Realizing that many people reading my blog don’t have the book to follow along with, I’m going to add more context in this post than the previous one.
The first 100 pages of the book were a very interesting read. Brill is a good writer, I’ll admit. I like the way he gets me to ‘need’ to keep reading by putting a teaser sentence at the end of each section, similar to what was done in ‘The Da Vinci Code.” Also, like “The Da Vinci Code” this book mixes fact with fiction to create a fun read.
Much of Brills details are very accurate. And I appreciate that he is willing to put in ‘some’ of the other side of the issues. Because of that, this is not just a propaganda piece, in my opinion. There are, however, some inaccuracies and some omissions of what I consider to be vital details, and that’s what the purpose of this give part post is. This book is destined to be a best-seller, I think, so it will be good to have something like this freely available to the public.
First, though, a few things I left out from the first part:
Page 16: PS 149 and Harlem Success Academy 1 are co-located in the same building while HS1 has better test scores, proving what can be done with “Same building in the same community, with similarly qualified or challenged students.” But when you look at the numbers you find that the kids are not the same. For example, PS 149 has 68% free and 2% reduced lunch while HS1 has 49% free and 21% reduced lunch. Yes, both add up to 70%, but what researchers sometimes do to compare relative poverty is to divide free by reduced and get a metric. For PS 149 that’s a 34 to 1 ratio. For HS1 that’s a 2 to 1 ratio. This post has more details on comparing these two schools.
Page 73: The first KIPP New York class that Levin teaches is described as having 46 students. I know for a fact that there were 55 students when that cohort reached the 6th grade. This either means that 9 students transferred in or, most likely, this stat is incorrect. Why is this relevant? Well, I also know that there were only 38 students who finished 8th grade in that cohort. So the low starting number de-emphasizes the attrition that occurred.
Page 101: “To Klein, Weingarten was so smart that she had to know that playing the game of simple advocate was hurting the children she professed to care so much about. …Weingarten compounded Klein’s frustration by never admitting who her real — and only — clients were”
This, to me, highlights the biggest misunderstanding by the reformers in the entire discussion. They truly believe that people like Weingarten, Ravitch, and maybe even me, support policies that we ‘know’ are bad for children because they help adults. Then we lie about our motivations to make ourselves look sympathetic.
This is your typical “adults before children” story. He is implying that Weingarten believes what she is doing is hurting kids, but doesn’t care. He is also saying she is a liar for saying that she believe that what is good for teachers is also good for kids. I can say since I support most union strategies because I sincerely believe that what the reformers are trying to do will harm the children and that the union is protecting the teachers and their students from this. I certainly don’t have any sinister motive. I don’t get any financial benefit from saying this. So since it is possible to have these viewpoints while truly believing that it will be better for the kids if the reformers agendas are thwarted, then surely it could be Weingarten’s motivation too. The reformers just can’t understand this.
Page 103: I appreciate that Brill points out how Klien’s initial reorganization of NYC schools was a failure.
Page 104: About Klein “He had laid off over eight hundred school aides (all members of the UFT)” is described as a good budget cutting strategy. That parenthetical “members of the union” makes it seem like Weingarten was against it for that reason, rather than the pretty obvious connection that these school aides have with helping children and teachers.
Page 106 to 107: The process of shutting down a large school and replacing it with multiple small schools where teachers have to reapply for their jobs is described as a “takeover.” On 107 it is clearly laid out that this is a way to punish (but not quite fire since they are guaranteed a job elsewhere in the system) teachers who are deemed ineffective. Shutting down a school and breaking it up is a very extreme thing to do when it is mainly being used as a way to punish teachers.
Page 112: KIPP scores are touted as “blowing completely past the performance of children in similarly challenged communities.” Nice use of ‘similarly.’ Complete denial of attrition rates and also cherry-picking facts.
Page 112: KIPP founder Dave Levin gives Tilson revelation that Democrats back the unions and that is the problem. The issue I have with this (and I’ve known Levin for nearly 20 years — by the way), is that he really doesn’t know how much of an obstacle the unions are to improving public schools since he is in the KIPP bubble. The one time that KIPP ever tried to turn-around a failing school they failed so miserably (It was called Cole Middle School in Denver) that they left town and never tried to turn-around a public school again. As their excuse for their failure, they said, they couldn’t find the appropriate leader. So Levin’s revelation which he passed onto Tilson which seems to have started the ball rolling, was based on limited information.
Page 113: The Florida miracle orchestrated by Jeb Bush is described. “improved Florida’s public public schools dramatically by almost any measure: high school graduation rates, math or reading proficiency, the achievement gap among demographic groups, and even the number of students taking advanced college placement exams.” Well, graduation rates and kids taking AP exams are numbers that can easily be rigged. How did they do on those exams? More on Florida miracle can be found here.
Page 116: Curry, one of the founders of DFER (Democrats For Education Reform) who essentially use Republican education agenda says, and this is one of the most important sentence in the book so far:
“What had stuck in Curry’s mind since, he recalls, is ‘how those executives, unlike any other group, easily agreed that they knew exactly what they had to do to improve their schools. But they all said they were powerless to do it because of all the contracts and rules.”
They EASILY agreed that they knew EXACTLY what they had to do to improve their schools?
This is the problem, here. Business executives including my ‘friendly acquaintance’ Whitney Tilson, think and agree that they know what to do, despite having no experience in education. This is pure arrogance. Even life-long educators feel they don’t know ‘exactly’ what will work. And life-long educators would not ‘easily’ agree. The business people easily agree since they all know exactly the same amount about education which is basically nothing. They saw a KIPP school with kids in uniforms and got way too excited about ‘scaling up’ that model without considering the bigger picture.
Page 120: Klein’s ‘Leadership Academy’ is touted as a way of getting non-educators into leadership positions in schools. Most of these non-educator leaders in cities like DC have been complete failures and have quit already. Here’s a post about the New York City program.
Page 120: Note that Reid a 2004 TFA corps member was completely unsatisfied with TFA’s training and support. “Zero support from them. I was just thrown in … A TFA liaison person came to see me maybe two or three times, and when I complained at the beginning that I was failing, the only thing he said was that I was doing fine and should hang in there.” I, again, appreciate Brill putting this into the book. It does, though, show how TFA did not know what they were doing after 14 years of ‘improving.’ How much improvement, then, has occurred in the 7 years since?
Page 121: More about how teachers are angry that principals are trying to observe them to much. There must be more to this story since this is exactly what principals are supposed to do each day. This idea that principals are somehow hiding in their offices because the big-bad teacher’s unions aren’t letting them observe teachers is crazy. Sounds like a bad principal to me.
Page 122: When referring to the way teachers get annual raised, Brill uses a strange adjective, over and over, “lockstep seniority-based compensation.” What a loaded word. In most professions, the new people get a starting salary and over the year they get raises so the older they get the more money they get. With teaching, if you stick with it, you know you will (after about 10 years) make what many others make in their first year in other professions. I like to think of myself as a superstar teacher, and I’ve never minded this arrangement at all. I made about $22,000 my first year of teaching in Houston, and thought that was fair. Then in my fourth year of teaching I was up to about $24,000. I won ‘Teacher Of The Year’ at my school that year and never thought twice that some older teachers were making a lot more money than me. They deserved it for hanging in there and giving a lifetime of service.
Page 122 A Klein email said “many principals pass along their incompetent teachers to others rather than go through the extraordinarily arduous — and often futile — termination process.” So, I guess he’s admitting that tenure is not job security for life. It is ‘arduous,’ but not impossible to terminate a teacher. That principals choose to pass them to other schools is negligence on part of the principals.
Page 127 Klein’s view on excessed teachers who were not rehired by schools that had been shut down and reopened were put into limbo and paid for it “It was better to pay teachers whom no principal wanted, to stay out of the classroom, thatn to pay them and keep them in the classroom” Why not try to give those teachers extra training and support to help them improve, since you are paying them anyway.
Page 138: About the ‘rebirth’ of New Orleans schools after Katrina: “By 2010, successful charter schools would be educating 60 percent of New Orlean’s children, and they and most of the other ‘traditional’ schools were performing far beyond the old schools failure rates, so much so that New Orleans had arguable become one of the nation’s best urban school systems.”
When Katrina happened, many students who evacuated the city never came back. It is not accurate to compare two different groups of kids. But the New Orleans Recovery District is actually still the lowest performing district in the state. There is a huge amount of corruption, it seems, with the ‘successful’ charters. One was recently shut down, Abramson, for several types of cheating. And the charters in general seem to be kicking out kids left and right so you’ve got a system where all the rejects end up in the public schools who then have even more trouble getting their scores up. It’s a mess there in New Orleans. I believe it will just be a matter of time, and I warned the head of schools down there (a former TFAer) about this, before that corruption is revealed. It will be, in my opinion, a bigger story than the Atlanta cheating scandal.
Here’s a good recent article about what might be going on in New Orleans.
Page 140 TFA alum Michael Johnston (also someone I’m on quite friendly terms with), before become a Colorado state senator, was the principal of Mapleton Expeditionary School of The Arts in Mapleton Colorado. This was a small school that was created by breaking up a 2,000 student school into four smaller ones. The reason he was able to be so successful was that since he was starting from scratch, “I got to bring everyone I wanted into the building, which is something most other principals can’t do. The greatest power you can have as a principal,” he adds, “is to pick your own team of perople who are totally dedicated to the mission.” It is implied that he ‘turned around’ this 500 student portion of the big school that had been broken up to form it. When I went, though, to Colorado’s excellent data reporting website, I learned that in Johnston’s last year as principal (sorry to do this to you, Mike), only 11% of his students were proficient in math and 38% proficient in reading. In a few chapters he will be the state senator who pushed through legislation linking school and teacher ratings to test scores.
Anytime I debunk a miracle school, there are always people who misunderstand my intention. I’m not trying to say that he was a bad principal or that his students didn’t learn. The point is that these miracle schools are not much better than the failing schools with similar scores that are getting shut down. Low test scores in high poverty schools don’t mean that the teachers are doing a poor job, or that the students are learning. I point out the low test scores of this school to highlight the irony that he will eventually draft legislation that ties teacher evaluations to student test scores. Will he be able to retroactively fire his hand-picked staff?
Page 144 Since charter teachers in Moskowitz’s schools were not in the union, costs would be a lot lower “Because teachers would have a standard 401(k) pension and good but not platinum health insurance.” How can this be a good thing? Teacher, like policemen, mail carriers, and sanitation workers, get — and deserve to get — full pensions. That’s one of the benefit of slaving away for 30 years for an average of about $50,000 a year. Can you live for the rest of your life off a standard 401(k). I’m pretty sure you can’t. Fortunately, most charter teachers don’t last that long so it is a moot point.
Page 150 About measuring school quality and teacher quality through value-added on test scores. Brill admits that for overall schools, the ratings would vary widely from year to year, making them very “volatile.” He writes “Looking at over a three or four year period, the numbers jumped around so much that it was hard to tell which schools were actually doing better or worse over the long term.”
This is an honest slap in the face of reformers like Klein who shut down schools based on their performance on standardized test scores. I appreciate Brill making this point. Then, though, he goes on to say that when they judged individual teachers, there was not this volatility. Of course this is impossible. Schools do have some turnover, but generally not that much, so that if the teacher ratings are not volatile, then the school ratings would not be volatile either.
Page 151 He admits that “the point was that teachers needed to be the focus, not that tests needed to be the all-important or only tool.” But the reformers, if they had their way, would make it the only tool. Rhee got it to be 40% with other factors, like seniority, being factored in and said it was a start. New York wants it to be 50%.
Page 153 Another reference to the Jordan/Mendro (flawed) study that showed that getting an effective teacher 3 years in a row made a “massive” difference over getting poor teachers 3 years in a row. Now, as someone who like to think that I’m an effective teacher, I like to think I make more of a difference than a less effective teacher. But my standardized test scores are probably not that much better — if at all. I don’t check, or really care since I’m not teaching to the test.
Page 158 Brill does point out that the merit pay experiment in New York was a total failure — but mainly because of the way it was impemented.
Page 159 Makes a serious claim that teacher retirement age went from 60 years old then to 57 years old in 2005 and then in 2007 to 55 years old. This sounds like a greedy union trick, but in reality very few teachers opted for the 55 year plan since it really only benefited some teachers. I, for instance, didn’t even qualify for it since I had transferred from another district. Others may not want to retire at 55 since you are getting less money than if you worked those years. That 55 option was probably not bad for the city or they wouldn’t have offered it, but Brill makes it seem like a crazy new union perk.
Page 164: Six teachers at Harlem Success felt they overemphasized test prep (of which four had either quit or were about to) while twelve others were “totally committed to Moskowitz’s mission.” Notice he didn’t say that they denied the focus on test prep.
Page 173 to 174: On Michelle Rhee becoming chancellor in D.C.. These are Brill’s words and not him quoting someone else “Still, she certainly knew everything there was to know about what was needed to make schools work.” Why then, have test scores been flat there and the achievement gap unchanged since her reforms were put into place?
Page 179: About all the value-added research “they told Gates that they were not arguing that test scores alone could measure teacher performance.” And the only thing the value-added really proved was “empirical evidence of the intuitively obvious reality — the reality that anyone who had ever been in a schoolroom appreciated — that some teachers are better than others.” Well, no kidding! So all this is about proving the obvious: some teachers are better than others. But are they enough better to justify firing the ones who are worse? These questions aren’t answered and the research doesn’t attempt to answer that question.
Page 180: Gordon (a value added researcher) told Gates that “the traditional argument was that it was hard to judge talent because of other factors, like the student’s socioeconomic backgrounds, so everyone had just agreed simply not to try.” How about that? EVERYONE — all teachers of kids in poverty — AGREED NOT TO TRY! Is he kidding. You try harder when trying to do something that might be impossible. This is one of those myths propagated by reformers about people like Ravitch, that they are saying to give up because it is too hard. This is crazy.
Page 180: How can a school system like New York with 100,000 teachers “and have no measurements for who’s producing, let alone why and how” Come on. ‘NO’ measurements. How about all the principal observations and assistant principal observations that are happening all the time. How did they do this before the standardized test craze? Why is it better to use an inaccurate measure like this.
Page 183: On Rhee and vouchers, she said “If he (Obama) can send his kids to Sidwell,” she told me, “why can’t the parents of other black kids who live here make the same decision?” Well, for one thing I doubt the vouchers would be $50,000 a year. Also, there is a massive admissions process for getting into a school like that. What is she talking about?
Page 187: On streamlining the process for having hearings for teachers removed from the classrooms: “The real solution, of course, rested with the New York State legislature, which at the unions’ behest had written the tenure law with all the ‘due process’ guarantees that protected the Rubber Roomers.” How about the quotes around his ‘due process.’ Due process is one of the fundamental rights that sets our country apart from others — the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Ah, the constitution is overrated and obsolete by now, isn’t it?
Page 191: Rhee is credited with cutting the budget for upper level administrators in D.C., but I’ve read that costs actually went up for paid consultants under Rhee.
Page 193: Jessica Reid goes to teach at Harlem Success I, but has 1st graders instead of the 5th she was used to. “I figured that was okay,” says Reid. “I’ll just treat them like fifth graders — raise them to that level.” This is not sound educational practice. You have to know what is developmentally appropriate to be successful.
Page 193: We see the results of Michael Johnston as principal in Colorado. 44 seniors graduated and all got into college! Well, I already wrote about how poor their test scores were. But this is a typical stats game with percent of seniors getting into college. So 44 out of 44 got into college. Is that good? What they don’t say is that there were over 100 students in 9th grade from that cohort three years earlier. They fail to mention that vital statistic — drop out rate.