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Do education reformers rely on “impersonal” solutions, as a recent New York Times op-ed argues? Not from what I’ve seen in DC. Teachers care about students, but the effects of their caring are hard to measure. And caring may not be enough.

Today’s education reformers ignore the “inherently complicated and messy human relationships” that are at the core of education, says Berkeley professor David Kirp in Sunday’s New York Times. Instead, he claims, they turn to ostensibly simpler and neater strategies that rely on competition between schools or the transformative power of technology.

Predictably, Kirp’s piece has unleashed a storm of commentary and an avalanche of tweets. Those who place themselves in the ed reform camp have assailed the flaws and oversimplifications in Kirp’s argument.


They note that few if any education reformers treat test scores as “the single metric of success,” as Kirp asserts. They point out that Kirp overlooks the fact that many charter schools actually do get better results for low-income African-American students.

And they express bafflement at his claim that reformers focus on “markets and competition” to the exclusion of factors like talented teachers, engaged students, and a challenging curriculum. In fact, much of education reform (a term so broad and loaded it should perhaps be retired) is directed towards creating those very things.

I agree that, like many articles that get a lot of attention, Kirp’s suffers from exaggeration and a lack of nuance. At the same time, though, he’s hit on something, albeit with a blunt instrument.

The importance of caring

Kirp’s basic point is that for education to be effective, schools need to foster personal “bonds of caring” between teachers and students. I imagine most if not all teachers and administrators, including those who consider themselves education reformers, would agree.

I’ve met teachers in DC’s charter and traditional public school sectors who have not only formed personal bonds with students, but who probably would have done so even if some misguided “reformer” had explicitly tried to prohibit them. And I’ve seen those teachers chafe against a system that doesn’t always acknowledge the importance of those bonds or reward their formation.

At a high-poverty DC public high school, one teacher told me about a student who had come to him with a request. Holding out the program from a funeral, the boy asked if the teacher could “fix” it. Eventually the teacher came to understand what the problem was: The boy’s mother had told him that the deceased was his father. But the program failed to include the boy’s name in the list of survivors.

The teacher recruited a more tech-savvy colleague to try to figure out a way to insert the boy’s name so it would look like part of the program. In the end, the only way to do that was to retype the whole document, carefully matching its font and formatting. The teachers stayed far past the end of the school day in order to have the new program ready for the student by the next morning.

The teacher who told me this story was making a point: the DC Public Schools teacher evaluation system has no way of taking into account teachers’ willingness to extend themselves on behalf of their students. And no doubt stories like this could be found many times over, in DC and elsewhere.

I’m sure students benefit in many ways from knowing their teachers care about them personally. And a teacher who doesn’t care about her students as individuals probably isn’t going to be very good at her job.

Caring may not be enough

But it’s hard to know, and especially to measure, what effect those personal bonds have on students’ ability to learn. Even the most caring teacher may not be equipped to teach effectively, possibly because of a lack of training or support.

And, surprisingly, in some instances personal bonds can actually get in the way of teaching. One study found that a computer program that gave students feedback on their writing actually produced more positive feelings, and more improvement, than feedback from a human instructor.  Apparently students didn’t take the criticism so personally when it came from a machine.

In a broader sense, of course, Kirp is right that personal connections between teachers and students are crucial. But, as with any one element of education, they’re not sufficient. We also need to figure out ways to assess whether teachers are actually teaching and students are actually learning.

The tension, as always, is between the bright clean lines of standardization—whether in testing, curriculum, or teaching methods—and the messy individualization that’s necessary when you’re dealing with real people who vary greatly in their needs and capabilities.

We haven’t yet figured out the right balance between the two, but people—including some who identify as education reformers—are definitely working on it.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.