By the Company It Keeps: Kathleen Porter-Magee

By the Company it Keeps: Tim Daly

I’ve known Kathleen Porter-Magee for a decade now. We’re both branches in the Checker-Finn ed-reformer-development tree. She was a young researcher for Fordham, and I was helping start the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (in which Checker was intimately involved). In the years since, I’ve had the wonderful fortune to work with Kathleen in a number of capacities and to see her evolve from a huge natural talent to one of the most important actors and commentators in our field.

Kathleen Porter Magee Thomas B Fordham Institute

For anyone who cares about Common Core, Kathleen’s blog Common Core Watch is absolutely a must-read. No one has been more thoughtful or prolific on the standards themselves and their implementation. When I’m about to write something about CCSS or the testing consortia, I go to KPM first. When the US Department of Education was putting together a technical review panel for the testing consortia, they too turned to KPM.

In hindsight, the last decade-plus has perfectly prepared Kathleen for this moment. She’s been a teacher and has led curriculum and PD for one of the nation’s finest CMOs and the schools of a large Catholic diocese. She’s also done wide-ranging research and writing on standards and much else.

But she’s also become a mom three times over and married another ed-reform star who leads a network of advocacy organizations. So she has a huge personal stake in good schools and understands this world’s complicated and confounding policies and politics.

And beyond all of this, Kathleen is hilarious, friendly, independent, tough, and super-duper smart…all of which you’ll see below.

I’m lucky to call her a friend, and education reform is very fortunate to keep her company.

Ladies and gentlemen, Kathleen Porter-Magee.

Some smart people, like Tom Loveless, have argued that content standards don’t really drive gains in student learning. Why are you so supportive of Common Core?

I suspect that there is actually less daylight between folks like Tom Loveless and Russ Whitehurst and me than it would seem at first blush. Here’s why:

More than a year ago, Loveless wrote, “the Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement.” This was a provocative, attention-grabbing prediction that was drawn from research conducted in 2009 by Russ Whitehurst which found that the quality of a state’s standards—as judged by Fordham’s standards evaluations as well as evaluations done by the AFT—was poorly correlated with student achievement on the NAEP.

As I blogged at the time, this headline barely hints at the most significant finding from Whitehurst’s work, which was that “the effects of curriculum on student achievement are larger, more certain, and less expensive than the effects of popular reforms such as common standards…”

Whitehurst is, of course, exactly right. As we at Fordham have long said, standards alone can’t do much of anything. Absent thoughtful implementation—which includes selection of rigorous, aligned curriculum—standards merely adorn classroom bookshelves. But, when standards do become the foundation for teaching and learning, they can drive achievement. Indeed, this is a point that Whitehurst himself acknowledged in 2009 when he argued that

high quality common standards can affect student learning…in a system in which there are also aligned assessments, and aligned curriculum, and accountability for educators, and accountability for students, and aligned professional development, and managerial autonomy for school leaders, and teachers who drawn from the best and brightest, and so on.

Yet, in a system like ours, where local control is so important, we cannot—or more importantly, we should not—mandate curriculum centrally. Telling each state, district, or school what instructional program will best meet the needs of our diverse student body is foolish, and the innovation that comes from having different communities and different teachers taking different approaches to meeting expectations is critical. Standards are important to our education system because they set the bar without mandating the path. But Loveless is certainly right to suggest that setting clearer and more rigorous expectations alone is not enough.

The reason I am bullish on Common Core, in particular, is that they are clearer and more rigorous than the vast majority of state standards they’ve replaced. This is a point that even Sandra Stotsky, one of the fiercest critics of the Common Core, has acknowledged. Just last month she argued that, if state boards of education opted to ditch the Common Core in favor of their previous standards, “In most cases, they would be rightly accused of returning to equally non-rigorous standards.”

And so, the Common Core standards have raised expectations in nearly every state. Properly implemented and assessed, they will help prioritize and focus attention on the most essential content in math, while leaving the time and space for deeper learning, and they can help refocus our attention on giving all students—even our most struggling—regular practice with the kind of complex, content-rich texts they need to deepen their vocabulary and improve their comprehension.

What is the strongest argument against Common Core? Do you have any hesitation about our ending decades of practice that had states going their own ways on standards and assessments?

First, and perhaps most importantly, states have not ceded control over standard setting.

If the question is, do I worry about not having 51 different sets of K-12 academic standards in English language arts and math, the answer is an emphatic “no.” In the debate over the Common Core, we seem to have forgotten that, prior to CCSS adoption, the expectations driving teaching and learning in the vast majority of states were unacceptably low. And implementation of those standards was mixed.

That doesn’t mean I think that Common Core is a cure-all. Given the importance of implementation to fulfilling the potential of the Common Core, I’d say my biggest worry is that classroom-level instruction in the Common Core era will look eerily similar to what we had prior to 2010. I worry that, If we don’t help give teachers access to the kinds of programs and resources that are aligned to the content and rigor of the new standards, or if we resort to the kinds of highly predictable, “business-as-usual” assessments that states have been using for years, we will continue to see more of the same: too much time devoted to the kinds of idle test prep that gives short-term score boosts without long-term learning gains; a narrow focus on skills-driven reading rather than on content-rich instruction and literary analysis; and broad but shallow instruction in math.

So I guess I’d say the strongest argument against the Common Core is that, when the going gets tough, we will lose our focus and return to business as usual. That would be a failure for our kids.

What were the most valuable lessons you learned from your classroom teaching experience? Do you ever miss it?

I love what I do now, but I have to admit that I’ve rarely felt as alive as I did when standing in front of a classroom.

I would say that the biggest thing I learned as a classroom teacher, though, is that there are no shortcuts. Teaching is hard, every day. Leaders on all sides of the education reform debate, I worry, try to find simple solutions to complex issues—more money, parent choice, rigorous standards, and on. Of course, system-level reform is critically important, but the only way we’re going to push student achievement to the next level, particularly for our most disadvantaged students, is if we recognize that education comes down to the ability of a teacher (or group of teachers) to plan and teach students the critical content and essential skills they need—in a way that both challenges and engages them without pandering to them.

This is harder that it seems. And perhaps it’s a failure of my own imagination, but it’s hard for me to see technology or policy solutions becoming anything other than tools that can only be effectively wielded by expert teachers. And while there are undoubtedly tools that can make a great teacher more efficient, I’ve yet to see one that can make a struggling teacher great. This is hard work, and there are no quick fixes or short cuts.

For several years, you led curriculum and professional development for one of the nation’s best CMOs, Achievement First. What did that experience teach you?

My years as both a teacher and as a curriculum and PD director were among the most humbling of my career. The work is hard, and while it’s certainly rewarding to see the faces of the children whose lives you touch every day, it’s also an intimidating reminder of just how important your work is. I would say the three biggest lessons I learned while trying to lead curriculum and PD were:

1.      Teacher buy-in is essential to any effective reform strategy. If the teachers aren’t on board, it’s unlikely to work.

2.      School leadership is a critical—and too often under-appreciated—driver of teacher buy-in. A leader can and often does set the tone for her teachers.

3.      There is no one-size-fits-all strategy that will work for every school or classroom, which is why “replication” doesn’t always work as intended.

You’ve had the chance to spend some time in France. What was the best day you had there?

I studied in France for more than a year, but barely spoke a word of French the day I left for my trip. I couldn’t understand written menus, had no idea what was happening when my French family talked at dinner, and I missed nearly 100 percent of what my professors said in class. The first 4-5 months were among the most humbling—and occasionally humiliating—of my life. Everything was hard. I remember trying to join a gym and working all day to practice what I would say when I met with the membership office. I went in, probably shaking, gave my little prepared “how much is a student membership speech,” and was met with the blankest stare I’d seen to date. The woman behind the desk cocked her head condescendingly and said to me, “Pouvez-vous me parler en francais?” Which means, “sorry, can you please speak to me in French?” I left in tears, sans membership.

My French family owned their own business and frequently got business calls at home, which I of course avoided like the plague. While there were too many great days over the course of my year in France than I can count, I think my proudest moment was the first day that I answered one of those business calls without thinking, understood everything, answered a question, and took a fairly intelligible message for the family. I think that was my first life lesson in the value of perseverance.

If you couldn’t work in education any more, what would you do instead?

I don’t even understand the question. I wrote about teaching and education policy in the persuasive essays I wrote in high school. I worked with kids and volunteered in schools from the earliest days I could. I hope I never have to work in another field because education is part of who I am; it’s not just what I do.

You went to Holy Cross, one of the nation’s finest Catholic (Jesuit) colleges. What were your most formative experiences during your time there? Any thoughts about the recent elevation of the very first Jesuit pope?

Catholic education in general, and the Jesuit tradition specifically, is a big part of my family. I was baptized by my dad’s closest friend, a Jesuit whom he met in elementary school, who now teaches at Boston College, and who married me and Marc and baptized our three children. I and most of my family are Catholic-educated, and I do feel a particular devotion to Catholic schools and to Jesuit education in particular. When I think of the foundations of Jesuit education that have had the most profound impact on me and my family, I think of three things:

1.      The Jesuit focus on social justice—on using intellect as well as individual talents and skills to help others;

2.      Its focus on using knowledge (gained through classical study) and reason to seek truth; and

3.      A trust in God’s direction for your life.

Incidentally, the Jesuits I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and studying with have also been unconventional teachers, joyful, and fun to be around. They helped me see that making learning fun isn’t about gimmicks; it’s about knowing your subject deeply, loving your job, and keeping a sense of humor.

I was thrilled when Pope Francis was chosen for a number of reasons, chiefly that I crave a renewed focus on social justice and service in the church.

You have a great career, as does your husband, and you have three young kids. What’s your advice for young professionals hoping to balance a job and family?

Marc and I don’t have it all figured out. We’re tired all the time, I’m the mom that forgets to brush her own hair on the weekend, and we always feel like we could do more at work and at home. All I can say is that we work hard, we try our best to be honest with our colleagues about our limitations, and when two decisions compete, we always choose the one that will better serve our family and our children, in particular.

But more than that, I’d say the best career advice I got—circuitously—was from my father. When I was in college, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I was convinced I should go to law school. Never mind that I loved working with children, that I was passionate about education, or that I spent every extra and volunteer hour I had working in and with schools. One day, I remember talking to my dad, a lawyer, about something that seemed completely unrelated and incidental. He mentioned, almost in passing, that he wanted me to watch “A Man For All Seasons” with him. (I’m not a movie buff, and my dad is always trying to get me to watch movies.) There was a particular scene that he thought would really speak to me, he explained. It turned out to be a conversation between Sir Thomas More and Richard Rich. Rich had grand plans and aspirations and he asked More for advice about what he should do. Sir Thomas More replied,

“Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.”
Richard Rich: “If I was, who would know it?”
Sir Thomas More: “You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”

My dad doesn’t give advice, but I understood his point: follow your passion and talents, serve others, and don’t get swept away by ambition.

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