Peg Tyre Interview (mp3 audio)

Interviewer: Peg, you're a parent, author and observer. What does education mean today?
Peg Tyre: I'm also a long time education journalist. I've been really doing a deep dive into how education is practiced in all different kinds of communities around the nation. So, what it means probably depends on where you live.
Interviewer: Well, based on what you've learned, so, what is it? I mean, is it bricks and mortars? Is it knowing a certain set of things to pass a test or what is it? Being a citizen?
Peg: Is that the warm up question? Is that the question that's supposed to warm me up for the hard questions? [laughing]
Interviewer: That's the warm up question. Yes, it is.
Peg: Because I'm already starting to sweat here. It sounds really hard. So, what is education? I have come to think that there is an art of explanation that is teaching. There is the art of most effective explanation that is teaching. When we start to focus on what we're explaining and how we're explaining it, our schools are going to get a lot better.

Right now, I think our schools are embroiled in a lot of debate about how schools operate and how the adults in schools get along with each other and are managed. I think when we start to think about what actually happens in classrooms, and what do we impart to students, the discussion around education is going to change. Our students are going to learn a lot more.

Interviewer: So, you're sort of saying we need to focus more on the content and let's say, curriculum as opposed to the idea of school, perhaps?
Peg: Yeah, I don't even like the word curriculum because it seems like one of those "blah, blah" education terms that everyone gets for themselves, and when you talk to people about curriculum, they mean something different than you're talking about. It's like a hockey puck. Everyone tries to get possession of it.
Interviewer: [laughing]
Peg: I don't even like to use those school-ish kind of words like curriculum. Let's talk about what kids are learning, and the quality of the teaching, not quality of teaching like talking about teacher quality, but in the art of excellent explanation.
Interviewer: Given that, what will change in five to ten years or will it change? Will we be having this same conversation a la groundhog day in five or ten years, just lamenting how it is? What's your sense of that?
Peg: I think there could be some dramatic changes in education that could be for the worse in our country. I think that we are running the risk of losing public education, or big chunks of public education. I'm very, very worried about that. I don't see our country making commitments to the civil contract for the next generation. We have an aging population and I'm not sure we aren't abandoning the younger generation now. I would like to see a lot more resources, and a lot more attention, put on education and improving our education.
Interviewer: Is it money or is it attention? We spend more than anybody else in the world, obviously, and whether it goes to the right place, who knows?
Peg: Well, is money the solution? Absolutely not. I didn't mean to suggest that by my answer. I do think that in terms of our budgeting for our national priorities, health care is going to have to become a much bigger priority than education because of the demographics of our population. But at the same time I don't think money is the solution. I see a lot of waste in schools. I also see a lot of people who are lining up to make a profit off of what we spend on a state and federal level on education. I'm very worried about that. As I said, the privatization of public education, I'm deeply concerned about that. So, is money the answer? No. I think really what happens in classrooms is the answer.

I think that we need to focus on that in a, I was going to say, global way. I don't mean like all around the world. I mean from teacher's college, to how teachers are trained in teachers' college, to what kind of scope and sequence kids get from Pre-K to twelfth grade to fourteenth grade to M. D. associate's degrees.

Interviewer: So I agree with that. I'm glad you brought that up. Wisconsin has had quite a bit of tumult the last year on a number of issues around education and teachers and all. But interestingly, the Medicare spending went up significantly in Wisconsin, my home state, while K through 12 is flat after going up at a regular rate the last few years. You're right about the priorities and all that. I definitely get that. Given your experience and if you were king or queen for the next few years, let's say, what would be the one or two things you think that would pull that off? What's the lever you could use to address these things effectively?
Peg: I have hopes for the Common Core. I'm watching intently the development of the Common Core assessment, which I know sounds unbelievably wonky.
Interviewer: [laughing]
Peg: It's not something I bring up in cocktail party conversation because I would just be standing by myself within seconds. But the Common Core to me is a great hope because it's entirely talking about what happens in the classroom. But like everything in education, what gets tested gets taught. The way those assessments are rolled out and their effectiveness will determine whether the Common Core meets the goals that we have for it, or that we hope for it, or fails.

I'm obsessed with that. When I talk to education people, I have to be careful not to get too carried away. I really think that we're at a moment where there could be something wonderful happening, but the assessment process, the development of the assessments really worries me. It doesn't seem to be going that well.

Interviewer: You're an astute observer of these things. I've only been reasonably involved in education for nine years and have seen that any number of these initiatives were, right, there's a lot of promise. Then you look at the details and it's rather thin, so I appreciate your perspective. What prompted this interest in education? What was the spark that moved you from observer to activist, journalist, all that, in education?
Peg: I am not an activist, I will tell you.
Interviewer: Oh, come on. [laughing]
Peg: I'm not. I'll tell you, briefly, my life story. I was born, no seriously, I started my career as a journalist covering crime.
Interviewer: Right.
Peg: You cover crime for a long time and you realize that it's very banal. You start to realize that one person killed another person in a horrendous way, but if you look at their lives, it looks like it was two trains on a track heading for each other. The miracle would have been if they didn't end up killing each other.
Interviewer: [laughing]
Peg: They became a kind of inevitability to the conflicts that I saw. I asked my self, my intellectual journey of why is this happening? Why are theses trains set on a collision course? What I came to was lack of opportunity. You dig deeper into that, and it's lack of education.
Interviewer: Right.
Peg: I actually come at education... Most journalists come at education because they have kids or they think that kids are cute or they have parents who are teachers and they have warm feelings about school. I have really mixed feelings about school. Yes, kids are cute, but I actually come at this from a social...I don't know. It's sort of like a harder nosed perspective.
Interviewer: Yeah.
Peg: Also, I hate education blah blah. I hate people using school words and pretending that their having a dialogue when they're really just jargoning at each other.
Interviewer: [laughing]
Peg: I hate people telling me they have the answer to poverty, that they have the answer to the achievement gap, when you know and I know every intelligent person who's listening to this knows that it's more complicated than that. I'm not exactly misanthropic, but I'm an investigative reporter by trade, so I'm just like a "show me" kind of gal. I'm just like, "Yeah, really? Very interesting froth. Show me."
Interviewer: [laughing] Periodically, I receive emails from parents inquiring about school evaluation. Given your experience, what do you recommend for parents? How do you look at this and make any kind of informed decision.?
Peg: About schools?
Interviewer: Yeah. I'm going to move here. Where should I move for the school?
Peg: I wrote this book. I had a fellowship from the Spencer Foundation. I spent a year at Columbia thinking my big thoughts. I felt so guilty about taking money for nothing that I wrote this book for parents that basically condenses the 25 years of education research into a pretty readable, I have to say sometimes funny, read for parents -- very approachable, not jargony at all. The book is called "Good School." The paperback came out in September. It basically breaks down, first by preschool, then what test scores mean. Then what we know about class size and its impact on academic achievement. Then, what a good reading program looks like. Then, what a good math program looks like, and a little bit about teacher quality.

I don't have a blueprint for a perfect school, but I can make parents more informed. I have tried, in this book, to try and make parents more informed about the decisions they're making for their kids.

Interviewer: Of those things you mentioned, again, when I get these emails, what would be the top two or three things parents should look for when they're considering schools?
Peg: I would say to take high test scores as a positive indicator, but not as a lock of what a good school is and not to take one year's test scores very seriously because really it's test scores over time. Test scores on standardized tests are an information point, a data point, and they suggest other questions that you need to ask. They can unearth some information about a school, but they're just one data point. So that's one of the first things. The second thing I would say is that you should look at, if it's elementary school, their reading program. [laughing] Basically, if it's not in my view saturated with phonics...
Interviewer: Right, phonics and grammar. Yup, yup.
Peg: should then look at what their remediation rate is, like how many kids go to the reading specialist by fifth grade? If it's more than four, OK, don't put your kid in that class in that school.
Interviewer: [laughing] Yeah, I appreciate that one. I agree with that wholeheartedly. [laughing] Wow.
Peg: I struggle. I'm not in the politics of curriculum. I actually have spent time with neuroscientists who know how the human brain reads. When you talk about what they know, the teachers, they act like you're saying, "You're bad, but you're a heretic." They act like you're freaking Martin Luther. Really, you need to read the science. It's not that obscure. It's not that hard to understand. I'm shocked and dismayed by the fact that teachers think that teaching reading, how they do it, is personal choice and a sort of art form. Oh, listen. It is an art form. All teaching is. I think it's very elevated, but there is a best way. That seems to be a very political notion.
Interviewer: It's ironic. I agree with you. I think that is Problem and Job Number One for our education money, is reading. It's just very, very sad to me that we're in the situation we're in today.
Peg: Yeah, but what I learned in really reporting the heck out of reading and what makes a good reading program is that literacy isn't just reading. Literacy is also speaking and not just decoding, but comprehension. In order to get those skills fully online, you need to have writing right in there. It's a three-thread rope, speaking, reading, and writing. We define literacy now as decoding. It's just a threadbare and mindless approach. It's just feeble. I don't know if it's mindless. It's just feeble. It's a feeble approach to education.
Interviewer: [laughing] Well, I appreciate your perspective on that. I'm going to switch to a little different topic now. We're going to travel in my time machine back to when you were 18, Peg. What would you do? What would you study if you were 18 going off to college? What would you study knowing what you do now?
Peg: Ah, you know what I'm fascinated with now that I would never have thought about? Is math.
Interviewer: Math?
Peg: I'm like ready for math now.
Interviewer: [laughing]
Peg: I'm 52.
Interviewer: 52 and ready for math. [laughing]
Peg: And I'm ready for math.
Interviewer: Bring it on. [laughing]
Peg: I was just thinking this the other day. "I am so ready for math." I have this book about mathematicians, like super high-end mathematicians. It's their biographies and how they approach what they know. I'm not even clear what it is they're talking about most of the time, but it's like, guys from MIT talking about sort of inside baseball stuff. But I'm fascinated by math cognition. For myself, and I would never say this in front of my children, I totally missed the boat. Like, I just missed the math boat. It's my laziness or instructional malpractice. I'm not ready to assign blame. It was probably mostly me, but I'm ready for math now.

If I could be 18 again, I would say, get help. I got help in algebra, but like, get help in trigonometry and don't be such a wimp. You can do this. And I would have loved... I didn't understand what it was. I didn't understand that math is an extraordinary tool and a beautiful, beautiful language.

Interviewer: Interesting, interesting. Good.
Peg: Yeah, and then, I'm like an old word girl. As you know, from my Atlantic piece, I'm all about reading and writing.
Interviewer: Right. Grammar girl, yeah.
Peg: Yeah, but don't say grammar girl, it makes me sound so boring. OK? [laughing]
Interviewer: Well, you're hardly boring, Peg.
Peg: Can we say that grammar is just like the buzzkill term of all time? Like, don't you say "grammar" and get a little sweaty like, you know, someone's going to say, like, "subjunctive clause" after that and you're not sure what it means?
Interviewer: Yeah, but I'm thankful for all that stuff I had all those years ago. What a difference. Looking back on all that, your books, your journalism experience, your parenting, all of that, there have been wins and losses like all of us. What are you most proud of?
Peg: I'm really proud of this Atlantic story that's running now. That story is four years of work for me.
Interviewer: Wow.
Peg: Four years of research, and four years of deep dive. Actually, even more than that. I'll go with four years of deep dive research. Previous to "The Good School," I wrote a book about boys and education. I wrote a book about, and basically, I'm a grateful beneficiary of the feminist movement, not afraid to say it. I also have brothers and a husband and sons. I wrote that book because I wanted to make it OK for women to say, like, "Hey, what is going on academically with our sons?" and not to be part of a backlash dialogue.

I wrote it in a very progressive, like, "OK, let's just talk about this for what it is. Let's just talk about gender equity for what it really looks like now."

That began my focus because I think where boys really struggle in school is around reading and writing. That's in the data. I started to ask myself, of course, why do they really struggle in reading and writing? What happens in classrooms?

I do believe it has to do with the instruction. That there is some cognitive predisposition to be better at spatial relations and for girls to be more verbal, in the main, in general, but there's things that happen in the classroom that exacerbate those seemingly natural differences.

I really started working on this, like, in 2007, and really, I've been just grinding away at the research, trying to make myself smarter and smarter about what is literacy, what is writing, what is speaking, how it works from brain science right to the classroom practice?

This story in 2012 and it's October of 2012 is really, like, a culmination of a tremendous amount of, where every line every thought in that story represents months of work for me. I'm very proud of it, actually.

Interviewer: And you should be. I found it to be a breath of fresh air. I appreciate the fact that you did it and they published it. And I'm sure they paid you for all that time very well.
Peg: [laughing] Yeah, that would tend to be about, I don't know, a half a cent a hour.
Interviewer: I was going to wonder, wondering if it was a penny or not.
Peg: You know, I was astonished that they spent, I mean, that was a really complex story. It was a story about how writing extends thinking. It's a very complex idea and a very abstract idea. I was delighted that the Atlantic gave it the space that it did.
Interviewer: Yeah, I agree. Thinking a bit different now, at school models, you obviously spent lots of time thinking about these things, as I said, written books and articles. Do you have any views on traditional, the factory model we have now, the Frederick Taylor factory model, charters, vouchers, private, virtual? You know, any pros and cons of them or is it just, as you say, all come down to the teacher, the classroom, and that's it?
Peg: I wish that I could say, like, if you can get your kids into private school, they'll be fine, or just send them to a charter school and they'll be great. What I see is that schools are very variable, and that there's no kind of school that's particularly better than others. The devil is always in the details with education. That said, I will say, I'm warming to those core knowledge schools because I'm seeing really good data come out of them, core knowledge being the Edie Hirsch.
Interviewer: Right, right, yeah.
Peg: Which is, E. D. Hirsch schools, which are very focused on delivering a certain kind of content. Now, I diverge with E. D. Hirsch because he is very invested in the Western canon, and sort of, or as I used to think about it as those dead white guys. But I actually think that a content rich curriculum is always going to make a better school. What I've learned is that teachers spend a lot of time learning about this kind of idiotic process of education and not really about the things they're teaching. So, I've actually been in classrooms where teachers in second grade, teachers are talking about text-to-reader relationships to second graders. And I'm like, "Are you on crack? Does that make any sense to you? Does that make any sense to you?"

So, I've become sort of aversive to the dominance of process and started to value and seeing more of the value of championing content. I'm not sure that E.D. Hirsch, I mean, all respect to E.D. Hirsch, he's way smarter than I am.

But I'm not sure that by canonizing the white dead men, he hasn't, I mean, we are a very brown country now, we're getting browner. I think that's A-OK. I think we also have to recognize that, like, what we thought of as the great writers 100 years ago may need to also be adjusted to keep pace with the times in our global world.

Interviewer: Agreed. I agree. So, what about higher ed? There's people who talk about reckoning. There's a guy who's a top scientist here in Madison at the University of Wisconsin who thinks five years from now, the online guys, the Courseras and all these, will have a material effect on the higher ed game. What's your view of that?
Peg: It's a bubble, it's a bubble. I'm paying those bills right now. I'm about to start paying them for number two. And let me say, it's my privilege to pay them, OK? But I'm well aware that I'm participating, I might as well be buying tulips in Holland 250 years ago. It's a joke. There's nothing that they could be delivering that, short of a medical degree at the end of those four years, that could possibly pay off in the way that they're acting. I mean, it's ridiculous. It's ridiculous. It can't last. And I don't think it's going to be a hard landing, I think it's going to be a soft landing for colleges, at least, elite colleges.

I have deep concern about the way that low-income children are being pushed out of higher education. I'm encouraged by the pathways that Latino strivers and low-income black student strivers are getting to college.

They're getting to community college, and in certain regions, they're doing very well in community college. Because their numbers are so great in community college, they're starting to force articulation between two year community colleges and four year state schools.

Because right now, you can go to community college, but the local state school won't let you in, because they don't, they prefer to have a freshman. What is that? What is that?

Interviewer: It's money.
Peg: Yeah. But come on, those kids are killing themselves. You know, they have kids. They drop off their kids in daycare, they are working part time, and they're getting an associate's degree. I love those kids. OK? Those kids have my heart. Those are the strivers. Those are the people who make America great, who made America great 30 years ago and will make America great again. What do we do? We slap those people down. And I'm deeply concerned about that.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. Last question. You have obviously dabbled in different varieties of communication, certain classic books, articles in magazines and obviously, the newspapers, blogging, Twittering. What's effective? I mean, are they all sort of effective in different degrees or what do you think?
Peg: Well, I am just having the best time tweeting now, I have to tell you. It's like being a bumper sticker writer. And I used to teach at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, so all my students are reading me on Twitter, and they're like, "Peg, what are you doing on Twitter?" I'm tweeting back, "Evolve or die, baby."
Interviewer: You're old. Yeah, I know. What are you doing?
Peg: I'm trying. I'm actually, sort of in a Twitter moment. I lecture a lot. I write books. I write longed for magazine stories. I bore people at cocktail parties. I don't really know what the most effective is. Whenever a door opens, I walk through it, of communicating about the issues I think are important. No one's asked me to be Secretary of Education or anything, so I'm not exactly in a position of huge influence.
Interviewer: When you think about this common core, as you say, the assessments and both the opportunity and the risk with that. Let's say you have something that you want to say that is important, that you've researched, you've spent four years. Is it the article in "The Atlantic?" Is it constantly tweeting about it? Is it going on the old TV shows or influencing newspapers. What would you do?
Peg: Well, I publish pieces in "The Times." You know, you kind of have to hit the zeitgeist at the right moment. You kind of have to think about your messaging. Sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don't. My boys book was a "New York Times" best-seller. That was a really huge phenomenon, in it's way. "The Good School," I think is a lot more useful, but it did not have the same media frenzy around it. It's hard to know. It's hard to know. Listen, I don't think Twitter, itself, is very effective unless you have a deep well of information, and that your kind of teasing on to Twitter. I'm ready to try everything. I mean, I was a television correspondent for a couple of years and I'm very interested in doing a documentary about what I saw at New Dorf. I think that you can make this very abstract idea of writing and thinking, there's a way that you could make it very visual. I'd like to tackle that.

I was actually talking to the people who were...I shouldn't say what they do, but they do a reality TV show. They're interested in maybe doing it, as their serious project, I don't think it's going to go forward. I'd love to connect with a documentary filmmaker to try and do "The Atlantic" article as a documentary.

Interviewer: So, what that tells me, is you think that either a short or long form documentary would be more effective in reaching more people than "The Atlantic" article. Is that true?
Peg: No. I don't know about more people. I have 16,000 Facebook likes for a story whose dramatic tension hangs on the subordinating clause. What's the possibility of that, right? It's a perfect storm there. Clearly, I've either charted some sort of swing back in the pendulum. Clearly, I've nailed some moment, now, where people are starting to grow weary of what we have. Otherwise, this story would have just sat there. Because, it's a very deep story. It's a very detailed story. I think it's a great job, but I've done a lot of great jobs and people have not responded in the same way.
Interviewer: Right, right, right. As sort of a subset of that, what I was getting at is, as you've observed the education system as a parent, journalist and a book author, have you observed anybody who has been more effective at communicating with parents, students, teachers and taxpayers. Can you glean anything from that?
Peg: Yeah, I don't really think, in general, parents are very well-informed. I know I wasn't, and I'm an education reporter. I think that parents are really in the dark. I think that they're a little bit in an echo chamber of people who think the same way they do. They say the same things to each other back and forth until they believe it even more. Some of it's just nonsense. I think that school systems, in general, do a terrible job of communicating with parents. But, in fairness, schools shouldn't have to educate your kids and educate the parents, also. Parents need to get up to speed a little bit. I don't see anyone doing a wonderful job of that. That's why I wrote the book. I thought it would be a good contribution to the discourse.
Interviewer: Interesting. Well, I appreciate your time, Peg.