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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Education Tourists Can't Save Anything or Anyone

Someone needs to save us from the saviors of education.

February 28, 2016



This past Friday, under the headline, “The Myth of the Hero Teacher,” the New York Times shared the story of Ed Boland, an executive at Prep for Prep, a nonprofit tasked with putting minority children in elite private schools.

In 2006, Boland decided to leave Prep for Prep in order to “work on the front lines” and “be one of those teachers that kids really like and listen to and learn from.”

Boland’s year teaching history at the Henry Street School for International Studies did not go so well. He’d been inspired by movies like Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver, badass teachers that took control and led their students to the promised land of learning as measured by scores on standardized tests.

Likely sniffing a fraud, Boland’s students had other ideas, challenging Bolland’s authority. As he recounts in his memoir of his experience, The Battle for Room 314, in the midst of a class disruption, a female student was, “towering above me like a pro wrestler about to pounce.” As the Times characterizes it, the student, “moved her hand in an obscene gesture then told him to perform an act that was anatomically impossible.”

By spring he was “sleeping poorly,” and was thankful when troubled students skipped class. He told The Times, “I thought, Where’s your self respect? How can you let a kid who desperately needs an education fall asleep? Six months later I was like, Oh, my God, please go to sleep.”

Boland returned to Prep for Prep at the end of the year.

Boland has obviously been chastened by the experience. He seems to understand that the “hero teacher” is indeed a myth.

I’m less convinced that Boland has had an awakening to where he went wrong. It appears that at least some measure of the hubris that led him into the classroom, follows him today. Reviewing Boland’s book for NPR, Nicole Dixon, a seven year veteran of NYC public schools says that Boland uses the word “monsters” to describe his students so many times that she “stopped counting.” Boland seems to understand that he was underprepared for the challenge, but also that the challenge was not winnable. If he couldn’t do it, no one can.

The seeds of Boland’s undoing are made apparent in the language he uses to describe his teaching. To Bolland, the key to success is for him to assume “control.” With control, he’s certain he can get the students to learn, inspire them to “success.”

But from the beginning, it’s clear he put himself at the center of the learning equation. He wanted to be “liked” and “listened to.” He didn’t know enough that control and authority comes from respect and listening.

When your chief metaphor is a “battle,” someone has to win.

Those of us who teach know that control of the authoritarian variety is actually antithetical to genuine learning. This is why the recent video of a Success Academy teacher ripping up a 1st grader’s work and sending her to the “calm-down” chair filled so many of us with horror. This is a 1st grader being cowed to the authority of a teacher for the sin of making a mistake.[1]

Of course, control is the ethos of Success Academy and other “no excuses” charter schools. They need to start in 1st grade so the students are properly conditioned when they are older and more inclined to test the boundaries of their power and influence.

Ed Boland is just another of those who come to “make a difference” in education, but don’t appear to bother to learn anything about education before jumping in.

Most of these saviors arrive with two things, a boatload of hubris, and a belief that the purpose of education is to help students succeed as competitors inside a so-called, meritocratic system.

And the supposed key to success, according to each of these reformers, is establishing “control.”

David Coleman, the “architect” of the Common Core State Standards and current president of the College Board (proprietor of the SAT) was spurred to action by his experience as a college student tutoring lower-income students in English Poetry and being surprised that “Thirty years after the civil-rights movement, none of these students were close – not even close – to being ready for Yale.”

Coleman believes if he can control the curriculum and how it is assessed, he can create a level playing field.  A man who has never worked in a classroom has had more influence over what is taught in schools and the chief gatekeeping test that stands between students and college than any other single person in the entire country.

Unless that person is Bill Gates, another education savior who funded the development of CCSS and continues to search for a magic bullet that will allow us to control education.

The desire for “control” runs through all of our education saviors. Mark Zuckerberg’s well-meaning $100 million gift to the Newark public schools assumed that they could move teachers and families out of the way to make room for his version of “reform.”

The charter school movement is predicated on gaining “control,” particularly over teachers, and yet we have a generation of data that says outcomes in charter schools are no better than traditional public schools, unless the charters (as they are wont to do) flush out the difficult students, the ones they can’t control. Eva Moskowitz at Success Academy has predicated her entire empire on a system oriented around control, right down to the way students are expected to sit.[2]

Ed Bolland learned what life is like without self-respect, when you have no authority or agency, and little hope. Perhaps if he’d put himself in his students’ shoes, he might’ve lasted more than a year.

Maybe this is something we should bring to our discussions about education reform, less desire for control, and a little more humility. Listening, rather than telling. Those of us who have had the privilege to teach and to learn know that it is, by definition, messy, and that it necessitates risk, and giving up on control.

People like Ed Boland and these other reformers are not saviors. They are education tourists. Boland has used his year as an education tourist to launch a book that’s been reviewed everywhere, and is now a sought after public speaker, a supposed expert on education and our educational system.

This is like a student pilot who crashes on his inaugural flight being asked by the FAA about aeronautical safety.

More and more I’m starting to think we need someone who can save us from the saviors.

[1] Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz once taught at Prep for Prep.

[2] Is it bad form to point out that the education saviors who aren’t already wealthy beyond care seem to be doing much better for themselves than the average educator?

David Coleman makes just shy of $750,000 a year at the College Board.

Eva Moskowitz makes more than half a million a year.


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