Steve Brill’s blinkered view of education

By Felix Salmon
August 24, 2011

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read Steve Brill’s book on education reform, then his bombastic op-ed on the subject is a pretty good alternative. And similarly, if you didn’t read Diane Ravitch’s 4,400-word review of “Waiting for Superman” in the NYRB, then her 1,000-word response to Brill captures the heart of her argument. Reading them side by side, the conclusion I come to is that Brill protests far too much.

Brill’s running theme is that there are discoverable facts about education, and that when a crack reporter (Brill himself, natch) spends lots of time poring through arbitration-hearing testimony and union contracts and the like, those facts will become clear and can be reported in a straightforward manner. It’s the “trust me, I’m a reporter” approach.

Meanwhile, Ravitch stays out of the weeds, reporting instead the result of large-scale empirical studies which show that charter schools don’t in fact outperform unionized public schools, and that US educational underperformance is much more attributable to child poverty than it is to bad or unionized teachers.

Brill says that Ravitch “cherry-picks all kinds of data,” but the fact is that his own data is invariably bottom-up and anecdotal, based largely on what he himself has reported. And then comes the point at which I pretty much decided that he’s full of hot air:

I have now worked my way through a fog of claims that give new meaning to the notion that if you repeat something that is plainly untrue enough times it starts to seem true, or at least becomes part of the debate. For example, there’s the refrain from the deniers, including Ravitch, that charter schools skim only the best students in a community. Some may, but not the best ones like those in the KIPP or Success Academies networks, where students are admitted by lottery and which teach the same ratio of learning disabled students as the traditional public schools. Those are facts.

I’m sorry, Steve, but it is not “plainly untrue” that charter schools generally have more of the brighter, richer kids in any given community, and fewer of the poorest ones who generally drag down test scores. Indeed, it’s an empirical fact. There’s a famous story in statistics about the guy who fires an arrow at a barn door, and then claims he hit a bullseye by painting a target around it. Brill seems to be doing the same thing here: he’s the one cherry-picking the best-performing charter schools, and then claiming that they’re somehow representative of charter schools as a whole, and that the “facts” of what happens at KIPP somehow disprove the broader data being cited by Ravitch.

Later on in his piece, Brill concedes, of charter schools, that “probably not more than half are performing significantly better, if at all, than traditional public schools.” Which is his way of saying that Ravitch is right; he doesn’t mention the Stanford CREDO study, the best impartial judge of this matter, which concluded that 17% of charters were better than a matched public school; 37% were worse; and 46% were the same. I suppose “not more than half” is one way of saying “17%.” But somehow Brill has convinced himself that the lessons of that 17% are scalable, even when — as he himself admits — what he’s looking at here is “a few thousand successful charter schools mostly run and taught by a relatively small corps of highly-motivated, best-and-brightest types, many of whom soon approach burnout,” rather than anything which has ever been successfully implemented on a universal scale.

The point here is that Brill never really makes the case that granular reporting on union contracts and the like is the best way to diagnose problems with a nation’s educational system, or to propose solutions. It’s pretty much impossible to find a union which isn’t unhelpful at times, and at the margin it’s probably fair to say that the interests of teachers are not always fully aligned with those of the children they’re educating. As a result, it’s hardly surprising that Brill manages to find ways in which teachers’ unions can impede rather than enhance the quality of education in specific instances.

But Brill’s obsession with unions seems to have blinded him to everything else which determines educational outcomes. And when he says that Ravitch wants “to rebut the simple and obvious argument that effective teaching is what counts the most in the classroom”, he’s straying so far from his beloved facts that he comes across mostly as a la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you zealot. As a general rule, anybody who thinks that anything about education reform is “simple and obvious” is wrong, and in fact Brill’s “argument” is no argument at all: insofar as it’s even true, it’s only true tautologically.

All of this is a pity, because we desperately need some grown-up discussion about the way that America’s kids are educated, rather than the all-heat-and-no-light fights that we normally get.

My feeling is that by far the most important factor has nothing to do with unions, and everything to do with the fact that schools are locally funded: that’s a great way of pouring the greatest amount of resources into precisely the schools which need them least.

Way back in 1984, I went to a US public middle school which had so many brand-new Apple Macintosh computers that there were always a few free. I’m sure the educational outcomes of my class there were pretty stratospheric. But they probably would have been just as high even without all the money and resources lavished on us by the local community in Palo Alto. Meanwhile, just across the freeway in East Palo Alto, local schools, starving for resources, were underperforming. There’s nothing fair about that. And until we fix the system whereby schools are funded by property taxes, schools in poor areas are always likely to have serious problems.

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