When Education Reform Gets Personal:Confessions of a Policy-wonk Father (Scott Joftus)

Scott Joftus is the president of the education-consulting firm Cross & Joftus. This article appeared in Education Next, Summer 2012, Vol. 12(3).

Over more than 20 years in the field of education—including two with Teach For America—I have helped promote state standards, the Common Core, the hiring of teachers with strong content knowledge, longer class periods for math and reading, and extra support for struggling students, to name a few. I have recently discovered, however, that what I believe as an education policy wonk is not always what I believe as a father. I am incredibly fortunate that my two young daughters are ready learners who attend a high-functioning school. That said, I make the following confessions:

As a policy wonk, I push for high academic expectations for all students. I know that American competitiveness requires excellence in subjects such as math and science that our schools do not teach very well. As a father, however, I find that what matters most to me is that my daughters are happy in school.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, academic expectations are extremely high. Our school district aims to teach math, for example, in a rigorous way. I appreciate this goal, but to date “increased rigor” has primarily meant that some students skip grade-level math classes and enroll in classes meant for older kids. Basic skills that are taught and reinforced in the grades being skipped are often given short shrift.

In 2nd grade, my daughter brought home worksheets on probability before she had any real understanding of the concept, or even a strong foundation in simple division. Her frustration with probability, and consequently math, grew as we substituted times-table drills for play dates. Last year, to my horror, she said that she hated math. This year, which has included an increased focus on math facts and an inspiring teacher, math has become her favorite subject.

With my policy hat on, I know that a teacher’s academic background is critical. As a father, however, I want a teacher who manages a calm, safe, and fun classroom, and who loves children. One of the best teachers my children have had is our regular babysitter, who speaks English as a second language and never graduated from high school.

Of course, there are some gems at our school (thank you, Ms. Bederman, now retired) who are knowledgeable, skilled, passionate about learning, and passionate about children. To a father, Ms. Bederman was a gift from heaven; to a policy wonk she is the Holy Grail. Why can’t we identify and train more of these treasures? Why wasn’t every teacher in our school crowded into Ms. Bederman’s classroom to witness her magic? Why didn’t the principal require every teacher to crowd into her classroom?

As a policy wonk, I believe that student learning flourishes in classrooms that include students with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds. As a father, I want my daughters to appreciate diversity of all types. But I also want them to be surrounded by children who come to school ready and eager to learn. These goals come into conflict when some students are constantly disruptive; the policy wonk must preach patience to the father who wants the class disrupter out.

My daughter’s kindergarten class included a troubled boy who was going through the foster-care placement process. He is exactly the type of child that can benefit most from an excellent education, but he regularly disrupted class. One day, when I was in the classroom, the teacher—talented, but inexperienced—spent more than half of her time trying to keep this boy on task.

I feel for children like him; my company works with schools and districts to improve outcomes for these kids. But I was angry. The other children were clearly uncomfortable. His disruptions reduced learning time for my daughter, and seemed to steal some of her innocence and excitement about school.

The tension between my understanding of good education policy—driven by a deep commitment to equity and the belief that an outstanding education can transform lives, and this country—and what is right for my daughters makes me both a better policy wonk and a better father. The tension also illustrates why school reform is so difficult.




Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

7 responses to “When Education Reform Gets Personal:Confessions of a Policy-wonk Father (Scott Joftus)

  1. Dennis Ashendorf

    What a great article to flip me: “the policy wonk must preach patience to the father who wants the class disrupter out” should be “the father must preach reality to the policy wonk who wants the class disrupter in.”

    Within people, when reality cannot overturn a theory that only works in theory – without extreme efforts, they must be very satisfied and/or insulated. In this case, Mr. Joftus, who probably makes 6 or 7 figures, can offer his daughters tutors, extensive vacations, and a home life (Montgomery County!) that make up for disruptive environments. Others don’t have the means.

    KIPP-type schools thrive on those who preach reform and then quietly dismiss the disrupters. Whether you despise or love firm schools; they deserve more respect than those who believe in the joy of having student-victims, while the money flows to the staff and consultants; living their dreams without the pain of reality.

    The line “Why can’t we identify and train more of these treasures?” is particularly troubling. Why can’t we train every soldier to be a SEAL? Why can’t we train politicians to be honest? Why can’t we train consultants to be of value? Yes, we can do better, but to honestly let the best, the ideal cloud our practical judgement is foolishness.

    The irony is that I support Mr. Joftus (and follow this blog) and practice in support of his direction, but I know and see the price and try to find ways to mitigate it, but not by preaching to the parents.

  2. Policy wonks generally have only a vague picture of what an elementary level classroom looks like, how it operates, and how teacher judgement infers the learning experience. The author’s daughters’ homogenous school environment notwithstanding (all arriving ready and eager to learn), the diversity found in most public schools bring the social issues of the family, the community, into the classroom daily. While troubling foster care issues can have a tremendously negative impact on a student’s life, it is but one of the many impacts that can drive behavior.

    I have one rule for classroom management: if a student or students interferes with another or others’ opportunity to learn, they will be removed from the classroom. It would be nice if all public schools had resources available to coordinate with applicable inside and external agencies to determine causality and provide a means of mediating the source(s) of a child’s disruptive behavior.

    But most schools do not have those resources. As public school staff, we are required to use internal resources. One important aspect to consider regarding behavioral issues would necessarily include logging the specific disruptive activity. What are the triggers? When does the behavior manifest? That is, is the student refusing to sit in their desk, or are they throwing it across the room? Is it during reading, or throughout the day? The first steps are to incorporate various classroom interventions, a counselor consulted behavior management program (if a counselor is available). This can then lead to a next important step, psychometric evaluation to lend further insight to causality. Getting to consideration of removing the disruptive student from a regular classroom to a resource or special ed environment is very difficult to do.

    It is only through a partnership of student advocacy involving the teacher, school, and parents (and outside agency) that can bring the student with behavioral issues into a designed environment that can optimize their learning. While some students go merrily skipping grade levels in various subjects and progressing, the disruptive student, if severe enough, faces the possibility of being held back. Not due to a lack of ability, but due to the onerous and time consuming process of eventual proper placement within the school.

    As a policy wonk, the writer must be aware that most district policies are at the mercy of budgets and the vagaries of legislation that encourages a one-size-fits-all school experience. In these times of increasing policies of meritocracy on teachers and staff in public schools, there is increasing pressure to move students forward. With the increasing pressures brought on by the meritocratic vision of education comes the question of values. Without the finances to optimize the learning experience for every student, this new vision puts great force upon schools to move students forward regardless of outcomes.

  3. Scott, I was so interested to hear your conflict – education policy expert vs. parent – because I recently had this conversation with another parent/colleague during a focus group on perceptions about standardized testing. Interestingly, I had a slightly different p.o.v., as my children attend a magnet school for motivated “and/or” gifted and talented kids. In recent years, the selection process has faltered in the opinions of many parents who want their children in a classroom where they can excel without distractions for students who simply aren’t “highly motivated,” even if a screening process identified them that way.

    I discussed this issue in the focus group with a colleague because, at our school, freshman American history is not divided by into honors and CP levels the way all other core areas are. While the social studies teachers take an altruistic approach that the class is best served with diverse abilities, especially because honors kids go to AP after freshman year, I argued that I can take my honors English freshman so far in their skills, and it’s simply not practical to differentiate a high school classroom to actually benefit all kids. My colleague explained that while as a teacher she had always supported the status quo, as a parent she is reconsidering that point of view.

    I sympathize with your concerns about the teacher who spends an inordinate amount of time managing the classroom rather than teaching. And I would point out that the the reason one of your children’s best “teachers” was a babysitter was because she was teaching all qualities that are not part of a school curriculum, a standardized test, or a state standard. And, finally, I would challenge your belief that great teachers can be observed and emulated. In many ways, Ms. Bederman’s are born, not made. And that is the biggest obstacle for the Gates Foundation as it seeks to identify and “quantify” the qualities of great teachers. Student teachers and observers have been trying to be me, or emulate my successful style, for years. And it’s not happening.

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