More Challenges to Kirp’s “Miracle” Narrative

While researching and writing two books on key education issues, school choice (Parental Choice?) and poverty’s impact on education (Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.), I discovered the importance of and then committed significant sections of both works to examining the intersection of research on education and the media.

The disturbing picture I uncovered was that the so-called liberal media failed the education debate repeatedly and in predictable ways. Particularly during the three waves of accountability reform that have occurred during the last thirty years (student accountability such as exit exams in the 1980s, school reports cards in the 1990s, and VAM-based teacher accountability in the 2000s), the media have disproportionately favored think tank reports that are less likely to be peer-reviewed over university-based research (see Molnar, 2001; Welner, Hinchey, Molnar, & Weitzman, 2010; and Yettick, 2009), have failed to follow up that coverage once think tank reports are debunked, and tend to misunderstand and then misrepresent research findings and statistics even when valuable research receives coverage.

In short, the media more often than not help perpetuate misconceptions about education, even when everyone involved has good intentions.

As one brief example, Chicago teachers have issued a public letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, posted at Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet. I have nothing except the greatest respect for teacher agency, and Strauss is among the rarest of journalists who do education a great service.

But the letter does more harm than good to the education debate in its central request: “Instead of relying on standardized tests, we believe that the best way to pursue higher standards in reading, writing, and speaking skills is to develop standardized and widely accepted rubrics for assessment and allow teachers to assess their students with these rubrics.”

The problem is, as Kohn has shown in his introduction to Maja Wilson’s excellent work on rubrics, that rubrics are a slight lateral move away from standardized testing. Designing a valid rubric means that all the decision making is being done for the student. Effective rubrics, like standardized tests and standards themselves, perpetuate compliance, not genuine learning. A rubric can insure the appearance of standardized evaluation, but the assessment then is primarily documenting that some student has conformed, or not, to some authority’s prescription.

And that beings me back to my challenge to David Kirp’s recent “miracle” narrative: “I believe its transformation offers a nationwide strategy.”

As I noted before, I was compelled to address this NYT piece because so many progressive advocates of public education were praising Kirp’s coverage of a successful school. I, however, saw another David Brooks-style misreading and perpetuation of two of the worst threads in corporate education reform narratives: “no excuses” ideology and “miracle” school claims.

Just as Geoffrey Canada’s commitment to wrap-around services at his Harlem Children’s Zone matches a Social Context Reform call for addressing social and educational inequity, Kirp’s commitment to “reinventing the public schools we have,” instead of investing further in charter schools, is compelling and commendable.

But Canada and Paul Tough’s endless championing of grit ultimately fail the education reform debate as Kirp’s narrative does.

While I feel obligated to speak truth to power when that power is ideologically and factually misguided (such as my rejecting KIPP charter schools regardless of their outcomes due to their oppressive “no excuses” model), I also feel an even greater obligation to offer cautions and concerns when I share ideology but recognize that good intentions some times aren’t enough.

A few other questions have now been raised about Kirp’s NYT article. Diane Ravitch has alerted her readers to Gary Rubinstein’s detailed concerns about the claims made in Kirp’s piece, and Paul Bruno has concluded, “Maybe I’m just too much of a cynic, but stories like this one make me suspect that there’s more (or possibly less) to the story than we’re supposed to believe.”

Many sincere advocates of public education who champion the essential nature of the Commons in a free democracy remain uncomfortable and even combative toward these challenges to Kirp’s “miracle” narrative.

So with my solidarity still firmly with these voices, I must restate that I remain troubled by Kirp’s framing: schools are overwhelmingly “bad” and must be “fixed,” effective education is primarily about embracing “no excuses” (the we-try-harder taunt), and “miracle” schools exist (I doubt that) and can serve as models for wide-scale reform (a misunderstanding of the problem with normalizing outliers).

Should we seek ways to praise schools, teachers, and students instead of bashing them? Yes.

I have made attempts to do just that with the caveat stated clearly: “Is this school a miracle, perfect? Not at all.”

Thus in our shared quest for universal public education to fulfill its promise of fostering democracy, human agency, and social equity, we must take great care to be vigilant about the narratives we endorse.

The stories we tell are complex and rich, but they also speak from and to someone’s ideology.

Some have expressed disappointment that my challenge to Kirp also appears to discredit the hard work and success of the school he praises. Again, my primary concern rests with the narrative offered by Kirp as well as the implications perpetuated by the school: “And the principal is persuading teachers to raise their expectations.”

And since I do cherish public schools, public school teachers, and public school students, I state again my problems with Kirp’s piece exactly because I do not want the story of this school used against our cause.

And it will be.


  1. “Thus in our shared quest for universal public education to fulfill its promise of fostering democracy, human agency, and social equity, we must take great care to be vigilant about the narratives we endorse.” Perfectly put.

  2. leoniehaimson says:

    Though the Kirp piece was better than most of the stuff published in the NYT and elsewhere in the MSM my critique of the piece is that :

    1- it didn’t mention that Union City NJ schools got more funding thru the Abbott equity lawsuit , and these resources were mandated to be spent on certain programs & systemic reforms that allow kids and teachers to be more successful – not just preK but also class size reduction and other K12 initiatives shown to improve results;

    2- instead, it repeated the tired refrain of how “rigor” and “high expectations” and “we can get it done” attitude of teachers contributed to the gains; the same BS that we’ve heard from Michelle Rhee, TFA, and a host of other corp reformers, which I like to call the “Tinkerbell” theory of ed reform. In that way I don’t think it moved the narrative forward nearly as much as it should have.

    As though the defeatist& slacker attitude of teachers is one of the major problems w/ our high-poverty public schools.


  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 narratives and […]

  2. […] More Challenges to Kirp’s “Miracle” Narrative – @ the chalk face. […]

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