Coffee Break: Morgan Polikoff on Why Education Is So Complicated and How to Write a Good Tweet

Morgan Polikoff is an associate professor of education, specializing in K-12 policy, at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. He is one of the rare academics who can write in plain English through his informative blog and his entertaining Twitter feed. Be it breaking down NAEP scores, calling out his fellow academics for questionable research or posting pictures of his greyhound, Morgan has become a must-follow figure in the education sphere. He recently earned tenure for his work examining the Common Core State Standards, assessment policies and the measurement of classroom instruction. That, and he looks good in a bow tie. What’s your preference? Coffee or tea? I drink about a cup of coffee in the morning and maybe one additional cup throughout the day. Ideally, I like my coffee with full-fat cream, but no sugar. But I’ll also drink it black. I pretty much never drink tea, except maybe when I’m sick, I’ll have some herbal tea. Your Twitter feed, at least for me, is an endless source of hilarity. What makes for a good tweet? You need to have a Twitter persona. You need to have a voice. You’ve got 140 characters, so you’ve gotta be pithy. You’ve gotta be concise. You’ve gotta summarize things in a way people can understand. The big thing about Twitter is, just don’t be a jerk. There are so many jerks out there. For a while, I would feed the trolls and my life is so much better since I stopped doing that. You have a very opinionated blog. What do you think is wrong with the state of education research? What would you like to see more of, what would you like to see less of? The biggest thing that’s wrong about education research is that too much of it falls into the camp of, “it’s clear that the answer was known before the research began,” because the author makes it reasonably clear that they have an ideological agenda of some kind. What are you working on these days? For the last year and a half, I’ve been funded by the National Science Foundation and a private foundation to try and collect data on what textbooks are being used in the schools and districts of the five largest U.S. states. This turned out to be a very daunting task because most states don’t keep track of this information. In most other states, there’s no data at all. California schools were really behind other states in terms of their adoption. For instance, only about 25 percent of schools had adopted a Common Core-aligned book in K-8 math by 2013-14. In other states, it was a much higher percentage. What are your feelings on Common Core? There have been efforts for a very long time to adopt standards in this country, that have failed repeatedly. There are some clear advantages to national standards. That said, the political structure of our education system is such that it’s been very difficult to get that done. The fact that you’ve still got 40-some states in Common Core or in a close variant thereof, I think that’s promising, but for what the actual impact will be on kids, I think it’s just too early to tell. What about the political structure of our educational systems makes it so difficult to implement change? We’ve got 50 states with their own education policies. It’s set up to be as decentralized as possible and it makes things difficult to get done at scale. When you compare our country to basically any other country on earth—well, it’s not even possible to compare structurally. When I’m talking to someone from any other country, they don’t even understand what that means because in most countries, every school uses the same book. What other pressing issues do you see within education? For me, standards/accountability and teacher quality are basically the two main policy issues driving education right now. They’re the two main policies that should drive education because who is in front of a classroom and what and how they’re actually teaching are, to me, the two most important things. We’ve had to push for teacher evaluation, which we’re seeing some backpedaling on, we’ve had teacher tenure reforms in some places—those are clearly very contentious issues that aren’t going away. But I do think we have to grapple with how we can have a high-quality teaching profession of three million teachers in this country—and not just a high quality on average, but where the quality is equitably distributed because if there’s one thing we know, it's that poor kids get screwed by our current system. You live in a state that’s been a hotbed for teacher tenure issues. Would you care to weigh on the repeal of Vergara and what happened with Friedrichs? Last in, first out (LIFO) is one of those policies that’s not particularly defensible. If you talk to anyone outside the field of education and you were to say to them: You work at a bank, so when they have to make decisions about who they have to get rid of because they have to cut budgets, they’re going to have to cut the newest person regardless of performance—or if you said that about a baseball team—people would look at you like you were crazy. That said, I think teacher tenure, or job protections like due process—those have an important role. I don’t think we want teachers to be fired because they got an ornery principal who didn’t like them. You can’t just take away tenure and not give teachers anything in return.
Caroline Bermudez
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...

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