In Defense of Sandra Stotsky

Richard Phelps:

In a review essay appearing in the Fall 2019 issue of AQ, James Shuls criticized author Sandra Stotsky for suggesting in her 2018 book Changing the Course of Failure that the federal government should take control of the education of low-achieving students by establishing something resembling boarding schools. “That’s a dangerous belief,” Shuls wrote, “it would be a short step for someone on the fringe to take from Stotsky’s idea of a voluntary boarding school to the mandatory internment of low achieving children.” In a response to Shuls in the same issue, Stotsky explained that her recommendation was one of several that addressed a fact that educators have failed to adequately address: “massive adolescent underachievement is a social problem, one that has not been solved by our educational institutions in over fifty years.” Below, Richard Phelps offers a defense of Stotsky’s body of work followed by a reply from Shuls.

Sandra Stotsky can claim experience that the vast majority of pundits, policy advisors, and advocates who directly influence our country’s education policy cannot: she helped design and operate a large-scale program—combining reforms of curriculum, professional development, and student assessment—that consistently raised educational achievement for all students. She put in the long hours working out the details, reaching consensus, making adjustments, and managing systemwide solutions that worked. Her patient work was integral to the Massachusetts “education miracle” of the 1990s and early 2000s, the envy of forty-nine states. Few individuals involved in education reform in the United States have affected as much positive change.

Stotsky, a co-author with me and Mark McQuillan on a 2015 study for the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, also deserves respect for her independence of thought and word. In a U.S. education policy world full of grifters, enablers, and sellouts, organized largely into cliques, Sandra Stotsky shines through. Like so many of the policy analysts aligned with either of the major political parties, she could have taken the money and become a prominent player in the Gates Foundation’s regressive Common Core World. Unlike so many others, however, she has chosen to keep her own counsel, navigated by a steady compass of core principles and evidence.

Not conforming, however, appears to have made her some enemies. In an astonishingly slanted review of the first of her two recent books (Academic Questions, Fall 2019, 412–421), James V. Shuls accused her of writing what she did not and characterized its entirety based on his misreading of just one of her several suggested “possible long-term solutions.”

Briefly, in response to Shuls’s perverted perspective, in Changing the Course of Failure: