Intro. [Recording date: February 18, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Before introducing today's guest, I want to let listeners know that we've just released a Bonus EconTalk interview with economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Romer, recorded just a few days ago, on May 12, 2020, talking about where we are with the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential for widespread, inexpensive testing to help get our lives back to something vaguely like normal. You can listen to it in our normal feed, but you can also watch the video of the conversation on the EconTalk YouTube channel. Just go to YouTube and search for EconTalk.
And now for today's episode.
Russ Roberts: Today is February 18th, 2020, and my guest is journalist, author, and former teacher Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he is a Senior Fellow. He is the author of How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Robert, welcome to EconTalk.
Robert Pondiscio: Thanks, Russ.
Russ Roberts: This book is about a controversial set of charter schools in the New York City area under the direction of Eva Moskowitz called the Success Academy. And I just want to say upfront that I was deeply moved by the book. I learned a lot from the book. And, most of all, I thought it was just wonderful how thoughtful the book is in finding nuance in how and what we can learn from the experience that you had, spending a year in a particular school in this chain of charter schools.
But, I want to start with your story first, a little bit about it. You used to be a school teacher. How did that happen and what happened?
Robert Pondiscio: I still am. I teach part time to this day at a charter school called Democracy Prep in Harlem. One day a week, I teach civics. But, no, I was a mid-career switcher. I had a whole other life in the magazine business. I worked for Time and Business Week, in what I now describe, candidly, as a mid-career impulse purchase: I signed up to be at an inner city school teacher in the South Bronx under a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows.
Russ Roberts: How old were you?
Robert Pondiscio: 39, so genuinely mid-career. Not like the 24- and 25-year-olds who were in the program, who had one other job out of college.
But, I signed up to do two years of teaching fifth grade at a school called PS 277 [Public School 277] in the South Bronx. Two years turned into five; education kind of became unwittingly my second career. And I'm still obviously in it to this day.
Russ Roberts: How'd you come to write this book? What were the--how did you get the idea for it? What were the logistics of being able to wander around a school, talking to teachers, staff, parents, students for a year?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, those are a lot of questions. Let me tick them off one by one. Like a lot of folks in this work, I became fascinated by Success Academy and Eva Moskowitz. And, if you're paying attention to schools--particularly if you're like me, you're paying attention to inner city schools--then they're unavoidable. A few years ago, I remember writing a piece for the New York Daily News that asked--I think the question was, is Eva Moskowitz the Michael Jordan of standardized testing or the Mark McGwire? And, those of our listeners who are sports people will get the reference--Michael Jordan being this fantastic athlete and Mark McGwire being a notorious steroids cheater.
The reason I wrote that piece was, this was, when Common Core testing at first hit, everybody's tests fell out of bed, theirs went up. And not just up, but they were strong across their network. In other words, there was no such thing and still is not a bad Success Academy.
So, you can't be interested in this and not wonder, as I think the title of the piece was: 'What the Hell is Going on Up There?'
So, at that point, I remember writing, saying, 'Look, somebody should go up there and do this, and find out how they're getting these results.' Didn't intend for it to be me. But a few years later, I talked my way into Success Academy.
And I think what enabled me to do that is I occupy a strange space in education policy discussions, Russ. A lot of folks, as you know, in the policy world, tend to talk about the structures of education: chartering, testing accountability. I'm the guy who tends to say, 'Well, that's all fine, but can we talk about what the kids do all day?'
Russ Roberts: Yeah: What's happening on the ground? Which--
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, curriculum, instruction or what have you.
Russ Roberts: Which is treated as sort of a black box: We get the right program in place; and then it will all just kind of--
Robert Pondiscio: I'm glad that you seem to agree with me that that's an unusual position to take. But, look, hey, you're an economist. So, that's what economists do, right?
Russ Roberts: Well, we try a bit.
But, I think this black box metaphor, I think, is a real problem in this field. Because we think we've got some magic bullet, something that's going to cure this particular disease. And we just assumed that once we passed the legislation or hand out the money, everything's going to be fine.
Robert Pondiscio: Well, I would actually argue that it's a little bit even worse than that. And, maybe this is born in my experience, having been a classroom teacher and having gone to Ed School [Education School]. The logic of education reform, broadly speaking, is what? We don't need to know what happens inside that black box. We just need to measure what comes out of it. That's predicated on the assumption that schools and teachers know what to do. And, so, the only thing that matters is the outcome.
Well, having been through Ed school and having taught--I'm not a teacher basher but let me assure you, if you assume that all we need to do is either incentivize proper behavior or counsel[?cancel?] out the laggards, I don't know where that idea came from.
Russ Roberts: And, you talk about how you were teaching as a new teacher, that you'd go to your principal and say, 'What should I be teaching?' What was their reaction? Which was shocking--will be shocked at their reaction.
Robert Pondiscio: People should be shocked because they think I'm making this up, but talk to a new teacher. Look, it wasn't just because I was in a so-called alternative certification program and got six weeks of basically teacher bootcamp before being given the keys to the classroom. Very little in teacher preparation. Education school concerns itself with the practical knowledge of teaching.
I know you've had Doug Lemov on this podcast before. This is what makes his work so powerful. is he's giving teachers what they really need, which is stand still when asking questions, practice handing out papers, cold-call students. Just nuts and bolts of teaching that most schools of education don't think is their job.
And, this extends to curriculum. In other words, my classroom was full of people who wanted to tell me how to teach. And, when I, in my naivete, asked the question, 'Well, what should I be teaching?' I always got some variation of the answer, 'Well, Mr. Pondiscio, you're the best person to know what every child needs.' And I found that answer--and still do--quite unhelpful.
Russ Roberts: I was sitting next to a teacher--Imay have told the story on the air before, but--I was sitting next to a teacher once on an airplane and asked her what she taught. And she was a math teacher. I don't remember the grade. It was between sixth and eighth. I'll just say it was seventh. I said, 'Well, what do you cover in there?' And she said, 'Well, seventh grade is kind of a review year.' I thought, 'Hmmm, that's a strange strategy. That doesn't sound right.' I don't know whether she was told it was to be a review year. I don't know whether that was the way it was structured in her school. I don't know whether that was her way of feeling good about the fact they didn't learn anything new. I don't know.
Russ Roberts: Anyway, so, you spent a year in this fascinating environment of the Success Academy, which makes it sound like it's--
Robert Pondiscio: One particular school.
Russ Roberts: But, Success Academy is a chain.
Robert Pondiscio: That's right.
Russ Roberts: You mentioned that you have to deal with them if you're in this world. Why? What is their--give us a few metrics of their success. It's extraordinary. When you read it, and you assume it's not a lie, it is extraordinary.
Robert Pondiscio: Well, I'll give you some data. This may not be precise. This is from memory, so please don't tweet at me if I've got this wrong. Last year, there were approximately 50 Success Academy schools, all of them in New York City: mostly elementary school, some middle, one or two high schools. Under the law of the land, every kid gets tested right now, grades three through eight, in math and reading. That's been the law of the land for 20 years.
Last year, of those 50 schools, about three dozen--36, 37 of them--had so-called testing grades, three through eight. Of those, the poorest performing school had, again from memory, 85% of their kids at/or above grade level in reading. All the other ones were better. In math, 92%--that was the worst one. That was the weak sister: 92% of kids on/or above grade level in math; and it's mostly way above. And, to be clear, approximately 90% of the kids are low-income kids of color. So, they are doing the thing that Ed Reform has said for years can be done, which is: taking our most disadvantaged students, historically speaking, and raising them not just to levels of achievement, but where the Scarsdales of the world are now chasing them.
Russ Roberts: If I remember two of the five top perform--in 2016, when you were there, two of the five top performing schools in math in the whole system where these, in this system--
Robert Pondiscio: If it's in New York City, it's all but one or two of them. And that includes the gifted and talented programs and whatnot. I mean, if they were a standalone school district in the State of New York, Russ, they would be by far the best performing school district--based on test scores. You always have to make that caveat.
Russ Roberts: Correct.
Robert Pondiscio: There's more to school than getting tested--
Russ Roberts: We'll talk about that.
Robert Pondiscio: But, based on test scores, Success Academy as a standalone, the school district would be, by a considerable distance, the highest performing district in the State of New York.
Russ Roberts: When you wrote your book in 2016, when you spent this year there, there were 41 schools with 14,000 students. There are now, you said, about 50. I think there's 47, at least on the Wikipedia page I saw, with 17,000. Part of me exalts. There were some very--I was brought to tears, a couple of places in the book, at the emotional gratitude and success that these kids are experiencing and that their parents are grateful for. It's glorious to think that there's 17,000 students getting a shot. And, then, you've got to remember that there's 1.1 million kids in the New York City school system; and it breaks your heart.
Russ Roberts: We'll get to that. Before we do, one more definition--or a definition. This is a charter school system. It was started by two, if I remember, hedge fund managers or investors.
Robert Pondiscio: That's right. They wrote the [inaudible 00:11:09] charter.
Russ Roberts: Very wealthy people. They saw Eva Moskowitz, who was a phenomenon, and decided she was going to be the person to lead it. They started with one school. There's now 47. Why aren't there 70 or a hundred or 200? And, what's distinctive about a charter school?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. If Eva Moskowitz, the CEO [Chief Executive Officer], had her way, there would be 100. At the moment, we're hard up against the charter school cap in the State of New York. So, there are no more charters to be given out, politically, at the moment. So, that's the first problem, right there: is that they become politically unpopular, particularly on the Left. Which is ironic, given that the kids that they tend to serve best tend to be low-income kids of color in urban environments.
But, what is a charter school? I always forget to remind people of this because I assume they know; and they don't. A charter school is a public school in so far as it does not charge tuition and has open admissions; but basically it's government funded and privately run. So, it is not a private school. It is privately managed. Most charters in America, all of them in New York, all of them at Success Academy, are not-for-profit. They are, again, government funded but privately run.
Russ Roberts: And, Eva Moskowitz--you tell this great story of when she came out of politics. She wanted to earn $175,000, thought that wouldn't probably be available to her when these two investors sought her out. They said, 'Well, I'm going to really be a bad negotiator. We'll give you $250.' So, she's off the chart, literally. She's free of the bureaucracy. She's paid whatever the people who founded the system want to pay her. Their teachers are paid whatever they want. They decide their own classroom size. They happen to be large. Many of them are 30 or more, which is kind of shocking. They don't have any union rules. They're semi-private in the sense they're nonprofit, semi-private, publicly funded.
Robert Pondiscio: That's right.
Russ Roberts: But, Eva Moskowitz's salary--I mean, what--
Robert Pondiscio: Oh, she gets a lot of grief for paying herself a fairly nice sum of money. It's, I think, north of half a million dollars now. So, I'm sure she--I haven't looked it up, but I'm relatively sure she makes more money than the schools' Chancellor in the City of New York.
But, it always reminds me of the story that--somebody once asked Babe Ruth whether it was okay for him to make more money than the President; and he said, 'Well, I had a better year than him.' So, Moskowitz is having a better year.
Russ Roberts: She's having a good decade. But, her salary is not set by the City of New York.
Robert Pondiscio: No, it's set by her Board.
Russ Roberts: But, where does her budget come from? In other words, when we say it's publicly funded, how much of those funds come to her for her school system?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah; I will be honest. One of my own self-critiques in the book is I didn't really spend a lot of time digging into the finances of Success Academy--frankly, because it's just been done. My particular niche is to write about classroom practice and culture. So, I'll forgive myself, but I should have the answer to that.
Russ Roberts: That's okay.
Robert Pondiscio: Charters are publicly funded in so far as you get reimbursed for every student you enroll. It's, generally speaking, a little bit less than what the City of New York would pay for, or the State of New York would pay on average for a student. But they also are peerless fundraisers. They raise a lot of money at these glittering events that they do, and whatnot. Look, I just find it odd. I'm not Eva Moskowitz's cheerleader or defender here. Let me be clear on that.
Russ Roberts: It's clear on the book.
Robert Pondiscio: Thank you. I appreciate that. But, I just find it odd that she gets dinged for her salary--not only because of the performance, but having worked in the private sector for so many years, I always think to myself, 'Do you have any idea what money this woman would make in the private sector with her ability to just put her stamp on a school culture?' I've never seen a corporate culture that's as consistent and coherent as I saw at Success Academy.
Russ Roberts: We had a discussion on those issues with Dan Pallotta. We'll put a link up to that episode. By his argument that nonprofits, if we think they're doing important work, and they almost always are, should be paid accordingly to attract great talent to the things that we think are worth doing.
Russ Roberts: One other issue, before we get to the year: A lot more people want to attend these schools than there are seats available. You said there's no more schools available. The number of literal seats available in school is limited by the physical plant and other issues. The documentary Waiting for "Superman" is about, if I remember correctly, a Success Academy school--
Robert Pondiscio: I believe that's right. Very early on--
Russ Roberts: and it's an extraordinary, powerful documentary, very moving. I recommend that.
But, one of the things that's interesting about your book is you really pull back a veil on the admissions process. A lot of people have accused Eva Moskowitz of cherry-picking the best students; and that explains her test scores. One defense she could make--I'm sure she does make--is, Well, it's by lottery.'
Russ Roberts: And these are poor kids. I assume almost all of them are on food assistance.
Robert Pondiscio: Free/reduced-price lunch, for example. Absolutely.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, so, she's taking some of the most challenging situations, students from the most challenging situations, and she can't choose them. They come to her by lottery.
And, yet, as you point out, very, I think adeptly in the book, she does something more clever than that. She chooses parents.
And: Talk about the admissions process. Because, again, if you hear about it, you think, 'Well, it's a lottery. Some kids get in; some don't; and that's life.' But, they have other extraordinary things to decide who gets in.
Robert Pondiscio: It's super-complicated. But it is worth unpacking because it does--I don't want to say it punctures the myth, but it's important to be clear-eyed about this. And, look, frankly, this goes against the Ed Reform orthodoxy and I consider myself to be an Ed Reformer in good standing.
Russ Roberts: Ed, meaning education.
Robert Pondiscio: Education, thank you.
So, yes, there is a lottery. The rough number is there are six applicants for every one seat. But, the lottery is not--first of all, I would argue.
The second, a parent raises his or her hand and says, 'Hey, I want something other than my zone neighborhood school.' That's one level of differentiation right there. You've got, by definition, a motivated parent.
So, they start there and then they go several steps further.
So, once you go through the lottery process, if you either are accepted or on their waiting list, which they call not insignificantly the 'Likely list'-- we can talk about that--then you were invited to a Welcome Meeting. Not necessarily invited: You must attend. It's compulsory. If you don't attend, they may drop you if you're not communicative about it. That's the first of several hurdles.
And at this welcome meeting, they do a lot of aggressive messaging about their culture: What they stand for, what they will not stand for, so to speak.
Then, you have to confirm your interest in email. Then, there's a lot of paperwork you have to fill out. Then, you have to come to a uniform fitting, even if you're just on the waiting list. Then, there's a dress rehearsal for meet-the-teachers. And, the math is undeniable. By the end of this process, you don't have a one-in-six chance of getting in. It's closer to one in two.
But, what's more significant, Russ, and I think this is the thing that frankly Success Academy is probably unhappy about, this has been hiding in plain sight for over a decade. But, it just seems pointless to deny that this doesn't have an effect on who gets in. Because Success makes such prodigious demands on parent time, showing up for meetings.
Russ Roberts: No buses, you got to bring your kid.
Robert Pondiscio: There's no transportation. There's no after-school.
Russ Roberts: Then, pick them up.
Robert Pondiscio: You've got to read to your kid every night and log it. Your kid has to read six books a week and it has to be logged. They require an extraordinary level of parent commitment both in time and responsiveness. And it just seems pointless to deny that some number of parents--this is simply too much. Now, I want to be clear here. This is not data. This is a journalistic observation. But, you can see an observable difference in who makes it through the end of this process.
Over the year I spend at Success Academy, there's a disproportionate number compared to what I saw at teaching in the same neighborhood of parents who are married, employed, what I would call religious or spiritual, ambitious for their kids.
In other words, they are--a critical mass of them are buying what Eva Moskowitz is selling. I'm not suggesting it's all of them, but it's a critical mass. They become the culture keepers, so to speak. But, and that enables these great results. I want to be clear. I'm not suggesting that it's--and it's clearly not--they're creating a self-selection mechanism for parents. But that's the starting line that makes all these other things happen. It's just a lot easier to get these results when every adult in a kid's life is pulling in the same direction.
Russ Roberts: But as you point out, and this to me is one of the more powerful parts of the book, as you point out, in wealthy suburban suburbs, that's the edge that all those kids have. Their parents are motivated. They have high expectations of their children. They send them to schools with high expectations.
Robert Pondiscio: They choose neighborhoods.
Russ Roberts: They buy houses accordingly. And they expect their kids to go to a certain quality of college. Certainly. They're going to college and they're not just going to any college.
Robert Pondiscio: There's never been a day in their life when the kids didn't know they were going to college.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, and expecting to go to college. And expecting to excel. So, what--
Robert Pondiscio: And this is all, Russ, unremarkable and uncontroversial, right?
Russ Roberts: Right.
Robert Pondiscio: It's the water that we swim in.
Russ Roberts: And we don't even notice it.
Russ Roberts: We don't think, well, I think about it and you think about it, but most don't think about it. I don't think about it as much as you do.
But the point is, is that: when people criticize Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy--we're going to have criticisms of her in this hour; there are a lot of things in the book that I think are very thoughtful on the negative side of what Success Academy is doing. But when people criticize it, one of the things they say, which I think is grossly incorrect, is that it's just not fair that a certain set of kids with these type of parents get this advantage. And, your reaction is what?
Robert Pondiscio: Well, it is unfair. The question is: to whom is it unfair? Is it unfair when my kid and your kid gets the conditions we just described --that they have unquestioned access to educational excellence, either by purchasing it or by purchasing a home where your real estate taxes are your de facto tuition to a public private, as it were, school in a Bethesda or a Scarsdale or a Greenwich or some such. That's uncontroversial.
We are used to, I'll say it bluntly, treating low income people of color as a public resource in this equation. In other words, when a motivated child or parent, when a motivated parent takes his or her child out of my old school and sends her to a Success Academy--
Russ Roberts: The one you taught in.
Robert Pondiscio: Ye s, PS 277--we look at that and say, 'Well, that's unfair. You're robbing the public school system of the resource that is this child.'
Now, if I were a good educational reformer, I would say, 'Oh no, that's not true,' because we have all these studies that show that it creates a rising tide that lifts all boats, etc.
As a teacher, I know it just changes the temperature in the room when you take that kid and others like them out of the room. So, I have no problem just intuitively saying that's probably not true. There is a downstream effect. But, and this is a huge 'but,' Russ: We don't have the right to keep that kid there because the kid is not a public resource. But this is the tension that exists in all of this work, right?
Russ Roberts: And the other--to be fair to the critics, their other point, which has some legitimacy--you've just conceded it--is that you can't attribute all of the charter school movement, or particularly this chain of Success Academy, their testing success--we'll talk later about whether that's, what that means, testing success as a measure--but, you don't want to attribute all their testing success to the particular, what happens inside that black box, which we will also talk about. You might be tempted to say, 'Oh, all schools should be doing this.'
And the critics, and you as well, are saying, 'Well, it's not really a legitimate natural experiment,' because you have not controlled for having really motivated parents who will jump through a thousand hoops to get their kids in the school. And, my reaction to that, and I think yours is, 'Okay.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah, but at least, and this is quite an achievement --more than quite an achievement. This is a, should be a ground-shaking achievement: With that cherry-picking of parents, they're able to get success on tests. Which is shocking.
Robert Pondiscio: Let me just interrupt: parents are cherry picking themselves.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, fair enough.
Robert Pondiscio: I want to be really clear about that. There is no mechanism that I uncovered that suggests that Success Academy is cherry picking parents or manipulating who gets in. Yes, they create these structures that functionally privilege parental bandwidth. When you make all these demands on a family's time, it's obvious, right, that two [?] or two-parent households are going to have an advantage and be more likely to persist, thrive in this process. That's just, I don't think that's a debatable point. But that's not the same thing as they are cherry picking parents.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Fair enough.
Russ Roberts: Now, let's talk about what happened on the ground for you, in this year. Did you show up at 8:30 every morning? Tell me what you did [crosstalk 00:25:55], what did you have access to and what did you not have access to?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. I give Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy all the credit in the world. There is a sense that they are secretive; and that was not my experience. I mean, I made my pitch; they were somewhat reluctant at first, but I'm a persuasive guy, so I wore them down. And, I got access to a particular school in the Bronx, which is--as a writer, I appreciated this--the school that I spent most of my time and I visited many schools, but I spent most of my time in Success Academy Bronx One, which is literally across the street from where I was a student teacher and a few blocks from where I was a fifth grade teacher.
Very few restrictions were placed on my access within that school. The principal there was, she's still at Success. She's no longer at the school, Elizabeth [?Danlick?], could not have been more welcoming and just allowed me to wander about. Over time, I ended up returning to some classrooms more than others, and there were one or two classrooms that I just tended to avoid. There was one particular teacher who she said, 'Look, this guy's new, do me a favor and cut him some slack.' But there were, as a general rule, there were very few restrictions placed on my observations.
Russ Roberts: How many classrooms would you say you sat in, in the course of the year?
Robert Pondiscio: Oh goodness.
Russ Roberts: We talking about five, or 50, or?
Robert Pondiscio: No, no, closer to 50 than five, because I also visited a lot of other schools. Including going on several school tours with Moskowitz herself. So, if you count those then, sure, well north of 50.
Russ Roberts: You went, you sat in on faculty meetings, right?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It was kind of interesting. There's a scene early in the book on the first day of school at Bronx One where they are just giving withering appraisals of some of the teachers. And, I'm looking around saying, is anybody going to ask me to keep this off the record? And they didn't, because it's the same culture they have with their adult staff. I mean, it is a pitilessly transparent adult culture. If you can't take it and don't respond to feedback, it's not the place for you.
Russ Roberts: Some of the names in the book are real. Some are not.
Robert Pondiscio: Almost all of them are real.
Russ Roberts: But some you decided--
Robert Pondiscio: I changed the name of one teacher who--spoiler alert--flamed out and quit mid-year--not even mid-year, a few months into the school year. Look, and that was just my own personal decision. I just, again, whether you love what they're doing or hate what they're doing no 24- or 25-year old needs to see her name in a book as having quit in her first job.
Russ Roberts: For whatever reason. Even if it was justified. Understandable. Doesn't matter.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, exactly.
Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about what you saw. One of the--and how Success Academy works on the ground. There are a lot of rules. It starts with a uniform, and it just keeps going. So, talk about what they do institutionally, both in terms of training their teachers and in training their scholars. I love that word. That's what they call their students.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. That's pretty common in a lot of, so-called no excuses charter schools. And,I'm also--let's start there with what they do. They will deny that they are a so-called no excuses charter school, which is a thing you used to hear 10 or 20 years ago. I think I'm the last person in education who still is okay with that label. Mostly because I remember what it used to mean before it was co-opted. It used to mean no excuses for adults to fail children. That's just--
Russ Roberts: Disappoint them, to not expect them to do well, right?
Robert Pondiscio: Precisely.
Russ Roberts: You didn't mean to give them Fs. You said 'fail children.'
Robert Pondiscio: Fail them in the big, in the grand sense.
Russ Roberts: Right.
Robert Pondiscio: Lead them to disappointing outcomes.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Robert Pondiscio: That's on us. It's not on them. So, I think that original ethos of the no excuses charter school movement was the correct one, and I don't shy away from that label. But I'm the freak there. Everybody else calls them 'high achieving charters,' or some such.
Look, I think I said this in the book, Eva Moskowitz may deny that or repudiate that label, but Success Academy is not merely no excuses. They're the most no excuses. It is quite regimented. I mean, I document several instances in the book of kids being turned away because they have the wrong color sock. But that's not arbitrary and capricious--
Russ Roberts: Turned away on a particular day.
Robert Pondiscio: Yes, yes, yes.
Russ Roberts: They show up for school and you have to have the full uniform.
Robert Pondiscio: Full uniform, including--
Russ Roberts: Blue socks, not black. And the black-sock kid gets said, 'Sorry, you can't come in today.' And that parent, who's there, takes them home.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. Yeah. Unhappily, but takes them home.
Russ Roberts: What's the justification for that, if you asked Eva?
Robert Pondiscio: The--well, I will describe it in my own words. It's a culture-keeping mechanism. Right? Another thing that we're not supposed to talk about in social policy anymore is broken windows theory. But, I mean, this is what that looks like, right? In other words, if you sweat the small stuff, then the big stuff takes care of itself.
Russ Roberts: Explain the broken windows.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. Broken, and I'm not expert on this, so you'll--
Russ Roberts: Yeah; but it's a metaphor.
Robert Pondiscio: Yes, exactly. This goes back to policing and that small disorder leads to large crime.
And, look, having been an inner city school teacher for several years, that rings true to me. Your typical inner city school can be a chaotic place. For very good reasons, which are obvious, but it does get in the way of learning. So the thing that Success Academy has really nailed is getting that culture piece right. Both in terms of expectations, but it gets down to the level of the wrong color socks. They say several times, 'This shows that we're really serious, that our expectations are high,' and it becomes a lived experience for the parents and students.
Russ Roberts: So, describe what happens when the kindergartners come into their classroom on the first day of class, second day of class, every day of class--the regimen of what's expected of them behaviorally.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, yeah. Look--
Russ Roberts: All through the school, it's not just kindergarten.
Robert Pondiscio: There's a lot of folks in the education world who are deeply uncomfortable with this. Who consider it paternalistic at best--
Russ Roberts: Fascist. Racist.
Robert Pondiscio: I was going to say, racist and fascist at worst. I mean--and full disclosure--as a classroom teacher myself, I was once described by an assistant principal as being an authoritarian teacher. She did not mean to pay me a compliment in saying that. So, I'm kind of naturally disposed to not being bothered by the sight of kids marching in straight lines in school uniforms and being asked to sit up and, as they say, track the teacher, monitor the teacher with his or her eyes. That doesn't bother me--it bothers a lot of folks--because it's in the service of a greater goal. I mean, you need to have students' attention for them to learn, and we want them to have these good outcomes. So, I'm okay with this, but a lot of other people are not.
Russ Roberts: It can be jarring.
Russ Roberts: If you're used to a more chaotic classroom or a livelier classroom, even, or a classroom that has more self-expression: this must be jarring.
Robert Pondiscio: But, let me be clear: Moskowitz, again, is a controversial figure. One area in which I think she has been done dirt is when she says, 'Well, look, this is, we don't do this because we enjoy imposing our will upon students. This creates the conditions for learning, for joy, for participation.' And she's absolutely right. I mean, I don't want to give the impression that every minute of every day, the kids are sitting ramrod straight and like an old cram school or some such. But it does set a tone that pays dividends.
Russ Roberts: So, let's get back to that kindergarten. You're paying attention. You're tracking, you're following the teacher with your eyes. You can't daydream in this place very easily. You're going to be told to stop. What are also some of the forms of this regimentation that would make somebody uneasy?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, I think we just tick them off. I mean, a lot of people are just uncomfortable with any adult authority over children. I mean, I blame Rousseau, honestly, it goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this idea that children are born with all the gifts that they ever will need and all we can do is mess them up. Not my vision of education. Certainly not Eva Moskowitz's. Dewey, I guess, would be another person to consult here on this one.
Look, this is frankly one of the reasons why--and I'm sure a lot of people were disappointed in this conclusion--that I don't think Success Academy is scalable. Because, remember, Russ: this is why we do all this in education reform, right? We're looking for the Holy Grail. We're looking for the model: 'This is what works, an now we must scale this up.' I think these are very, very good schools for the population that they serve. Does that mean that every school should be a Success Academy? No, because you couldn't impose these conditions on the unwilling.
Russ Roberts: And not just that. I think--and this is the thing that haunts me--when I talked with Paul Tough about the Harlem Children's Zone and Jeffrey Canada, their founder, what an extraordinary job he appears to have done; Eva Moskowitz: You can't scale them--
Russ Roberts: easily, at least. And I think the ability of Eva Moskowitz to create a uniform culture throughout 47 schools is not easy.
Russ Roberts: Just as, like--I don't know if you talked about this: Having spent that year in the school, you watched some kids struggle, you watched kids rise, you watch kids thrive. Did it feel like a happy place?
Russ Roberts: Or did it feel repressive? Because, it could sound repressive.
Robert Pondiscio: Again, the question--
Russ Roberts: Or oppressive even.
Robert Pondiscio: No, I found it to be anything other than that. I think if you don't see the clear investment and the joy in these schools, well, you don't want to see it honestly. And look, let's be candid: There are a lot of folks in this work who have deep convictions about what school should look like and anything that is not that is going to set their teeth on edge.
Russ Roberts: But the scalability issue, so, even if you thought that this should be available for, say--
Russ Roberts: A hundred times more--
Robert Pondiscio: Many more.
Russ Roberts: Not everybody, but more. And I'm a big fan of choice, trial and error, let people find where they belong. And I think that's one of the biggest problems with the current system and universe of school choices for children. We just face this issue of, if you thought this was an important option to have widely available, it might not be--it would not be easy to create. Eva Moskowitz's relentless application of what she expects of her teachers, is part of what makes this distinctive.
Robert Pondiscio: We could spend several hours talking about the particular aspects of their model which make this work. But, going back to one of the things we brought up early on, what I didn't discuss and what's remarkable to discuss is the consistency of this. In other words--and not within Success Academy itself, but compared to other so-called CMOs or Charter Management Organizations--what makes Success an object worthy of study is there's literally, Russ, no other charter school network in the country of this size that has that consistency of results. In my mind, it has to do with that consistency of culture. There are charter school networks, I'm thinking KIPP [Knowledge is Power Program], or Yes Prep, or Achievement First, or Uncommon, that may be larger or comparable size, but there's always an outlier. There's always one or two weak sisters. The fact that there's not one here is worth discussing.
Russ Roberts: The other part that I found so extraordinary is that, I think of the 2000 staff or 2000 teachers in the year that, in the system that you looked at, 900--
Robert Pondiscio: Were new.
Russ Roberts: were new, or doing new roles, having new roles in the school.
Russ Roberts: And they are under unimaginable pressure. I mean, it's hard to be a student in this school because the expectations are very high. But it's incredibly hard to be a teacher.
Robert Pondiscio: The turnover is prodigious. And, look, that's another, that's a New York advantage. You couldn't do this in Utica. You couldn't do this in Youngstown, Ohio. When you have an attractive urban environment like New York City, that every day you can go to Port Authority and find another 24-year old who wants to close the achievement gap--I mean, I'm being glib, but you take my point. It's an attractive proposition. Less so in other parts of the country.
But, yeah, look, they really do work their teachers incredibly hard. There is no doubt in my mind that two things are true. I could never work there, because I'm 57 years old. I'm just, I can't work that hard anymore. But boy, do I wish I had trained there 20 years ago as a teacher, instead of the training that I got from the New York City Department of Education and others. I would have been, and my students would have been, far better off had I trained there.
Russ Roberts: One of the challenges of being a teacher that most, I think, non-teachers, can't appreciate until they've either been in a classroom or seen their own kids in a classroom is: Classroom management, just by itself is not straightforward, in 2020, especially. Or even in 2016, when you were there. And--it can't be the whole thing, though. It's a necessary condition for learning that there be enough, quiet and calm in the room for people to absorb material, but it's not enough.
And, what did you see pedagogically, beyond the conformity to certain norms of behavior? What did, how would you describe what makes Success Academy distinctive in what they teach? Because, you can have a really well run classroom, but that doesn't mean you're going to get high test scores.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, that's right.
I mean, one, just to complete the thought on the young staff, they seem to have cracked the code on getting really good results, test results, with relatively inexperienced staff. Not right off the street. They have an intake process. They've got an assistant teacher model. You're an assistant teacher before you lead a classroom. But they've routinized it in a way that a lot of other folks have not.
I talked about some of the ways in which Success Academy is not a model for other schools, charter or traditional public schools. Well, here's one way in which they are. They have a curriculum. Now, look, this is confirmation bias on my part. I'm a curriculum fetishist.
Russ Roberts: Well, you've already confessed that when you were a teacher, nobody gave you--you had to find your own.
Robert Pondiscio: That's why I became one.
Russ Roberts: It's horrifying.
Robert Pondiscio: Surely this can't be best practice. But my particular interest in education as an analyst is curriculum and instruction. That's what I thought I was going to see at Success Academy. And, I sort of did. Look, they made decisions in terms of their curriculum that are not necessarily the ones that I would make. I'm an unrepentant disciple of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who some of our listeners may know as the author of Cultural Literacy way back when. He runs, or founded the Core Knowledge Foundation. This is the guy who says, broadly oversimplifying, that kids need a lot of background knowledge and they need a broad education in science and history and art and music, etc.
So, that's my flavor. Success Academy is not that, but they are, I think I say this in the book, they're a school that Hirsch would feel comfortable with. So, while they're not making curricular decisions that are precisely what I would make, they're pretty good. And their math curriculum--I've actually changed my thinking about math because of what I saw there. I think they've just, they're knocking it out of the park on math. So, but the significant factor is: there is a curriculum. There was a Rand Study done some years ago that showed that teachers, virtually all teachers, like 98% of teachers in America are using materials they either created or found themselves, in their lessons. That is--this is where we need economists, right?
Russ Roberts: That is nuts.
Robert Pondiscio: That is a prodigious waste of time. Even if you are creating the best lessons known to man, unknown and unknowable, well, that's time that you're not spending studying student work. Building relationships with students. Deepening your own pedagogical skill and--
Russ Roberts: Giving feedback.
Robert Pondiscio: knowledge. Giving feedback to students. There's not one thing I can think of that wouldn't be more valuable for a teacher to do than spend 10, 20, 30 hours a week with the empty plan book by his or her elbow thinking, 'What am I going to teach this week?' That's got to change. They don't do that at Success Academy. So, there's--
Russ Roberts: Because they give you curriculum.
Robert Pondiscio: there's a curriculum. And they make a great virtue of what they call intellectual preparation: planning to teach the lesson as opposed to planning the lesson. So, they do all those things that we just talked about: giving feedback, developing questioning strategies, etc. If there's one thing that American education at large can and should take from Success Academy, it's that.
Russ Roberts: And in terms of the--let's get to the thorny question of teaching to the test.
Russ Roberts: They're really focused on the test at Success Academy.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, they are.
Russ Roberts: There are worse things. There would seem to be much better things. Did you feel, as you sat in those classrooms, that there was a roteness to the learning or a--?
Robert Pondiscio: Little bit, yeah. I mean, I'll be honest about it. When they say that, 'Well, look, we don't really change our curriculum for test prep,' well, that's technically true, because their curriculum, at least their English language art, their reading curriculum, is kind of what I call 'test preppy' year-round.
But, it was interesting. I have a complicated relationship with standardized testing. Nobody should be sentimental for the time before we had standardized tests. That was just basically a permission slip to disregard the outcomes of low-income kids and kids of color. So, it's not like there was this golden age of education that was destroyed by the advent of standardized testing.
Having said that, I refuse to pretend that it isn't having a downstream effect, in terms of narrowing the curriculum, in terms of, you know, reducing a child's education too often to just a whole lot of reading, math, and test prep and not much else; and that's not okay either.
So, on the one hand, I could look at a Success Academy--and I did; this kind of tracks exactly my experience. They did a lot of test prep. They did a lot of routinization--things that I might not ordinarily like. And I found myself, I think I actually said this in the books, it's like, 'Was I falling victim to Success Academy Stockholm syndrome?' Because at the end of the day, it didn't seem to bother me that much.
And the reason it didn't, Russ, is because when you look at the big picture, there's something powerful about large numbers of low-income kids of color in a neighborhood like the South Bronx, all doing well. And I'm making air quotes as I say 'doing well' in school, because, I mean, doing well on standardized tests. But that's the condition we've imposed on schools. We've told them: By their test scores, shall we know them. So, nobody should fault an Eva Moscowitz, or anybody, for the pursuit of test scores. That's how we keep score, and that's what we do.
But, come on: there's got to be some powerful downstream effect of being a low-income kid of color and going to a school where I do well, everybody I know does well, all my teachers are in on it, my parents are in on it. It just changes the complexion. It changes the relationship of a community with a place called school.
You know, I talked about this at some length in the book. There's no reason for a low-income kid of color, his or her parents, to expect anything other than a bad relationship with the school in this country. School is where you go to find out how little is expected of you, how limited your horizons are. And now suddenly you've got a place called Success Academy. Love 'em or hate 'em, that's not the experience. The experience is--and you're not being told this is easy. You're being told, 'Hey, look, this is hard. But we're going to prepare you; and you're going to get a Level Four, which is the highest level on your math and reading tests.' And then Test Eight comes and you do. And all your friends do. Surely, you must go home thinking, 'Look, not only am I good at school, but this is a good relationship with a civic institution. This is going to take me someplace.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I mean, I'm not a big fan of the self-esteem movement, but it counts for something.
I guess the way I would phrase what you're talking about, which I find very powerful, is: it's a championing of mastery. You could debate whether it's a mastery that students should strive for a hundred percent--that is, doing well on tests. That's not the only thing worth mastering. But too often, children in America are mastering nothing.
Robert Pondiscio: Nothing.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's heartbreaking.
Robert Pondiscio: And look, there's an open question right now in education circles as to whether or not a high score on a standardized third through eighth grade math or reading tests translates into attainment, as it were.
Russ Roberts: That's what's going to be my next question. Does that mean you do well in high school, but it's not a Success Academy high school? More importantly, and you talk about this in the book, do you do well in college?
Russ Roberts: The story there is not so clear-cut.
Robert Pondiscio: Unknown and unknowable. And I use the example of KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program]. I mean, the first cohort of Success Academy kids are only, as we speak, sophomores in college. So, it's not like we've got a large n-size, here, to know whether or not they're going to be successful in college and later life.
But, we're going to learn a lot more about this soon, I think, through the experience of KIPP, which is about a 20-, 25-year old, again, chain of so-called no-excuses charter schools. They're kind of the leading edge. They've put thousands of kids to and through college. By their own metrics, they're not as successful as they wish. I think, again from memory, they want to get to a point where 75% of their graduates are graduating college. I think they're given 50% a good hard shove right now.
But, I would bet, and here's another question for economists, that within a couple of years we should have the data to look at at the life outcomes of the first couple of cohorts of KIPP kids. Not just college, but broader life outcomes: employment, marital stability, substance abuse, incarceration. I would bet you a prodigious sum of money that you're going to see a real effect from, not just the test scores, but the culture of those schools and that productive relationship with the school.
Russ Roberts: Well, we'd like to think so. We'll see, I guess. It's a good question.
Russ Roberts: You mentioned the focus on reading and math. Reading and math are really important. There's more to life than reading and math. These schools have chess, art--
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, science everyday.
Russ Roberts: sports, other things. Give me a thumbnail of how those subjects were experienced by those kids, given that they--my joke is, it's not my joke, but one of my favorite stories is that George Allen, the former coach of the Washington Redskins, when asked if he sends Christmas cards, said, 'I don't send Christmas cards. They don't help you win football games.' It tells you a lot about George Allen.
Robert Pondiscio: 'Let's focus.'
Russ Roberts: And if you were the owner of the Redskins, that was probably a plus. If you were a neighbor, maybe not: maybe it told you something else about him, not so interesting. A little narrow. So, art doesn't help you pass the math skills test, so--
Robert Pondiscio: Oh, see, this is where I'm going to disagree, and this is why I describe myself as an unapologetic disciple of E.D. Hirsch Jr.
Russ Roberts: Go for it.
Robert Pondiscio: There is no such thing as wasted knowledge. Literacy is knowledge. I mean, this gets to stuff that I've written about ad nauseam over the years, and then can now bore myself with.
But, there's this general misconception out there right now--and frankly, driven in no small measure by standardized tests--that reading is a skill: that you learn to decode, you know, translate the words on the page into language; and then you practice reading strategies; and then you can read anything.
It just doesn't work that way. This is Hirsch's critical insight: that language proficiency and reading comprehension has much more to do with shared background knowledge, and vocabulary. That it's not enough to know the words and the 26 letters, but you have to have context. The best--
Russ Roberts: Big theme of Daniel Willingham--
Robert Pondiscio: Well, exactly.
Russ Roberts: who was a guest on the program talking about that a long time ago.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. I often think of the two of them in the same breath, because, you know, Hirsch is the theorist and Willingham is the guy in the white lab coat who says, 'Well, Hirsch is right, and here's why.'
And, a study that I first heard of from Willingham that I always use when I talk about this--this is kind of the hammer-through-glass moment for a lot of folks: There was a baseball study or a study about baseball done with some, maybe 20 years; I think the researchers' names were Recht and Leslie. And I won't bore you with the details, but it basically showed that low-ability readers with high-content knowledge of baseball vastly outperformed high-ability readers with low-content knowledge of baseball on a standardized test. In other words, the knowledge of baseball made the poor readers look like good readers.
And that's counterintuitive, because you think, 'Well, reading is reading is reading. It doesn't matter what you're reading about.' It matters prodigiously what you're reading about, and whether or not you have background knowledge about that topic.
So, art matters. And music matters. And science matters. And history matters. It all matters.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it all matters. But, it matters less, one could argue, in the sense that hours spent on--so, art history would maybe allow you to understand an essay that referred to Van Gogh or the Mona Lisa or whatever, and do well on a standardized test.
But, time spent drawing would seem to be less so. Time spent playing sports, less so. Time spent playing chess, less so. Did you feel that those activities in the school were sort of thrown in there because, 'Eh, we got to have this,' or was there passion about that for the students' experiences in those?
Robert Pondiscio: Oh, sure. Look, I don't know about you, I couldn't tell you a single thing I learned in high school, say, 10th grade, but I could tell you every play I worked on. I was part of the theater department in my high school. My daughter is an athlete and I'm sure she would say the same thing about her high school, that she remembers every volleyball match.
So, kids need a reason to go to school besides reading, writing, and 'rithmetic, as it were.
So, yeah, look, it is terribly engaging and it's closer to that rich experience of school that we all want for our children, right? I mean look, this gets back to my conflicted relationship with standardized tests. I don't ever want to be the guy who says, 'Let's stop testing,' because we need that data. But, it should concern us when we allow our children's schools to reduce their education to just reading and math, and take away all that stuff that gives kids a reason to get out of bed in the morning and want to go to school.
Russ Roberts: But, it's not your impression that Success Academy somehow has a thin version of those things?
Robert Pondiscio: No, not at all. Look, I think the thing that makes a big difference for them in terms of how this gets translated into standardized test scores is--and, there's a chapter in the book that I call "The Window and the Mirror." As a teacher, I was trained to believe that the reason that my students--and, again, I taught in a school where fewer than one out of five children were reading on or above grade level--we were led to believe that that was, 'Well, that's because the kids are not engaged by their reading. So, you need to let them read whatever it is they like and bring this to life.' In other words, you're selling them on reading. I'm oversimplifying, but for a purpose. So, that's the mirror. In other words, everything should reflect the kid's experience back to him or her.
By the way, this makes great sense even in the Hirschian model, because, of course, you're going to be a better reader when it's about stuff you know about.
The problem is if you're not leading kids to the stuff they don't know about, you're kind of forcing mediocrity upon them. You're limiting their literacy.
So, if that school of thought is the mirror, well, what you see at Success Academy and other good schools is the window. You're forever directing kids' attention not in the mirror, but out the window. Metaphorically speaking, that's where the science, the history, the art, the music, all that stuff comes in. You're saying, in effect, to a kid, 'Look, there's lots of interesting stuff going on out there, and we're going to bring it into you to expose you to it.'
David Coleman, the Head of the College Board, has a lovely phrase that he used to describe this. He describes it as making elementary schools--or, sorry--restoring elementary school teachers to their rightful place as guides to the universe. That's a nice metaphor. And that's what we should be doing. And that is what you see at Success Academy. For all its faults, there is an orientation that we're going to direct kids' attention out the window, not in the mirror. And look, it's also a reading culture--just extraordinarily high volume of exposure to print. And that pays dividends, too.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'm a big fan of that.
Russ Roberts: But, one point you talk in the, I can't remember how you bring it up, but you're talking about how the standardized tests--we've talked about some of the problems with them. One of the problems that you mention in the book is that they can get dumbed down to make schools feel better about their performance. Did you feel that what students at the Success Academy were reading in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, were serious books as opposed to "not serious" books that were--
Robert Pondiscio: Probably more so in the middle school level.
Russ Roberts: things to grapple with? Things to grapple with.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, I was focusing more, in the book, on the elementary school level--just because, as a practical matter, I think that's where the battle tends to get won and lost. I mean, you tell me how a kid is doing at the end of third grade, and I'll tell you how that kid is going to do almost certainly for the rest of his or her educational trajectory. So, it's on us to get those early years right.
But, yeah, as a general rule, the reading is rich and complex, pitched a grade-level or two above where you would expect at that level. And again, they also just valorize tonnage. I mean, there's a reason that they want those kids to read every night, have parents read to the kids every night, log everything. There's no such thing as bad reading, so to speak. I mean, at the risk of wonking out on you here, the number of rare and unique words that you see in even children's books is more sophisticated than the language of college graduates conversationally. I mean, there's tons of data on this. So, the way that you grow background knowledge and vocabulary is through volumes of reading.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Did you get the feeling that parents actually did the reading as opposed to just logging it?
Robert Pondiscio: Oh, goodness, yeah. If they didn't, they'd have heard about it. Yeah. No, this is--they are on them. And this is, look, another part of the culture that some people find repellent. You know, like, 'How dare you? These are people with'--
Russ Roberts: Two jobs--
Robert Pondiscio: 'complicated lives and whatnot, and how dare you impose on them?' This gets to be another complicated part of not just the Success Academy model, but the way we conduct ourselves in education at large.
Look, I don't have data on this, but my impression, having been in this work for a number of years, is that the dominant mindset in education, even among good charter schools is, 'Look, we can't make demands on parents.'
And that can take one of two forms. Either, 'They don't have the time and I'm being humane,' or 'I don't think very much of them and they're not going to add value.' I mean, I say this all the time, but I fear that the soft bigotry of low expectations hasn't gone away: we just apply it to parents now.
So, either way of thinking about that, you can't pin that on Moskowitz. I mean, she clearly expects a lot of parents. She does not have any impressions that they can be anything other than helpful partners in their education, their children's education. And it shows. It shows in the way they treat them. It shows in--you can say they're making extraordinary demands, or you can say, 'Nope, we are bringing you in and we are getting you to contribute.'
Russ Roberts: One of the things I found striking is there's no parent-teacher conferences. Explain why?
Robert Pondiscio: Well, because they have face time all the time.
Russ Roberts: How?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. At least at the elementary school level, every day at pick up and drop off. I think we alluded to this before, but there's no transportation. And these are charter schools, so the parents have to bring the kids there at 7:30 in the morning, pick them up at 3:45, half a day on Wednesday, etc. There's no after-school programs, there's no transportation.
And this is the culture: that if they want to see the parent, they see the parent. They take out the cell phone in the middle of the day and say, 'Hey, you need to come see us at dismissal.'
If they want to do something for the entire school or class or grade, they have what they call an upstairs dismissal: which means they hold the kids in the classroom. And if you want to come get your kid, well, you've got to come up to the classroom and talk to the teacher first. I saw that a lot.
Russ Roberts: No after-school activities?
Robert Pondiscio: Not at the elementary school level.
Russ Roberts: No sports team?
Russ Roberts: No?
Robert Pondiscio: No. They have competitive teams at the middle school and high school level, but not at elementary school.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Interesting.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about scalability for a minute. I want to read a quote from the book, which--I think about this a lot. I think scalability is just--and what we mean by scalability is, if you have a particular model, it's one thing to do it with, say, one teacher. Can you do it with a staff? Can you do it with a chain of schools? Can you do it with a school system?
At scale, teaching must be a job that can be done well and competently by people of average sentience and talent. That is who we have in our classrooms and all we are likely ever to have. [emphasis original]
One of the claims that's made is, 'No, no, what we need to do is get the best.' I mean, the best people should be in the classroom.
And, of course, I think about this example I got from, it's a book on entrepreneurship, can't remember the title, it's by Michael Gerber. His insight, which is a brilliant insight, is that the reason McDonald's is successful is that it doesn't require a fabulous, talented manager to run it. It requires a talented manager, a reliable manager, a person who's trying. But they've created a system so that a pretty-skilled person can provide a reliably good hamburger every single time.
You don't want a system that gives scope for the genius of the manager--unless you've got a lot of them. And by definition, you don't have a lot.
So, I think what's impressive, potentially, about this model, is that--this insight, and talk about it--is that you don't want to rely on the best and the brightest. In any field. Forget--teaching is easy to pick on as an example, but in any field, you need a lot of these folks. You're not going to have a lot of [?], by definition.
Robert Pondiscio: 3.7 million. It's a big, big number. There are not 3.7 million classroom saints and superstars out there. And I get myself in trouble when I make this observation, because I don't want people to perceive me as thinking ill of teachers. I am a teacher--of decidedly average sentience. Look, it just is what it is. I invoke Donald Rumsfeld all the time. I'm making a joke about this, 'You go to school with the teachers you have, not the teachers you wish you had.' So, our job has to be--and I liked the McDonald's analogy, except then it creates the impression--
Russ Roberts: You don't want to stamp a--
Robert Pondiscio: You don't want to [?]. 'Oh, you don't want to do mixed schools.' No, you don't want to do mixed schools. But you want to make this a job that somebody can come in and be successful at relatively quickly. Because, you're absolutely right: you're not going to get those saints and superstars. You're not going to get the geniuses. And if you get them, great: Leave them alone and let them do magic. But, there aren't 3.7 million of those.
I think this is where we're just missing the boat in the education reform world, because we are either nervous about condescending to teachers. We think that they don't want to lose their autonomy.
It's interesting. I wrote a story a couple of years ago for a magazine called Education Next that made almost exactly this point: that we are--I think the phrase I used was that we were making teaching too hard for mere mortals. And I expected a considerable amount of pushback. I gave a talk and I got a standing ovation for this, like, for making this, what I thought was going to be a controversial observation. And people, like, 'At last, somebody is recognizing how hard we have made this job.' It really is, beyond the cognitive ability. The way we configure it: that not only are you going to design your lessons on your own, you're going to differentiate for every skill and need in your classroom, etc. It is literally beyond the ability of ordinary people to do this job competently.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about the significance of that insight that you don't want to rely on superstars. There is a belief--I think it's an easy belief for a principal to have if they're not good at their job--that 'Good teachers, great teachers, either one, they're born. Can't make 'em.' You know. And so, the goal, and I think a lot of economists feels this way, you've just got to get the best teachers into the classroom. My view has always been that you want to get good teachers into the classroom and you have to teach them--influenced by Doug Lemov--you've got to teach them how to teach. Very few people do that naturally. There are people who are passionate about their subject. There are people who are well versed in their subject. That is not nearly enough, at the K through 12 [K-12] level, to be a great teacher. It requires a pedagogical toolkit and a classroom management toolkit. Do you think that toolkit can be taught to people who are just pretty good at it right now and can get better? Or is it just something that comes naturally?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, no; I think what comes naturally is a desire to do the job and an affection for children. You know, folks who don't like kids should probably consider accountancy, not teaching. Let's start with that.
But, assuming that you're walking into the job with a certain amount of good will and you want earnestly to do right by kids, then, yeah: I do think that we would be a lot better off if the schools of education were Lemovian--you invoked Doug Lemov's name. If they really had that more nuts and bolts--and I don't want to suggest that he has got this, kind of--that he's viewing education as plumbing. Doug is a much more sophisticated thinker than that.
But, we are unused to thinking of teaching as a suite of skills. And that's critical. I do think we would be better off if we thought of teaching, frankly, as more of a craft than a profession. A noble craft, an important craft: but a series of moves, and as opposed to a disposition, and this idea that you're a born teacher. I don't see any evidence for that.
Russ Roberts: I'm not a big fan of schools of education at the graduate level. Or, and, I'm not a big fan of the requirement that teachers have--
Robert Pondiscio: Nor am I.
Russ Roberts: a master's degree or a teaching certificate.
Robert Pondiscio: There's no evidence that it pays any dividends.
Russ Roberts: Correct. And, I don't think it does. Not only do I think there's no evidence, I don't think it does.
Could you imagine an academy for teachers that would teach them how to teach rather than something that taught them, say, the latest theories of education? Which is what I think they learn in grad school. Those theories are often rejected, wrong, misleading, have unintended consequences. But, just this toolkit of, we call the plumbing part: the skillset of how to master a classroom, how to run a classroom, how to retain student interest and attention. The sort of--again, Doug Lemov spends a lot of time and other charter schools spend a lot of time on giving the teachers in their system a unified--both vocabulary and toolkit--which also allows them to help each other, because they're speaking the same language. And, I found that very powerful. Do you think that's a good strategy that we ought to be thinking about?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, without question. I was an Adjunct Professor for a couple years working with first year Teach For America corps members at Pace University while I was still in the classroom and shortly thereafter. And, that's all they ever wanted to talk about, was classroom management. Because that was the one thing that their pre-service was not giving them. So, that's what we spent most of our time talking about: is, how to run your classroom.
I think that the Relay Graduate School of Education, which was founded out of Uncommon Schools where Lemov worked with Norman Atkins and David Steiner, who is now at Johns Hopkins--I'm fairly sure I haven't been in one of their schools in a long time, but I'm fairly sure that was their mindset as well. And, they do have this idea, that that teachers should be prepared for the skill of teaching, as opposed to the art and disposition, and whatnot.
So, I think it's better than it was but, by no means, is it anywhere where it needs to be.
Russ Roberts: One of the issues we've talked about on the program before is how the teachers see their students. There is a tendency, I think, at the college level, and sometimes in high school, to see your job as--I'll say, grader: the one who does the grading--that separates the students into different piles: The really superstars, the okay ones, the ones who were maybe satisfactory or mediocre, depending on whether it's half full or half empty. And, then, the people who are not acceptable, haven't reached this level.
And, I think this requirement that instruction has, particularly in K through 12, to assess and to judge, causes there to be often in elementary and high schools an adversarial relationship between the teacher and the student. And, I think that deters a lot of students from excellence.
And, my wife and I talk a lot about this--she's a high school math teacher--that, when the students feel you're on their side, that all you care about is that they learn, it changes everything. They no longer see it as a fruitful strategy to annoy you--because they don't see you as an enemy. And, you may have trouble convincing them that you're on their side because you are going to sometimes give them a bad grade, or send them home, or ding them for misbehavior.
But, I think--you said earlier, you have to like kids. I think it's so much more than that. It's: You have to root for kids. You have to--it's a little like--it's like being a great coach rather than a great teacher. A great coach wants a student to get everything out of their gifts that they can, and the student feels that. Do you think that's true? And, did you feel that at Bronx 1?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, I think it is true, although, it's challenging--because, let's not forget we're talking about a public policy, or a public institution that gets funded to the tune of $700 billion a year across the country. So, it's very, very difficult to just let 1,000 flowers vloom, so to speak, and let every teacher, you know, do it his or her own way. It's just naive to think you're not going to have a certain set amount of performance extracted from this prodigious investment we make in schools. So, it's complicated.
Look, in terms of what I saw at Success Academy, this to me was the thing I saw at Success Academy. I actually coined a phrase for it in the book, which I was surprised they let me leave in the book. And, you may--
Russ Roberts: You can't say it on this program actually, because it's a G-rated program.
Russ Roberts: We'll call it CAL, Care a Lot.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah, the Care a Lot factor. Why weren't you my editor, Russ?
It's just impossible to spend a significant amount of time at one of these schools and not be struck by the, just the profound, level of investment that the adults in Bronx 1 had in their children.
And, I don't care, this may not be your favorite flavor of education, but if you, if you can witness that level of caring, and just deep investment in kids, then, if you don't see that you don't want to see it, is what I think I said.
So, it's unmistakable.
Now, it may take a form that you don't like, this is about--
Russ Roberts: Be counterproductive, yeah.
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. But, the parents who are signing up for this are walking in with both eyes open. They clearly--look, when you were saying before about your own wife's experience as a teacher and getting kids on your side, let's be honest, a lot of us feel that way, but we still want our kids to do well on their SATs [Scholastic Aptitude Tests], right?
Russ Roberts: Oh right. No, that's what I mean by on their side. I didn't mean--there's a separate disease I think teachers are prone to, which is to want their students to love them, and to like them, to look up to them, and to think they're cool. And, I think we do that as parents sometimes. And, I think that's a very destructive, that's a misunderstanding of what your role is.
To go back to the recent episode with Yuval Levin, I think if you want to be true to the institution of parenting, true to the institution of education and teaching, you should see your role as--it's a tough love role. It's not a--it's what can I do for you, not what you can do for me.
And, what I can do for you is to help you thrive. And, maybe more than a test score, but it's not, 'I'm going to give you an easy grade because that way you'll be my friend.'
Robert Pondiscio: That's--there--I'm a collector of, what I call, teaching homilies. And, one of the ones that grates on me the most goes something like: They won't care what you know until they know that you care. Which is lovely. But,--
Russ Roberts: Makes me want to vomit, actually. Even though it's a parody of what I just said.
Robert Pondiscio: That's right.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Robert Pondiscio: That's right. It comes from a good place, as they say.
Look: At the risk of appearing hard-hearted, I think, my own kind of transition as a teacher, I became a lot more effective the moment I stopped trying to make kids like me. When I had my own Damascus Road conversion on that.
There is a danger--you hit the nail on the head--in thinking that, 'Oh, if they like me more, they will work harder for me.' Some will, some won't. There's a lot of moving parts here. But, yeah, I'm broadly in agreement with you on that.
Russ Roberts: It's a great moment in the book when you were on the sidewalk with a parent dropping off their kid for the first day of school. This is after you'd been there a year. So, it's you've come full circle.
And, obviously, every parent is uncertain whether they're making the right choice for their kids. And, this is a case where you have to make a choice: Either apply for this program or you don't. You send him to a local neighborhood school or you don't. And, you never know what the right thing is. You don't know what's right for your school. You tell honestly, powerfully, about students that didn't fit in behaviorally. And, whether the Success Academy treated them in the right way. It's complicated; obviously there's no simple answer.
But, this parent standing on the sidewalk and meets you, finds out you actually know something about the school, and wants to know, 'Did I make the right choice for my kid?'
And, I know you wanted to hand him the book. But it hadn't been written yet. And, if you had, it would've been like, 'Well, maybe. It depends.' Because that's what I think is so--I said, at the beginning, it's a thoughtful book. There are many times where you, you know, confront the complexity of this. It's not easy to decide what's right and wrong, or whether it's good for all students, some students, which students.
So, here you are, you've got this customer saying, 'Did I do the right thing?' What did you tell them?
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. Look, I said, it was a great school. Because I think it is.
But, let me temper that.
Russ Roberts: Sorry. Since I finished the book last night, you said, 'I started to tell them about all of that. Well, there's this I'm not so crazy about. And, then, there's this.' But then I realized--you said, 'It was just two dads on the sidewalk. And, as a dad, the answer is: It's a great school.'
Robert Pondiscio: Yeah. And, well, look, this book and it came out now a few months ago, so I've been asked this question a lot. And, usually it's in the form of a gotcha question for people who don't like Success Academy. They, they say, 'Well, Pondiscio, would you send your child to this school?'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That was on my--where was that question?
Robert Pondiscio: And, my answer--I don't mean this to be an evasive answer. It's an earnest answer. It's, 'Well, what are my options?' In other words, would I send my daughter to Success Academy Bronx 1, rather than her very nice Upper East Side of Manhattan private school? No I wouldn't. And, neither would you. Would I send my kid to Success Academy Bronx 1 instead of PS 277, where I taught for five years? Of course, I would. And, so would you.
Russ Roberts: In a heartbeat, yeah.
Russ Roberts: In half a heartbeat.
Robert Pondiscio: But, this gets back that mindset of, 'Well, there's a right and a wrong way.' And, I just think that's naive and nuance-adverse.
What we should all want, I would argue, is for low-income parents, who are the folks who tend to have, tend to have, the fewest options of the least range of choices: I want them to have exactly what I had. I want them to have the ability to look at schools and say, 'Good, better, best.' Not, 'Oh my God, that one's horrible.' And, 'There's my lifeboat.' Which is the condition that we, broadly speaking, tend to impose on people with the least amount of choice in our society.
Russ Roberts: So, we've talked mostly about public policy. We've talked about the pedagogy of teaching, and how these schools were run. I'm going to close with asking you what the year meant to you personally--as someone who's still in the classroom. Obviously, it affected maybe your view of charter schools. It may have affected--I assume it gave you a much more richer view of what was actually going on inside the black box called Success Academy. But, did it change you as a teacher? Did you have takeaways that you didn't expect that you think will stay?
Robert Pondiscio: What a great question. And, now I have to answer this off the cuff when I would normally say, 'That's a great question, let me come back to you in a day or two, and give that some thought.'
I do think it gave me a renewed appreciation for just the incredible complexity of this. I wrote a piece before the book came out, or about the same time it came out for a website called The 74, which was an education news website. And, the title of the piece was a little bit puckish, but I meant it. It was "Here's My New Book. I Hope You Hate It."
And, the reason I gave it that title was because, regardless of where you are in your views of ed reform, charter schools, traditional public schools, etc., we tend to want to reduce this to one of two narratives.
There's either the narrative that--and you hear this in New York City a lot because a lot of schools are co-located, charters and public schools in the same building. So, you hear this idea a lot that, 'Oh, the only difference is the door that the kid walks in, in the morning. They walk in this door, they get a good outcome. They walk in that door and it's a bad outcome. And, it's what happens beyond that door that makes all the difference.' Well, it's a lot more complicated than that, obviously.
So, it was useful to remind myself, and I hope to remind readers, when I say "Here's My New Book, I Hope You Hate It," well: If you are a believer in one of those two narratives you will find things in this book that will confirm your priors. My hope is that you will also find things in the book that will call you to question your priors and make you reevaluate some of those.
Look, we all want what's best for kids, right? This is complicated work. If you forget, it will remind you how complicated it is.
But I just don't think those two narratives have served us very, very well at all. And, my hope is that through this book, and through my own thinking that we can get to a place where we can be a little bit more honest and come up with some new narratives that reflect what's actually happening, as opposed to what we think should be happening.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'll let you tell me in a day or two--and you can put it as the first comment on this episode--but I'm curious if any of your priors changed?
Robert Pondiscio: It's a question of being reminded. I think, like anybody else in the ed-reform world who is--and look, I say this in the book, too: I am staunchly pro choice and pro charter. But, it was good to remind myself how difficult the work of folks outside of that world is.
As I think I alluded before, when folks in neighborhood schools say, 'Look, we're dealing with all the concentrated effects of poverty and dysfunction. Our job is harder,' they're not wrong. They're right about that.
And, I think a lot of us in the ed-reform world have been insufficiently mindful of that. In other words, it just will not do to say, 'Well, look at the great results this charter school is getting. Why can't you do that? You're not as good.' Well, they have different challenges. And we should be mindful of that. I used to know that because it was my lived experience every day at PS 277. So, it was good to remind myself of that.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Robert Pondiscio. His book is How the Other Half Learns. We didn't talk about how entertaining it is. It's really beautifully written. Robert, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Robert Pondiscio: Really enjoyed it. Thank you, Russ.