The five myths of NYC education reform

The five myths of NYC education reform

by Winifred Radigan

While education reform has been on the front burner of political platforms and public opinion pages, sadly, true reform continues to give way to quick fixes and bureaucratic structural changes that fail to have a positive and lasting impact on teaching and learning.   The problem essentially can be defined as one where reform measures are based on fallacies and implemented in the face of compelling contradictory data.  These fallacies or myths fall into five categories:

  1. Simple solutions apply to “wicked” problems
  2. Raw talent trumps expertise
  3. Teaching is a technical skill
  4. Competitive market models make schools more efficient
  5. Learning is measureable by standardized tests alone.

New York City’s efforts over the past decade are a case in point of how these myths have driven changes that have failed our students and weakened the profession.

Myth #1: Simple solutions apply to “wicked” problems

A term borrowed from physics and applied to social problems, “wicked problems” are ones where the applicable variables are not all known; the dimensions of the problem are incompletely defined; solutions often lead to additional unforeseen problems, and, once a solution is proposed, the problems do not stay solved.  Simple problems have a single right answer.

Educational reform is a wicked problem.   First there is context.  Schools exist in and reflect the social milieu.  For all the touting of Children First or “Race to the Top” as “leveling the playing field,” the results are that neighborhoods that are wealthier and more politically savvy have elementary schools with greater resources, much from private sources, than those in poorer neighborhoods.  The social capital children bring to school apparently remains a better indicator of success than school efforts.

High schools in particular have suffered in the succession of closings and re-openings of small campus schools in the name of choice and reform.  This “one size fits all” simple solution yields progress and touted gains that are unable to be sustained beyond the first few years of nurturing before the cycle of closing and re-opening begins again.  In the meantime, the impact on neighboring large high schools has been especially grim.  For example, in Eastern Queens, from 2003 to 2008, six successful comprehensive high schools grew by nearly 2500 pupils as schools in Eastern Brooklyn, the Rockaways and Western Queens were phased out, and small schools implemented.

Secondly, there is the purpose of education itself.  Philosophies of education from Jefferson’s notion of social reconstruction, or the sustaining and strengthening of democracy to self-actualization, or the nurturing of individual talent, to academic rationalism, or the transmission of cultural literacy.  Behaviorists define skill sets to be mastered.  Constructivists stress problem exploration.  From each philosophy flows a myriad of programs and curricula.  And assessments.  Most educators recognize that there is value in each system and that excellent education addresses all.  Lauren Resnick, for example, defines her middle-of- the-road philosophy as “knowledge-based constructivism.”  There is no simple system of curriculum, instruction and assessment.   Student interest and talent exploration, the expanded Western Canon or cultural literacy, multicultural perspectives and global interdependence are all part of a rich curriculum.   Collaborative processes and clear, as well as, creative thinking are critical elements as well.  That kind of deep and joyful learning is not the product of canned curriculum, technical teaching or on-demand testing.

Finally, the demands of various clients are an additional factor in the problem of education.  Students themselves are the voiceless clients.  The clients who count in simplistic thinking are corporations, vocal parents, and the voting public.  One of the reasons for a long history of separation of the NYC Board of Education from mayoral control was to mitigate the effects of political pressures through a system of checks and balances.  In the pendulum swings from local to central to local controls, there were always problems of patronage and power, and yet much was held in check.

For example, the High School Division, which functioned as centrally reporting agency to the NYC Board of Education with geographic sub-divisions, was characterized in 1985 as the closet thing to a meritocracy that existed.  Appointment of principals and teachers under a system of examinations and interviews, evaluated and ranked prospective candidates.  In the past decade, fewer qualifications for teachers, supervisors and principals have eroded the expertise of school leaders and resulted in greater teacher turnover rates.  The students, who should be guaranteed expert teachers and school leaders, end up the losers.

Myth #2: Raw talent trumps expertise.

Seven months after Mayor Bloomberg took office and appointed Joel Klein as Chancellor, Malcolm Gladwell published, “The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated” in The New Yorker (July, 2002).  The article focused on McKinsie & Company’s strategy, “War for Talent,” and how that strategy fostered “stardom,“ individual competition, and promotion based on “talent,” often evaluated by graduation from prestigious colleges, rather than on seniority and experience.  Gladwell linked this strategy to the Enron debacle in direct contrast to the collegial strategies that led to the success of companies like Walmart and Southwest Airlines.

By September of 2003, McKinsie consultants filled the halls of Tweed, the new headquarters of the Department of Education.  These consultants and the newly hired managers out of McKinsie were, for the most part, young graduates from prestigious universities who majored in business or public policy.  They constructed the new Department of Education and the trappings of Children First based largely on the failed principles of the “war for Talent.” A Leadership Academy funded by such philanthropists as Charles Cahn, sought aspiring principals, most of whom had little teaching and less supervisory experience in education.  Following the lead of the NYC Teaching Fellows and Teach for America efforts, new appointees often had no idea of the demands on educators.

Ignoring the numbers of these aspiring principals who crashed and burned as well as the low retention rates of Fellows and Teach for America recruits, the Mayor and Chancellor, as well as other non-educator leaders from Secretary Arne Duncan to business leaders turned school superintendents, followed the talent myth to the next logical conclusion in the recent attacks on tenure and the not-so-subtle characterization of experienced teachers as outmoded, reactionary and unfit.

In his book, Outliers (2008), Gladwell dispels the talent myth further by examining the success of the few as a result first and foremost of 10,000 hours of practice in their chosen profession as well as fortuitous environmental factors– think social capital–in the creation of experts.  In teacher development, this might translate into the years of undergraduate and graduate learning including time in practice teaching and a minimum of five years of daily teaching experience under the guidance of expert professors, supervisors and coaches.

Under the present system, sustained mentoring and professional learning are routinely the first items to be cut.  The demand for more contact time in the name of productivity and less planning and professional time weakens the profession and promotes new teacher attrition.

Myth #3: Teaching is a technical skill

Recently a woman was found to have tumors in both kidneys.  She consulted an expert surgeon who explained that he had done hundreds of partial nephrectomies with great success.  “You had more visitors in the operating room than you will have during your stay.  Everyone wanted to see the first time we used this new robotic equipment,” he quipped in the recovery room.  Then he went on to explain his findings and his evaluation of the surgery itself along with his choices to avoid complications.  No one would attribute her rapid recovery and return of kidney function merely to these state-of-the-art tools.  The surgeon’s expertise gleaned from thousands of hours of practice along with expert, personalized nursing care and clear directions for continued recovery at home ensured success.

Likewise, teaching is a profession, not the mindless application of techniques and technology or the lock step adherence to some external directives that appear on a checklist.   Teachers, like any other professionals, are expected to be expert decision makers.   They employ various tools like commercial curriculum packages, textbooks or computers, but ultimately, it is their expert choices that promote learning.

Joyce and Showers define what may be observed during any lesson as “the artifacts of teaching” or the results of those decisions.  Why did a teacher ask a particular question? Why did she or he structure an activity in just that way? Why might she or he even abandon a lesson in the in the moment and take a different path?

Those choices are the result of learned and practiced expertise in diagnosing students’ learning in relation to clear objectives to determine the correct level of difficulty.  Those choices are the result of a professional understanding of how learning can be promoted through interest, meaning, active participation, and practice.  Those choices are the result of expert knowledge of what activities will promote motivation, retention, and transfer.  In short, the teaching profession is both a science and an art.  The science is grounded in cognitive psychology, child development and academic content knowledge.  The art lies in tailoring learning experiences that engage and excite students of varied backgrounds so that they learn deeply and joyfully.

In order to evaluate teachers’ practice, supervisors must be able to recognize these elements of instruction, model them and analyze the how well teachers practice these elements by assessing student learning not only in the cognitive domain or at the knowledge level but also in the affective and psycho-social domains.

Evaluation using simple measures like students’ standardized test results and a checklist of teacher behaviors is next to useless in the complex setting that is teaching and learning.  Where teachers must consider so many factors in designing and providing learning experiences appropriate for every student, teacher evaluation must be at the hands of professional educators who consider multiple factors, including the self-assessment of the teacher.

Myth #4:  Competitive market models make schools more efficient.

In addition to and in the expansion of the McKinsie model of The War for Talent, the New York City Department of Education worked closely with Jack Welch, retired CEO of G.E. in the early days of developing the new Department of Education and the first iteration of the on-going restructuring. Welch was brought in to address superintendent, manager and principal groups and was often followed by his biographer, Noel Tichy, the leadership academy was launched using his principles of managerial training.

Educational leadership was seldom if ever mentioned.  Rather, principals were expected to become managers as Welch and Tichy preached accountability of managers, firing the bottom 10 percent, and communicating a teachable point of view to underlings.  Salaries at the central offices increased, and a structure of bonuses was proposed as incentives for those in the new Regional structure who produced results as measured by school wide student performance on standardized tests.  While those initial incentives quietly and rapidly disappeared, bonuses in the form of merit pay plans, executive principalships to “turn around” failing schools and achievement bonuses in various forms continue to be proposed and offered.

The result of management by carrot and stick was the loss of seasoned principals and superintendents who chose retirement as soon as possible. The NYC school system is yet to recover from that loss.


Taking the market model further, charter schools continue to be promoted even as data show that with few and rare exceptions their performance is no better than public schools.

Myth #5: Learning is measureable by standardized tests alone.

It is time to try a thought experiment.  Think about some of the memorable learning experiences you have had.  What made them memorable?  What did you take away? How did they affect your life?  OK.  How important is the grade you got on your high school state examination or even your SAT score compared to this learning experience?

Recent research into the effects of Common Core implementation in the early grades shows that kindergarten students are being denied the play settings that are crucial to social and emotional development. Students and teachers are being evaluated by tests that are flawed measures of learning and never intended by design to measure teacher quality. The arts, creative expression and culturally relevant learning experiences are being curtailed in efforts to “teach to the tests” which have themselves come under fire for poor construction, error and bias.


While these myths may be attractive because of their simplicity or apparent symmetry, they are no basis for decisions that are meant to reform education.  Real reform will only occur when:

  1. We acknowledge the complexity of the problems confronting education and educators and the messy social, economic, political and ethical factors that promote inequities and the status quo. That means, we have the hard conversations about institutionalized poverty, about social justice and the commonweal.


  1. We learn to value and trust the expertise and wisdom of experienced educators.  That means we recognize that years of practice and effort as well as an expert body of knowledge are more likely to result in better educational practice than general ability.  Intelligence is learned, not innate.


  1. We recognize teaching as a profession with all the rights and responsibilities of any profession. That means, we certify teachers through a rigorous pre-teaching program as well as through a residency before granting tenure.  It also means we recognize tenure for what it is and was meant to be: a guarantee of due process and a protection of academic freedom for students and teachers.  It is meant to prevent propagandizing and politicization of teaching and carries the same weight as admittance to the bar or medical licensure.


  1. We recognize that education is a social institution and a right not a commodity. That means we look to such compacts as proposed by Andy Hargreaves in The Fourth Way.


  1. We recognize that education is a life-long pursuit and meant to be a deep and joyful learning experience for all students. That means we recognize the actual value of standardized tests as one small part of assessment and look at the multiple ways students should express their learning including projects, performances and presentations, and that we rely on teacher developed assessments of student progress more than external measures.