In theory, we should love Kristof’s column!


In reality, we don’t: We agree with several key points in Nicholas Kristof’s new column.

Kristof writes about the teachers’ strike in Chicago. We agree with something he says near the end of his column:

“Teaching is so important that it should be like other professions, with high pay and good working conditions but few job protections for bottom performers.”

We need to get rid of those “bottom performers.” More on that point below.

Beyond that, we don’t disagree with what Kristof says right at the start of his piece. But as early as paragraph 4, we’re starting to jump off the cart:
KRISTOF: The most important civil rights battleground today is education, and, likewise, the most crucial struggle against poverty is the one fought in schools.

Inner-city urban schools today echo the “separate but equal” system of the early 1950s. In the Chicago Public Schools where teachers are now on strike, 86 percent of children are black or Hispanic, and 87 percent come from low-income families.

Those students often don’t get a solid education, any more than blacks received in their separate schools before Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago’s high school graduation rates have been improving but are still about 60 percent. Just 3 percent of black boys in the ninth grade end up earning a degree from a four-year college, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

America’s education system has become less a ladder of opportunity than a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next.
We don’t disagree with that highlighted passage, although those highly standardized claims may be a bit overwrought. But we don’t like the point we've reached by paragraph 4.

Here we go again! Kristof implies that things are getting worse in the schools—that our educational system has become a structure to transmit inequity. That’s an odd thing to say in paragraph 4 if you’ve just recalled, in paragraph 2, that our educational system once ran on “separate but equal.”

Our test scores say blacks kids are doing much better than they did in those gruesome old days. But people like Kristof won't say that.

Darlings, it simply isn’t allowed! That fact muddies up the party line, the line he will pimp in this column.

We ought to be happy to see someone like Kristof calling for better low-income schools. But as someone who has actually taught in such schools, we’re always annoyed when lords like Kristof toss off bold commments like this:
KRISTOF: In fairness, it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers’ unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states. The single most important step we could take has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids.
How bold, how great Kristof is!

Upper-class hustlers who haven’t taught in low-income schools find it easy to call such schools “lousy.” As they do, they perform the conflation of the unconcerned—they imply that the good schools have the good test scores and the “lousy” schools don’t.

It ain’t necessarily so. In truth, those schools tend to be “lousy” for one major reason—the deserving children who attend them come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds. They're years “behind” on the day they arrive. When people like Kristof call those schools “lousy,” they’re really referring to those kids—although, of course, they don’t understand that, never having chosen to go there.

When you read such columns by people like Kristof, you are reading scripts. To all appearances, he doesn’t much know what he’s talking about, though he speaks from a lofty perch.

Kristof employs a lot of sleight of hand in this column. Let’s just mention two problems:

First, Kristof is happy, as his class always is, to beat up on striking teachers. We don’t favor teachers’ strikes ourselves. But we have taught in low-income schools. We know how hard and depressing the task can be.

By way of contrast, Kristof’s a brand. He tours the world, tending to tell us about his own moral greatness. He goes to Aspen, where he learns the things his class wants said about schools.

What his class doesn’t want said is this: Those test scores seem to be much better! Until tools of power are willing to say that, we’ll advise you to be very careful about the rest of the crapshit they offer. Even when they cite the studies they may or may not understand!

We agree with Kristof on that one key point: Lousy teachers should be removed from low-income schools. We assume it isn’t all that hard to figure out who they are.

But almost everything else is hard when it comes to low-income schools. Until this brand name is willing to say that—until he’s willing to tell you that test scores have gotten much better—we’ll see him as the latest in a long line who are serving their billionaire leaders.

That’s how it worked when our schools were “separate but equal.” Does Kristof keep old ways alive?


  1. Bob, you have been pulling apart what is wrong in our national discourse, such as it is, on education for years and kudos to you for doing so. However, one way in which we can lift up those most in need in our society (not the only one) is to make our schools much better than they currently are, especially in impoverished areas and minority communities and the question is, how ? What can we be doing better and where do we start ? I would love to see you address this question and ignore what the unions and ed. reformers and talking heads you criticize say .

  2. There's really no difference between the NY Times editorial on the Chicago teachers' strike and the editorial at Fox News.
    Though the Times has printed far more about the "toxic relationship" story of Karen vs Rahm, if you like that sort of thing.

    1. Maybe it's because the teachers are demanding a 19 per cent raise in this economy and are already some of the highest-paid teachers in the country.

    2. Of course negotiations are settling on a 16 percent raise over four years in a country; with a central bank which, for years, has targeted an annual 2 percent inflation rate, has a current rate of population growth at below 1 percent a year, and had a GDP rate of growth during the ten years before the 2008 meltdown which was at over three percent a year.

      Therefore, the teachers in Chicago have indicated a willingness to settle on a contract that, four years from now, is reasonably expected to leave their compensation rate exactly where it is today relative to the national income average.

  3. In theory, I should love this post.

    In reality, not so much.

    Your point about "lousy" schools is great. I made the same point to the local newspaper over a year ago when they listed the state's "worst" schools (almost all in high-poverty areas); one of those "worst" schools was on another publication's list of the country's "best" schools.

    And yes, the school reform movement is a turkey.

    But your idea for reforming schools is naive. Of course AP's and principals and administrative staff will play more politics if given more chances. (Hint: Teachers who speak unpopular truths will get booted first.) It's easy to game the system if you make it open season on "lousy" teachers.

    And do you think making "lousy" teachers the subject of reform campaigns will inspire respect for teachers as a whole, and help schools recruit and retain good teachers? I don't.

    Proposals to get rid of "lousy" teachers would make way more sense if reformers and administrators could be trusted to know what they're doing and make fair decisions. We're not close to being there.

    Right now, focusing on "lousy" teachers is an almost pointless exercise that distracts from things that will help: better teacher training and development (surely most important of all), smaller class sizes (especially in earlier grades), better administration in individual schools (the stories I could tell!), better support for teachers, and greater parental and community involvement.

    1. Given the obvious links, it might be true that the best schools strategy is a strategy that doesn't focus on schools at all:

      Fighting to reduce poverty and wealth disparity would probably be very helpful.

    2. True, along with early childhood education, prenatal care, family support, etc.

      Bob's post focuses on the schools--which have become a big topic of discussion and reform--so that's what my comment covered.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I hope this isn't OT, but how about paid (fully or largely) sabbaticals for primary and secondary school teachers, contingent upon a teacher's undertaking (and fulfilling) a professional-development project during that leave? College professors have sabbaticals, and they make all the difference in the world both for professional development and because they give people a much-needed break from the demands of teaching, dealing with colleagues and administrators, the whole bit.

    1. Interesting idea. Of course, with today's education politics and slow economy it's probably less likely than before to be approved by administrators.

      I know some teachers who like development days (mini-sabbaticals, you could call them) within a regular school year simply because they get the teacher out of the classroom. Some are seen by the teachers as useful for development, too.

      I definitely think non-paid sabbaticals for development and a needed break are a good idea. Paid sabbaticals apparently are an issue already pursued by at least one union (UFT).

    2. (Add to the last comment:)

      "Unpaid sabbatical" may be a contradiction in terms. Unpaid leave, for those who can afford it, with a guaranteed job upon return, etc. is what I thought would definitely be a good idea.

    3. San Francisco USD has these (half salary sabbatical leaves) as a contract benefit, but one that is currently frozen under our current contract because they're "too expensive". Similarly, despite new content standards, CPS would like to cut or end professional development. Speaking as a veteran public school teacher, professional development is something from which I can benefit if I can pay for it myself. The forces concerned about "bad teachers" show no interest in improving teaching and learning. They do seem inclined towards a constant churn of educators at the bottom of the salary schedule. That churn is aided by suspect evaluations, the end of due-process rights, and salaries and job expectations appropriate for a couple of years of missionary service but not for a career.

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