Thursday, September 8, 2011

My response to Ron Clark

I read a lot of articles on education. Some of them are insightful and some of them are not. Here's an article written by Ron Clark that I believe falls short of insightful. At best the messages delivered by Clark are unhelpful and at worst they may be harmful.

Early on the article points out a need for parents to trust teachers.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when I tell a mom something her son did and she turns, looks at him and asks, "Is that true?" Well, of course it's true. I just told you. And please don't ask whether a classmate can confirm what happened or whether another teacher might have been present. It only demeans teachers and weakens the partnership between teacher and parent.
But then at the end, Clark writes:
If your child said something happened in the classroom that concerns you, ask to meet with the teacher and approach the situation by saying, "I wanted to let you know something my child said took place in your class, because I know that children can exaggerate and that there are always two sides to every story. I was hoping you could shed some light for me."
Can you see how I might be unsettled?

When it's the teacher saying something, Clark doesn't see any need for further inquiry, and yet when the student says something, the parent needs to get "both sides to the story". The best teachers know that there are "two sides to every story" even the ones teachers tell. What Clark may be missing here is that the best teachers leave their omnipotence at home.

Some of the strongest school memories any of us hold well into our adult lives are the times we were wronged by a teacher. This isn't to suggest the best teachers never wrong children -- Because they are human, despite their best efforts, they inevitably will do wrong. The best and worst educators are prone to error but the difference is that the strongest educators understand this -- the weakest ones deny it.

Next, Clark tries to tug at the heart strings of teachers by indicting a child for neglecting their summer homework:
And if you really want to help your children be successful, stop making excuses for them. I was talking with a parent and her son about his summer reading assignments. He told me he hadn't started, and I let him know I was extremely disappointed because school starts in two weeks. 
His mother chimed in and told me that it had been a horrible summer for them because of family issues they'd been through in July. I said I was so sorry, but I couldn't help but point out that the assignments were given in May. She quickly added that she was allowing her child some "fun time" during the summer before getting back to work in July and that it wasn't his fault the work wasn't complete.

Can you feel my pain?

Some parents will make excuses regardless of the situation, and they are raising children who will grow into adults who turn toward excuses and do not create a strong work ethic. If you don't want your child to end up 25 and jobless, sitting on your couch eating potato chips, then stop making excuses for why they aren't succeeding. Instead, focus on finding solutions.
 Clark would like our first question to be: Why isn't the parent making sure this homework gets done?

But my first question is: Why is the teacher assigning homework over the summer?

Frankly, I'm skeptical of whether the teacher should have a say over what a child does during family time in the evening let alone whether the school should be allowed to dictate what a child does over the summer.

My second question is: Where's the research that shows if kids don't do their summer homework (or any homework at all) that they will end up 25, jobless, sitting on their parent's couch eating potato chips? The fact is there isn't a shred of evidence to support that there are any non-academic benefits to homework, and there isn't any evidence of to support academic benefits homework before high school.

These kinds of scare tactics do nothing but bully parents and children into doing things school forces families to do, like homework, that has no justification.

My objections to articles like this one can be summarized by Robert Fried:
Within the culture of failing schools one is likely to find that staff inertia and a penchant for victim-blaming prevail.
And by Pedro Noguera:
Many schools are plagued with a culture of failure where failure is normalized and predictable, and over time the adults come to blame the kids and their families. When this is the prevailing logic in a school that school will never improve.
When professionals like educators and nurses develop their beliefs based on blaming the very people they are to serve and work with, Robert Fried explains that "people stop thinking in new ways, they filter out evidence that might challenge old biases, and they stop reading in their field."

In other words, progress is plagued by a kind of professional paralysis.

The ultimate consequence of paralysis is that we spend less time focusing on meeting the needs of our students and more time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves. Under these circumstances, the passionate educator that lies inside us all goes into hiding.

The funny thing about scapegoats is that they are always those with less power, and in education, those with the least power will always be the kids.


  1. Brilliant, thank you. I've read several responses to Clark's article; yours is well researched and insightful with regards to the impact of such dogma. Professional paralysis...I like that! Thanks, Joe!

  2. I understand your response and I agree that homework has little to know academic value. However, if the parent doesn't agree with or like the homework policy of a school, then they have the right to change schools. It is easier to change schools than it ever has been. If the parent disagreed with the summer homework, then they should have spoke up. If the principal disagreed with summer homework, then he or she should have said something. By staying silent all summer on the issue, the teacher has no reason to think there was an issue with the homework. I agree with Mr Clark, if a parent has a concern or question, they can ask, but please don't do it in front of the student. The teacher-student relationship can be a fragile one and when trust is questioned in front of the student, it can be very damaging.

  3. "When professionals like educators and nurses develop their beliefs based on blaming the very people they are to serve and work with, Robert Fried explains that '"people stop thinking in new ways, they filter out evidence that might challenge old biases, and they stop reading in their field."'

    I don't think that's what Clark is doing. Have you read his stuff or heard him speak? He's amazing -- extremely positive and inspiring. He's done amazing things for kids, and he loves them. And his point was about some parents deciding to believe their kids over their teachers and not wanting to accept criticism of them. Whether or not they should be doing homework during the summer was not his point, I don't think, although I'm sure you know that many schools (not teachers, but schools) require summer assignments.

    I don't think that he's "blaming" parents for their children's shortcomings, but rather asking them, the parents, to not blame the teacher, either.


  4. Thank you for your comment, MD. I'm concerned that too many are missing the point of Clark's letter. He is not "blaming" or "scapegoating." He works with 1000s of teachers a year through his academy, so he obviously hears stories. He's been in the classroom. He certainly does care about his students, so much so that he would be direct with certain parents (teachers are parents too, so they're not off the hook, by the way) The irony? Clark is being assailed by edubloggers for his comments regarding, what they see as 'blaming the parent or student' and do not realize (?) that their blogs are fueling the fire--they are rousing up anger towards not just a teacher, but a highly recognized and respected teacher. Read the comments after some of these anti-Clark missives, and you will get my point. You will see a lot of blame. I am a parent, and I do care what Clark has to say, just as I want to know what an experienced surgeon has to say, or nurse, electriction, plumber, carpenter,mechanic, etc. I seriously do not understand why some edubloggers are perhaps unknowingly helping certain 'edubullies' justify their behaviour in the public school system.
    Why can't Clark be direct? I do not want the teacher to feel that he or she "serves", as you say, me or my daughter. My daughter is not the little empress (most days). And guess what, as a parent, I want to know if my child is not reaching her full potential and what can be done to help her. If I undermine the teacher or system, I am certainly not helping my daughter or the school community in the long run.
    I realize that many reformers want to improve the system, but for every edublog, you will encounter a different vision of that system--which is to be expected and welcomed. I think it's excellent that educators have such passion for learning that they want to envision / create a better learning environment for children. But we need to remain in reality too. Clark speaks of this depressing reality: teachers leaving demoralized and defeated, parents feeling so much pressure to help their child succeed in this 21st century world that a 79 needs to be an 80, and students getting caught in the middle. And on and on. Yes, blame will not work, but he is not 'blaming'

    Stating that Clark's letter lacks insight is rather surprising. He certainly has insight-- experience still counts and I try to listen to it.

    Thank you for sharing your opinion, though, Mr. Bower. Obviously we have just approached the article from different angles and backgrounds.

    I look forward to reading more of your articles. I do respect what you are working to achieve in the school system. I just don't think that Ron Clark is the guy to aim our cannons at. Surely there are other more destructive forces and pressures on the public system than Ron Clark? Can't energy be directed at those more serious forces?


  5. Excellent analysis Mr. Bower !!! I will be reading much more of your blogs. Thanks :)

    @NC I disagree with your analysis of Joe Bower's analysis !!! Ron Clark and yourself are being more self-serving than insightful !!!

  6. I think what's needed in these situations is Action Research.

    Action research is a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a "community of practice" to improve the way they address issues and solve problems. Action research can also be undertaken by larger organizations or institutions, assisted or guided by professional researchers, with the aim of improving their strategies, practices, and knowledge of the environments within which they practice.

    Source: "A Beginner's Guide to Action Research"

  7. You have every right in the world to disagree with me, Mr. Baerg, but I would have appreciated your reasons why. I do not understand how I am self-serving; how do I benefit from my comments? I did not leave a site / link for people to follow me. I intentionally posted as anonymous so that bias or alternative agenda could not be levelled against me.
    I'm hoping for honest, open discussion / debate on educational issues. If I'm misguided, show me where I'm misguided. Spend some time reading Clark's letter and correct me yourself.
    I thoroughly enjoy Mr. Bower's writngs, but I'd be absolutely foolish to agree with everything someone else said. That's why our schools try to teach critical thinking, no?
    I promise to respect your opinion when you have actually formed one for yourself.


  8. Thank you for this thoughtful response. It is heartening to know that there are teachers who disagree with the view of parent/family relationship Clark expresses in that article.

  9. My goodness, if teachers agree with being treated with utter disrespect by SOME parents then I pity the public ed system. Clark is not saying that ALL parents are like this! But SOME are and admit to it proudly. How can this behaviour be condoned? Are you speaking from experience? Are you one of those parents who is determined to put your child ahead of every other child in the class? How will that work with 30 parents wanting to do that?
    This is ridiculous. My head is going BOOM.

    @NC good luck getting any actual counter arguments. Glad to hear that some parents aren't willing to support 'edubullies' as you call them. I also like your lack of a web link. Funny.

  10. Hey, check out this link. Maybe it'll help out a bit.

    Provides useful tips for parents, teachers, and principals.

  11. I had a 504 meeting this week for my son, who uses an ipad as his computer in school because his handwriting is very poor and he expresses himself more fully in writing when typing, so we've moved to that as a method for him to both take notes and complete his assignments for class.
    One teacher asked- how can we make sure if he needs his notes for an open book test, he won't be using the internet instead? I assured her that the ipad really only does one task at a time so it was super easy to monitor, or he could print out the typed notes in advance if she preferred, but later on, it bothered me that the first response was one of assuming a kid would cheat or do something wrong first before assuming they would be responsible first.

    Have we done so much with standardized testing and the like that there's too much teachers versus the students built into the system rather than a more cooperative approach?

  12. The problem with tests/ rewardsSeptember 10, 2011 at 2:30 PM


    There is certainly too much emphasis on standardized testing and grading / rewards.I wonder if many of the problems beteeen parents and teachers could be decreased / eliminated if so much wasn't riding on a test score. Don't forget, many teachers could potentially lose their livelihood if their students do poorly on tests. Parents are worried that their child may not get into the right university or trade. This is certainly complex.
    I highly doubt if teachers love giving grades to students--perhaps the reason so many try to give out As?
    But who controls the testing market? Who decides the fate of standardized testing? Not teachers, but parental pressure.
    Decrease the testing pressure and I am confident schools will be less polarized-- parent vs teacher. Yet, how can we determine good teaching if no test?? Many want accountability....but how?

  13. I had not ever heard of Ron Clark before I read his CNN article. I am not familiar with his other work nor his reputation in the education world.

    My response was limited to this one article that he wrote. I found that his article lacked logical conclusions for his examples.

    I am not angry at Ron Clark for his article, nor am I anti-Ron Clark. I find it a little odd that simply voicing my discomfort with agreeing with Ron Clark's article some how makes me an "edu-bully".

    Ron Clark may be a master teacher for all I know -- but in the context of this article, I thought his points were less than helpful in solving some of the classic problems around student engagement.

  14. I was not arguing that you are an edu-bully, Mr. Bower. My concern was that some may misinterpret your response as support for those who do put unreasonable demands on the ed system. I apologize that I wasn't clear.

  15. @NC thank you for your comments.

    I can see how someone might misinterpret my response as support for parents who do put unreasonable demands on the ed system.

    I hope you can see that at the heart of my critique of Ron Clark's articles was a concern that some might misinterpret Ron Clark's articles as fuel for those who place unreasonable demands on parents and kids.


  16. I thought research showed the best students had highly involved parents. Mr Clark's article seems to encourage the opposite of involvement. Asking parents to be silent bystanders or parrots of what the teacher says.

    Where is the middle ground? Most parents love their children and want them to succeed. Most teacher are teachers because they too want children to learn and succeed.

    If it is true that the best school is a school of orphans (from original article) then I am scared to my core for the children and the education system as a whole.


  17. Thank you for such a well written clear response to that article. I am always happy to hear from teachers who are insightful and still teaching in a traditional school.

  18. It is all a matter of accountability on everyone's side. Why summer homework? To prevent a regression of skills. A caring teacher would want to keep that from happening.