Sorry, Kirp’s Fix Another Flawed Discourse on Ed Reform

Before I could find David Kirp’s “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools,” I received by email and discovered on Twitter a series of enthusiastic praise from  friends, colleagues, and like-minded progressives and left-leaning radicals.

So let me be the first to say, “Sorry, but Kirp’s fix is yet another flawed public commentary about the state of schools and the needed education reform.”

Now, briefly, let me count the ways:

(1) The headline reinforces the “bad” schools narrative that keeps the political and public gaze on the school as the sole cause-agent of educational outcomes.

(2) Kirp’s description of Union City triggers the flawed and misleading “miracle” school narrative.

(3) Kirp’s recommendation ignores the scalability problem.

(4) Kirp’s praise of how the school functions reinforces the “no excuses” ideology that claims that a hard-nosed school culture is all it takes to be a successful school.

(5) And most of all, Kirp’s piece continues the school-only picture of education reform that ignores that our schools tend to have two important qualities: They too often reflect the inequity of their communities and perpetuate those inequities.

Social reform that addresses inequity of opportunity must be paired with education reform that also addresses inequity of opportunity. Crying “miracle” to keep the gaze always and only on schools will never create the broader need for real social and educational reform.

I truly have no idea if this school is successful, but most claims in the media of “miracle” schools prove to be either untrue (or at least exaggerated) or not scalable, not replicable.

But I do know that continuing to trigger the narratives outlined above are a failure to recognize that how we discuss our schools and how we frame our reform have been central to why we continue to fail in our schools and our reform.


  1. Miracles? No effort required, just pray away the problems. So far prayer seems an utter, dismal failure. We still have wars, death and destruction and uneducated knuckle draggers.
    Thinking works well with kids, memorization works for memorizing random buybull phrases.

  2. This is a very flippant column. Before you dismiss the Union City story out of hand, look around the country for similar stories. It can be, and is being, replicated. We have a VERY similar success story in the Milwaukee Public School system. It’s a charter school with 99% hispanic population, almost all of whom do not speak English when they begin school. All kids start at age 3. The graduation rate and college entrance rate is even higher than this Union City school. Parents are encouraged to be involved, but they for the most part, are not involved. Students receive extra help before/after school. It is a charter school in the public school system, BUT they have to raise a LOT of money from private foundations to be able to afford preschool, extra help, etc. It costs money. But it works. An entire generation where the pattern of school dropouts has been broken. Priceless. Especially to taxpayers most of whom fail to look at the long term tax savings (less poverty, less prison, future productive taxpaying citizens, etc.).

  3. From the article in the Times “I can teach a monkey 1, 2, 3”. Yeah right what about 4, 5, 6? I would not want this person teaching my kids. When you compare humans and animals it can only mean one of two things A) you’re desperate B)you can’t be that clever.

    • The argument was not that learning to count is unimportant but rather that critical thinking/problem-solving should be the basis of math education rather than memorization. The “monkey” reference wasn’t comparing, it was contrasting because it was meant to highlight the difference between humans and animals which is that humans, especially when well-educated, posses the ability to think critically and to solve complex problems.

  4. I agree with you and wish you’d enter these comments on the e-version of Professor Kirp’s article. He (and his readers) to hear this perspective. I do welcome his article for at least supporting the case against closing public schools in favor of charters.

  5. My take from the article was that there is no “miracle reform” but that it takes a lot of work, not just teachers but families too, to make a good school good..

  6. I have to say I tire of the all or nothing rhetoric – if a narrative is less than perfect in the eye of the reviewer, it should be disregarded in its entirety?! There are clearly important initiatives the school system is using which are atypical – the most obvious being two years of universal pre-K.

    It also strikes me that antagonizing people who are generally on our side, but may not have the complete picture, is not likely to be helpful.

    We can’t derail the Rephorm Privateers without offering an alternative course – and highlighting approaches with promise in the traditional public school arena need to be a big part of that.

    • Why is it necessarily the burden of public school advocates to create alternatives? When destructive reforms were initially proposed, no one was clamoring for alternatives. Now that they’ve largely failed, all of the sudden are deformers open to alternatives.

  7. Thank you for articulating what I was feeling. While I was happy the article debunked the “no charters, no TFA” style reforms, it still felt far too “miracle” to me. And still the ‘no excuses’ theme rang throughout the article. There might be some positive takeaways, but overall, I do not trust the rhetoric.


  1. […] also have real problems with Paul Tough and David Kirp (see HERE and HERE), both of whom I feel do work that helps perpetuate “miracle” school […]

  2. […] that beings me back to my challenge to David Kirp’s recent “miracle” narrative: “I believe its transformation […]

  3. […] Sorry, Kirp’s Fix Another Flawed Discourse on Ed Reform – @ the chalk face. […]

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