a school.

I know this is a long blog, and it covers too much ground, but the bottom line is that all of us, especially parents, should understand what is happening in our schools. You can agree with the Broad/Gates reform methods or not, but it’s important to understand the context in which the dust-ups at Edison are happening. Or if you start wondering why your children are unhappy at school, or no longer like reading or math. You might wonder why, besides pay, your favorite teachers leave to teach, not in other states, but in districts outside of Tulsa only to be replaced by people who are not professional teachers. All of these small things add up to a “reform” philosophy that you can agree with or not, but at least know what you’re up against.

Categories: Editor’s Blog