Thoughts on Peg Tyre’s Article on New Dorp’s ‘Writing Revolution’

Peg Tyre has an article in The Atlantic on the success of Staten Island’s New Dorp High School in improving learning outcomes. For years, New Dorp had a dismally low graduation rate, and many attributed its failures to the fact it is a high-poverty, majority-minority school. Yet its principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, determined that the key barrier to high achievement was the fact that students hadn’t been taught the skills they needed to write well.

Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page. If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well. 

The article is stimulating throughout, but I found the following passage particularly noteworthy:

[DeAngelis’s] decision in 2008 to focus on how teachers supported writing inside each classroom was not popular. “Most teachers,” said Nell Scharff, an instructional expert DeAngelis hired, “entered into the process with a strongly negative attitude.” They were doing their job, they told her hotly. New Dorp students were simply not smart enough to write at the high-school level. You just had to listen to the way the students talked, one teacher pointed out—they rarely communicated in full sentences, much less expressed complex thoughts. “It was my view that these kids didn’t want to engage their brains,” Fran Simmons, who teaches freshman English, told me. “They were lazy.” [Emphasis added]

During the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike, I encountered a number of left-liberals who maintained that critics of the CTU hated teachers — and were intellectually incurious bullies, etc. — and who then recounted affectionate memories of the teachers who inspired them to pursue their interests. The implication is that teachers like the ones Scharff describes are either a figment of the (perfervid right-wing) imagination or they represent a vanishingly small minority.

Another possibility, however, is that such teachers are not uncommon in schools and school districts in which engaged parents do not provide much in the way of countervailing pressure and teachers enjoy relatively high levels of job security, little in the way of systematic performance monitoring, and weak incentives for improved performance.

If the number of teachers in a given collective bargaining unit who are convinced that many if not most of their students are “simply not smart enough to write at the high-school level,” or to achieve various other learning goals, is reasonably high, might it impact the politics of the collective bargaining unit? That is, might its members prove more resistant to systematic performance monitoring and stronger incentives for improved performance, both of which are measures premised on the notion that performance can indeed be improved by some combination of effective teaching or an improved instructional model? Some of our interlocutors believe that to even raise this possibility is to insult teachers. 

Whether or not New Dorp’s success proves durable, Tyre’s article is a reminder of a number of useful and important ideas, among them that instructional gains are more likely to flow from improvements in the larger business model of schools rather than a crude improvement of inputs. Hiring more experienced and expensive teachers to execute a fundamentally flawed strategy won’t necessarily do as much good as embracing a strategy that is well-tailored to the underlying challenge.

This, incidentally, is one of the core ideas behind Richard Rumelt’s excellent Good Strategy, Bad Strategy:

A good strategy has an essential logical structure that I call the kernel. The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action. The guiding policy specifies the approach to dealing with the obstacles called out in the diagnosis. It is like a signpost, marking the direction forward but not defining the details of the trip. Coherent actions are feasible coordinated policies, resource commitments, and actions designed to carry out the guiding policy.

Bad strategy is quite different:

Bad strategy has a life and logic of its own, a false edifice built on mistaken foundations. Bad strategy may actively avoid analyzing obstacles because a leader believes that negative thoughts get in the way. Leaders may create bad strategy by mistakenly treating strategy work as an exercise in goal setting rather than problem solving. Or they may avoid hard choices because they do not wish to offend anyone—generating a bad strategy that tries to cover all the bases rather than focus resources and actions.

To apply this to New Dorp, Deirdre DeAngelis had struggled to diagnose the fundamental problem facing her students, and she pursued a variety of different approaches, e.g.:

Although New Dorp teachers had observed students failing for years, they never connected that failure to specific flaws in their own teaching. They watched passively as Deirdre De­Angelis got rid of the bad apples on the staff; won foundation money to break the school into smaller, more personalized learning communities; and wooed corporate partners to support after-school programs. Nothing seemed to move the dial.

All of these approaches were based on different diagnoses — bad teachers are the problem; a lack of resources or personal attention is the problem; a lack of enrichment outside the classroom is the problem — and so the wrong guiding policies and coherent actions followed.

But when DeAngelis hit upon a more fruitful diagnosis, namely that many of her students lacked an understanding of basic grammatical concepts that were essential to mastering more complex ideas, she was able to make significant progress over a relatively short period of time.

It would be dangerous to interpret DeAngelis’s success as a cure-all, and it is entirely possible that her strategy will at some point run out of steam. New Dorp’s experience does, however, shed light on the value of getting the diagnosis right before we proceed.

One obvious challenge, which Rumelt discusses at length, is that substituting goal setting for problem solving can be very attractive, as it is easier to build a consensus around goals, e.g., we want all of our students to graduate. Similarly, some diagnoses are more politically attractive than others, e.g., the fundamental problem is that we don’t compensate and respect current teachers enough. The guiding policy should thus be to increase compensation levels and to reduce class sizes whenever possible, and to recognize that any alternative strategy — like organizing teachers into more effective teams as a way of taking advantage of the skills held by the existing teacher workforce that is willing to work for current compensation levels, but adjusting compensation at the margin to retain those with particularly in-demand skills — is an outrageous insult.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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