Opinion

The Great Debate

America must break the machine of industrial-era education

By Shantanu Sinha
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leaders in education to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Below is Sinha’s reply. Here are responses from Joel KleinRandi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and others.

Steve Brill makes a compelling case that many issues in the educational debate are not actually debatable, but rather easily known facts.  Too many people are simply denying the obvious.

Clearly, public education in America is failing.  While the vitriolic debate rages on, millions of children are the undeniable victims.  Steve pointedly demonstrates how common sense is not sufficiently applied in many hotly contested topics like rubber rooms, teacher merit pay, or tenure rules.  However, while these are all issues worthy of discussion, solving them still won’t necessarily move the dial in a meaningful way.

I think the entire conversation has been hi-jacked by issues surrounding the adults and little has been done to address the needs of students.  If we spent more time thinking about what the students are actually experiencing, we would realize that we designed a very impersonal system that horribly misses their individual needs.

Many of the basic tenets of education seem strange if you really think about them.   Students are sorted into classrooms by their age (is it possible that students are actually different and not every 10-year-old needs to be taught the same thing?) They sit in classes of 25+ students, while the teacher is expected to say magical words that keep them all engaged (how many of us weren’t lost or bored during large portions of our schooling?).  If a student doesn’t understand 20% of the material, we congratulate him, tell him he passes, and push him to the next topic with swiss-cheese gaps in his understanding (how well can you master Trigonometry, if you don’t understand 20% of 6th grade math?)

Put kids first: Get rid of LIFO

By Michelle Rhee
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Below is Rhee’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein, Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and others.

In his opinion piece for Reuters, “School Reform Deniers,” Steven Brill accurately describes last-in, first-out seniority rules as making no sense in our schools today.

LIFO, as the policy is known, requires that when budget shortfalls lead to teacher layoffs, the last teacher hired should be the first one to go. This happens completely without regard to how teachers are actually doing in their classrooms. There is no question teacher layoffs are awful, but going about them this way makes the problem even worse.

What we can learn from Canadians

By Katharine Herrup
The opinions expressed are her own.


This piece is part of a great debate we are having on Reuters around Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Here are pieces by Diane Ravitch, Joel Klein, Deborah Meier among many others.

There is a debate, if that’s what you can even call it, raging in America about how to improve our public education system. While disparate groups rip each other apart, it would seem wise to look to our neighbors to the north. Americans love to casually pick on Canadians, but we should be seriously analyzing their public school system, which has emerged as one of the most successful school systems in the world.

Why? Because all constituents – teachers, teacher unions, school boards, the government — work together. At least, that is the explanation given by Canadian Teachers’ Federation President Paul Taillefer. It’s also because there is required rigorous training for teachers — not just before you can become a teacher, but throughout their entire career.

It’s not about good guys versus bad guys

By Randi Weingarten
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Below is Weingarten’s reply. Here are responses from Diane Ravitch, Joel Klein and Deborah Meier among many others.

It’s not clear to me how Steven Brill, in his book Class Warfare, gets to his own particular Nixon-to-China moment—that teachers and their unions must be full partners if our nation is going to achieve meaningful, sustainable, systemic education reform—but it’s good he did.

Brill is correct: There are serious issues confronting America’s education system. Where we part ways is not so much in identifying these problems (although Brill completely ignores the devastating effects of the 2008 recession and its continuing aftershocks on schools and families). Rather, the difference between us is that the AFT seeks to follow the evidence of what works in our schools and in nations with higher-performing schools, while Brill chooses to see education as a story about good guys and bad guys.

It’s time for teachers unions to lead

By Jennifer Jennings
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Jennings’s reply. Here are responses from Joel KleinDeborah MeierAlex Kotlowitz and Diane Ravitch as well.

Here’s a thought experiment: if teachers unions disappeared tomorrow, how would American public education change? And would kids – especially poor kids – do better as a result?

Given the tastes of political actors on both sides of the aisle, my best guess is that a new education policy order would look something like this: Teachers would be at-will workers evaluated based on students’ standardized test scores and principals’ evaluations. Compensation would not be a function of experience or degrees, but of these evaluations. Pensions would be restructured to reduce costs and create disincentives to stay in the classroom to collect a payout after a specific number of years in the system. And teachers would not be tenured, but retained or fired based on periodic quantitative and qualitative evaluations.

Should we really expect schools to cure poverty?

By Alex Kotlowitz
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Kotlowitz’s reply. Here are responses from Joel KleinDeborah Meier, Jennifer Jennings and Diane Ravitch as well.

I greatly admire Steve Brill and his writing, and so was surprised to read what felt like a jeremiad against the teachers’ unions. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot amiss with how the teachers’ unions have come to defend their members at the expense of the children, and at the expense of honest, true school reform, but why the finger pointing when there’s plenty of blame to go around, if blame is what we’re after.

In some ways, Brill’s book is poorly timed. He makes the argument for greater teacher accountability — and yet look at the exploding testing scandal in Atlanta and the emerging one in Washington, DC (under Michelle Rhee, who became a hero to many for her eagerness to take on the unions.) In Atlanta, nearly 200 educators have been accused of tampering with test scores, a culture which clearly came from the top in an effort to keep up with a federal policy aimed at evaluating teachers and schools through test scores. Rhee, according to a New York Times piece today, has run from USA Today reporters trying to ask about allegations of a testing scandal under her watch. The question isn’t whether teachers need to be evaluated or held accountable — but how? (And I suppose we also need to ask: how do we hold administrators accountable, as well?)

America is losing another generation to science illiteracy

By Margaret Honey
The opinions expressed are her own.

Steven Brill has it exactly right when he says that “our nation’s economy, security, and core values depend on [the] success” of our public schools.

That’s what President George W. Bush had in mind when he signed “No Child Left Behind” into law in 2001. Signaling his strong concerns about that legislation’s shortcomings, it is also why Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced earlier this month that he would override the requirement under No Child Left Behind that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Mr. Duncan said he is waiving the law’s proficiency requirements for states that have adopted their own testing and accountability programs and are making other strides toward better schools. Without the waivers, he said, 80 percent of American schools would get failing grades under the law.

The reform movement is already failing

By Diane Ravitch
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Ravitch’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein and Deborah Meier as well.

In my nearly four decades as a historian of education, I have analyzed the rise and fall of reform movements. Typically, reforms begin with loud declarations that our education system is in crisis. Throughout the twentieth century, we had a crisis almost every decade. After persuading the public that we are in crisis, the reformers bring forth their favored proposals for radical change. The radical changes are implemented in a few sites, and the results are impressive. As their reforms become widespread, they usually collapse and fail. In time, those who have made a career of educating children are left with the task of cleaning up the mess left by the last bunch of reformers.

We are in the midst of the latest wave of reforms, and Steven Brill has positioned himself as the voice of the new reformers. These reforms are not just flawed, but actually dangerous to the future of American education. They would, if implemented, lead to the privatization of a large number of public schools and to the de-professionalization of education.

The parents: the force that can’t be beat

By Joel Klein
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Klein’s reply. Here are responses from Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier as well.

Like Ronald Reagan, Steven Brill believes “facts are stubborn things.” That’s why he found his two-year immersion in the world of edu-politics enormously frustrating. There, ideology and spin often matter most.  As Brill puts it, the world of public education “give[s] new meaning to the notion that if you repeat something that is plainly untrue enough times it starts to seem true, or at least become part of the debate.” It’s maddening but, sadly, as Brill demonstrates, even the mainstream media often go along for the ride.

In Brill’s essay above, as well as his just-released book, “Class Warfare”, he doggedly chases down the facts and repeatedly punches holes in the current protagonists’ talking points, especially those of the “school reform deniers” — i.e., the unions and their academic supporters — though he takes a few shots at the reformers as well. When he says the facts show that “public education is failing our children,” and “[t]his is not a matter of money,” or “not about class size as much as it is about who is in front of the class,” he’s demonstrably correct but, rest assured, that won’t stop the deniers from attacking him with cherry-picked data and flawed analyses.

If only the unions were the problem

By Deborah Meier
The opinions expressed are her own.

Reuters invited leading educators to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. We will be publishing the responses here. Below is Meier’s reply. Here are responses from Joel Klein and Diane Ravitch as well.

As I read Brill’s opening paragraphs I was cheering. Aha, he’s going to apologize for his New Yorker attack on the teacher unions! He’s going to acknowledge the difficulty of finding honest data for his students to use when it comes to education.

I’ve become such a habitual skeptic about virtually all school data for over 30 years.  But democracy depends on us trusting some common sources of data.  Yet, Brill’s attack on teachers and unions, and his defense of the new “reformers,” rests largely on anecdotes.

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