Sparring Match or Same Song, Different Tune?


Recently, Andy Smarick and Kathleen Porter-Magee engaged in an e-debate on the central tenets of Smarick’s new book titled, “The Urban School System of the Future.” As I’ve read both sides of the divide, I couldn’t help but notice a couple of strands of commonality between the two camps, as well as a common theme that is all-to-often overlooked.  Here’s an interpretation of their friendly exchange from an urban, high poverty public school teacher’s perspective.

The Red Corner: Kathleen Porter-Magee

Point #1: “…classroom change is difficult. It’s an intense and frequently technical debate that must be grounded in the realities of teaching and learning in the classroom, and with a real understanding of curriculum and instruction.”

My Take:

I definitely agree that every teacher should have a real understanding of curriculum and instruction. However, to meet this goal, we must reexamine the nature and purpose of professional development. All too often, professional development topics are too broad in scope, and irrelevant to the needs of a specific classroom or school.

In my honest opinion, what’s missing within this debate is discussing HOW are we holding public schools teachers accountable for student achievement. High poverty, neighborhood public schools often have double the classroom size, double the composition rate of below basic and basic students, and double the amount disciplinary issues than charter schools. So, are we asking high poverty neighborhood public schools to “take one for the education reform team?” Or. Are we quietly asking them to babysit first, and teach second?

Point #2: “The challenge is that focusing the conversation on the district, rather than the classroom, glosses over the question of what students should be learning, whether we’re teaching it, and whether, in particular, we’re teaching it well in the challenging context of urban classrooms.” ~ Kathleen Porter-Magee

My Take:

I would humbly submit that the questions what is an effective classroom environment, how can professional development be designed to target a specific school or classroom’s needs, and how severe student misbehavior is addressed are equally glossed over.

The Blue Corner: Andy Smarick

Point #1: “Throughout the duration of the urban district’s failed career, we’ve focused incessantly on the classroom—giving its teachers more money, reducing the number of kids sitting inside its four walls, adjusting what’s taught, how it’s taught, how we assess what’s taught, and on and on and on.”

My Take:

Yes, but contrary to popular belief, all classrooms are not created equal. There’s a severe disconnect as to HOW a classroom’s composition, i.e. inclusion model vs. single tracking, actually benefits or harms students. Furthermore, certain education reformers defend the practice of creating larger classrooms with an effective or highly effective teacher in trying to expose more students to great teaching. However, according to a wealth of research, a larger class doesn’t necessarily equate to an effective educational environment. In fact, it may even be counterproductive.

Also, if we rely heavily on loading students into classrooms for effective or highly effective teachers and not offer EVERY teacher an effective or highly effective classroom environment, then we are failing to distinguish the forest for the trees. The unintended consequences of over-burdening your best teachers will undoubtedly include a higher rate of teacher burn out. We should want to keep our best and brightest for the long haul.

Point #2: “What we had not done is talk about the system in which those classrooms were embedded. Consider all of the supposedly dramatic reforms of the last several decades; every single one of them took for granted the district structure.”

My Take:

Not only are we taking the district structure for granted, but we also shy away from questioning its’ practices or one-size-fits-all policies. Certain policies, i.e. employing a reading specialist and AP for literacy in every public school sounds great on paper; However, if both high salaried positions come at the cost of hiring more classroom teachers, thus reducing classroom size, then what exactly is the day-to-day, classroom level benefit? Is it truly worthwhile to have a specialist “pull” students out of larger classrooms for remediation? Or. Would it be more beneficial to cap the classroom size in order for the teacher to offer targeted remediation based on a specific lesson objective?

Point #3: “…I readily concede that my recommended alternative system can’t succeed without the right things happening in classrooms. I wish Porter-Magee would concede that these right things will never happen in nearly enough inner-city classrooms unless the urban district is brought to an end. Its policies, practices, habits, systems, contracts, and so much more conspire to stymie great teachers and principals.”

My Take:

Score this point for both sides. Yes, placing emphasis on classroom reform is as important as focusing on the system and governance of school districts. And. Yes, there is great validity in discussing whether the district needs a new management model. In fact, allow me to offer a real, classroom-level example, which highlights both points-of-view.

The current basis for DCPS funding formula depends on enrollment projections. Until the audit process, which occurs in October, any other available funds to a specific school is withheld without regard to a school’s individual demand (real enrollment). This is a perfect example of how a policy can hinder school culture and classroom productivity. For example, my school is almost always crowded. Thus, waiting until the audit to receive adequate funding and staff causes a severe restraint.

There’s no doubt that an overcrowded classroom places severe instructional restraints on all teachers, regardless of IMPACT rating. Students in overcrowded classrooms shouldn’t have to wait five to six weeks to receive individualized attention. More importantly, the tone and culture of any school shouldn’t be held hostage to any district level policy. So, yes Andy Smarick is correct on this part of the debate. And. Yes, Kathleen Porter-Magee is correct as well. Why? Well, regardless of which side of the coin one wants to view, in the end, both sides have the same worth. So, yes, in a way, you’re both saying the same thing.

Follow along on Twitter


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