Aug 28 2011

Class Warfare: Fact Checking Pages 401 to 437

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pages 1 to 100
pages 101 to 200
pages 201 to 300
pages 301 to 350
pages 351 to 400
pages 401 to 437
This book is close to over though the story that it chronicles is far from over. For this reason I know that, depending on how Brill chooses to wrap this up, it could leave the general reader very unsatisfied. As of now the reformers clearly haven’t ‘won’ the war, nor have they lost it either. Because of this, I know that this is going to be a book that lacks an Act III. Had he waited another two years to write the book, it might have a more definitive ending.

When I read this book, from my perspective, it reminds me of a ‘heist’ story where the heroes of the story are actually the bad guys, yet we are supposed to root for them anyway since the good guys are presented as the obstacles. A heist story generally can end one of two ways: They can get away with it and the last scene has them on a beach enjoying their prize or they can get foiled and lose (Butch Cassady and The Sundance Kid or Dog Day Afternoon).

Summarizing the book so far: A group of powerful or rich people attempt to hijack public education in the U.S.. Most know little to nothing about education (Obama, Duncan, Bloomberg, Klein, Gates, and Tilson (sorry Whitney!) and other DFERs). They devise a plan which dangles money in front of states, but only if they agree to follow their reform agenda, which has two pillars, ‘choice’ and ‘accountability.’ ‘Choice’ generally means there need to be charters. ‘Accountability’ means that ineffective teachers who have been getting positive evaluations by principals will now be exposed by tying their ratings to their student’s performance on standardized tests. According to this book, this ‘Value Added’ process has finally become very accurate. Though the reforms are controversial, they are already supposedly working in several places like New York City, Washington D.C., Florida, and New Orleans.

In the second to last section titled ‘Punch, Counterpunch,’ we learn that some anti-reformers are pushing back.

Page 402: Rhode Island governor Chafee is “wary of charters ‘undermining and cherry picking and skimming off the top of our public school system.” In general, the people in the book who are anti-reform are presented as simple minded. Brill has already tried to prove earlier in the book (incorrectly) that charters don’t do this.

Page 403: We learn that the closing of the rubber rooms in New York City hasn’t really accomplished much. Rather than be fired since they won their hearings, many of these teachers became part of what’s called ATR or Absent Teacher Reserve where, according to Brill, “they were still paid to do nothing.” Actually, they don’t do ‘nothing’ but serve as substitute teachers when regular teachers are absent. Though they do get paid more than subs who are not ATR, it’s not accurate to say they do ‘nothing.’

Page 405: L.A. mayor Villaraigosa is a reformer who says “it was the same old song. ‘We need more money. You don’t understand. These kids are poor. These kids are English-language learners.’ Well, I did understand, because I was one of those kids.” This is one of the oversimplifications of the position of the anti-reformers. Nobody is saying that it is impossible to beat the odds (demography is not destiny), but that without enough resources, it is unlikely to happen for a large percent of kids. I’m, of course, of this mind, but I think with an unrealistic amount of resources — for example, having class sizes of no more than four students, it would be possible to overcome many effects of poverty. This, however, would be more costly than attacking the root cause.

Page 406: The parent “Trigger law” is touted, which allows parents to make a petition to have their school turned into a charter school, but unions “dubbed it a ‘lynch mob’ law.” Now, I like parents to be involved in the children’s schooling, but when the parents are influenced to pull the ‘trigger’ by politicians and ‘grass roots’ organizations funded by Bill Gates, I get concerned. Do the parents know that many of these charters will exclude or kick out many of their children in order to beef up their own stats so they can take over more schools? Successful ‘turnarounds’ generally do more harm than good.

Page 408: Moskowitz is opening a charter school in the Upper West Side of Manhattan “that would have standards and test results equivalent to those of the best private schools in Manhattan.” But 1/3 of the teachers at the other school, mentioned earlier in the book, felt that the schools focused too much on test prep which is not what they do at the best private schools, like Dalton, in Manhattan.

Page 410: Some of the reasons that Upper West Side Success is good: “In the regular schools, the teachers get one day to prepare for the school year, but here we take thirty days.” While it is true that NYC teachers come back to school one day before the students do (two days this coming year), that does not mean that teachers don’t begin preparing much sooner than that at home. And when she says they ‘take’ thirty days, does she mean that they get paid extra to do that?

Also, “In a traditional school, if it’s forty degrees or colder no one goes outside in the schoolyard, because it’s too cold for the adults.” Here’s one of the most bizarre ‘we do what’s good for the children’ arguments I’ve ever seen. What if it’s under 20 degrees? What if it’s raining very hard? Are kids immune to the things that make adults sick? And if they are, is it good for the kids when their teachers have to call out sick the next day?

Page 410 to 411: LIFO is called “the least defensible of all the teacher’s unions’ job protections.” This is Rhee’s StudentsFirst key issue, and I think it is quite defensible. If a veteran teacher is fired through the built-in lengthy process, I’m OK with that. But when an teacher who isn’t at the end of that process (or even started that process) is fired because the need for layoffs has forced principals to do a hasty evaluation of who the most ineffective teachers are, regardless of seniority, it seems too arbitrary and convenient. Layoffs are generally avoidable, anyway. The threat of them is always out there, but without increasing class size, there can’t be too many rounds of layoffs. First year teachers have not sufficiently proved themselves, and most of them are pretty ineffective as they spend 60% of their time struggling with classroom management issues. So when Rhee and others use ending LIFO as a way “to save great teachers” I don’t agree.
The day LIFO is changed will be the day that we suddenly can’t avoid layoffs. It’s makes it too easy for administrators to avoid the hard work of proving that an experienced teacher is ineffective. The main point I want to make is that I can be in full support of LIFO yet support veteran teachers getting fired though the process already in place, even when layoffs are not needed.

Page 411: “LIFO really was like apartheid.” No comment needed.

Page 411: Since TFA has the teachers will will be most affected by LIFO, he’s surprised that Wendy Kopp “did not come out swinging against it.” but then quotes her as saying “It should be obvious how I feel” about it. So a TFAer who is planning to stay one more year should force out a veteran teacher who is planning to stay for 10 more years? Also, I should mention here that there are many cities that are having teacher layoffs, which should imply some kind of hiring freeze, yet still hiring brand new TFA teachers, because of some contract they have with TFA. Wendy is smart to stay clear of the LIFO discussion.

Page 412: Duncan and his staff were “thrilled by what they had done in their first two years.”

Page 412: Race To The Top winners were not meeting their deadlines. How’s that for accountability?

Page 415: Explaining how accurate tying student test scores to teacher ratings is: “In other words, the test data — often attacked by the unions as unfairly serendipitous — seemed to match expert teachers’ classroom evaluations.” So why not just use those evaluations?

Page 416: Jonah Edelman from ‘Stand For Children’ is introduced as a new reformer in Illinois. After this book went to print, Edelman made a speech at the Aspen Ideas festival which explained how he tricked the union into signing something. It caused a lot of controversy, and he was shamed into apologizing. You can read about it here.

Page 418: RTTT cause 34 states to change their laws to qualify for the application.

Page 419: Duncan got more money which he “planned to use the money to offer relief from some of the burdens of the old No Child Left Behind law in return for enacting specified reforms” According to NCLB, all students have to be proficient in math and English by 2014. When this law was passed in 2002, it seemed like 12 years was a reasonable amount of time to accomplish this. School districts had to make charts describing what percent they’d be at in what year to be considered ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ or AYP. Take a city like Chicago, who had about 40% passing in 2002. The chart they made is this:

In reality, their scores hardly changed in the past 11 years.  This is why basically all the schools in Chicago are labeled ‘failing’ meaning by NCLB they can be shut down or taken over by a charter.

Every district in the country had to make a crazy chart like this so that every year we get closer to 2014, the more failing schools we have, even though schools might be improving.  So Duncan is going to free some districts from becoming labeled failures and being in jeopardy of being shut down — but only if they agree to changing their laws.  So RTTT bribed states into changing their laws into reform-friendly ones and NCLB wavers bullys states into doing the same.  Even though changing these laws does no good (look at lack of ‘growth’ in New York City) and causes a lot of harm.

Page 420:  Curry, one of the founders of DFER, is excited about what progress they have made:  “Curry meant that the old notion that charter schools could be small laboratories for reform should be discarded and replaced with a bigger idea.  He believd that charters had to gain critical mass, as they had in New Orleans, Washington, D.C, and Harlem … Only that would create the kind of truly visible demonstrations of schools that work and the accompanling critical mass of parents that would force the old system to be thrown out.”  It’s amazing how these business people don’t truly apply business thinking to this argument.  Charters only work where there are enough ‘sink’ schools for them to dump their low performing kids into.  So you’ve got New Orleans where there are 70% charters in their Recovery School District (RSD).  Though they boast improvement, it is still the lowest performing district in Louisiana.  And those non-charters are fighting for their lives, failing at an incredible rate as they deal with their disproportionate number of tougher-to-educate kids.  It’s like you have a chain of four stores and three are just about breaking even and one is suffering huge losses — and you can’t get rid of that fourth store.  You could lie to your investors and say that the three stores are doing well, and now you’ve got to work on that fourth store.  But if the three stores are doing well BECAUSE the fourth store exists, then your system is flawed.

Page 420:  Brill concludes this section, and here he is not quoting someone, but writing as fact:  “The turnarounds in New Orleans, Washington, and Harlem were, indeed, extraordinary” but “there were enormous practical issues associated with ‘scaling’ a turnaround of public education.”  So it seems like he is admitting that there are some flaws here.  Our small successes may not be scalable.  But that is being way too kind since the ‘turnarounds’ in those cities are not extraordinary at all.  Here’s an excellent blog that analyses stats in D.C.. In NYC 8th grade reading is at a 6 year low. New Orleans is tough to crack since there is so much corruption and hiding of data since the RSD is run by the state, itself. But the D.C. blog gives you a great sense of how little progress has been made there, despite all the school closings and teacher firings.

From 421 to 437 is the final section of the book ‘A Marathon, Not a Sprint,’ is one I have been looking forward to since I had read that Brill will admit that there are serious problems in scaling the ‘successes.’ What I found is that he does seem to come around for 5 pages of this section before going BACK to his union bashing again for the last 11 pages of the book.

Page 421: Dave Levin, founder of KIPP, who earlier in the book got this whole snowball rolling when he told Whitney Tilson that the problem was the Democrats and the unions now seems to have a moment of humility. He says about KIPP “I’m still failing 60 percent of the time.”
This is what bothers me about KIPP. Even while admitting their shortcomings they inflate their success. He says 60%, because the book says that only 40% of KIPP students have graduated college on target. If you take the recent report, it says that only 33% do. So Levin could have rounded to saying he is failing 70% of the time. But that’s still not accurate since that only counts the kids who finished 8th grade at KIPP. He also failed the kids who started 5th grade, but left for various reasons, including being counseled out. His original class was at least 55 students of which 37 finished 8th grade. So if 33% of those 38 graduated, which is 13 kids, then 42 out of 55 not graduating college is not failing 60% but 76% of the time, which I’ll round to 80%.

Page 422: Levin “delivered a dose of reality: ‘If you tore up every union contract in the country … that would just give you the freedom to try. It’s a prerequisite, but that’s all.” Since you have to train 3 million teachers to be extraordinary rather than the 80,000 amazing (supposedly) ones that are in charters now. This is ironic since it was Levin back on page 112 who got this whole thing going when “Levin explained [to Tilson] how the teachers’ unions had a stranglehold on local Democrats.”

Page 422: Brill writes that this long term plan to improve average teachers is hard for politicians, who like to fight for “tangible short term payoffs.” Yet the great majority of this book implies otherwise. If this was the point he wanted to make, he should have weaved it into the entire book, rather than this ‘island’ of truth. Remember, he will resume his union bashing in 3 pages.

Page 423: Duncan says “You can’t fire your way to the top.” So why is he trying?

Page 423: Levin, on scaling, you can’t expect 3 million teachers to be as good as KIPP teachers — this is more KIPP propaganda. The 3 million teachers would look a lot better if they could pick their students and kick out the undesirables did get in. This is why you have some failing KIPPs. It is also why KIPP failed in it’s one attempt to ‘take over’ a failing school in Denver, Cole Middle school a few years ago. And I’m sure their teachers work hard, like most teachers do. They might be, on average, harder working than other teachers, but it’s not clear how much harder working or better they are, and how much of their success is derived from other aspects of KIPP like the demanding of parent involvement or the strict discipline code.

Page 423: A Harlem Success teacher admits, “This model just cannot scale.”

Page 424: Moskowitz says that their teachers work hard, but they get extra benefits like they get to take car services home when they work late and they get massages every other month or so.

Page 424: Superhero Jessica Reid who teaches and is an administrator at Harlem Success resigns in January. “This wasn’t a sustainable life, in terms of my helath and my marriage.”

Page 425: Brill concludes the five page reality check. “But they [superstars like Levin, Kopp and Reid] will lead us to the right place only if we can figure out a realistic way to motivate and enable the less than extraordinary in the rank and file to respond to this emergency. We can’t do that by requiring them to either to sprint or stand aside.” So unions must be enlisted to help, he says.

Some reviewers have been too kind to Brill. By taking these 5 pages out of context, it does seem that Brill is conceding that the reformers are going to struggle to complete what they have started. Had Brill ended the book here, I would agree. But when you put these 5 pages into context as the first 5 pages of the last 16 pages of the book, you can see it a different way. Though these five pages seem to say that we cannot scale the work of a few super heroes and their charter school, when you put them together with the next and final eleven pages, you see that he is not making his big point with these five pages — he is setting up a different point. The last 11 pages show that the different point is not that we can’t scale the (supposedly) successful charters, but that we can’t scale the charters UNTIL we get the unions to agree to give up tenure, LIFO, pay by seniority, and job security, and the other evils he describes throughout the first 420 pages of this book.

It would have been a good book if this admission came out about 2/3 of the way through and then the rest of the book could have been about the ‘realistic’ ways to improve teachers that Darling-Hammond and Ravitch know. Instead, Brill makes some suggestions of how this can be done, and in these last 11 pages shows how little he learned in writing this book.

Page 425: Thinks that if Bloomberg made Weingarten schools chancellor (why not make Ravitch Secretary of Ed?), because she will then have to admit what she KNOWS: that the reformers are right now that she is being held accountable. This is crazy. Weingarten is not lying when she says that these reforms are destructive. It’s not that she secretly believes they are good, but lies because they are bad for her union members. Even Tilson thinks this idea is crazy.

Page 426: Continuing with his Bloomberg / Weingarten utopia. “I an see her … declaring that times have changed … that we have to move ahead with tough teacher evaluation systems even if tests and other aspects of the evaluation process can’t be perfect.” Uh, Earth to Brill …

Page 427: But we have to look at the charters to see what works. “Assuming that half the 4,900 charter schools” are doing a great job. Why ‘assume’ that HALF are succeeding when the research shows that only 16% are (and even that is mentioned in Waiting For Superman).?

Page 427: He reminds us that “In a world where career changes are the norm and seve to reenergize every workplace may not mean they [teachers] stay for twenty or thirty years, but it should mean they are there for at least five or ten.” And what do these teachers do after burning out after ten years, start from scratch in a new profession at the bottom of the ranks? Getting 3 million temps is not a great solution.

Page 428: This is what he learned from “two years trying to figure out public education, its not JUST (emphases added by me) that the teachers who are hanging on for twenty or thirty years caring only about their pensions and tenure protection are toxic.” How about listening to people who have spent 20, 30, or 40 years trying to figure out public education instead of 2 years?

Page 430: “eliminating the unions is not likely to improve schools.” But instead he wants them to still be unions, but just ones that give in to all the reformers untested theories about what will help kids.

Page 430: He brings up again how principals in New York can’t force teachers to use a certain format of lesson plan by saying teachers can write lessons on toilet paper. No teacher actually writes a lesson on toilet paper, and if they did and it was a great lesson that they can follow, then I’d have no problem with that.

Page 430: Finally, he quotes Schnur in a more nuanced way as opposed to the caricature he gives on page 2.

From 423 to 435 Brill explains five ways that the union contracts could be changed to make politicians want to change them less:
1) Less costly pensions.
2) Merit pay for harder to staff jobs, like science.
3) Eliminate LIFO.
4) No ‘merit’ pay for teachers who get advanced degrees. This, along with other cost saving measures, would enable us to pay teachers between $65,000 and $165,000 a year.
5) Getting rid of ‘lockstep’ seniority pay in favor of salaries based on ‘performance.’

On this last point, which he says is the most important change unions need to make, he quotes a teacher on page 435 who says: “You’d be hard-pressed to find any good teacher here who believes in seniority compensation and wouldn’t like to be paid for performance, assuming the testing and evaluation were fair.” Well, she doesn’t have to look far since I like to think I’m a good teacher who does believe in seniority compensation, and let me explain why:

It is very hard for the corporate reformers to understand that teachers, who join this profession knowing that they are not going to make a lot of money, do not want to jump through hoops and compete cut-throat with our co-workers for extra money. When I was a new teacher 20 years ago, my salary was $22,000 and my performance was so bad I probably should have given it all back. When I won teacher of the year in my fourth year, I guess I was making $25,000. Going into my 14th year next week, I’m making $76,000. My average salary over all my years of teaching is, at most, $50,000. I don’t get jealous or angry that veteran teachers might be making over $100,000 in NYC. Eventually, if I stick with it, I’ll be one of them.

In every profession, people get raises throughout their careers. New lawyers start on the bottom of the payscale and parters make more. Maybe in some place like the NBA, there are rookies who make more than veterans, but since everyone is so rich anyway, what’s the difference.
How would this pay by merit work? Would a 2nd year teacher work for 100 hours a week to test prep his students to death and then get $165,000 the next year? And then a few years later that teacher gets married and doesn’t have the time to work those crazy hours to get meaningless test improvements, and now they get demoted to $65,000? What would this system do to the dynamic of a school? Would any veteran teacher help a struggling rookie out, the way veteran teachers tried to help me? It would create a toxic environment which would ultimately be bad for kids too.

I like that I can see the salary chart and plan my future based on it. I can see that in two years I’m going to get a $4,000 raise so I can get that mortgage after all. If my salary was subject to the whims of standardized testing, I don’t think I’d enjoy that pressure.

I do my best each day for rewards other than money. By doing a good job I have job satisfaction when I walk through the halls of my school and former students are so happy to greet me. Also, I get satisfaction when my A.P. or principal ask me to run training sessions for the other staff members. I also have secured a great closet in my school because I asked for it and when you’re known as a good teacher, the administration likes to keep you happy. These are benefits that someone like Brill may not be able to understand, but as someone who would most definitely be in the top salary range, I’d prefer to keep things the way they are since it’s better for the school and the kids this way.

Even lazy teachers, believe it or not, will be the best teachers they can because when a teacher is doing a poor job the students will torture the teacher so much that it is actually easier for the teacher to plan the good lessons than have to deal with the fallout when he / she doesn’t. In this way, there’s a built in quality control mechanism which rewards good teachers in subtle ways.

It’s like my decision to produce a fifty page review of a four hundred page book. I didn’t do it for money. I did it because it was the right thing to do. I do it for encouraging ‘comments’ which I hope you make. I do it for Twitter ‘retweets’ and ‘followers.’ I suppose I could mention that I wrote two books, neither of them great bestseller, but I’m very proud of both ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian‘ and ‘Beyond Survival‘ both available on amazon.com.

In conclusion, ‘Class Warfare’ is a frightening book. It’s a ‘heist’ story where public education is nearly hijacked by well-meaning people who assume that schools can be driven by the same things that drive business. The good news, though, is that the heist has not yet been completed. And this book actually jeopardizes the heist since the robbers are still in the vault. Brill tells us exactly how they got into the vault, exactly where they currently are, and exactly where they are planning to go next. This makes it even easier for the ‘bad’ guys to catch them. My hope is that just as Waiting For Superman actually hurt the reform movement by awakening the opposition, this book will do this even more.

If my multi-part analysis helps people get the full picture so they can then make their own decisions about what the truth is, then it will be worth all the hours I put into writing them.

Thanks for reading.

Gary

Follow garyrubinstein on Twitter
pages 1 to 100
pages 101 to 200
pages 201 to 300
pages 301 to 350
pages 351 to 400
pages 401 to 437

7 Responses

  1. For me, this is key: “Nobody is saying that it is impossible to beat the odds (demography is not destiny), but that without enough resources, it is unlikely to happen for a large percent of kids”

    Why not attack the thing we educators are compensating for, poverty, directly!?

    Also, while I understand that teacher evaluations can be rushed and unrepresentative, I find it ironic that lawmakers push for all students to be proficient but balk when all teachers are rated proficient/effective. Seems like a major disconnect to me.

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful and well-researched response to this horrible horrible book. I watched the Ravitch interview of Brill today and all I kept thinking was “What an arrogant, ignorant man.” This book confirms that. Thank you for pointing out the flaws in his logic as well as the many many flat-out incorrect statements.

    Still, I worry that too many will read this book at face value and buy his anti-union, pro-corporate reform message without a single thought.

    Looks like we teachers need to go back re-teach this lesson to people like Brill. I’ll try to think of appropriate modifications and accommodations to help him fully grasp the concept of true education reform.

    Oh, and just like we saw at the SOS conference and march, I do believe the sleeping giant of opposition is slowly waking…

  3. MeghanK

    Thanks for doing this review! I’m a second-year, non-TFA, career teacher, and I’ve found it very enlightening. I hope this reform movement blows over soon, but I’m in Memphis, which seems to be the eye of the storm right now.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Memphis will be affected for a while with Rhee having a home there and Huffman running things. Hang in there and write to journalist Jane Roberts if you see anything fishy going on there.

  4. Thanks for refuting the lie on p. 403 that teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve “do nothing.” I was an ATR teacher for 3 years, and I always taught; that is why I refer to myself not as “an ATR,” but as “an ATR teacher.”
    You also should have pointed out that the vast majority of the members of the ATR do NOT come from the rubber rooms. The majority are excellent teachers who have been excessed from their schools due to budget cuts; when the budget goes down, teachers with the least seniority in a license area are excessed. It has nothing to do with performance.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

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