Contextual Accountability

About John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

Every school is a microcosm of the community it serves—that is, every school that serves any and all students in the neighborhood. Peaceful schools are nestled in peaceful environs. If there are drugs or violence in the streets, educators will contend with drugs and violence working their way into the school like crickets through unseen cracks. If there are racist or misogynistic attitudes in the homes, they will manifest themselves on campus. And so it goes. If there is materialism, superiority, entitlement, narcissism, coldness, anti-intellectualism, vanity, laziness, or greed ensconced in the hearts of the parents or grandparents or neighbors or pastors or businessmen or family friends who act out their human dialogues in the public space shared with students, then students will bring traces of those attitudes with them into class and the air will hang with secondhand dysfunction.


Educators spend entire careers—some without even realizing it—trying to accentuate and play off of students’ positive outside influences and minimize or at least sidestep their negative ones, just to prepare the groundwork so they can teach their content. Teaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum, an obvious fact which bears repeating only because it’s so common to hear people go on and on about teacher quality as the ultimate driver of student learning. Too many experts spout the mogul-endorsed “no excuses” mantra reflexively when the conversation turns to the context of student lives, and in so doing effectively refuse to talk seriously about the increasingly debilitating conditions of that context.

As though it doesn’t matter. As though it needn’t be tended to. As though a serious education can occur no matter what is going on there. “Poverty isn’t destiny” is trite and meaningless and pretends to honor poor kids for their wide-open potential while actually disrespecting their experiences and neglecting to patch their holes; it posits that there is no such phenomenon as generational need and that neither public policy nor wealth distribution warrants consideration as a contributing factor in the formation of American kids. Poverty is water in the gas tank of education, but its apologists facilely condemn a pit crew of teachers who—not allowed to say the water won’t combust—are pushing sputtering lives, but not fast enough, around a track where youthful suburban rockets whiz by in their mall rat garb.

Meanwhile, high-performing charter schools are portrayed as having cracked the code when it comes to educating poor inner city students. In reality, the quiet secret to their trumpeted success is simply a strategic divorce of cultures. Via lottery-purified enrollment, high-hurdled parent involvement, and hair-trigger expulsions, the highest of the high-performers embrace select children from the neighborhood while flatly rejecting the broad sweep of the neighborhood’s culture, preferring to substitute their own pre-manufactured culture-like products. Culture goes to neighborhood schools; it is there that we see the health or frailties our nation’s policies have wrought in our neediest zip codes. Tragically, creatively-selective charter schools portend national blindness to the suffering our policies foster.

This is, of course, far less inspirational than the heroic charter school packaging we see on Education Nation’s store shelves. Our nation’s model charters haven’t cracked a code for educating inner city students; they have cracked a code for isolating motivated inner city students and parents who see education as a way out of poverty, and filtering out the rest. They do this by implementing exclusionary practices not available to traditional schools. Charters are free to purify their campuses of undesirable test scores, and the media will reliably gloss over attrition rates and highlight academic results that have been fully uprooted from the context that saddles every nearby traditional public school. Ultimately, the hope of the school reformer is tangled up in a knot with non-universal education. When they hold up choice and charters as our nation’s panacea, their sleight of hand may temporarily obstruct our view of the kids left out on the sidewalk, the kids unwelcome in their brave new dynamic, but it doesn’t disappear them from the face of the earth. After charters capitalize on the manipulation of context, that context still exists and it still has a name and a face and a future. The media ulimately asks us to pretend that shuffling ruffians fixes them, that a shell game with troubled kids is something noble, is “the answer.” But context will win out.

Teaching is so complex. People who talk about it but don’t do it every single day—at least from my view—fall into a trap of self-congratulatory oversimplification. On a stage or on Meet the Press, a series of bumper sticker phrases may pass muster. Platitudes assembled just so construct a virtual reality that is convincing to well-meaning onlookers and passionate neophytes. But reform isn’t talk; in actual schoolhouses, those of us doing the work are busy educating rich kids, middle class kids, poor kids, special education kids, gifted kids, and every other kind of kid imaginable; and teachers who take their calling seriously—the majority, I like to think—have never NOT been reforming our practices. (Yes, it’s popular to say schools haven’t changed since our agrarian days because we still have summer break. But to believe in overwhelming educational stasis one has to ignore commonplace modernities like video production classes, students designing their own websites, homework turned in electronically, virtual field trips, all manners of creative scheduling, online courses, dual credit academic and vocational courses, podcasts, and dozens of other things no one ever heard of in the 1950s.)

The conventional pabulum leaves much to be desired for those of us with dry erase marks on our knuckles. Real educators have to discover (through trial and error) the right answers to specific, small-picture questions about curriculum, classroom management, facilities management, extracurricular activities, dress codes, instructional technology, content delivery, test prep, and so many other things. And in traditional schools, we can’t count on the magic “parental academic contract” fairy to wave her magic wand and disappear the students who “aren’t the right fit” (hat tip to Dr. Steve Perry for that euphemism).

Teaching isn’t as easy as it sounds. And neither is reform.

I don’t write to argue that improvement in the education of American minority students isn’t necessary. The reformers are right at the beginning of the conversation—there’s an emergency in our urban schools. But they are consistently wrong about their monolithic, ideology-driven cause, and about how to fix it. They are also wrong to pretend that there isn’t a whole family of non-school emergencies in our urban areas, and to play-act that schools should somehow be immune from the general devastation around them. If an earthquake hits, should the school building’s pictures not move? If a wave of poverty, drugs, and obliterated families inundates a neighborhood, should the school float above the fray?

They are at their most wrong and most disingenuous when they proffer exemplar schools and say, essentially, “Look here. This is what you could all do if you cared enough.” Secretary Duncan was wrong when he told us that Urban Prep Academy in Chicago was showing us the way; President Obama was wrong to single out Bruce Randolph School in Denver as a model of “what good schools can do.”

I believe fervently that Michelle Rhee and an army of like-minded bad-schools philosophizers will one day look around and see piles where their painstakingly-built sandcastles of reform once stood, and they will know the tragic fame of Ozymandias. Billion-dollar data-sorting systems will be mothballed. Value-added algorithms will be tossed in a bin marked History’s Big Dumb Ideas. The mantra “no excuses” will retain all the significance of “Where’s the beef?” And teachers will still be teaching, succeeding, and failing all over the country, much as they would have been if Michelle Rhee had gone into the foreign service and Bill Gates had invested his considerable wealth and commendable humanitarian ambition in improving law enforcement practices or poultry production.

They are building castles out of sand because they are deliberately ignoring the humanity of both student and teacher. What they are calling “excuses” are really “lives.” They are really saying, “No lives.” Lessons, yes. Teacher evaluation systems, certainly. Data, of course. But lives—real human idiosyncrasies and foibles and challenges that exist neither inside nor outside the schoolhouse but rather transcend both—those are left out of the reform equation.

If numbers-and-labels accountability is the way it’s going to be for schools then the only appropriate accountability possible will be contextual. A simple look at test scores—or even the slightly more granular value-added look at test score improvement—is grossly insufficient when one considers the vast differences between schools and the communities they serve. Socioeconomic differences, for example, but also school-to-school funding differences, student-selection differences, and attrition rates cannot be ignored. These are left out of the formulas, but not because they don’t make a difference in outcomes. Of course they do.

So we must ask the psychometricians to do much, much more; or we must ask them to quit. We must not allow them to burn up our fuel and funding and popular will on moonshots taken with half-right calculations that leave out inconvenient variables.

My nephew is studying to be an engineer. He talks about a course in fluid dynamics and leaves me with the impression that engineers use formulas that are accurate to a degree very near perfect. When we build towers and dams and bridges in our country, we rely on measures that don’t really allow for error. An engineer can tell you with absolute precision how much water can flow through a pipe of a given size buried at a given angle and pushed by a pump of a given capacity. Not with sixty percent accuracy, but with stunning exactitude. Construction is too important a task to leave variables out of the formulas. With big projects, failure can be catastrophic.

The formation of our children, of course, is even more important than that of our bridges. Formulas whose inaccuracies result in the annual arbitrary firing of several great teachers and the blanket terrorization of many, many more will undoubtedly be as devastating for our society as an erroneous building code. If the people who teach our kids are going to live and die by a value-added measure, it must be a comprehensive, context-honoring value-added measure. Per-pupil funding distinctions must be incorporated. Outside-of-school factors positive and negative must be figured in.

Until policy mavens give them contextual accountability, the ever-bitterer voices of teachers and their supporters will condemn the flawed formulas, along with heavy-handed tactics, profitable privatization schemes, and cheesy Hollywood anti-teacher porn. Educators whose livelihoods and reputations are being tossed around by pundits and policymakers deserve accurate labels and honest weights and measures; anything less is careless at best and reckless at worst. And until the psychometricians can come up with formulas that accurately reflect the reality of this amazing thing called education, they won’t truly be measuring what they claim to measure, and many of us will insist that they add nothing of value to the conversation.

If you enjoyed reading this article by John Kuhn, don’t forget to register for our annual conference where he will be the Keynote Speaker! 

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About the Author:

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).


  1. Julie September 27, 2012 at 12:55 am - Reply

    This is a brilliant summation of our current situation.

  2. Welker September 27, 2012 at 8:51 am - Reply

    Just what exactly information sites intended for governmental criticism will you endorse me to read?

  3. […] If you read only one article today, read this one. Save it. Read it again. This is a must-read. […]

  4. Ginny Moe September 27, 2012 at 11:36 am - Reply

    Not only is this brilliant it is stunning writing.

  5. Duane Swacker September 27, 2012 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    " And until the psychometricians can come up with formulas that accurately reflect the reality of this amazing thing called education, they won’t truly be measuring what they claim to measure, and many of us will insist that they add nothing of value to the conversation."

    Psychometricians will never be able to measure the teaching and learning process as the teaching and learning process belong to the logical category of a "quality" interaction that cannot be logically quantified. Noel Wilson has shown thirteen logical errors permeating the entire standardized testing process that render it invalid. As he states "If indeed the test is invalid [and it is as he has proven] then all else is VAIN and ILLUSORY".

    I invite all the readers here to follow along with me as I summarize and discuss Wilson's "Educational Standards and the Problem of Error" chapter by chapter on my blog "Promoting Just Education for All" at .

    • Alan September 27, 2012 at 9:57 pm - Reply

      Whenever I see references to psychometricians, I can't help but think of the Voight-Kampff test from Bladerunner.

  6. Gail Janensch September 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    Besides being spot-on about the importance of the "context" that every child in school brings into the classroom that all teachers must deal with, I worry that all this blaming the teacher and rating teachers based on student test results is going to drive young people away from the teaching profession. We teachers know that attrition of young teachers after they see for themselves how hard teaching is after a couple of years is HIGH. And if even fewer college students pick teaching for their career, there simply will not be enough teachers! Then what? Add to this the high cost of college. Will there be sufficient minority teachers to be the role models for 50% minority students in our urban school districts today and into a browner American future?

  7. kmh1967 September 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    Very insightful and perfectly stated.

  8. Alice in PA September 27, 2012 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    You are so rgiht to being up the engineering vs social science difference. As a former engineer, I was delaing with formulas with correlation between the variables on 0.999. Now I am doing doctoral work part time while teaching. Even in the massive quantitiative studies where SES and othe rvariables are factoed into the model, only (at best) 60% of the variance in scores or whatever measure are explained withthe model. And we are going to fire/promote professionals based on 60% accuracy!! They are playing with people's lives withthese inaccruate VAMS, not stock markey ticker points.

  9. Matt Chalmers September 27, 2012 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    Mr. Kuhn, I have been saying the same thing for the last 40 years. You however, are much more eloquent. I wish I was at the beginning of my career instead of the end because I would try to work for you.

  10. Carolyn Pearson September 27, 2012 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    Mr. Kuhn, I thank you for so eloquently stating the reasons that I left my lifetime career in teaching last June. It was not because I stopped loving teaching or children or my co-workers or my community. It was not because I was ineffective, incompetent, or lacked creativity. It was because I was demoralized, exhausted, and even asked to do illegal things by my district who is fighting to stay alive financially and is trying to create politically acceptable data for the the powers that be. At some point a person has to follow their own moral compass and say, "I must draw an ethical line. I will not be party to secretly using Title funds stolen from at risk children to teach core curriculum to save my district money." So I quit. I am one very small voice. I needed to get outside "the System" in order to speak freely and renew my passion for teaching. I will pass your article on to many. Thank you for writing it.

    • Sharon Kumler-Seaton September 28, 2012 at 4:42 am - Reply

      I would like to add to Carolyn’s statements, and second them, and would hope that ALL, including the President of the United States, governors and legislators of all states, and our Secretary of Education, as well as school boards across the our nation, and all parents read this article and finally listen to those of us in or formerly in the “trenches” who have previously been ignored, mThis is so true, how can students in inner city schools and those who have just come to our country, as well as those in special education be expected to perform to the standard that cannot be measured the same as the standard of perfection of our engineers, NASA, etc. who have exact postulations to follow, when we are not “all the same”!
      Respectfully, Sharon K. Seaton-Kumler It is not logical!

  11. jcgrim September 27, 2012 at 5:26 pm - Reply


  12. Teach September 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm - Reply

    Thank you for writing this article and speaking for all of us! I hope you sent a large print version to Hammond.

    • John Kuhn September 27, 2012 at 10:14 pm - Reply

      Ha! You must be from tx!

      • Gail Janensch September 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm - Reply

        John – I already commented with praise. NOW…Please submit a shorter version (1000 words or so) of your article to for its oped page and mention Paul Vallas somehow in submission. Here in Bridgeport Vallas is now our superintendent & Stephan Pryor (another Charter school person & Mayor Bloomberg connected) + TFA all are seizing opportunities to privatize and test-test-test (even down to kindergarten). All in trying to "save" the worst school district in CT. 50th in nation in achievement gap. I can help with this placement.

  13. […] Conrextual Accountablity […]

  14. Stuart Bucki September 28, 2012 at 2:53 am - Reply

    So if you say that the only reason for KIPP's superiority is that it is selecting and kicking out kids, then you must necessarily think that poor black kids are incapable of genuinely learning anything more even if given 40% more instructional time plus an enriched curriculum with arts, music, etc.

    Why would that be?

    • bossygirl1980 September 28, 2012 at 3:06 am - Reply

      No, the issue is that the kids that KIPP selects are NEVER going to be the kids that are true behavior problems. They are not the kids who behaviorally can't survive in a class for more than 25 minutes without disrupting. KIPP will pick kids with an "edge" but if the kids continue to be problems (academic or behavior) they return them to their "home school" (i.e. the good, old neighborhood school) and then we teachers there are demonized because we can't "control" them and KIPP is looked at like a savior.. Any kid is capable of learning if given more instructional time; however, let's not over inflate success when one school is picking and the other school is receiving..

    • "2old2tch" September 28, 2012 at 4:19 am - Reply

      Did you not read the article? KIPP works great for a small select group of students. It is not THE solution. We need ways to serve the entire community, and we are not going to achieve that through demonizing public education and its teachers.

    • John Kuhn September 28, 2012 at 11:43 am - Reply

      “only reason” – I said that? Where?

      Now Stuart, you seem to have trouble admitting that exclusionary practices provide KIPP a distinct advantage. Why is that?

      Let me kick out any kid who won’t show up on Saturdays to learn. Let me kick out any kid whose parents fail to ensure homework gets completed. And watch my scores rise tomorrow, watch me claim the mantle of “miracle school.”

      As long as reformers impugn traditional schools by comparing them to schools with student-selection craftiness in play, those comparisons will be flawed.

      Instead of calling me a racist, why don’t you disprove the merits of my essay?

    • Paul Thomas September 28, 2012 at 12:43 pm - Reply

      Of course, Stuart, NO ONE has said or is saying that children in poverty cannot learn. BUT many are saying KIPP distorts their outcomes many ways, and that KIPP practices racist/classist policies that can never be justified by any test data.

      Your premise is a strawman; thus, you clearly have no credible defense of KIPP to offer.

  15. John Kuhn September 28, 2012 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Above, Stuart Buck gives us a textbook example of the reformers’ illogic. I discussed in “The Pundit’s Miseducation” ( Note the craftySophist rhetoric:

    1. Claim your opponent said something he never said (the “only reason” KIPP succeeds is because they filter out students)

    2. Based on the above falsehood, draw a nefrarious inference (if Kuhn believes selection is the only reason KIPP succeeds, then he must believe that all of KIpP’s other strategies don’t work AT ALL with poor black kids–and it’s important to include race there, not just poverty–and that “necessarily” means that Kuhn thinks black children are inferior. It “necessarily” means that.)

    3. Presto! Make Kuhn defend himself from charges of racism based, ultimately on something you said he said, then you don’t have to engage him on the points of his essay.

    Ladies and gentlemen: I offer you the above “debate” as an example of the failure of the American education system.

  16. Stuart Buck September 28, 2012 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    John —

    Your writing as it stands does not admit, not even in the pretense of being objective, that KIPP does a single thing right. Instead, in attempting to explain KIPP's unquestioned success, you mention ONLY "lottery-purified enrollment, high-hurdled parent involvement, and hair-trigger expulsions."

    Do you mean to imply that there is no other possible explanation for KIPP's success? That the reasons you mention are all that there is? That 30-40% extra time with an enriched curriculum couldn't be a large part of the difference? If that's not what you're implying, you should write more clearly and fairly.

    Look, I would bet you don't have any racist intent. But it does come across as questionable when people look at schools where poor black kids are, according to every study, learning more than usual, but their only reaction is to scramble for reasons to accuse those schools of some sort of trickery.

    • John Kuhn September 28, 2012 at 11:58 pm - Reply

      I am not going to waste my limited space serving as a booster for KIPP. They have plenty of blindly-supportive boosters already. If those KIPP fans practiced the kind of balanced reportage that you demand from me–by, say, touching on selection bias–I wouldn’t write a word about charters. As it stands, there is an aggressive and years-old effort (of which you here are a part) of whitewashing charters of any and all criticisms. I stand by the piece. I gladly admit to questioning charters’ true effectiveness beause of the plain fact that they exclude kid that traditional schools enroll in droves.

      You are free to stamp your feet and insist that this difference is irrelevant when comparing charters and non-exclusionary schools. But I don’t have to agree to sing KIPP’s praises since they win our race by rejecting–and sending to me– students that are harder and more expensive to educate.

      I don’t have racist intent? That’s kind of you. Your last paragraph essentially means “Even if charters are cheating no one is permitted to bring it up because it seems racist.”

      The thing about trickery–and bragging about the results you get with a selectively-assembled student body is trickery–is that the tricksters eventually get found out.

      All this talk and you haven’t yet said “Charters don’t exclude.” Because they do it serially. And it matters.

      • Stuart Buck September 29, 2012 at 4:51 am - Reply

        KIPP sends students to you? How? Are these students commuting from 90 miles away in Dallas (where the closest KIPP school is)?

        • John Kuhn September 29, 2012 at 4:05 pm - Reply

          I speak and write on behalf of colleagues who watch troubled students withdraw to charters only to return shortly, rejected by the charter. That is common, and I would think charter advocates would be speaking out against the abuses that are prevalent in the charter world. Alas, charters get the kid gloves treatment, but not from educators who watch the scam unfold.

      • Jessica October 14, 2012 at 1:15 am - Reply

        Some charters exclude, not all. Some serve the same demographic as the neighborhood schools. Some take on a large portion of the students expelled from traditional public schools. It would be an oversimplification to say that all charters engage in the selective practices you described. If you believe that they do, I would urge you to look beyond the big names that you mentioned. Broad generalizations about charters are just as problematic as broad generalizations about regular public schools.

    • mathcs September 29, 2012 at 2:15 am - Reply


      Who exactly is it on the staff at the Arnold Foundation that has been a public school teacher, and knows anything at all about teaching K-12?

    • John Kuhn September 29, 2012 at 4:13 am - Reply

      Stuart says: “Do you mean to imply that there is no other possible explanation for KIPP’s success? That the reasons you mention are all that there is?”

      No, I only mean to imply that the reasons I mention ARE. They exist, and since they exist they should be admitted to. I feel no compulsion to keep the reformers’ precious secret.

      Yes, we cull the tough cases, but we will not allow anyone to talk about that. We will a. suggest racism and b. insist that any talk of our culling be accompanied by gushing praise of all the non-culling things we do. Anything, really, to avoid a straightforward conversation about selection bias.

  17. John Kuhn September 29, 2012 at 12:07 am - Reply

    Stuart–for the record, with the students they allow in, KIPP gets fine results with all those awesome things you mention. Poor black kids can and do learn very well, in KIPP and many hundreds of traditional schools.

    Now will you admit that a significant factor for the much-heralded lack of KIPP non-successes is the fact that kids prone to failing the tests are shown to the door. Or is your argument that that doesn’t happen, or that it does but it really doesn’t matter much in terms of results?

    They draft their team and I play with walkons. In what field besides education reform do people insist that selection bias is irrelevant?

    • Stuart Buck September 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm - Reply

      If you agree that poor kids can and do learn in KIPP — that kids learn more from being taught more — then we’re good.

      You ask if I will admit that a significant factor is kids being shown the door? The quick answer is that this can’t be very significant. In multiple studies on KIPP’s effectiveness, the kids who left KIPP were still counted as being part of the KIPP “group,” which means that even if their scores were low, that was still counting against KIPP’s performance. Even with that handicap, so to speak, KIPP still looks better for the most part.

      A more subtle argument is that if lower-scoring kids drop out of KIPP and return to easier schools elsewhere, the kids remaining in KIPP now can exert more effective peer effects on each other. But the latest evidence on that suggests that peer effects would maximally explain only a fraction of KIPP’s effectiveness. See

      By the way, I’m with you (mostly) on value-added measurements. So far, I haven’t been convinced that they’re precise enough to make high-stakes decisions for most individual teachers. At a school level or district level, however, there’s more reason to think that such measurements could be precise (larger numbers of students and less variability from year to year). Of course, a lot depends on choosing the right measure that compares like to like: see the recent Shanker blog post on this.

  18. Stuart Buck September 29, 2012 at 3:45 am - Reply

    I didn't say that selection bias never happens or that it is irrelevant, only that it can't be nearly the whole story as you (and other KIPP critics) are implying. If you agree that KIPP's model of spending more time teaching kids more might actually help them learn more, then we're good.

    • John Kuhn September 29, 2012 at 4:08 pm - Reply

      Not the whole story, just the whole part of the story that doesn’t get told.

  19. Stuart Buck September 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    If you agree that poor kiods can and do learn very well in KIPP — that kids learn more from being taught more — then we're good.

    You ask if I will admit that a significant factor is kids being shown the door? The quick answer is that this can't possibly be very significant. In multiple studies on KIPP's effectiveness, the kids who left KIPP were still counted as being part of the KIPP "group," which means that even if their scores were low, that was still counting against KIPP's performance. Even with that handicap, so to speak, KIPP still looks better for the most part.

    A more subtle argument is that if lower-scoring kids drop out of KIPP and return to easier schools elsewhere, the kids remaining in KIPP now can exert more effective peer effects on each other. But the latest evidence on that (from a Sept. 2012 paper) suggests that peer effects would at most explain only a fraction of KIPP's effectiveness.

    By the way, I'm with you (mostly) on value-added measurements. So far, I haven't been convinced that they're precise enough to make high-stakes decisions for most individual teachers. At a school level or district level, however, there's more reason to think that such measurements could be precise (larger numbers of students and less variability from year to year). Of course, a lot depends on choosing the right measure that compares like to like: see the recent Shanker blog post on this.

  20. Stuart Buck September 29, 2012 at 4:15 pm - Reply

    Note to the moderator: is there any way you could delete duplicate comments above? Even better would be not approving them in the first place. Thanks.

    To John: Let's say that every gripe about KIPP is true. Still, when the KIPP model of instruction is applied to traditional public schools, those schools make substantial gains in math, in just one year (before any effect of attrition or selection could show up).

    At least that's what the preliminary finding has been in Houston:

    Isn't this worth exploring? If not, why not? Seems like there's much room here for a constructive conversation here.

    • John Kuhn September 30, 2012 at 3:11 am - Reply

      You realize that this article was not about the relative strengths or weaknesses of any particular pedagogy. You have initiated a conversation about all sorts of pedagogical strategies. That’s fine, but beside the point.

      I heard Dr. Steve Perry talk about how 100% of his students go to a four-year college after they graduate from his school, and he deliberately left out the part about how his school is a magnet school and kids get booted when they don’t pull their weight. That’s a strategic lie and this dishonesty is rampant, by my reading, among school reformers.

      You can teach the kids hanging upside down from the rafters if it works. This article isn’t about that. This article is about liars and manipulators who inhabit school reform. Re-read it. I don’t claim that KIPP is wrong about everything.

      I get the feeling you are saying “Ben Johnson was fast. His steroid use doesn’t matter.” I don’t care how Ben Johnson trained. Until he gets out there after a clean drug test and outruns whoever got silver behind him, his skill isn’t what is purported. And until KIPP does what a neighborhood school does–takes ’em all–I won’t accept the gospel that KIPP is better than its neighbors. You may easily dismiss the concerns I raise but I do this for a living and being constantly and questionably impugned won’t fly for me. I don’t give a rip about ideology. I know what teachers in neighborhood schools do and it deserves appreciation and respect and ther are no magic schools. (Unless you count making kids disappear as magic.)

      I won’t pretend with you that charters hurdle what they merely sidestep–context.

  21. John Kuhn September 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    “about 40 percent of African American students left KIPP in Texas over the last ten years. That’s their dirty little secret.” -Dr. Vasquez Heilig, University of Texas on MSBC. Jonathan Alter replies “I won’t let you diss KIPP.”

    KIPP is hallowed and above criticism. It is perfect in every way, unblemished and above critique. We all must now before the mystique.

    And yet, KIPP pushes kids out. KIPP does what it does with a purified sample I children. Buck, Alter et al can play retorical games, change the subject from pushing-out to their awesome wonderful extended time (big deal–Finland gets better results with their universal, unionized system than KIPP gets with its 12-hour-days, we use the “finest blueberries” approach), and they can cry “how dare you fail to worship our idol,” but what they can’t do and never will be able to do is legitimately claim–without lying or pulling some kind of rhetorical sleight of hand–that KIPP can educate the average typical American child better than a neighboring traditional school, because KIPP at the outset refuses to educate the average typical American student.

    Here is KIPP and all the charter naked before you, here are there mechanisms for making the sausage-use only the finest children you can draw from the sample–then compare your results to the full-on context of a democratic sample of all childr en. This “experiment” would be rejected in any lab for not following protocols of true scientific comparison. And yet charter cheerleaders insist a. that we must compare their apples to our oranges and b. that since charters are “so much better than traditional schools” we must continue expanding them. The dismissal of the effect of pushing out/keeping out is absolutely essential because if the erect of that erases the gap between the quality of charters and that of traditional public schools, then the need for charters evaporates.

    That is why you see Alter and Buck leaping to the defense of charter when honest people mention the honest truth that they don’t trade in real context.

    If you conduct a science experiment and Smith uses a random sample of X while Jones uses a controlled sample of X, you really can’t conclude–as Buck persistently does here–that Jones’s techniques are more effective than Smith’s. I mean, you can, but it makes you in-forthright and dishonest. Please re-read the article above where I talk about engineering standards. Ed policy has this gaping hole that permits–nay, encourages–the kind of anti-empiricism that results in faddishness and sacred cows that are not to be “dissed.”

    The “Charter critics are racists” meme–heard here, from Rhee and Henderson in Dc too when their “amazingly amazing” reforms were compromised because of allegations of cheating on the tests–is a transparent effort to quell criticism and not go down an empirical path.

    Well we’re not falling for that. It isn’t racist to demand a quality, equitably-funded UNIVERSALLY AVAILABLE education for inner city kids. Stop telling me KIPP is better; prove it. Take the kids in a neighborhood–all of them–and let’s compare results. KIPP is t above critique. KIPP is t the great and powerful Oz to thunder from behind their tattered curtain that we shouldn’t question them. Fooey on that.

    Perhaps public schools have failed our urban kids–actually I would say public services in general and public policy specifically–but the truth is KIPP is failing our inner city kids too, by refusing them.

    The country club model of education–where not everyone is welcome–is crumbling before our eyes, and I for one am glad to see it.

  22. Stuart Buck September 30, 2012 at 9:08 am - Reply

    John — I think you must not have seen my post and link immediately above yours. They've been trying the KIPP model in several Houston neighborhood schools — doing exactly what you suggest in your third-to-last paragraph. And the results after one year were very good, at least in math. When KIPP's model is succeeding in neighborhood public schools, it moots all of your criticisms thus far.

    By the way, as a research point: you are incorrect to claim that anyone has compared KIPP's students to a "democratic sample of all children." That's not what any research study has done. What they do is compare KIPP students to a sample of kids who are as identical to KIPP students as possible (in terms of starting test scores, race, gender, poverty, etc.). And the famous study of KIPP in Massachusetts used a randomized lottery — both groups were exactly the same except that a lottery had determined who got into KIPP and who didn't. The effect was huge: kids who won a lottery to get into KIPP closed more than half the achievement gap in math in just one year, compared to identical kids who lost the lottery.

    • Thusitha October 28, 2012 at 8:43 pm - Reply

      One crazy idea might be to try to find small individual cmmtunioies where these charities have operated and look for changes in broader statistics maybe adolescent crime or truancy rates if such things exist.The other idea might be to randomly sample yourself instead of getting all the available data. Pick 100 students who left public schools for charity sponsored charter schools and pick 100 who did not. Then try to find some statistically significant change around the time they entered the new school.The type of test is important as well. I’ve read that scores on tests of general intelligence tend to be remarkably consistent after the age of 5 or so. But, on the other hand, a history test might be completely dependent on how consistently and effectively a teacher presents the material. Does a change in score on a history test indicate the new school is doing more good for the student?I guess the question is, if you had every statistic in the world at your fingertips, what would you be looking for?

  23. John Kuhn September 30, 2012 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    I don’t doubt that result. You attribute it to KIPP’s pedagogy. I attribute it to the leverage provided by exclusivity.

    • Stuart Buck September 30, 2012 at 11:10 pm - Reply

      Are you also saying that you don’t doubt that KIPP’s model works when applied to Houston neighborhood public schools? How do you think exclusivity was operating there?

      • John Kuhn October 1, 2012 at 4:17 am - Reply

        Haven’t read your link and you’ll have to pardon me for not taking your word for it. Dr. Perry cured me of taking reform talk at face value. Identical results? Doubt it. You want to prove that exclusionary practices have no beneficial effect, but that doesn’t make logical sense to me. Walk-ons vs. draftees. Leverage of threatened push out vs. knowing that you don’t necessarily have to do your homework and you still get to come to school.

        Pending review of your link, I will just say I remember the last Houston miracle.

        I’m sorry but a. I don’t trust reform advocates because they so often trade in misinformation, and b. I have learned that education miracles are typically frauds.

      • John Kuhn October 1, 2012 at 4:33 am - Reply

        Hate to rely on Houston ISD link to draw conclusions about efficacy of this Bouston ISD program. Seems like they might have incentive to find the good in the program. Do you have a more independent source? What does Bruce Baker or the NEPC have to say? I know what Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig says about KIPP. Have you read his research?

        Stuart, I think this conversation could go on forever. I’m waving the white flag. You haven’t convinced me and I admit I’ll never convince you. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’ll keep fighting for my ideals, and you keep fighting for yours.

    • Stuart Buck October 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm - Reply

      Bruce Baker's main take seemed to be that the Houston program cost extra money, therefore extra spending can be a good thing.

      Anyway, I highly recommend reading up on the program for yourself. As I've said more than once, there's plenty of room for a constructive conversation if only people step back, take a breath, and look at the evidence with an open mind.

  24. Moderator September 30, 2012 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your concern Stuart. However, our policy is to never delete comments from anyone unless they contain racially charged comments and/or threats. Thank you for understanding.

  25. Moderator September 30, 2012 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    Again, thank you for commenting. In the future, please refrain from using insults. Only hit the "submit comment" button once and you won't have this problem again.

  26. John Kuhn October 1, 2012 at 11:00 am - Reply

    One more comment regarding the veracity of claims made on the Houston ISD website about Houston ISD’s reformy efforts and their effectiveness. First, the link you gave appears broken. Second, Houston ISD’s virtual school–Connections Academy–has a tab on its home page that reads “Proven Results.” Clicking on that tab takes you to a page that begins “At Texas Connections Academy @ Houston, success can be measured by our students academic achievement, but that is only part of the story.”… They then go on to share glowing parent survey results. Guess what is t found anywhere on the page entitled “Proven Results”? That’s right, student results. Not even a link to the state AEIS results. Nowhere. You have to navigate yourself over to the TEA website and dig that up for yourself. This is another Dr. Perry lie of omission. These strategic omissions are more popular among new schools thinkers than Viola Davis. So if you go to the TEA report, you find results that prove something alright, but the results aren’t exactly useful for marketing. I am assuming here that Houston ISD’s research–no offense to Roland Fryer–is “research” in the sense of publishing the most attractive data they can wring out about their program and leaving out the rest. In my experience, the reformers treat facts like charter schools treat kids: they takes the really good ones out of context and marshal them forth to build up a good brand so they can be miracles. It’s little more than a parlor cheat with data, and the data–which still isn’t very good much of the time, resulting in strategic cloaking of selected data–is drawn fro
    a tenacious parlor cheat with student attrition.

  27. Stuart Buck October 1, 2012 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    My original link is not broken, but here's an additional link.… Go to pages 29-31 to read the conclusion, which discusses issues such as scalability.

  28. Stuart Buck October 1, 2012 at 9:17 am - Reply

    My original link is not broken, but here's an additional link.… Go to pages 29-31 to read the conclusion, which discusses issues such as scalability.

  29. […] John Kuhn  says { }, “I believe fervently that Michelle Rhee {= Julia Gillard] and an army of like-minded […]

  30. […] Evidence: The Case of the Common Core Standards This excellent ‘must read’ article was written about the USA. However you will note that it wouldn’t take much adapting to fit New Zealand. I wonder why? Why Kids Need Schools to Change “The current structure of the school day is obsolete, most would agree. Created during the Industrial Age, the assembly line system we have in place now has little relevance to what we know kids actually need to thrive.” Sorry, kids, GERM minded deformers have decreed that the 19th century had the ideal education system. Tough. The Global Search for Education: The Education Debate 2012 — Howard Gardner Let’s appoint Gardner as minister of education wherever he is needed… What education reformers did with student surveys They want to reduce everything to quantitative data regardless of its invalidity that comes from trying to fit square pegs into round holes. On “Reform” and the “Public” in Education Think school deform is a 21st century phenomenon? Ever wondered how and why are our schooling system is structured this way? Is anything new under the sun? Do kids really learn from failure? Why conventional wisdom may be wrong Another excellent article by Alfie Kohn. Read to find out the difference between ‘good’ failure and ‘bad’ failure. saynotonaplansaynonaplansaynotonaplansaynotonaplansaynotonaplansaynottonaplansaynotonaplanesaynotonaplan   […]

  31. Ses October 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Well written article, but as a parent who is actively involved in my children's education I bring a different view I haven't seen mention. First of all don't let the poor white students off the radar. Secondly it's not the
    Schools or model of schools or government policy failing the students ! It is the parents, grand parents, uncle, godparents! I am a parent who moved my child this school year. The Maryland county that I reside in loves to redistrict. So it merged students who parents have expectations with parents who don't know how to care. Also lack of administration to deal with this merger. So the teachers were awesome, but there was no way they can push the faster learner child along. The child who is not read to needed the attention & food! I could not waste my child's elementrary years with this environment. So I drive 15mins to another public school where education can take place! If the School board wouldn't have accepted my transfer I would have paid for private school. This school year is a shock to my child. As a parent I can now see clearly where she is academically! She knows where she attends school now every child is expected to succeed! The Teachers are happy so they are excited about introducing technology or authors! After school clubs are abundant! The lines of communication was opened from day one! Put some accountability back on the parents!!!!

  32. The “No Excuses” Parent October 14, 2012 at 10:38 pm - Reply

    […] theory of accountability”—what I have called shared accountability and contextual accountability in other articles—would apply leverage to more than just teachers and schools: those children’s […]

  33. Homepage October 18, 2012 at 4:03 pm - Reply

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  34. […] not outperform public schools and simultaneously weaken the public school system.  As John Kuhn demonstrates,  Our nation’s model charters haven’t cracked a code for educating inner city students; they […]

  35. ahuntingtonteacher October 20, 2012 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    […] As John Kuhn demonstrates […}

  36. […] in the neighborhood.  … (Charter schools) embrace select children from the neighborhood while flatly rejecting the broad sweep of the neighborhood’s culture, preferring to substitute…   As Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California wrote:  The […]

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  38. […] Accountability I found this article very interesting Contextual Accountability – The Educator's Room […]

  39. […] We will not settle for pre-packaged corporate education reform. We will demand authentic transformation. We will demand accountability that honors context. […]

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