The Great Debate

Education is the long-term solution for fighting poverty

By RiShawn Biddle
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 Biddle’s reply. Here are responses from Joel KleinRandi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and others.

The vitriol over Steven Brill’s piece this week from Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, Alex Kotlowitz and other defenders of the status quo isn’t surprising. After all, they are especially good at ignoring reality – especially when it comes to the role of the nation’s education crisis in fostering poverty in a knowledge-based economy in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands. And they are particularly willing to ignore the reality that school reform – including making sure that all kids are taught by high-quality teachers – is the long-term solution for saving 1.2 million children a year from poverty and prison.

One of the biggest reasons why America’s economic malaise may last for decades is because high school dropouts among the nation’s long term unemployed are essentially shut out of the jobs market. Fifteen percent of American high school dropouts age 25 and older were unemployed on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s nearly double the rate for high school graduates with some amount of college education and three times higher than that of collegians with bachelor’s degrees. The problem is even worse with the new generation of dropouts who have fewer prospects for employment; nearly a third of dropouts age 16-to-24 are out of work on a not seasonally-adjusted basis. These young men and women can’t get into high-paying white-collar jobs, or even get into apprenticeships for blue-collar jobs such as welding, which can provide them with middle-class incomes.

It is simple: The better-educated a person is — and the more education they get, the more likely they will avoid economic and social despair. The average African-American with some form of education will earn at least $9,142 more in annual income than a high school dropout. The higher levels of income not only benefit people and their families. The rewards flow into the communities in which they live, with higher levels of home ownership, entrepreneurial activities, and civic activities that lead to high quality of life that benefits everyone.

High-quality education and good-to-great teachers can’t alleviate economic poverty for the short term. But it does help young men and women get the knowledge they need to avoid poverty in adulthood. Education, unlike food stamps, equals empowerment. For our kids, for whom schools are at the centers of their worlds and communities, high-quality teachers and strong principals can help foster shelters from the storms around them.

Getting the numbers right on Harlem schools

By Jenny Sedlis
The opinions expressed are her own.

I note that Michael Winerip has chosen to use data about Harlem Success Academy’s student body as the central piece of factual evidence in his reply to Steven Brill.  Harlem Success Academy had 9.5% English Language Learners in 2009-10, not the 1.5% that Michael Winerip reported.  The statistics are publicly available (as a ZIP file) in the section NYSESLAT Annual Results*: Source: NYSED School Report Card Database 2009-10 URL: http://www.nystart.gov/publicweb-external/SRC2010.zip

Even if there were vast differences in the demographics (which there are not) Harlem Success Academy 3rd graders scored in the top 1% in New York State on the ELA in 2009-10, while PS 149 3rd graders scored in the bottom 2%, a difference that cannot be attributed to demographics.  Winerip is correct that Harlem Success Academy has advantages over PS 149 that makes comparisons less valuable.  We can hire and fire. We can provide 8 weeks a year of professional development. Our principals are instructional leaders who are there to support and develop teachers. The composition of our student body is not the determining factor in our success. It’s the quality, training, passion, effort, and drive of our teachers, leaders and network staff.

*All English Language Learners take the NYSESLAT test.  The number of test-takers in a school reflects the number of English Language Learners.  The demographics section in the database is incorrect.  It pulls data from the City’s ATS database before the NYSESLAT results were included.

Brill versus Winerip, continued

The debate around Steven Brill’s new book “Class Warfare” continues to swirl. A review/essay in Monday’s New York Times by Michael Winerip accused Brill of largely ignoring the views and experiences of teachers. Like some other Brill critics, Winerip accused the book of overstating the success of charter schools, and overallocating blame for failed schools to teachers’ unions where other factors–such as poverty–may be at work.

Brill felt Winerip’s criticism was misguided and had a bit of a personal attack in it. He attempted to post a response Sunday night to the Times‘s Web site. When, Monday morning, that response remained unposted (despite more than a dozen later comments going up), Reuters.com published it. He said it felt “almost as if [Winerip had] been waiting to unload on me for years,” and in turn accused Winerip of not using proper data to understand charter school performance in Harlem.

Then, later Monday morning, the Times site, got around to publishing Brill’s response, and about an hour later, Winerip replied to the reply. You can read that exchange in full here.

Steven Brill responds to Michael Winerip

This is a response to Michael Winerip’s review of “Class Warfare” in Monday’s New York Times.

I appreciate that Mr. Winerip thinks I have “seen the light” at the end of the book. What he doesn’t realize, though not for lack of my trying to explain it to him, is that I was simply reporting what I found over two years. I was not trying to render, let alone reconcile, a verdict for or against his (anti-reform) point of view.

However, despite his distinguished prior career as a reporter, I am not surprised by the apparent anger in Mr. Winerip’s opinion column, let alone his decision to distort my book by ignoring all in it that describes teachers (and even teachers’ union leaders) in a positive light and strains to explain, and depict from the classroom, how difficult efffective teaching is. When he talked with me, it was almost as if he’d been waiting to unload on me for years. He freely cast epithets, some profane, at many of the men and women portrayed in the book, and refused to consider that his reporting about alleged “skimming” of the best students at the Harlem Success charter network might be based on faulty data. (Though he did, I guess in attempt to humor me, chuckle when I tweaked him for ignoring in a prior article that I was the product of Queens, New York elementary and middle public schools, before winning a full scholarship to go to a prep school – whereupon he repeated this revelation in this article.)

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.

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?)