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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Curiosity, perhaps fostered by but certainly supported by a home environment condusive to learning. You went to an elite school (mine was decidedly blue collar working class); however, even the poorest schools have enormous resources that are available for the curious, yet remain largely unused by the school community as a whole.

There are individual teachers who can make a difference through the force of personality. It helps to be in a nontraditional school where the force of bureaucracy may be less, but it’s not a panacea.

Yes, poverty matters, as does safety. If you’re hungry or fearful, you are less likely to be curious. But I;m not sure that there’s any overarching answer.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Excellent points.

If the idea is that investing in public education is good for society as a whole, it is extremely hard to see why it should be funded at a local level. Most of the students who benefit from my tax dollars will wind up in some other town or state by the time their education begins to pay off for society.

Posted by donmon | Report as abusive

Local funding is not necessarily the problem.

These days, California doesn’t have significant local funding for the basic costs (teachers etc): the property tax is submitted to the state which redistributes it back to the schools.

The difference the wealthiest areas provide is more parcel taxes/bonds for infrastructure improvements on the school, and a LOT more private support from the community (e.g. there is a charity for Palo Alto Unified School District that raises 2.5M a year, or $2300 per STUDENT!). But that extreme level of support can only occur in an area where the mean household income is $140K/year.

So if you take a more typical suburban district (eg, Huntington Beach Union HS district, where I went to high school, and has a closer to $80K/year mean household income), the funding per student is pretty close to the funding per student given to East Palo Alto’s schools, but the educational outcomes are a lot better.

Thus I suspect that the effects of poverty on schools extend far far far beyond funding disparities in the schools themselves, as those funding disparities mostly disappear in California when you consider a typical upper-middle-class district (rather than an extremely wealthy district) to a district in a very poor neighborhood.

Posted by NicholasWeaver | Report as abusive

“Some may” suggests that his emotion is misplaced, but I think also provides him a defense from that he’s “claiming that they’re somehow representative of charter schools as a whole”; in any case, the examples bolster his big point, even if not the immediate point that Ravitch is being deliberately unfair. His “simple and obvious argument” is, I suppose, an obvious argument, whether it’s obviously correct or not, but it happens to be well established empirically that some teachers, even adjusting for pretty much everything, produce better results than others, and that this difference is bigger than anything else over which there is, even in principle, control (cf. race and SES).

I hope not to get myself to where I’m defending the deification of anecdote, or even its promotion over statistics, but there is variety among charter schools, KIPP (and a few others) have, at least to some degree, shown that success can scale. State by state, the worst results among charter schools are in those states with the most recent growth in the number of charter schools, which gets to one of the biggest advantages to using charter schools: they’re easier to shut down. It is important, therefore, that charter schools that get poor results over a period of years be shut down — charter proponents err when they try to prevent this. The system as a system, though, shows promise, in a way that misaggregated statistics are likely to miss.

Finally, I’d note that a lot of the worst schools in New Jersey are spending a lot more per pupil than almost all schools (in New Jersey and nationwide) that get much better results; throwing money at failing schools is like throwing money at Haiti: at low levels money is surely a binding constraint, but more money doesn’t guarantee good outcomes either, and it’s frequently simply wasted.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

Felix I love you and Brill is bombastic. But teacher’s unions are a huge part of the problem, especially the resource allocation problem in education. “Fixing” education in this country is not easy. In fact, having spent years in arena, I don’t think it’s really even possible, at least on the scale so many reformers envision. But it is obvious to anyone who has ever been in that arena that teacher’s unions significantly detract from both a quality and cost perspective.

And the data is highly ambivalent re your argument that the problem is inadequate or misallocated resources.

Posted by Metsox | Report as abusive

No. I tutor at a charter school. My wife is a teacher.

The problem is the schools reflect the communities they’re in. My particular charter school takes in bright, normal kids who have grown up in lousy circumstances. A main requirement: they must have an adult in their lives, someone who takes a degree of responsibility. That disqualifies many kids.

The kid pretty much say the same thing: I never thought about school before. They come from families and live in areas where education is not valued. Their peers don’t care about it and many are actively discouraged from learning by their peers and often by family members.

Unions aren’t a big deal to kids and families. Custodians matter more because they often control when buildings are open – and if they’re heated. Kids may want to stay at school – because it’s safe, because they have nowhere to go – but the school closes because of the custodial contracts. (And because it costs money to keep a building running.)

Unions don’t matter much to educational quality. Teachers vary wildly in ability no matter what. The profession doesn’t pay enough to attract 100% super teachers, which is an idealistic pipe dream anyway. There is no way to dramatically improve teacher quality because teachers are people, just like dentists and accountants. We expect a level of competence in professions, not miracle working, and the mistake in education is we define competence as what is really miracle working. Try working with these kids in these families in these places. School can’t remake all these lives. Expectations for teachers are unrealistic.

People like to tilt at big levers as though they can find the magic one that controls the whole system. That’s a ridiculous obsession.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

While Brill may overreach in his claims, he is still making a good faith argument. As for Ravitch, it’s questionable.

There is undoubtedly selection bias involved with Charter Schools. But even taking that in account, it doesn’t explain away the success of KIPP. Does selection bias explain how American Indian Charter in Oakland can go from underperforming to the best publicly-funded school in California? It even outperforms public schools around Silicon Valley. So much for the parents/resources argument.

There are obviously other factors that lead to academic success. Some schools implement them systematically, and others fail to — systematically. It would be one thing if the public education establishment were lining up to observe and take notes. But they aren’t. It’s parochialism and Ludditism at their finest, on par with the Catholic Church or Blockbuster.

It’s even more embarrassing when you hear the arguments against standardized testing. Or even worse, how our education system isn’t actually “that bad.” You have above-average kids going through 16+ years of school and graduating with basically zero skills: innumerate, limited creativity, limited problem solving skills, and in constant need hand-holding from a supervisor. It should surprise no one that the underemployment rate for young adults hovers north of 30%. Very unlikely that number will coming down anytime soon.

The system Ravitch defends is broken. It was underperforming in the 20th century. Today, it’s just irrelevant to the real world — both in curriculum and teaching style.

Posted by dud | Report as abusive

For the love of God, if you write about education reform, please be at least A LITTLE familiar with the reality that extends past well-worn cliches. Visiting a school that one time 27 years ago doesn’t count.

And better to add nothing than to glibly say, “Well, of course you can find something wrong with union influence, you can find something wrong with anything!”

The differences between charter school and “regular” school student demographics are typically overstated. A recent MIT paper found they don’t account for test score differences at the middle school level; the Hoxby study on New York charters (hey, CREDO again!) had similar findings.

There are plenty of jurisdictions where bad schools receive MORE funding than good ones. (As well as even more places where no one can explain, to anyone’s satisfaction, why school finance outcomes are what they are.)

Posted by timwilliams100 | Report as abusive

Felix, Ravitch – I generally agree with both of you, but please (please!) could someone mount a real, factual, logical defense of LIFO firing?

The only arguments I’ve heard are:

1. It’s necessary to fight discriminatory firing practices. This is a bunk argument – all industries have to fight discriminatory practices, yet not all resort to strict LIFO firing doctrines.

2. In order to install a merit-based firing system, we’d need to agree on a way to measure merit, which is very challenging and therefore we shouldn’t bother (Now to be clear, I’m not accusing Felix or Ravitch of making this argument, but I’ve certainly heard it made nonetheless). This also is a garbage defense – LIFO firing is not nearly as aligned with the goal of keeping the best teachers as the unions would have us believe. I understand that directly incentivizing very specific behavior can be difficult or impossible, therefore requiring us to incentivize a similar behavior, but LIFO firing is not even close.

So please, someone with a better knowledge than I of all the issues involved, defend LIFO firing. I’m open to being convinced! Or! Or tell me you think it’s a terrible idea, and that you, too, think the union needs to revise this practice. Either way, I would just love to see this addressed more directly.

Posted by clearance42 | Report as abusive

Felix, you should read more of the charter school literature. For example, see the ten studies cited and linked here: harter-school-research.html

As for your claim that charter schools “have more of the brighter, richer kids in any given community,” it would be interesting to see if you could produce any evidence that would contradict the RAND 2009 report on several states, which found as follows:

“In sum, in all but one case (Chicago reading scores, which are virtually identical to the districtwide average), students switching to charter schools had prior test scores that were below districtwide or statewide averages (though usually the difference was small). Compared with their immediate peers in the TPSs they exited, students transferring to charter schools had slightly higher test scores in two of seven locations, while, in the other five locations, the scores of the transferring students were identical to or lower than those of their TPS peers. . . . Overall, across the two analyses, it does not appear that charter schools are systematically skimming high-achieving students or dramatically affecting the racial mix of schools for transferring students. Students transferring to charter schools had prior achievement levels that were generally similar to or lower than those of their TPS peers.”

Posted by StuartBuck | Report as abusive

The trouble with laying the responsibility of the results on child poverty is that it’s often a short step to:

“We can’t practically do anything meaningful about poverty, so let’s stop wasting money on trying to educate the majority of the poor beyond basic reading and writing and just warehouse them as cheaply as possible?”

(Often they’ll advocate an escape hatch school for the top 1% or 0.1%)

I’m pretty leery about giving people an excuse to not even bother trying.

Posted by TomWest | Report as abusive

I have taught at a community college as adjunct for 25 years now. And lest you think I’m approaching retirement, I started teaching my first year of grad school due to a shortage of math professors. I have seen a consistent deterioration in students since the late 90′s and it has nothing to do with unions whatsoever, trust me. Let’s start with why I teach.

It certainly ISN’T for the money. In fact, I’ve been asked many, many times to be a full time professor but I would make exactly 125k LESS than I do in industry. So let’s start there, the schools can’t pay me enough to make it worth my while. I teach because it’s my give back to the community, as for these kids, it’s their way out of subsistence living. And I love it. I would love it as much full time, but it won’t happen. So there’s a word to all of you that think teaches make too much. They don’t. And you don’t get the best and the brightest most of the time because of it. Period.

I’m going to be controversial from my observation and 25 years…it’s the parents more than anything, and also standardized testing that’s the cause. Parents are just the worst. I’ve had them try to get involved at the college level (it’s illegal for me to talk to them, btw, which I relish) and not for the better. The kids are so entitled, and so undereducated from the grade school level it’s frightening. And my area covers some VERY well to do towns and some rather poor ones. No difference. I have had teachers tell me their job is to teach to the test and they have been told that. The scores now reflect everything from funding to jobs. Would I do a digression into exactly how the internet worked if it wasn’t on a standardized state test? Not if my job depended my the test scores of my students. And the parents can’t be told little Mary is “average” you know, or they scream and threaten. So what do you do? You give them all good marks, get them to score on the tests and push them through. Notice this has nothing to do with union practices.

So why doesn’t the discussion start there? Get RID of standardized tests for graduation, and start adopting policies that insulate teachers from parents. Then you’ll get back to where we were 20 years ago. Because it is very sad now when a 19 year old ex-football player can’t write in complete sentences but really wants to get somewhere in life and is in your office crying.

Posted by skyman123 | Report as abusive

As a product of public education in a state without teacher’s union (Texas), I am always puzzled by those who say teacher’s unions are the problem when states without teacher’s unions perform so poorly by most statistical measures. And yes I realize that there are differences in these states but in studies that try and control for those differences states with teacher’s unions still perform better.

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Posted by twhiz | Report as abusive

Thanks, Felix. Great counter to Brill’s piece. As a former teacher, I feel that resources and even the quality of the teachers is secondary to the importance of the educational values students bring to the classroom. Parental values, assuming that the parents are still around and understand the values they’re transmitting, are profoundly important. The student’s community is also very important. A distant third are the resources at the school. I taught in a remarkably well-equipped, well-maintained school in rural No. Carolina recently, with well-trained, highly competent teachers. You could have place large bets that the students with safe, supportive family situations would do far better than those living in semi-chaotic, needy, emotionally-charged home situations. Not empirical, just my educated guess. But… until the poor American-educational-performance argument is directed toward the real problem – kids being reared by parents who are “kids” themselves and emotionally unfit to be parents – you can pound on the teachers and the unions until the cows come home. You’re fighting the wrong foe.

Posted by Cultureclash | Report as abusive

It’s interesting that in most discussion of our public education system, very little is said about the importance of quality parenting despite the fact that many, many studies have shown that the most accurate predictor of student achievement is parental achievement.

Parents spend more time with their children than any individual teacher, yet it’s always the teachers and administrators who get blamed when students struggle.

Who is responsible for making sure a child gets enough sleep? Not the teacher!

Who is responsible for making sure a child eats healthy enough meals to be able to focus in class? Not the teacher!

Who is responsible for making sure a child does their homework and shows up for class ready to learn? Not the teacher!

Yet when a student struggles academically, usually due to a combination of the above factors, who gets blamed? The teacher!

Ask most teachers, and they will tell you that the number of students who regularly show up prepared for class and in a condition to learn is usually pretty small.

The battle is being lost in the home…not just in the classroom, and the sooner we start to acknowledge that reality, the better.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

Twenty five years later Palo Alto still has good schools and East Palo Alto on the other side of the freeway does not. Wealthy people live in Palo Alto and their nannies and gardeners live in East Palo Alto.
All these debates about education is just a smoke screen that distracts from the real issue, which should remain nameless or this post might get censored…

Posted by 74LS08 | Report as abusive

It is absurd to expect the myriad problems of our fractious and declining society to be solved by public education, the problems of which are more a symptom than a cause. Can’t run our schools? Well, we can’t fix our roads either. Can’t keep our parks open and can’t win our wars of choice.

Thirty years ago, we decided as a society to stop investing in the public sector and stop honoring those who serve it, so much so that we don’t want to pay their pensions or continue their medical care.

For all its no doubt many faults, the teachers’ union is one of the few progressive organizations in the country. And one of the mainstays of the Democratic party. And therefore must be destroyed.

Posted by frit | Report as abusive

Bravo, Felix, for pushing for a more serious discussion of education in the U.S., and how to improve it. Thanks, too, for the comments by Skyman and Cultureclash.
Education should be an attempt to introduce the student to reality in all its factors. While that may sound “fuzzy,” we are already starting to see the arid quasi-learning that results when schools focus primarily on what is quantifiable and testable in standardized, multiple-choice form.
The emphasis on quantifiable results makes it difficult for us to recognize that some important aspects of teaching and learning are fundamentally qualitative, and based on human interaction.
To take one example: How should teachers be evaluated? According to their students’ test scores? Do those test results prove how effective teachers are? Or is it more effective to have experienced evaluators (who themselves have extensive experience teaching) observe teachers and make decisions about whom to retain and promote. That means we have to be willing to trust the judgment of the evaluators. These evaluations can be gamed to serve the interests of bad teachers or bad school administrators – just as test results can be gamed, as happened in Atlanta’s public schools and elsewhere. Despite the unpredictability of using human judgment to evaluate teachers, it’s likely that pretty good evaluators will outperform excellent tests in the long run.
A teacher, rgod8855, responded to Diane Ravich’s column, and highlighted the effectiveness of evaluation, when done right – in his comment, which I’m re-posting (with typo corrections):
(From: 11/08/23/the-reform-movement-is-already- failing/
Posted by rgod8855
AUG 23, 2011
5:01 PM EDT
“Mr. Brill and Ms. Ravich each demonstrate the two polarized viewpoints expressed in the reform debate. Who is right? As it is with most debatable topics, it is probably somewhere in the middle.
“As a relatively new teacher, I do have a different viewpoint from both these positions. It is important to report that I may be young in experience, but not young in life given my start as a teacher was after thirty years working in private industry. I have a full understanding of how businesses and workers co-exist in union and non-union environments.
“To begin, let us dispense with the notion of the overpaid underworked teacher that draw from the trough of public funds to pad their lifestyle and use the union rules to get exorbitant time off or skirt shoddy practices. I was paid 45K a year and if I chose to use the negotiated health care plan, it would have cost me $700 a month to support my family’s health care needs. Fortunately, my wife has a better plan to cover us, so the option of opting-out was workable. Excessive sick time off? Not on your life. During my second year of teaching, I had to have a tumor removed from the pituitary area that kept me out of work for two months. With only two years in the tank, my sick time was good for two weeks and I had to deal with unpaid time. Obviously, the 10-15 days of sick time Mr. Brill exists, but it doesn’t exist everywhere. I think when Mr. Brill assembled his facts, he did the one thing he accused Ms. Ravich of doing – cherry-picking the worst examples and drawing across the board conclusions.
“Equally distorting is Ms. Ravich’s point of view on the effects of student in poverty and compelling these students facing daily challenges to do well in school. As a high school math teacher, I see examples of this daily, but I also see just as many with advantageous backgrounds exhibiting a lack of drive or interest in learning. When there are students that come to the class day-in and day-out sitting in class without purpose, it is hard to propagate a learning environment for the whole class. It does not take many of these students to disrupt the proceedings of an entire class. It isn’t necessarily poverty that creates these challenges. Don’t get me wrong, poverty is a factor; it just isn’t THE factor in student learning.
“The last big point I believe is relevant is one that both sides miss: teacher evaluations. I cannot stress highly enough how important and useful this tool is as long as it is not used to bludgeon teachers with the intent of wrecking their careers. The objective is making teachers better, not make them sweat for the privilege of teaching. The traditionalists say they are an obstacle in allowing teachers to function in a manner they see fit and the reformers say they are necessary to weed out the poorer performers. They are both so wrong-headed.
“As most schools require by contract, I was evaluated twice a year, but they were so differently handled, it was hard to believe it was in the same school. The first year was handled expertly – a time was set, lesson plans given to the evaluator, and a follow-up meeting on the observation points. The evaluator was a vice-principal that was also a seasoned math teacher capable of giving back invaluable feedback and suggestions to improve my teaching skills. As a first year teacher at the time, I was thankful! In fact, if there was money in the budget, I would have appreciated other teachers coming in and evaluating me as well. There wasn’t. The second year (last year), it wasn’t handled nearly as well. These became “drop-in” evaluations – little ten minute reviews and quickie follow ups without the detail or path to pedagogy improvement. It was the same person, but a recent principal change also changed the rules of evaluations. It did not offer much in the way of improvement.
“Evaluations, when used correctly, can produce marvelous results. In my book, there weren’t enough of them. One of the most instructive learning experiences during my education to become a credentialed teacher was a required visit to a school for a week to observe classes in the content area we were expecting to teach. I learned so much in how teachers effectively teach. This could still be an effective tool if it were available now if the school could pay for a substitute to teach while I rotated with teachers in my own school. Or, they could visit my class, observe my teaching, and give me tips in improving my techniques. However, it may seem we teachers are in the building collaborating all the time, but the fact is we see so little of each other except for the precious few minutes between classes or before and after school. In fact, teachers are quite the island without much for support.
“Teaching is a great craft, but it isn’t an easy one. The Great Reform Debate tends to dehumanize the functions of the teacher and doesn’t show how exposed teachers are to reform minded methods that could oust the teacher from classrooms permanently. If a teacher leaves a school because the school doesn’t want them teaching their classes, it effectively blackballs them from the teaching profession. No one wants a blemished teacher in this scrutinized environment without tolerance and without the desire to fund education properly. I predict in the next 3-5 years, there will be a large teacher shortage as teachers are sent packing, others retire early to avoid the bull crap, and new teachers reduced to fill the void stunted because the cost of education and demand to perform expertly right away detours all but the intensely dedicated. There are many other, less stressful ways to make a living.
“Posted by rgod8855″

Posted by CompactCar | Report as abusive

“There are many other, less stressful ways to make a living.”

Amen rgod8855. if I were teaching in an area (like Wisconsin) where I was berated constantly and told I wasn’t working hard and wasn’t worth my wage or benefits, I would have left by now. And now you want to tell teachers they are under-performing because the student’s test scores didn’t hit the curve…

Not one of the whiners could spend a day with their own kids, let alone 30 of other people’s children… AND tasked with trying to have something stick in their brains that isn’t something flashing on a game screen.

Evaluate all you want. Evaluations with the pressure to have every child perform at certain levels where no child is left behind means there will be an exodus and firing of bright and wonderful teachers. Ones who chose teaching knowing it was their vocation.

Coming to fill that huge void will be those who couldn’t think of what they wanted to do with their lives … but hey, they heard from their whining parents teaching was a snap and had marvelous benefits!

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

The real problem is that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

And as for deniers, well, i always thought deniers were for nylons….


Posted by samadamsthedog | Report as abusive


It is very simple. LIFO exists for one very simple reason with many union contracts. It perfectly aligns the interests of the union and management. The interest of management is to limit its expenses as much as possible. For jobs such as teachers there is a limited amount of compensation that can be paid out. Since teachers can never make significant increases in pay they take other forms of compensation. One form of compensation is job security. This job security allows management to artificially keep salaries down and limit the amount of money spent on replacing teachers, presumably because the job security has purchased a certain amount of loyalty from the teachers. The union is interested in ensuring the job security of their union members, so that they remain loyal dues paying members. Solidarity is the most important aspect of union membership. It is an accepted union value that seniority is the preeminent value when making decisions about fairness in termination or reassignment of roles. Sweat equity is important to unions, and sweat equity is measured by one’s longevity.

There certainly are problems with how this works out in the education system, but there are several more and in my opinion worse problems that will occur if LIFO is abandoned and we see younger teachers being kept on and jettisoning more senior teachers.

Posted by pigmund | Report as abusive


The problem with LIFO is that it make new teachers extremely vulnerable at a time when they need a great deal of support. In most districts, new teachers have virtually no job security their first three years, which means that they get dumped on in just about every way imaginable…scheduling, assignment of students, interdepartmental power struggles, parent complaints, etc., which leads to high levels of burnout.

LIFO is one of the main reasons why almost 50% of new teachers leave the profession before the end of their third year as a teacher.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive


Thanks for your response, but I see several holes.

- LIFO does not keep costs down. By definition, and as pointed out by Ravitch, LIFO ensures the highest cost earners stay employed (although she couched it in terms of preventing ageism). Note this does not mean highest efficiency earners, these long-tenured relatively high paid employees may be terrible teachers, but they are nonetheless protected. Management has no ability to fire a 30 year veteran who has long since stopped taking an interest in their lesson plans and students.

- Solidarity is a good thing. I’m with you on that one. However, I strongly disagree with your (and more broadly, the union’s) take on seniority. Seniority is not in and of itself a valuable trait. In every industry, education included, there are employees who have reached levels of seniority by dumb luck, mismanagement, regulatory structures (ie LIFO firing), nepotism, etc, yet contain few of the traits we want to see in our leaders. Blindly equating seniority to significant sweat equity contributions strikes me as misguided. It’s subscription to this idea that allows young, energetic teachers to be fired while entrenched, mediocre teachers just grinding it out till their pension kicks in get to remain employed. This brings us back to the challenge of appropriate measurement systems, which is clearly a difficult issue – but giving up on it is not the answer.

- Lastly, I think I alluded to this in my first post, I’m not opposed to keeping some form of employment protection for teachers (although I absolutely disagree with your sentiment that jettisoning senior teachers in favor of keeping younger teachers is necessarily a bad thing, emphasis on necessarily). Strict LIFO firing simply allows too much moral hazard, there needs to be nuance to this policy. If all employment protection for teachers is abolished, then yes, we will see a whole host of other issues. This is not what I’m proposing.

Posted by clearance42 | Report as abusive

first to mfw13 – I find it a ridiculous statement that LIFO is one of the main reason why almost 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession before the end of third year. It makes no sense on its face. Why would someone quit a job they want to stay in because its possible that when there are layoffs in the future they will be the first to go. There are real problems caused by the LIFO model but encouraging new hires to voluntarily quit is not one of them.

As for the points you raise clearance42, you have some legitimate points, but I take issue with some of the others. LIFO doesn’t always keep costs down, but it often does. In the world of primary education, I think it is less likely to result in huge savings as it does in academia. Guaranteeing life employment to professors greatly reduces compensation vs the market wages for that professor if he could find employment at another college. LIFO for primary education operates similarly, teachers who are guaranteed employment after tenure can be offered lower salaries than they would seek in the market if they weren’t tied to that school. So even though the lower paid teachers are the one’s being fired, the school district is still saving money by artificially depressing the wages of teachers (in turn by providing job security). As I said there is no doubt that this saves money in higher education because the wages of professors are quite high. But the idea behind LIFO works similarly in many different industries and organizations.

As for whether seniority is a valuable trait, it has its problems. But there is no other objective measure to ensure fairness in employment decisions from the point of view of the union. It is the union’s duty to protect all of their members. Unfortunately if a less objective measure were used to decide who gets fire and who doesn’t, it would pit union member against union member, leaving union representatives in an unenviable position on whom to protect and how to protect them. The reason seniority is the best method because it is objective, and all members know the standard from the beginning and it does have a tangential relationship to the value of loyalty and sweat equity. While there are bad workers who have been with a company a long time, seniority still is a better measure of loyalty than any other available.
As to your last point, I agree with the sentiment. However, when it comes to union contracts nothing invites abuse more than “nuanced” policy. Management exploits any language in a contract that isn’t abundantly clear. I would love to read a clause in a union contract that was nuanced and then would be very interested to see how it is interpreted during the length of the contract.
In my experience I have often been annoyed by union representatives and their actions, but then all to often I am reminded how much more I hate management. LIFO as clunky and outdated as it seems exists because management can’t be trusted.

Posted by pigmund | Report as abusive


It’s not LIFO itself, per se, that causes new teachers to burn out quickly, more the fact that because new teachers do not have any job security they get the crappiest schedules, most difficult students, etc. And woe betide the new teacher who gets into a dispute with a powerful parent…in most cases the principal will simply let the teacher go at the end of the year to placate the parent, even though the teacher is usually in the right and the parents in the wrong. And since very few union reps are willing to expend significant political capital defending a new teacher, they usually don’t get much support from that direction either.

In almost every way, shape, and form, new teachers get the short end of the stick, which is why so many of them burn out and leave teaching.

If new teachers were initially hired on three-year contracts instead of one-year contracts, for example, and limited to teaching only one class their first year, for example, it would have a huge impact on burnout rates.

Until you’ve spent your entire first year as a teacher working 12-15 hours a day in deathly fear of making a misstep that will cause your contract not to be renewed, you will have a hard time understanding what I’m talking about.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

“In almost every way, shape, and form, new teachers get the short end of the stick, which is why so many of them burn out and leave teaching.”

I taught for a few years in a department in a district where teachers received balanced schedules and all the support you could desire, and the 5-year burnout rate was STILL over 30%.

It is a profession that attracts idealists (young teachers certainly aren’t in it for the pay or benefits), and the reality of managing the work of 125 disinterested students clashes with those dreams. Especially if they hope to start a family, teachers must either compromise or quit.

Has Hollywood ever cast 125 individual student personalities in a teaching film? All with equal talking parts? That would be a movie to see…

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

It’s a very similar situation here in the UK. Teachers just aren’t supported properly, and everyone acts like the main problem with education is the fact that the teachers aren’t good enough. So the solution is to be more harsh with them, which leads to widespread mental health problems and competent professionals losing their careers and reputations.

Posted by TheEdudicator | Report as abusive

Ravitch is just completely out there.

The problem is not poverty, it is a culture which does not value education. Students from subcultures that value education tend to do well, independent of wealth. Students from subcultures that don’t, tend to do less well.

In any case, your assessment is wrong, because spending per pupil is not correlated with results.

What we need is pressure on parents and consistent messaging to students that doing your homework is important and you have to work hard to learn. Our president, whose mother got him up before dawn to study, should be leading this effort, instead of trying to placate the unions.

Posted by mattmc | Report as abusive