Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Steven Brill -- Edu-Truth Hits the Road (Vol 1)

-Tuesday, Nov 1st, 2011, Seattle

I just had the privilege of attending a lecture and panel discussion starring Steven Brill, a journalism instructor at Yale and author of the new book Class Warfare.  The event was sponsored by the League of Education Voters. 

I’m going to write about this event in several posts, because a lot was said, and it’s more than I can discuss in one sitting.  This first post is primarily focused on my initial reaction.  And I would sum it up like this:

It’s scary being right.

If you read my previous posts, particular those about charter schools, testing, accountability, and the PeWKoB (People Who Know Better), you will know a lot about Steven Brill.  He fits the bill of a person who cares a lot about education, but in reality has little idea of what it takes to solve the problem.  He is the classic case of someone who wants to make a difference, and has money and influence, and therefore gets a voice at the table. 

We must again ask: Just because someone cares, has money, has influence and a good reputation, and has a voice at the table, does this mean what they say is true, or their proposals better ideas?

Expertise in any field is a hard-won commodity.  And Brill, in my estimation after listening to him for about 45 minutes on his own, followed by his part in a panel discussion, is no expert on education.  He’s just another guy with an opinion, who happens to have access to the resources required to get a lot of people to listen. 

He is of the opinion that accountability is king, charter schools are the way, even though only 20% of them are outperforming public schools (his own words), and teachers and poor accountability are the cause of failure in our failing public school system. 

He compared charter schools to medical emergency rooms, in the business of saving lives, educationally speaking. 

Most of his speech dwelled on the most egregious stories he could find about incompetent teachers.  A little at the end dwelled on the exact opposite–extremely superb wonderful teachers.  And this leads me to my initial overall reaction.

My Take on Steven Brill

Brill, like most people who have never taught in a typical school, doesn’t understand the middle 80%.  He acknowledged that only around 5-15% of teachers are probably so bad they should be fired.  I agree, and am glad to hear it stated publicly by a member of the PeWKoB.  But he then said that most of the remaining teachers need a lot of training.

In other words, this man genuinely believes that the vast majority of people in a profession he has never performed (sorry, teaching at Yale doesn’t count) are not doing their jobs as well as they need to be.  Over 80% of us are underperforming, according to him.

Aside from the sheer improbability, just speaking statistically, that this is even possible, how can a person from New York who judges the entire education system of state of Washington solely by our flabby Race to the Top application and our “performance vs expense” ratio (something I’ll elaborate on in a later post) make the claim that 80% of teachers are undertrained?

This is beyond ludicrous.

Thus, my overall impression is that Brill is the kind of person who dwells on the easy stories, the shocking stories of the teacher who falls asleep drunk in class, and uses those the generalize about the entire national public school system.  As a journalist, this isn’t surprising, because he is used to going for the stories that make headlines.

But it’s intellectually dishonest to pick out the worst stories you can find, cite a few brilliant, shining, lustrous stories to contrast them, and then base your policy recommendations for how to fix the problem on these polar extremes.

If only 5-15% of teachers need to dismissed, and if only 5% of the teachers are superb, what about the remaining 3 million teachers?  Does Brill expect us to find 3,000,000 expert, innovative, dynamic, ground-breaking, outstanding educators hiding in the Kansas cornfields?  As I asked in a previous post, where O where do you expect to find all these miracle-working supermen and superwomen? 

Are there really 3 million great teachers hiding in South Dakota somewhere working at an obscure IT plant, fretting about how they would have gotten into education, but just couldn’t for whatever reason? 

And if you want to re-train 3 million current teachers, a task even he admitted would take more than 25 years, how do we know the new methods we’re training them with are better?  Haven’t we done reforms like this every five to ten years since the 1950s? 

But this time it will work.  See, ‘cause now we’ve figured it out. All those other well-intentioned people were wrong.  We’re right, and we know it because...it worked at a couple special charter schools in Arizona and California.  So it must work everywhere else too. 

As one panelist wisely stated, sustaining a working program, and expanding it to a national level, is far more difficult than producing a few isolated pockets of success. 

Isolated success is easy.  National success will require something much more.  But even this really depends on this word, “success.” 

My Question for Steven Brill
After the event, I got to ask Mr. Brill one question, and I’ll end with this. 

Over the last ten years, our state test scores have continually risen, until a few years ago when they started to plateau around an 80% passing rate.  They’ve stayed relatively steady around there.  Brill opened by calling our nation’s public schools a “failure,” a common belief among policy wonks and PeWKoB reformers. 

But are we? 

Is an 80% passing rate a failure?  (Assuming the test is valid, which I don’t, but people like Brill are usually gung-ho about testing, so he shouldn’t mind). 

I asked him, at what point are we not failing anymore?  How would you define success?

His answer: “I’d look at the failing schools.”

He was rushed, because he had to get in his chauffeured luxury ride back to the airport, but this was his answer. 

I interpret his answer this way: No matter how much schools improve, I will always focus on the ones I perceive to be failing.  No matter how good things get, I’ll focus on the negative.  No matter how much good news there is, I’ll dwell on the bad news. 

Spoken like a true reporter.


Working Mom said...

Kudos. Steve Brill is a sensationalist writer and shill for those who pay him the most. I remember the garbage he turned out in the 70's and 80's. It's amazing he's still at it. What a worthless hack.

Seattle Teacher said...

I didn't know he had been doing it this long.

I'll have a few more posts in this series in the coming weeks.