About Andrea’s Blog

Welcome to my periodic musings on the state of American education, business, journalism, the consumer experience, women and food—how it is grown, cooked and eaten. A systems thinker since I wrote my first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality by W. Edwards Deming, most of my ideas and writing are informed by a systems view of the world.

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First God Made Idiots…

“First God Made Idiots. That was for Practice. Then he made School Boards.”

–Mark Twain

Thus ends a new moving tribute, narrated by Sir Ian McKellen, the renowned Shakespearean actor, in support of Rafe Esquith, who has been called the “best teacher in America” for his work with fifth graders at Hobart Elementary, an innercity school in Los Angeles.

A few months ago, when I heard that Esquith was removed from his classroom for reading an excerpt from Mark Twain and making an off-color joke in class, I contacted McKellen’s agent in the hope of asking the actor what he thought of Esquith’s predicament. My interest was in more than just getting a celebrity quote.

The accusations against Esquith had most recently morphed into an investigation of his foundation, which helps support his Hobart Shakespeareans–the moniker applies to both the students who produce a professional-quality Shakespeare play as a culminating class project, as well as the foundation, which pays for everything from musical instruments to trips to the Oregon Shakespeare festival for Esquith’s students. Last fall, before what has now turned into a months-long investigation, I had the opportunity to visit Esquith’s classroom and meet the latest crop of Hobart Shakespeareans. I also interviewed several alums, college graduates all, who still call themselves Hobart Shakespeareans and count their experiences in Esquith’s class among their most formative. In earlier posts here and here I’ve recounted their experiences in his classroom and what they have to say about their former teacher.

But for all his good works, might not some of those funds have been misused? I thought that McKellen, as one of Esquith’s major supporters, would hold a key to that answer.

Neither his agent nor McKellen got back to me. But in this charming video I just unearthed via perdaily.com, MacLellan calls Esquith one of his “heros”, the work Esquith does in his classroom “miraculous” and his removal “unjust.” This short video, which includes testimonials by over a dozen students and parents and a cameo appearance by actor Hal Holbrook, provides a compelling answer to what happens to the money donated to the Hobart Shakespeareans. It also offers tantalizing clues as to why the Los Angeles Unified School District might consider Esquith an educational subversive whom they might wish to silence.

Indeed, the curious fact is that until the recent investigation, it  seems the LAUSD was just about the only institution completely uninterested in what was happening in Esquith’s classroom over the past 30-odd years in which his teaching methods have won international acclaim. (The day I visited there were 20 teachers from China sitting in on his class.) A reader of one of my earlier blog posts on Esquith, a man named Gerald, noted that the LAUSD is: “it seems, the only institution that hasn’t awarded or recognized his work- literally the only one! They never mention him in staff trainings or professional developments and they never refer to him as a model of good teaching- but they sure are working hard to investigate him!”

For more on Rafe Esquith teaching methods see this post.


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More Students and Readers Defend Rafe Esquith

A few days ago I posted an interview with one of Rafe Esquith’s former students, a recent graduate of New York University, who explained the many ways that Esquith, who was once described as “the greatest teacher in America,” and the Hobart Shakespeareans changed his life. My interview with Rudy De La Cruz, the former student, prompted a number of emails from other students, some of which I included in the original post. In this post, I’m publishing two new communications. The first is from a young woman named Joanna Lee who writes, in part:

Rafe showed me the world, but he also showed me the value of humility and honesty. He taught me that success is not defined by how much you make or how famous you are, but that it is honorable to be honest and do good. I am still trying to apply that to my life and practice today, and the classroom motto of ‘Be Nice, Work Hard’ follows me wherever I go. He showed me that I could achieve my dreams but also made me think about how those dreams could do good and help other people.

The second is from a reader who left a disturbing comment about the Los Angeles United School District’s “witchhunt”; in it, he notes that the LAUSD has never mentioned Esquith during staff development or trainings. He writes in part:

I believe that the investigation of Mr. Esquith is driven partly by …contempt these administrators have for independent teachers who don’t follow the LAUSD script. Mr. Esquith doesn’t use the LAUSD curriculum, and he’s written critically about school districts’ disheartening and negative treatment of teachers around the country. I’ve no doubt that there must be some bad blood towards Esquith somewhere in the LAUSD administration…They should have been championing this teacher a long time ago, not just investigating him today. 

As noted in my post, I invite other former students to email me at andrea.gabor@baruch.cuny.edu and to put “Rafe Esquith” in the subject field.

Here is the first comment from Joanna Lee:

My name is Joanna Lee, and I was in Rafe’s 5th grade class in the year 2000, nearly 15 years ago. When I met him for the first time during Shakespeare tryouts for Henry V, little did I know I was going to meet a life-long mentor and friend. I also didn’t know that I would end up at Brown University studying art history, graduating at the top of my class, and receiving three out of the four awards in my department ceremony. I come from a family of immigrant parents and am the first in my family to go to college. Where I am today has everything to do with Rafe, and I would not be where I am if I had not met him.

Before meeting Rafe, I would say that I was one of those students in class who were often overlooked by teachers. I didn’t get the best grades in class but wasn’t notoriously disrupting the class either. I was shy, somewhat afraid to speak up, and didn’t stand out. I’m grateful that Rafe saw my potential and was persistent to see my development through.

In Rafe’s class and Shakespeare program, he introduced us to literature, science, and arts that I would have never encountered at the age of nine. I was introduced to authors and artists like Mark Twain and Piet Mondrian who changed my life. I clearly remember reading Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in his fifth grade class because it was my favorite book and the first book that had moved me to tears. I cried as Huck tears up his letter and chooses Jim over society’s morals and rules. At a young age, I learned about friendship, love, and how to decide for myself a right and wrong outside of the expectations dictated by our culture and society.

We also read Shakespeare plays and traveled around the world, while performing at places like the Supreme Court and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Through these eye-opening experiences, I was shown the world and its possibilities. It’s important that students go on these trips because it is from these experiences that I learned and really treasured the idea that I could in fact accomplish anything if I wanted to.

Rafe showed me the world, but he also showed me the value of humility and honesty. He taught me that success is not defined by how much you make or how famous you are, but that it is honorable to be honest and do good. I am still trying to apply that to my life and practice today, and the classroom motto of ‘Be Nice, Work Hard’ follows me wherever I go. He showed me that I could achieve my dreams but also made me think about how those dreams could do good and help other people.

Rafe is someone who I consider to be not just a friend but also family. He has been fully supportive and a guiding light in all of my life’s journeys – from learning algebra in the 7th grade, to memorizing SAT vocabulary in high school, to going through a sophomore slump in college, to living abroad in France, Korea, and China, and most recently when facing tragedy and loss in my family. My parents adore him and consider him to be the greatest teacher they know. They are so grateful for his love and sacrifice that they bring him a birthday cake to the classroom every year. We consider him as family, and I am certain that I am not the only one who thinks so.

Rafe being suspended from teaching is a disservice to our community and frankly, the future of education. My heart goes out to the students whose education has been abruptly disrupted, in addition to the play they had been working so hard on. I don’t know of a better human being than Rafe Esquith and I urge you to bring him back to the classroom.

This second comment is from a reader named Gerald:

I’ve had a great deal of experience with the L.A. Unified School District over the past many years, and their treatment of Mr. Esquith is no surprise to me. There is a profound schism in the LAUSD between district level administrators and classroom teachers. I know from recent experience that the LAUSD has adopted a Michelle Rhee “don’t question our authority” style of management and a Gilded Age attitude towards “the workers”. Because of this, I believe that the investigation of Mr. Esquith is driven partly by some administrators lack of understanding of what it takes to truly inspire students, and the contempt these administrators have for independent teachers who don’t follow the LAUSD script. Mr. Esquith doesn’t use the LAUSD curriculum, and he’s written critically about school districts’ disheartening and negative treatment of teachers around the country. I’ve no doubt that there must be some bad blood towards Esquith somewhere in the LAUSD administration. They are, it seems, the only institution that hasn’t awarded or recognized his work- literally the only one! They never mention him in staff trainings or professional developments and they never refer to him as a model of good teaching- but they sure are working hard to investigate him! If they really valued Esquith and his work, they would have defended him against the initial petty complaint over his “joke’. Instead, they took that complaint and began a witch hunt. Regardless of whether he is innocent or guilty of the other abuse accusations against him, the real crime is how the LAUSD treats him and any teacher who doesn’t goose step to their orders. If you have a voice that people listen to, I implore you to use it to confront the LAUSD and question them about why they’re persecuting a teacher who’s inspired his students and provided them with life experiences they couldn’t have any other way. They should have been championing this teacher a long time ago, not just investigating him today.

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Rafe Esquith’s “Shakespeareans” Respond to Misconduct Allegations

Before he was removed from his classroom, Rafe Esquith began school each day playing baseball with his students, because its fun and builds teamwork

Before he was removed from his classroom, Rafe Esquith began school each day playing baseball with his students, because its fun and builds teamwork

Last fall, during a visit to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to sit in for the day at Room 56 at Hobart Elementary, where Rafe Esquith, a man who has been described as “the best teacher” in America, has presided over the fifth grade class and his so-called Hobart Shakespeareans for over three decades—until he was recently accused of misconduct and removed from the classroom. I must confess that as I watched Esquith in action, and learned more about the extent of his work with students—the Saturday classes; the pricey violins (two for each student, one to practice on at home, the other for school) paid for with the proceeds of a private foundation; the way he commandeered space at Hobart so that professional musicians could come to class after school and teach his students; the travel, including annual Thanksgiving trips to Washington DC and summers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—I kept wondering:

How does he get away with it?

In an era of epic litigiousness, when a field trip to a museum requires forms filled out in triplicate, how has this man shown hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poor Latino and Asian students this country, over the course of decades, seemingly without complaint or censure?

I guess we now know at least part of the answer to my question. If, and when, Rafe Esquith is exonerated of allegations that began when he was accused of making an off-color joke while reading Mark Twain to his students, neither Rafe, as he is widely known by everyone, including his students, nor Room 56, will ever be the same. (He has since been accused of abusing—or was it pushing?—a boy 40 years ago when Esquith was a teenaged camp counselor.) The LAUSD is also investigating his foundation, the eponymous Hobart Shakespeareans, which had revenues of $435,000 in 2013; travel for his students was the largest single expenditure for each of the last three years. (Esquith serves a director of the foundation and his wife Barbara Tong as president; neither collects a salary.)

If Esquith is ever allowed to return to his classroom—and if he can bring himself to do so—it is highly unlikely that he will be able to resume business as usual in Room 56. So, I thought it might be useful to hear from one of his students, what it was like to be not just one of Esquith’s students, but a Hobart Shakespearean.

I called Rudy De La Cruz who says that if it weren’t for Esquith he would have joined a street gang in L.A. Instead, De La Cruz recently graduated from New York University. Among Hobart Shakespeareans who have gone on to become engineers, teachers, doctors and lawyers, De La Cruz may be the first one who was inspired to become an actor. (While I was writing this post, I received several emails about Esquith, written by former students, and appended them to the bottom of this post.)

De La Cruz is still waiting tables between acting gigs in New York City. He tried to put into perspective the role that Esquith and Hobart Shakespeareans had played in his life. Hobart Shakespeareans, in fact, no longer refers just to the fifth graders and their annual production; it is what the alums who come back year after year for SAT prep, more Shakespeare and just to visit with their former teacher call themselves.

“I’m going to meet with producers, with costume designers for the new show,” he explained of a new TV role he just clinched. Its his “shot” at getting a coveted Screen Actors Guild union card. “But the experience pales in comparison to the wonder and excitement of that Shakespeare play,” De La Cruz says, referring to his performance as the Earl of Kent in King Lear, at age 9.

“The biggest crime is that his kids were robbed of the opportunity to do Shakespeare,” says De La Cruz.

For decades, producing a Shakespeare play has been the culminating experience for Esquith’s fifth graders. This spring, Esquith’s students were abruptly told that their production of A Winter’s Tale, for which they had worked all year after school and sometimes on Saturdays, would not go forward. The quality of the Hobart productions is so fine, it caught the attention of the Royal Shakespeare Co. and the renowned actor, Sir Ian McKellan, who has become a patron of the Hobart Shakespeareans and who regularly attends the productions when he is in Los Angeles.

Rudy De La Cruz 10 '14

Rudy De La Cruz, an NYU graduate and aspiring actor, says he owes everything to his former teacher

Today, Rudy De La Cruz is 5’9” and over 200 lbs of pure muscle; he was a heavy-weight wrestling champion in high school, and kept up his wrestling as an NYU drama student even as he juggled classes, rehearsals, performances and part-time work. He is one of hundreds—if not thousands—of students who say that Esquith changed their lives; though he thinks he is the only one who is aspiring to be a professional actor.

I first met De La Cruz several months ago, long before the current scandal, in a Manhattan coffee shop; I wanted to learn more about why Esquith has been called the “best teacher” in America. I wrote a post about the teaching lessons KIPP, the charter-school chain, borrowed from Esquith, and those it ignored, and was getting ready for a trip to Los Angeles where I planned to visit one of Esquith’s classes. (I had planned to return in May to see the class’s production of A Winter’s Tale.) 

De La Cruz showed up at our meeting carrying a copy of the Bully Pulpit, the biography of Teddy Roosevelt by Doris Kearns Goodwin, tucked under his arm. “It was the first time a man said ‘let’s preserve Yellowstone,’ and thanks to Rafe, I know why,” says De La Cruz, recalling his fifth grade trip out West with Esquith and his classmate.

De La Cruz is not only the first member of his family of Guatemalan immigrants to graduate from college, he is the first to finish high school; and all of it, he attributes to the year he spent in Esquith’s fifth grade class and the mentoring he got from Esquith in the years that followed.

The Bully Pulpit reminds him of many lessons he learned from Esquith. William Taft, is a level-three thinker, he explains, referring to Richard Kohlberg’s three-levels of moral development. “Taft is motivated by his father and wants to please him. He doesn’t waste time on outside reading. Whereas Teddy Roosevelt is constantly reading, he has his personal library. Yet he is known for being slightly eccentric. Esquith teaches kids to be like Teddy Roosevelt,” says De La Cruz

Like most of Esquith’s students at Hobart, De La Cruz grew up poor and directionless. He was a young child when his mother suddenly disappeared one day; De La Cruz later learned that, an addict and a dealer, his mom was doing time on a drugs charge. His parents were divorced and De La Cruz wound up living for a time with his father, who worked odd hours as a dishwasher. As young De La Cruz started fifth grade, gang life on the street was beginning to look pretty appealing.

Like many of the kids who landed in Room 56, De La Cruz found class with Esquith fun. A brainy kid, De La Cruz did pretty well without working hard. So, he couldn’t figure out why Esquith was constantly leaning on him, never satisfied with his performance.

“He was always pushing me to improve myself,” says De La Cruz.

Toward the end of the school year, De La Cruz’s grades fell just shy of the cut-off for joining a trip that Esquith was organizing out West. In those days, you needed to have a 3.5 average to qualify for the annual trip; although De La Cruz came just short with a 3.4, Esquith let him come along. (Over time Esquith has changed the criteria for the trips; most his alums agree that Esquith takes kids who work hard and follow his code of conduct—not just the highest academic achievers.)

In recent years, those trips have been paid for with the proceeds of his foundation. In the early years, Esquith paid for the outings out of his meager paycheck. At one point, De La Cruz recalls, Esquith even sold his car, walking miles to and from school, so he could pay for extras for his students.

For De La Cruz that class trip was as much a journey of self-discovery as an opportunity to see beyond the broken fences and violence of his East LA neighborhood. For three weeks, De La Cruz and his classmates criss-crossed the West, from Wisconsin to Montana, with Esquith and his wife Barbara who always accompanies her husband on student trips. They visited the battle site that commemorated Custer’s last stand. They explored Yellowstone Park. “I remember the plains of Wisconsin, how big they were,” recalls De La Cruz. “I was very patriotic and remember thinking” that this vast expanse of land is mine.”

The trip with Esquith “gave me a sense of country. History came alive for me,” he adds.

Equally important, for the then-ten-year-old, it was the first time an adult had made an “extravagant promise” and had followed through. As transformative as the trip out West had been, it was Shakespeare that became a life-changing event not only for De La Cruz, but also for his family.

Outgoing and with a 100-watt smile, De La Cruz took naturally to his role as the Earl of Kent in that year’s production of King Lear. “We were a bunch of kids for whom English wasn’t a first language. We all became brothers and sisters in arms… I’ve never had an experience like that since.”

But Shakespeare was a hard sell at home. When he visited his mother house, De La Cruz would have to lock himself into the bathroom to practice his lines in peace.

“My dad threatened to kick me out of the Hobart Shakespeareans with just a couple of weeks to go before production because we practiced every night until 8 pm,” De La Cruz recalls his dad screaming “’It’s over you’re done.’”

“I screamed, I fought,” recalls De La Cruz. His father asked if Esquith was “touching” him.

The De La Cruzes, like many Hobart parents, couldn’t understand why this man was spending so much time with his students. De La Cruz remembers the “naysayers”: This is too good to be true. Why is he doing it? Why does he spend so much time with you kids?

His parents “didn’t get it until they saw the play,” says De La Cruz. His parents overcame their skepticism when they met Esquith and saw their son perform in King Lear.

“This guy is inspiring ten year olds to go to school six days a week, two hours early and two hours late,” says De La Cruz, referring to the 6:30 a.m. math club Esquith organized for Room 56, before the start of the regular school day, and the after-school Shakespeare rehearsals. “He is just the best person, teacher I’ve ever had. He made me feel like I could accomplish anything.”

More surprising is the impact that De La Cruz says his life has had on his parents. Not long after leaving Room 56, De La Cruz mustered the courage to tell his mother he “didn’t like it when she drank or took drugs.” De La Cruz credits Esquith with teaching him how to hold his own in a conversation with adults. His mother, who worked as a janitor at the Staples Center after her arrest, eventually gave up not only drugs but also cigarettes and alcohol. She eventually become a Certified Nurses Assistant.

Meanwhile, De La Cruz’s father emerged from behind the kitchen sink and became the manager of a high-end Italian restaurant chain in LA.

De La Cruz’s parents each said that he had “inspired them.”

But, says De La Cruz: “Rafe inspired me.”

After “graduating” from fifth grade and going on to middle school, De La Cruz became a regular at Saturday school—Esquith credits Barbara with coming up with the idea. Over bagels and orange juice, Esquith would give his former students extra help with academics and test prep. Esquith also would help students fill out scholarship applications to the elite high schools where many of them landed. De La Cruz credits Esquith with helping him and several friends get into the Brentwood School, (There were students who went to other private schools, such as Immaculate Heart and Marlborough High School, an elite all-girls school, to which Esquith had steered them.) And, over the years, Saturday school also included more and more Shakespeare–reading Shakespeare and watching film versions of the plays. As a reward, the stalwarts of Saturday school, were invited to attend the Oregon Shakespeare festival with Esquith and Barbara.

It was during the trip to Oregon that De La Cruz remembers encountering the deep-rooted pragmatism and toughness that are equally important to the culture of Room 56.

De La Cruz was one of 30-or-so alums from Esquith’s class who were traveling to Ashland that year. For Esquith’s Saturday kids, the trip is not only a rare opportunity to get out of their neighborhoods, it is also a unique privilege.

During the regular school day, every child has the benefit of Esquith’s instruction. But it is during after-school music or Shakespeare and Saturday school that Esquith weeds out the handful of kids who for whatever reason won’t walk through the door he has opened for them. “Coming to school is a right,” explains De La Cruz. “Guitar, Shakespeare, travel—those are privileges.”

A kid who bullies another child, a kid whose parent threatens a teacher, a kid who fails to meet Esquith’s high expectations for personal behavior and respect, will lose out. Permanently.

As in Room 56, there are few rules on the Oregon trip; being responsible and kind, are values that are inculcated in the first weeks a fifth grader arrives in room 56. By the time they have earned a trip, everyone is expected to know—and meet—Esquith’s expectations. (KIPP borrowed its slogan Work Hard/Be Nice from Esquith; but in Room 56, the slogan is reversed. Be Nice comes first; it is the paramount virtue.) In Ashland, students are given a schedule, showing which days and times they are supposed to attend performances, and they are expected to show up at twice-daily meetings. Otherwise, they are free to roam Ashland as long as they stay in groups of four with one high-school student and long-time denizen of Saturday school attached to each group.

Ashland is a tiny town. But for the Hobart Shakespereans, the opportunity to stay at nice hotel, the ability to go to lunch or dinner with their friends—is a mark of trust that is also vested with great responsibility.

That year four boys learned just how much so. During one of the performances, they fell asleep. Word got back to Esquith that one of them had even snored audibly—though, as De La Cruz remembers the incident, no one thought much about it. The boys, after all were no more than 10 or 11. And boys will be boys.

Esquith, though, didn’t see it as a minor boyish lapse. He immediately called an emergency meeting, summoning the four boys up to the front of the room. “You’re not watching any more plays,” scolded Esquith pointing out that they had behaved disrespectfully to the performers and set a bad example. But that wasn’t all. He told the boys he was sending them home on the next flight out of Ashland. “Please pack your bags,” he said, ending the meeting.

De La Cruz, then about 11-years old, stayed behind and, in a snap decision that he says made him tremble, decided to plead the boys’ case with Esquith. “I was so scared, recalls De La Cruz who asked Rafe if there wasn’t some way the boys could be given another chance.

“Give me an alternative,” Esquith challenged.

“How about sudden death, like in basketball?” offered De La Cruz. “Any mistake from here on in, they are banned from this and future trips, and from the Hobart Shakespearean community.”

Esquith looked intently at De La Cruz for a few minutes, and finally said: “OK. Fine, these four boys can stay. Just so you know: You’re putting your neck out for them. If they screw up, you will also go home.”

De La Cruz and the four boys stayed for the rest of that Oregon trip. They also became stalwarts of the Hobart Shakespeareans in the years to come.

But, for De La Cruz, his confrontation with Esquith in Oregon was the only time he ever recalled his beloved teacher backing down in a situation that involved his deep-seated beliefs about respect and personal conduct. “Rafe is very much of the belief that you get to make mistakes” when it comes to academics. “He’ll always help you. But if you do something disrespectful, all the opportunities go away.”

Esquith’s most interesting—and controversial—argument is that kids are neither created equal (few would argue that they are), nor that they should be treated equally. He challenges the prevailing assumption that it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that all kids succeed. Teachers owe every child an equal chance at success—as Esquith puts it, a full menu of options. But what they select from the menu, is really up to each child.

For De La Cruz, Esquith opened a door of incomparable opportunities–a world of Shakespeare and travel. Great books and music. And movies. De La Cruz walked through with arms wide open. Back in fifth grade, De La Cruz was allowed to earn extra credit by watching, and writing critiques of, movies from Esquith’s vast trove of videos: Casablanca. The Godfather, The Great Escape. Rocky.

As he thinks about Esquith’s predicament today, De La Cruz is reminded of another movie he borrowed from Esquith, “Twelve Angry Men.” In the movie, an 18-year-old boy, a poor kid from the slums, is accused of killing his father. There is an eye witness, an “old man,” who claims to have heard the boy threatening to kill his father. The jurors, anxious to get back to their lives—some eager to condemn a boy from the slums– agree to find him guilty. Everyone, that is, except for Juror No. 8 who is played by Henry Fonda. As De La Cruz remembers it, Juror No. 8 questions the old man’s version of events.

There is also an old man on the jury, Juror Number Nine. And before long he too is won over to the boy’s innocence. This is what Juror Number Nine, a man described as “A mild, gentle old man, long since defeated by life and now merely waiting to die. A man who recognizes himself for what he is and mourns the days when it would have been possible to be courageous without shielding himself behind his many years.”

De La Cruz remembers the crucial passage:

He was a very old man with a torn jacket, and he carried two canes. I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition—his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing. A man like this needs to be recognized. To be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once.

No, he wouldn’t really lie. But perhaps he’d make himself believe that he heard those words and recognized the boy’s face.

Is Rafe Esquith a closeted criminal who has hidden a predatory past behind a veil of good works? Or, is he the victim of the petty jealousies of those who envied his celebrity without seeing the hard work behind it, or, perhaps, of a man who is eager to see his name in the papers–to be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once?

Rudy La Cruz says he is sure of the answer. “I never heard any kind of rumors. I never saw anything inappropriate and I was with him a lot for four or five years. With other students. In so many situations. Never ever did it boarder on anything inappropriate.”

Long before his teacher’s current predicament, De La Cruz sent his mentor a letter, comparing Esquith’s influence on him to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: “I knew only pain and disappointment and thought that was the way of the world until I met you.”

Even as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, De La Cruz sent me three letters written on behalf of his teacher to the LAUSD—one by him and two by other Hobart Shakespearean, Jiyeon Hwang and Raul Hernandez. Meanwhile, Joann Cho, another alum and a college music teacher who continues to arrange music for the Hobart Shakespereans also sent me her email to the LAUSD. They are posted below.

Other students are welcome to send emails to andrea.gabor@baruch.cuny.edu. Please put Rafe Esquith in the subject field of your email.



     My name is Rudy De La Cruz and I am a former student of Rafe Esquith. I was in his fifth grade class for the 2000-2001 school year and attended his SATurday classes until I was 16. I have kept in contact with him since then and consider him my greatest mentor and an amazing friend. I am sad to hear about what is happening to him. I would have shown up and spoken at the Board meeting you all had concerning him but currently live in New York City. And that’s the funny thing. I’m so far away and can’t help him like I would like to but that’s his fault.
     You see, if it weren’t for Rafe, I would be in Los Angeles right now. Enjoying the beautiful weather, seeing the youngest of my 8 siblings growing older, hanging out with some local street gang, unemployed, have a criminal history, and devoid of any aspirations in my life.
     I didn’t know there was a world outside of the poverty and drug infested world of the tiny studio apartment that housed 8 people, 5 of which were children (which even by NY standards, was a very tight living situation). For my parents, that was already the escape. They were somewhat content to have made it to this country and very content to not have machetes threatening the connections between their heads and necks. They had no means or goals beyond surviving the hard terrain of an immigrants life in the poor ghettos of LA, to seek out what else this new world had to offer. And it was because of this inability to see or know what was beyond that I was blind to the world as well.
     That all changed because of Rafe. He woke me. He brought down Promethean Fire in the form of books, art, and cinema. He challenged me. He pushed me harder than anyone ever had and has. I am now a graduate of one of the finest colleges in the country, New York University. I live in New York City, the greatest and hardest city to live in. And I’m doing it with aplomb (that’s a word he taught me). And I did it all without borrowing a cent from my family. In fact I send them some whenever they have need of it.
     And I’m doing it all while chasing an impossible dream: becoming an actor. It sounds silly of course but Rafe has believed in me. And so I know I can.
   “I know I can” is a phrase that we all learn to believe, usually only through transference. Someone believes in us and so we believe in ourselves. Rafe believed in me. Believes in me. Will keep on believing. And so I believe in him.
     He is a righteous man. A good man. And a good teacher. I am just one of a multitude of stories that spring from the good he has done. I am sharing this with you all because I know he is innocent of any wrongdoing he is accused of. I know he did not misconduct himself in front of his students. And I know his non profit is run with only the best interest of his students in mind.
     I ask that you please just come out and throw all you have against him. Just do it already. He will beat any allegations down with the power of Truth. He will do nothing but present what is real and true and he will win. All you are doing by biding your time is smearing his good name and deeds. And yours as well, for when it comes out that you all sat on a pile of empty accusations and kept you BEST teacher from doing what he does best, you will do nothing but illuminate your own faults.
     I would write more, but I have to prepare for a TV show I’ll be appearing on soon. My impossible dream becomes more of a realistic goal every day, and I have Rafe to thank for that. Thank you for your time and Have a nice day.
     Rudy De La Cruz
This is from Jiyeon Hwang, an amazing former student of Rafe’s. She’s cc’ed.I am terribly upset at how the school district has handled the situation. Rafe Esquith, the most passionate teacher I have ever worked with during my school years, should not have gone through this kind of treatment to begin with but the fact that it has gone on for this long is ridiculous. I was one of the lucky students who was able to join the Hobart Shakespeareans in 1997 and I have never lost touch with Rafe and the classroom. I would like to tell you a bit about my background here:I was a really shy kid when I was in elementary school. I overcame my fear of talking in front of a big audience through the Shakespeare plays I participated in. I was able to attend Marlborough School, a prestigious all-girls school, on a full scholarship. It was due to his urging that I tried multiple times to achieve this goal. After high school, I was accepted to 12 different colleges and decided to go to Cornell University, where I received by Bachelors and Masters in Chemical Engineering. Since then, I moved to San Francisco and started working for a software company that primarily works with major process engineering companies, such as Exxon Mobile and Cargill. I’ve moved up to become a Project Manager for the entire Engineering department.The reason I’ve listed these achievements is to show you how big of an impact Rafe has had on my life. “Be Nice, Work Hard” is the motto he uses in his classroom and I have never forgotten it. I went from a really introverted, shy girl to a confident individual who believes she can do anything she puts her mind to. This is what I took away from Rafe’s program and I would not have had the courage to take the first step toward my personal development in 6th grade without his urging and words of encouragement. What Rafe has taught me extends out of the classroom and into the real world. I learned real life lessons from Rafe and one of them was that I shouldn’t take life so seriously that I won’t be able to enjoy what it has to offer. We need Rafe back in the classroom to influence other young lives the way he has affected mine.The incident in question had no sexual innuendo and it was a humorous excerpt. I am hopeful that the district will come to the right decision in reinstating Rafe to his classroom so that he and his students will be able to continue their lessons and enjoy the 5th graders’ graduation with no sad feelings.Over the years, I’ve read about all the changes happening to LAUSD and the curriculum. A lot of the changes were restrictive to students’ learning experience. With this incident, I’m even more disheartened at the prospect of the LAUSD being able to rectify the flaws in the system. Please consider the views of his students, their parents, and all of his supporters – we all care for Rafe deeply and he doesn’t deserve to be treated like this.

Raul Hernandez
Brooklyn, NY 11201
June 23, 2015
Los Angeles Unified School District
PO Box 3307
Los Angeles, CA 90051

To Board of Education:
My name is Raul Hernandez and I graduated from Rafe Esquith’s class 15 years ago.
Rafe was my teacher, my mentor, and my hero.
Pick up any of his books, ask any of his alums, or observe any of his classes and you’ll understand the magic that is Room 56.
Today, I write as an alum and a living testament to what his unrivaled teaching methods and his unbridled motivation has accomplished.
My story is not unlike others in my neighborhood or perhaps some of your own. Like many in Koreatown, I grew up a first generation Mexican-American to parents without college degrees, without steady paychecks, and without access to healthcare. Seen from the outside, I could have been another statistic – another sad story we hear with much too frequency in the news.
However, by the age of 10, I knew bigger things were in store. Thanks to Rafe, the skills I learned in his class, my preparation, and his guidance, I entered the prestigious Brentwood School. Shortly thereafter, I graduated with an acceptance to Haverford College, a top ten liberal arts college.
Now, 15 years later, I find myself in education serving children of the poorest Congressional District in the country, the South Bronx, with Rafe as the standard bearer and example of what can be possible in today’s poorest neighborhoods.
I have decided to give back to the communities, much like many of you have done in your lives, either through a Teach for America program, Social Justice work, or teaching in settings just like this and so we all know the impact a teacher can have on his student’s lives.
Removing him from the classroom risks making our children from Koreatown just another statistic in the Times. Will that be your legacy?
I want to be proud to call LA my home and Hobart Elementary my Alma Mater.
Please – reinstate Rafe Esquith.
Raul Hernandez


From: Joann Cho
Date: Sat, Jun 20, 2015 at 12:31 PM
Subject: In support of Rafe Esquith’s return to Room 56
To: ellen.morgan@lausd.net

Dear Ms. Morgan,
My name is Joann Cho, and I am a former student of Rafe Esquith turned colleague. I had him as a 5th and 6th grade teacher from 1995-1997, then starting in 2004, I began working for him and the Hobart Shakespeareans as the music director to their annual Shakespeare productions. I have known Rafe as a teacher and more importantly as a person for many years now, and I find the recent abrupt interruption to his year in the classroom to be entirely unnecessary at best.
Rafe is a wonderfully caring, passionate, and dedicated teacher and any student or parent who has worked with him or been part of his class would certainly be in support of his return to Room 56 at Hobart. He immerses himself fully in his teaching philosophy and cultivates each student in his classroom as if he were their only guiding presence in life– and often times, he is. Over his tenure as an elementary school teacher, particularly at Hobart Elementary (where I was a student), Rafe has gained utmost respect from administrators, colleagues, students, and parents.
Over the many years that I have personally known Rafe and the thousands of conversations we have shared, I have never had one that did not somehow incorporate ideas to better himself as a teacher and to reach students who are somehow more challenging to reach. He not only creates an environment for success in his classroom during the short time that his students have with him, but he sets up a path for each of his students to succeed throughout the remainder of their lives.
As a community college music professor now, I think of Rafe and his lessons every day when I step into the classroom. I try to emulate his teaching style, his dedication, and his incredible curiosity for learning new things. When I am discouraged as a teacher, I call Rafe for advice and he always knows the right thing to say. When I’m not sure about whether an idea will work, I never hesitate to run it by Rafe.
All in all, I am shocked and disappointed in the LAUSD investigation over what seems like trite classroom humor (in conjunction with one of the best works of literature in history) and find this whole situation to be a tactic to humiliate and mar Rafe’s pristine reputation as one of the greatest educators of our time.
I urge you and your colleagues at LAUSD to reconsider the case that has been opened and allow this fine teacher to return to his classroom. I sincerely believe you are making a big mistake at the expense of Rafe, his students, and their families.
Joann Cho


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New CREDO Study, New Credibility Problems: from New Orleans to Boston

Last month, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a new study on urban charter schools, which purports to show, for the first time, that charters outperform city public schools, at least on standardized-test scores. If true, the study’s findings are a potential bombshell since, thus far, studies have shown no meaningful difference between charter and public schools.

The new study, Urban Charter School Study Report on 41 Regions claims to show that “urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their TPS [public school] peers.”

The years I’ve spent researching schools on the ground in charter-heavy districts like New Orleans and New York City made me skeptical of such an outcome. But because I am not an expert in research methodology, I decided to hire a respected statistician, Kaiser Fung, author of Numbersense and an adjunct professor of statistics at New York University who has no connection to the education-reform movement (and thus no axe to grind), to help me analyze the CREDO study.

After combing through the study and its accompanying technical document, and after exchanging a series of emails with Macke Raymond, Director of CREDO, we found significant problems with the CREDO study. The problems go well beyond technical quibbles and suggest that any generalizations drawn from the study about the quality of traditional public schools relative to charter schools would be a big mistake. In particular, the study does a poor job of explaining the basis on which it includes or excludes charter- and public-school students; an email exchange with Raymond clarified the study’s methodology, but also revealed that it introduced, in many cases, an anti-public-school bias. And, in at least one case—the findings on New Orleans, the first all-charter district in the country—Raymond admits that CREDO violated its own methodology, a fact not disclosed in either the study or its accompanying technical documents.

Let’s begin with a brief description of the study itself. The study analyses data from 22 states, covering just over a million charter-school students, during the 2006/2007-to-2011/2012 school years. It seeks to measure charter-school performance in 41 urban areas against students who attend “feeder” public schools in the same urban areas. The study includes about 80 percent of the charter students in the areas under study (20 percent are excluded from the study because CREDO could not find any matching public-school students.)

The study also relies on a controversial methodology that the researchers used in past CREDO studies and that has been critiqued here and here and here. What’s important to know about the methodology is that it purports to compare each charter student in the study to a “virtual twin,” a composite of as many as seven public-school kids who attend “feeder” schools and who “match” the charter students on both demographics and test scores; the virtual twin is literally an averaged kid. The demographic criteria for creating each virtual twin includes: grade level, ethnicity, gender, Title 1 eligibility, special-education and English-language-learner status.

In this post, I will not revisit the problems referenced above with CREDO’s virtual-twin methodology; rather I will focus on three major problems with this study:

First, the study excludes public schools that do NOT send students to charters, thus introducing a bias against the best urban public schools, especially small public schools that may send few, if any, students to charters. The study implies that the “virtual twins” are drawn from the general population of traditional public schools—specifically that a school is considered to be a feeder if even a single student transferred during the study period. This is not the case. In our email exchange, Raymond explained that to qualify as a “feeder school” a public school must send at least five students to charter schools, a detail not revealed in the study. The study never explains that it uses this stricter, five-student-minimum criteria that public schools must meet to be included in the study. (Nor does the study explain why it didn’t look at all “neighboring” public schools with comparable/charter-like demographics—whether they send kids to charters or not.)

To test my theory, I contacted two of the better Title 1 middle schools in New York City whose demographics I knew would mirror those of local charter schools to see if they meet the criteria that would qualify them as charter “feeder schools.” Global Technology Preparatory, in East Harlem, where most kids are black or Latino, estimates that it has sent only three of its graduating eight graders to charter high schools over the last three years. West Side Collaborative, a ten-year-old school with similar demographics, hasn’t sent a single transfer-student or graduate to a charter school, according to Jeanne Rotunda, the recently retired founding principal. Both schools received an “A” and a “B” on the last two graded report cards from the New York City Department of Education, and are given high marks for quality from parents, students and teachers. Yet, although both GTP and West Side have charter-like demographics and are in an area rich with charter schools, they would not count as feeders and, therefore, their students wouldn’t be included among the virtual twins in the CREDO study.

This also raises several further questions: The study’s geographical filtering mechanism for determining which schools qualify as “feeders” isn’t disclosed, except for some qualitative description in the Technical Appendix. It would have been much more straight forward to rely on simple geographic or district demarcations. New York City, for example, neatly divides its schools into clearly defined neighborhoods, such as East Harlem North and East Harlem South etc., as well as distinct educational districts.

Global Tech and West Side Collaborative also highlight the ways in which CREDO’s matching criteria miss critical differences between public- and charter-school demographics. Urban public school students are often poorer, more likely to attend schools with large number of kids with special needs and English language learners than their charter-school counterparts. They are also likely to have parents who are less engaged, for a variety of reasons, than those in charter schools, which target the most engaged families via everything from lotteries to requiring that parents attend a set number of open houses before they can even enter lotteries. These distinctions are not addressed by the CREDO study.

Second, in the case of New Orleans, the study compares charter students to virtual twins who go to school, not in New Orleans, but anywhere in Louisiana—a clear violation of the study’s feeder-school criteria, and one that isn’t disclosed in the study. In 2007, the first year of the study, 56 percent of New Orleans students were enrolled in charter schools; by 2012, the last year of the study, over 80 percent were enrolled in charter schools. Since each virtual twin is a composite of an average of five public-school student test scores, it seemed logical that there were not enough public-school students in New Orleans to meet the methodological requirements of the CREDO study. (See chart below) When I asked Raymond about this, she wrote: “In Nola, we use similar schools that operate in similar communities in Louisiana to provide our matches.”

CREDO screenshotofspreadsheetRaymond also claims that New Orleans is the only city where she bent her own rules on drawing virtual twins from “feeder schools.” Yet, a similar problem is likely to impact at least two other cities—Washington, D.C. and Detroit, where 40 percent and 47 percent, respectively, of students attend charter schools. Assuming that only 80 percent of the charter students are matched in each case (the other 20 percent are dropped from the study because of insufficient public-school matches), then there are at most 1.4 and 1.9 public-school students, respectively, as potential matches for each charter student, far less than the 5-student average needed for virtual twins. However, the 1.4 and 1.9 public-student estimate assumes every public student is a match for a charter school student. We already know this to be false. Some public school students don’t attend feeder schools. There will be other reasons why public-school students drop out (e.g. CREDO’s methodology deletes public school students who transfer to a charter or who are demographically dissimilar to charter-school kids.)

The reverse problem—too many potential public school student matches per charter student—plagues the study’s findings in cities like Boston where a very small percentage of students attend charter schools. See below.

Problem Three: Subjective decisions on which charter schools and public schools to include or exclude introduce a number of additional anti-public-school biases.

The study includes both selective and non-selective charter schools, but eliminates an undisclosed number of demographically similar public schools as per above, again introducing the potential for anti-public school bias. Among charter schools, the study eliminates only those that operate in “secure” settings, such as detention centers, as well as “charters that are permitted to use entrance exams (these occur only in two of the regions, a total of 4 schools, I believe),” writes Raymond in an email. “Other than these exceptions we include all TESTED charter students.” Again, this detail is not available in the study or its attendant technical documents.

While relatively high-quality schools like Global Tech and West Side Collaborative do not match the study’s “feeder” criteria, selective charter schools are included in the study. Take the two-tier charter school system of New Orleans, where about a dozen of the city’s charter schools are part of the Orleans Parish School Board, which includes many of the city’s most successful schools, most of which are selective. These schools do not typically give entrance tests that would disqualify them from the CREDO study. But they do require applicants to submit, among other things: test scores, school grades, and attendance records. Even kindergarten applicants are required to submit a record of their work: In the case of the Lake Forest school, these include “1 current student artwork sample, a self-portrait drawn by said student, and one student handwriting sample. By way of partial explanation, Raymond writes: “The object is to create controls that mirror the range of charters, not the range of TPS [public schools.] We do not presume that the peers are a complete mirror of the entire TPS [public school] population.”

Says Fung: “This is exactly the reason why observers shouldn’t interpret the finding as representative of urban public schools.”

However, when a public-school student transfers to a charter, the entire record of that student is deleted from the virtual-twin control group. At the same time, she is eligible to be included in the study as a charter student. “This is doubly bad,” says Fung.

Here’s why: The public-school student who is transferring to a charter is presumably a good student. By deleting the record of this student during the time she was in public school, the study drags down the performance of the public-school matches during that period. Simultaneously, because this student can now be considered a charter student in future periods, and can be counted as part of the charter student population in future periods, she contributes to the performance of the charter students in the study.
Conversely, if a student drops out of a charter school, he is eliminated from the study. When I asked Raymond why this didn’t artificially improve the scores of charter-schools because drop-outs are likely to be among the weakest students, she answered: “Since we have very little test data on high schools, we actually don’t see if students drop out.”

Says Fung: Her answer amounts to “because we don’t have data, we don’t know if there is bias, and because we don’t know, we assume there isn’t”. The reality is the students are dropping out whether or not CREDO sees them. This is known as “survivorship bias”. All CREDO gets to see in the data are the “survivors”, students who have not dropped out of the system.

Imagine a clinical trial comparing cancer drug A and cancer drug B. You measure the increase in survival time of patients in each arm. Now, suppose each time someone dies, you drop them from the study. The problem is that the reason for the dropout is related to the outcome being measured (i.e. their survival time is so low that they died before the end of the study).

Similarly, if the students who have dropped out of charter are those who perform worse, then for sure, by letting these students drop out of the study, they have a bias in the selection of the charter student population.

Thus, the CREDO study appears to include the “cream” of the charter schools—the selective schools—while excluding the best public schools even among those that serve students who are demographically similar to those of nearby charter schools. At the same time, Raymond doesn’t acknowledge that creaming takes place among even non-selective charter schools in cities like New Orleans. Writes Raymond, in response to my question about creaming: “It is not widely acknowledged that there is cream skimming in Nola. With 90 percent of the students attending charter school it seems infeasible the cream skimming would occur.”

This despite a recent study, by the Educational Research Alliance at Tulane Univ., in which principals of New Orleans charter schools admit that they respond to market pressures—in particular, competition for scarce funds that come to schools with the highest test scores—by engaging in “actively selecting or excluding particular types of students.”  Such clandestine selectivity may, indeed, contribute to large and under-counted dropout rates in New Orleans.

In addition, while CREDO says it uses an average of five public-school students, and a maximum of seven, to form a virtual twin, it never explains what proportion of public-school students in each region are included in the study, a problem that can, again, introduce bias.

In the cities with small charter-school populations, such as Boston, where only 13 percent of students attend charter schools, there are too many potential public-school student matches, requiring CREDO to make additional judgments, which again are not explained in the methodology, on which public-school kids to include. Here’s why: Since only 13 percent of Boston students attend charter schools, there are a lot more than 5 possible virtual twins (see chart); thus, CREDO needs to use an additional screening mechanism. If five matches are randomly selected from among all public school students in Boston, then large schools will predominate, introducing a large-school bias. In the most extreme cases—i.e. cities with tiny charter-school populations, such as El Paso, where less than 5 percent of the student population attends charter schools, there are many, many eligible matches per charter student.(see Kaiser’s chart)

Further, while the study matches the test scores of, on average, five public-school students to each charter student, not all the scores are exact matches. Yet, the study never discloses either the percentage of “inexact” matches nor whether these inexact matches are on the high, or the low side. If the majority of “inexact” matches are below those of their charter twins, it would not be surprising that, by the end of the study, the public-school virtual twins would still be testing lower than their charter counterparts. (The converse, of course, is also true. But we don’t know, because the study doesn’t say!)

Says Fung: “There is no clear statement from CREDO as to how they select matches under this scenario, and they do not control for school variability.”

Fung found numerous other problems, some of them technical, which I will not elaborate here. However, the examples above are more than enough to cast serious doubt on the study’s conclusions. And this, even without further challenging two key assumptions behind the study: A) That standardized-test scores are an adequate measure of school quality and B) That creaming in charter schools does not exist.

Finally, readers of the Credo report are likely to think the public-school matches are representative of public-school students in general (which Raymond herself said was not the intention), and to think that somehow a finding here, even if one were to accept CREDO’s methodology, can be used to advocate expanding charter schools.

Unfortunately, the myriad problems with this study have not stopped many charter advocates and even some respected journalists from blindly accepting the study’s findings.

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Round Two In the Bay State’s Battle Over the Common Core

One of the big mysteries of the education-reform movement is why Massachusetts, the gold-standard of American education, jettisoned its highly successful education standards for the untested Common Core State Standards. One reason was a much-needed, post-recession cash infusion via Race to the Top.

The Bay State’s first bid for RTTT funds failed—the commonwealth came in a miserable 13th—because it had not adopted the Common Core. “There’s a lot of disappointment and anger in Massachusetts that our outstanding track record in education reform was not recognized,” said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary at the time.

Massachusetts finally won $250 million in RTTT funding, in 2010, after agreeing to adopt the Common Core. That “win” would usher in a series of changes to the state’s highly regarded, two-decade old education system.

Massachusetts’s poor showing in its first RTTT sweepstakes—and the Federal government’s apparent willingness to tie funding to the adoption of the Common Core, even for the country’s most advanced education system—troubled many experts on both sides of the ed-reform divide. Beginning in 2005, Massachusetts kids had the highest performing test scores in every subject tested by the National Assessment of Education Progress, which is known as the Nation’s Report Card. It has also outscored kids around the world on a range of international tests (More on Massachusetts’ test scores below.)

Now the Massachusetts reforms are once again under assault by Common-Core enthusiasts. Strangely, many of those attacking the reforms are its erstwhile defenders. In February, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a leading advocacy group for the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, issued the first of several reports that found, or are expected to find, the Bay State standards and an accompanying high-stakes test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or MCAS, wanting when compared to the still-untested “Common-Core aligned” PARCC tests (PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.)

“The current MCAS high school tests do not identify students who are college- and career-ready, and they do not contain the right content to measure college- and career-readiness,” concludes the MBAE study.

By contrast, the MBAE cautiously endorses the PARCC test: “As we are preparing this report in early 2015, the PARCC tests hold the promise of being a good indicator of college- and career-readiness.” (Emphasis added.)

In response, researchers from the Pioneer Institute, a market-oriented Massachusetts think thank, argue that money, once again, is playing an outsized role in the latest anti-MCAS research. The turncoats, according to Pioneer, include MBAE, which was cofounded by the aforementioned Paul Reville, as well as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Achieve Inc., both national Common-Core advocates. What these organizations all have in common is that they have receive funding– lots of it—from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also invested over $200 million in developing the Common Core.

The most recent Massachusetts skirmish over the Common Core is no coincidence. This year, Massachusetts elementary and middle schools had the choice of taking the PARCC test or the MCAS. In the fall, Massachusetts will make a final decision about whether to ditch the MCAS entirely in favor of PARCC, at a time when half the states that initially agreed to adopt the Common-Core aligned test have since backed out.

In their OpEd, Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass, detail the tangled web of relationships that tie the critics of the Massachusetts reforms to the Gates foundation, the PARCC tests and the Common Core. The OpEd is particularly scathing about the role of the MBAE:

The Mass. Business Alliance study’s credibility was further compromised by the fact that its author is an adviser to PARCC. An earlier report from the Alliance — written by the senior education adviser to the giant testing company Pearson, which is near the top of a long list of entities that stand to gain from the switch to Common Core — was so bereft of intellectual integrity that it lifted an entire purported “case study” from The Boston Globe without attribution.

However, the winner of the “conflict-of-interest derby,” according to Chieppo and Gass, is Teach Plus, a Boston-based national education-reform organization, which published a pro-PARCC report, “Massachusetts Teachers Examine PARCC“, in March:

The group recently released a study in which 23 of its fellows conclude that the commonwealth should ditch MCAS for PARCC. Teach Plus has received over $17 million from the Gates Foundation, including stipends for each of those 23 fellows.

While Pioneer Institute says it has neither solicited nor received funding from the Gates foundation, it has been approached by the Gates foundation. “The more noise we made the more they seemed interested in ‘working with’ us,” Gass wrote me in an email.

Like major philanthropists before him, Gates’s foundation has done a great deal of good around the world—for example, in joining the fight against the Ebola outbreak in Africa. However, the Gates foundation’s work in education reform illustrates the danger of allowing a single individual (or foundation)—no matter how well intentioned—to have too much influence on public policy. Gates brings his own data-driven world view to education—one that values STEM subjects over literature, history and the arts. There is no countervailing force with comparably deep pockets to argue that children would be better off, say, producing Shakespeare plays and studying violin instead of focusing on high-stakes tests.

By controlling the purse strings and the megaphone, the Gates foundation engineered “the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history,” according to a Washington Post analysis.

That story is now replaying itself in Massachusetts; the only difference is that in Massachusetts, there’s a real danger that by jettisoning the Bay State’s reforms, the Common Core could turn a widely recognized success into a failure. Like a bio-engineered super plant nurtured by Gates and bred for the arid conditions of ed-reform soil–and to be bug-resistant and uniform—the Common Core is threatening to crowd out the healthiest varietals.

Among the local ed-reform crop, none is sturdier than the Massachusetts standard and the MCAS. Beginning in 2005, the scores of kids in Massachusetts surpassed those of every other state, in every subject, at every grade tested on the NAEP. The state also outscored kids from around the world on international tests. Based on the latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results, if Massachusetts were a country, it would rank ninth in the world in math proficiency, tied with Japan; fourth in reading, tied with Hong Kong. Moreover, Massachusetts eighth graders ranked second only to Singapore in science competency, according to the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Social Studies) tests.

MBAE essentially argues that the “proficiency” cut-off score on the MCAS is set too low. In Massachusetts, other arguments for adopting the Common Core range from a 21st century penchant for all things new and shiny to an educational vision of “national citizenship”—as one Common Core advocate put it: “If we’re going to develop this country and thrive as a democracy” national standards will help lift states like Mississippi, which have the lowest education performance in the nation.

MCAS advocates counter that low-performing states will exert “downward pressure on PARCC’s rigor” eventually dumbing down both the test and the standards.

Indeed, in Massachusetts, even the Common Core’s staunchest advocates couch their support in conditional terms. “[I]t it is not possible to know how much” of the “promise” of the PARCC tests “will be fulfilled,” concedes the MBAE report. Reville meanwhile says: “Our hope is that they’re a more sophisticated generation of tests, they’ll be aligned with the Common Core and will generate information more quickly and in a more useful fashion than we’ve been able to do in the past.” (Emphasis added.)

Long-time Massachusetts educators disagree. Sue Szachowicz the recently retired principal of Brockton High, the largest high school in Massachusetts, says she “cringed” when she saw the MBAE report, which she says compared “apples” and “oranges.” Says Szachowicz: “MCAS was never ever” intended to test college and career readiness. “It’s a 10th grade test designed to be a check in, to see if our kids’ reading and math proficiency is where we need it to be.”

“I’m a strong supporter of MBAE,” adds Szachowicz who led a one of the Bay State’s most heralded and enduring turnaround efforts in response to the Massachusetts Reforms. But the report, she says, “is wrong,” noting that studies have found a strong correlation between MCAS performance and college success.

Tom Birmingham, a key architect of the Massachusetts reforms who recently joined the Pioneer Institute, is now also weighing in with his own series of OpEds, arguing that the Common Core, and thus PARCC, is inferior to Massachusetts standards. Most recently he wrote: “A distinguished presidential panel found that Algebra I is the key to advanced math study and recommended that students study it in 8th grade, as currently occurs under Massachusetts’ state standards. But Common Core would delay Algebra I until early in 10th grade, preventing students from reaching high levels of math in high school… Common Core ends with ‘Algebra II lite,’ which is insufficient for students aiming for college majors in science, technology, engineering or math.”

Advocates of the Common-Core and PARCC also miss a key ingredient that made the Massachusetts standards and the MCAS a success: They were the result of a dynamic democratic process, that solicited input from a wide range of constituencies. “We developed traveling groups of educators to go around the state and find out what should be included in the curriculum frameworks,” recalls Sandra Stotsky, who then served as senior associate commissioner of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. By the time the accountability piece of the reforms kicked in 2001—the MCAS results would determine whether kids received a high school diploma kicked—there was widespread acceptance of the process.

And after each MCAS testing period, the state released the MCAS questions and results, allowing teachers and administrators to pour over the tested material. Recalls Szachowicz: “We used the information, to see what areas we were strong on and where we were weak. It was a very open process.”

The MCAS continued to be updated and improved each year for more than a decade.

PARCC, by contrast, is a locked box, entirely controlled by Pearson, the testing giant that is developing the PARCC tests. It isn’t designed to be improved by educators over time, nor to help educators use the test to improve what or how they teach.

For now, at least in Massachusetts, the war over the Common Core will continue for at least a few months. Fordham Institute is expected to produce a study this summer examining the MCAS’s alignment to the Common Core; if its earlier support for the PARCC test is any indication, it too is likely to find against MCAS.

In Massachusetts, a final decision will be made by Mitchell Chester, the current education commissioner. Chester, it must be noted, also chairs PARCC’s governing board.

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Letter to Hillary: Beware Education Advice From Hedge-Funds

Last week, The New York Times, published a front page story about the pressure Hillary Rodham Clinton is under to declare herself on a host of controversial education-reform initiatives, including the Common Core State Standards and charter schools, which are championed by the business community, especially hedge fund executives.

This open letter offers some suggestions about the business advice worth heeding, and the kind that’s not.

Dear Secretary Clinton,

There are a great number of lessons that educators and policymakers can learn from business and industry, but they are rarely the ones touted in mainstream education reform circles.

Let me begin by suggesting that the advice of hedge-funders, the high-rollers in what have become “aggressive, highly-leveraged, speculative” casinos—this from Forbes magazine, hardly a tool of the left—is the worst kind you could follow.

The industry’s influence can most recently be seen in New York’s latest regressive teacher-evaluation scheme, which was championed by Gov. Cuomo, the chief water carrier for hedge funds and their war on public schools.

A far better source of wisdom would come from business people and educators who have the proven ability to nurture organization over time—especially those who pursue an all-hands-on-deck, systems-oriented approach to long-term improvement. By arguing a good-school (charters), bad-school (public schools)—or good teacher, bad teacher—duality, many education reformers ignore the extraordinary complexity of the American education landscape, as well as a key challenge for all organizations, including schools: They should all strive for continuous improvement.

Many in the business world have learned this lesson. You could look at folks like Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox and a decades-long veteran of a company that has built on a hard-won reputation for quality and customer service; Don Petersen, who rescued the Ford Motor Co. when it was being beaten by the Japanese in the 1980s; and the curious case of Alcoa, which declared that safety was more important than profits. All are turnaround stories in tough competitive industries.

The story of Alcoa is particularly instructive. In 1987, a new CEO, Paul O’Neill, promoted a strategy that defied most quick-change solutions. He didn’t fired anyone. Nor did he focus on improving profits. Instead, O’Neill pushed both management and rank-and-file workers to find ways to improve safety in dangerous aluminum smelting plants. O’Neill’s approach was so inclusive and created such a collaborative culture that the suggestions of hourly workers not only improved Alcoa’s safety record dramatically, it also empowered ordinary employees to propose process changes that would save the company tens-of-millions of dollars throughout its operations. “By taking care of those nonfinancial indicators,” O’Neill said at the time, “I had a really strong feeling that the financial result would take care of itself.”

Alcoa’s focus on collaborative problem solving is a hallmark of the the process-oriented systems thinking that was popularized by W. Edwards Deming, the American statistician and management expert whom I’ve written about extensively, including here. It’s also at the core of Japanese Lessons Study, which has its roots in Deming’s ideas, and is just now sweeping classrooms across the U.S.

A key requirement of credible continuous-improvement systems is the need to create collaborative cultures that are free of fear. That realization has helped to define some of the greatest (and most unsung!) public education success stories, in both red and blue states—including among the poorest hard-scrabble schools and school districts. Like Alcoa, they have focused first on the process—improving school wide literacy, say—not the bottom line, i.e. test scores.

Even Arnie Duncan has discovered the benefits of teacher-led improvement efforts. The U.S. Secretary of Education recently launched a new initiative, Teach to Lead, which “seeks to catalyze fundamental changes in the culture of schools and the culture of teaching so that teachers play a more central role in transforming teaching and learning, and in the development of policies that affect their work.”  Some of the best charter schools, according to a new book A Smarter Charter, Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter also are “breaking the mold and providing explicit means for teachers to collaborate and participate in school decisions.”

“[W]e’re at a tipping point where we’re realizing that we cannot have those outside education, with no education background, with no education experience” lead education policy, argues Megan M. Allen, director of programs in teacher leadership at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Mass.

But, like industry’s doomed quality circles, a 1970s and 1980s fad that withered inside the authoritarian regimes of failing companies, well-meaning teacher- leader/cooperation/collaboration efforts are up against myriad contradictory (and punitive) reform initiatives that alternately seek to shame, scapegoat or incentivize teachers. A 2013 government study, “States Implementing Teacher and Principal Evaluation Systems Despite Challenges,” found numerous problems with how the latest round of teacher evaluations are working on the ground and cited the challenge states were having in “prioritizing evaluation reform amid multiple educational initiatives.”

So, when The New York Times runs a front page story suggesting that you should heed the education prescriptions of hedge fund managers, that’s a sure sign the education establishment is going in the wrong direction.

It’s time to look at schools and entire schools districts that have, over the course of years, developed strong teacher-led school communities that have successfully improved education for their kids—including the poorest kids. They long predate Arnie Duncan’s latest epiphany—some by decades. Yet you probably haven’t heard of them because they are not the stuff that today’s quick-change ed-reformers promote. (My new book will explore these quiet revolutions.)

Here is a preview of the most important lessons those examples can teach:

Search out examples that have stood the test of time: You could begin by looking at the two-decade-old so-called Massachusetts miracle, which is no miracle at all. Since 1993, when Massachusetts passed its landmark education reform legislation, the commonwealth has served as the gold-standard of American education.

“Beginning in 2005, the commonwealth’s students have scored first in the nation in every subject at every grade tested on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card” and outscored kids from around the world on international tests, notes Tom Birmingham, who co-authored the education law. But the Massachusetts reforms were no overnight success; they were the result of years-long hard-work and collaboration at almost every level—among teachers and administrators, Republicans and Democrats, policy makers and local business leader. Now Birmingham warns that former Gov. Deval Patrick’s decision to embrace the common core and PARRC tests, in order to win a one-time Race-to-the-Top grant, threatens Massachusetts’s progress.

Process matters more than the Common Core standards: Outside Massachusetts, the biggest problem with the common core is not the standards themselves, but the way they have been implemented. In some states, like New York, kids were subjected to poorly designed ostensibly common-core aligned tests long before curriculum materials were available and before teachers had received any training in the new standards, spurring a widespread backlash among everyone from educators to the general public.

And unlike in Massachusetts, which developed its standards and state tests over the course of years, improving them with input from educators and key stakeholders at all levels, the common core was developed behind closed doors. It remains a locked system that protects the profits of Pearson, the testing company that is administering the common-core tests, over the long-term improvement that greater transparency would provide.

Why not call on states or regions to bring together top local educators, from K-12 teachers to university experts, along with parents and community leaders to work on improving education standards. And, like Massachusetts, do it for all subjects. That way science and social studies won’t become orphans, neglected because they are not tested. (Ironically, the Patrick administration pulled the plug on U.S. history testing requirements in 2010 citing budget issues even while embracing the common core, which has added new costs.)

The process won’t be quick and it will be messy. But if you select the right people to lead the process and keep it local and collaborative, you could come up with a set of best-practices and standards that states might adopt voluntarily—not because they’ve been offered carrot-and-stick incentives, a la Race to the Top–but because you’ve built a robust framework that makes sense to key stakeholders.

The one thing that won’t work is top-down mandates no matter how smart they are. I recently visited a fast-growing red-state district that has pursued a continuous improvement strategy for two decades; the chief architect of the strategy told me that she has assiduously avoided district mandates, preferring to lead by example and seed experiments among the most forward-looking schools.

Experience matters and teachers, especially veterans, are important. Perhaps the most destructive education-reform shibboleth is the anti-teacher—often deeply misogynistic impulse—of many ed-reformers. While the industrial-era work rules of many teachers’ contracts need to change—even Diane Ravitch favors restructuring seniority rules—the states that promote dumbing down teacher standards and replacing experienced teachers with well-meaning, but virtually untrained recent college graduates pose the biggest threat to improving education.

The best examples of long-term improvement, whether in Massachusetts or the aforementioned red-state district, are driven by schools with lots of veteran teachers and low teacher turnover. Curiously, aside from the fact that it didn’t have a union, the red-state district looked and felt much like its best Massachusetts counterparts. One reason is that both have worked to foster a culture that is free of “fear”–in the red-state district this included winning exemptions from state-mandated test-based teacher evaluations.

To be sure, there are bad teachers just as there are bad investment bankers, bad lawyers and bad CEOs. How many is the subject of great dispute. While Gov. Cuomo and many of his hedge fund backers are convinced that the best strategy for improving education is to weed out bad teachers, even Paul Vallas, the controversial former superintendent of both Bridgeport, CT. and New Orleans’ so-called Recovery School District, says: “The vast majority” of teachers “are excellent when provided with the curriculum, instructional models and supports” they need.

All this raises the important question: Does it make sense to build an entire education-reform apparatus —as we have done for over a decade—on weeding out and punishing bad teachers, instead of supporting good ones or potentially good ones?

Lavish attention—and funding—on education; test sparingly: Since the Great Recession, fair-funding levels nationwide have decreased. That is, the number of states with historically “progressive” funding formulas that provided extra money for high-poverty districts are tightening their purse strings. These states include both Massachusetts and New Jersey, both of which had narrowed—though not eliminated—the achievement gap by redistributing funds to poor districts.

One way to help restore progressive funding would be to cut back on the panoply of low-quality high-stakes tests; annual testing is both expensive and wasteful. Instead, develop high-quality tests and administer them during benchmark years—say 3rd, 8th grade and 10th grade. Refocus resources on helping educators analyze the data they have from both tests and classroom assignments to help improve instruction and learning.

Here’s another idea. Rafe Esquith, who has been called the best teacher in America, suggests buying kids violins instead of computers. Actually, Esquith, whose teaching methods and fifth grade Shakespeare productions have won him both worldwide acclaim and lots of private funding, buys his kids both violins and computers. But his point is this: art and music—from violin lessons to Shakespeare productions to creating hook rugs—are all about teaching kids the importance of process, patience and stick-to-it-ness, as well as giving them an outlet for their creativity. While some of the country’s most heralded education-reformers, including KIPP, have borrowed the superficial trappings of Esquith’s class—the slogans and college banners—they missed the arts, which are at the heart of his lessons and a key to helping students improve their own learning.

Charters—look behind the curtain: The highest performing charter schools in the country are in Boston, at least in part because there are so few of them and charter-authorizations are meted out with great care. Also, the kids in Boston charter schools (like the ones in Harlem) are economically much better off, less likely to be English Language Learners than their public-school counterparts. Over a decade into the charter movement, there is still no evidence that charter schools, as a whole, perform better than public schools with comparable student populations.

Even the grand experiment in New Orleans is more mirage than miracle. A new study by the pro-charter Education Research Alliance for New Orleans confirms what many critics have long charged–that high-performing charter schools engage in illicit “student selection” practices, otherwise known as “creaming”; these practices include counseling out students who are considered a “poor fit” for the school or holding invitation-only events to advertise openings.

Thus, any charter-school strategy has to address the central dilemma of the charter-school movement: What’s the tipping point at which fostering charter schools undermines traditional public schools and the neediest children they serve?

As Mathew Di Carlo recently wrote, it’s time to go back to Albert Shanker’s original idea of charter schools, that is: to create varied “policies and practices within districts, and thus expanding schools’ ability to try different things, test their impact (hopefully on a variety of different outcomes), and inform the design of all schools, regardless of their governance structures.”

Finally, beware the modern-day Moloch, with its insatiable appetite for test scores and other simplistic, and misleading, data points.

The mainstream education-reform movement is at an inflection point. There is more and more dissatisfaction over test mania and its impact on kids. There is deep concern over the corrosive high-stakes teacher evaluations. There is distrust—if not of the common core itself—then of the top-down way it’s being imposed in many states, as well as the opaque testing regimes that are being imposed in its name. And, there is deep suspicion over the enormous potential profits generated by these tests and evaluation systems, as well as education surveillance systems.

This may be the best time in years to promote a new more collaborative, process-oriented approach to education—the kind that has worked at companies like Aloca, in states like Massachusetts, and even in some red-state districts. It is a community and woman-friendly, teacher-focused approach that has demonstrated great promise to improve education. You have a unique opportunity both to turn the page on zero-sum education policies like Race to the Top and NCLB and to challenge all stakeholders—teachers, families, local business people and unions –in supporting a professional, improvement-oriented culture for schools.

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Adventures in Cuba with My Journalism Students

Ludwig photo

Last month, I led 11 Baruch College journalism students to Cuba as part of a class on covering emerging entrepreneurship in that island nation. The lessons learned for both me and my students were profound.

The purpose of the trip was to report on the recent economic changes instituted under President Raul Castro, especially in the new small-business sector of so-called cuentapropistas, which now number close to 500,000 Cubans, triple the number in 2010. We arrived at the most opportune time—just weeks after President Obama and President Castro announced their historic détente, which will open Cuba to more American goods and visitors and established formal relations between the countries. These changes are likely to have a profound effect on the Cuban economy. Whether they will spread to the political arena is less clear.

My students learned about the emerging entrepreneurial sector and the vagaries of being a so-called cuentapropista, both through Cuba Emprende, a private non-profit that helps train entrepreneurs in Cuba, and from small family-run businesses. These businesses ranged from restaurants to companies like Nostalgiacar, which operates a car service and refurbishes vintage automobiles, to a party planning company. We discovered Cuban ingenuity, honed during the extreme austerity of the post-Soviet so-called Special Period, at Casa Vera, the guest house for foreign students where we stayed and where neighbors have banded together to form an informal cooperative, and at La Finca Marta, an experimental sustainable farm that supplies many of Havana’s top paladares, or private restaurants. We found paquete, the must-have gray-market digital package of entertainment—from soap operas to video games to local advertisements—that Cuban’s share among each other via USB and other computer storage devices. The excellent articles produced by my students can be seen here

Nostalgiacar photo                                                  Reporting at Nostalgiacar

The lessons I learned as a teacher were also noteworthy. After teaching journalism at Baruch for over 15 years, this was the first time I had tried anything of this kind: a project tightly honed around one theme that was at once highly focused, collaborative, practical and intensive. We would be in Cuba for a week and the entire course lasted just three weeks in which we worked together every day. Teaching journalism is in many ways a skills-based discipline; students must learn how to report, write, use a variety of databases with the aim of understanding the news and its context and producing publishable articles about it. But, when teaching students how to cover a specific beat—such as the environment, education or entrepreneurship—content also becomes key.

This was the first course I had taught that was built around a trip, a project in group reporting in which we would share our sources, our notes, our observations; the experience turned out to be extremely valuable. In the coming week, I would learn a great deal about the power of both mutual respect and high expectations and the pedagogical benefits of teamwork and intense collaboration.

Preparation for the trip was daunting. I began planning in January of 2014, a process that lasted a year and involved hundreds of emails and phone calls, as well as navigating the thickets of both Cuban government regulations and a large city university bureaucracy. While I had unwaivering support from my department and administration, and the help of many able Cuban colleagues, I found myself wishing, more than once, that I had never begun the process. But by the fall, I had been able to nail down a rich itinerary filled with everything from field trips to top speakers, including leading academics from the Univ. of Havana to the country’s best filmmakers; an affordable and safe place to stay; and travel arrangements.

This being Baruch College, one of the most diverse colleges in the country, I corralled a highly diverse group of students; most were African-American or Latino. Virtually none of my students was able to afford the cost of the trip. So the preparations included the complicated calculus of figuring out who could get funding through their existing scholarship and honors programs, as well as collecting the funds from various programs, and nailing down funding for the few students who did not receive academic scholarships.

During the first of several planning sessions with prospective students, one young men asked whether I would impose a curfew during our trip—a question that sparked a new worry: What would it be like chaperoning a dozen twenty-somethings in Havana?? In a country where neither our cell phones nor credit cards would work, and where Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, had spent five years in a Cuba jail, was I going to wake up one morning only to discover that a student had disappeared? Would I get stuck in Cuba for weeks if one of them lost her passport?

Gradually, as I began working with the students, those fears evaporated. Our trip was part of a three-week mid-January intensive course that began with one-week of research and lectures by experts, and culminated in a week of intensive writing. Even before the course began, I explained to the students that in addition to the trip’s pedagogical purpose, they would be serving as ambassadors for Baruch College; any major hiccups, I explained, would jeopardize future trips. I also shared with them the wonderful opportunities ahead of us, as well as the pitfalls of traveling to a foreign country with which we had strained diplomatic relations.

By the time the first week of planning and lectures began, I was beginning to enjoy the process. I had lined up a roster of U.S. experts to speak about Cuba, which helped crystallize the goals of our trip. My students appeared in class on time and fully prepared, having read most of the readings I had given them. They peppered our speakers with excellent questions.

We set off on January 10. When I got to LaGuardia for the first leg of our journey to Havana, via Miami, I discovered that two of our students had headed to JFK by mistake. Yet, strangely, I was feeling quite relaxed. It helped that I had invited Gisele Regatao, my wonderful former graduate student and now the culture editor at WNYC to accompany me as an adjunct professor on the trip.

We arrived in Havana on a Sunday afternoon. And, after an early dinner at Casa Vera, our charming guest house, we headed to the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, an autonomous cultural organization funded by foreign philanthropists, where our students heard a lecture and slide show about Cuban society and culture. Before my departure, my colleague Ted Henken who has traveled to New Orleans with his students on a number of occasions, suggested what sounded like an exhausting solution to my fears about chaperoning 20-somethings in a city known for salsa, nightlife and partying: Plan something every night, he advised, and give students the choice of going with you—and having their transportation taken care of—or figuring things out on their own. (Ted’s excellent book Enterpreneurial Cuba also served as an important resource for our research.)

Heeding Ted’s sage advice, I had lined up an evening out. And at about 8 p.m. we headed to El Sauce, an outdoor music venue; the size of football field, El Sauce was popular among locals and jammed with music-and-dance lovers of all ages. As Gisele and I elbowed our way to the bar, we wondered how we would find our students, let alone corral them at 10:30 p.m. when, supposedly, we were going to be picked up. I needn’t have worried: Within an hour my kids, as I began to think of them, had congregated together; some were dancing with locals, others were chatting with each other, foot-tapping and swaying to the music. In good journalistic form, a few were taking photos and shooting video.

I went to bed that first night feeling exhausted and excited about the week ahead.

There was a bar, not far from Casa Vera, and a few hotels with internet access within a one-half mile-or-so that the students would occasionally wander off to in the evenings after what was invariable a 10-to-12 hour day of lectures and reporting. But it became clear to me and Gisele that our students had fully absorbed my admonishments about staying sober in a strange city. Equally important, though I had laid down no rules about curfews or anything else, I had made clear my expectations. My students, in turn, rose to the occasion–at all times showing respect for our local hosts and the efforts I had made in planning the trip.

In the mornings, as we boarded our buses, and, throughout the day, as we alighted at various venues—Gisele and I were invariably head counting. By the second day, the kids had started teasing that instead of counting sheep, I would be counting students in my dreams.

I had certainly begun counting on my students. We interviewed entrepreneurs and experts on Cuban economy and culture, and visited the farm and the Cuban Food Industry Research Institute; the students took notes, asked questions and videotaped. We debriefed every night, and I encouraged them to start honing the ideas that they were interested in developing; two or three students, I explained, could work on a story together—especially as some students were were writing print articles and others producing multimedia projects. I encouraged the two or three Spanish-speakers to team up with non-Spanish speakers. Again and again, the students rose to the occasion, sharing their language skills, their technology and their notes.

farm photoAt Finca Marta, a sustainable farm run by agronomist Fernando Funes-Monzote

Another valuable lesson emerged during the course of the week. While the students were writing about disparate businesses, these cuentapropistas shared many common challenges and experiences. As the students and Gisele and I asked questions, the best students began to hone their own questions. Hearing one entrepreneur talk about the difficulty of acquiring credit, prompted questions to other entrepreneurs about how they funded their businesses. Meanwhile, the weaker students who had been silent for the first few days, joined the fray, learning how to ask good questions from their classmates.

The subject of grades never came up. In planning the course, I had decided to give an exam based on the first-week’s readings and lectures. The decision was based, in part, on the need to fulfill the “rigor” requirements of some of the honors programs that were helping to fund individual students, as well as my own fear that the kids wouldn’t complete their readings without an assessment.

I needn’t have worried. When, just before our departure, I asked the students if they wanted their exam grades before we left, they all said: NO! They didn’t want grades interfering with their learning or the fun they were having. When they returned, I felt obligated, by the system, to give them each a grade on the first drafts of their stories; again, I think it was clear to both students and me that the grades were next to meaningless. At the end of the semester, most students had earned an A or A- –most certainly not the usual outcome in my classes. One of the lowest grades went to a student who had, because of work, missed the exam and not made it up; but she had tackled a particularly complicated final project, and I told her that if she got it into publishable shape, I’d bump up her grade. She did, but never asked about her grade.

There are limits to what you can extrapolate from this experience. Our group, while typical in some ways of the Baruch student profile, differed in important respects. It included a large number of honors college and scholarship students. And the need to show up for multiple meetings and complete endless paperwork in advance of both the course and the trip required a high degree of commitment on the part of the students. Then too, I had invested a year of planning—not realistic for a typical college course.

One interesting anomaly: Of 11 students, only two were men. Though I have no way of verifying this, I was told by the young men who did join us that the requirement that students make a $1,000 deposit—a sum that I told the students I could probably wave in cases of high need—dissuaded many of the young men who had initially expressed interest.

I came away from my trip persuaded that an “authentic” experience combined with a high degree of collaboration tightly tied to the aims of the course would be a great model for future courses. Whether that structure will help replicate the close-knit bonds and trust that the students developed both amongst each other and with me in Cuba, is an open question.

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