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Earth to Washington state: What's with your schools?

Education reformer Steven Brill says we're from Pluto. But is the message of education reform being lost in translation?

Steven Brill

Steven Brill Lewis James

Journalist Steven Brill stood before an audience of educators, education advocates, and observers assembled by the League of Education Voters (LEV) and told us we were from Pluto.

Brill's remarks stemmed from the fact that Washington state does not have charter schools. Having thus warmed up the crowd, Brill went on to say that our state's application for Race to the Top federal education funding was "poorly written and laughable."

Way to work a room, Mr. Brill.

Brill was in Seattle to promote his new book Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools, which chronicles the rise of the education reform movement and focuses heavily on the issue of teacher performance. You may have read or heard about Brill's 2009 piece in The New Yorker on the infamous "rubber rooms" of New York City, where teachers removed from classrooms for misconduct or incompetence were sent, for an average of three years, to sit and do nothing during the school day, at full pay. The article was a shocking expose on teacher quality and resulted in the elevation of this important topic to the national level.

Since Brill's article was published, the national debate on education has grown more fevered and two distinct camps have formed. The reformers advocate tying teacher retention and, in some cases, compensation to student success, believe teachers' unions have stood in the way of significant education reform, and favor using standardized tests as a means to collect student achievement data. They support innovation, including charter schools and KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, which operate in underserved communities, and are fans of the Teach for America (TFA) program, in which recent college graduates, who are not certified teachers, serve for two years in a national teacher corps. In addition to the founders of KIPP and TFA, education reformers include controversial former Washington D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates. The reform movement was popularized in the film Waiting for Superman. Critics complained that not a single public school teacher was interviewed in the film.

Enter Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and author of the book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining America. She has emerged as a champion of teachers, bridling at the extent to which they have been blamed for the failure of our schools and thinks poverty is the single most important contributor to the academic achievement gap. It rankles her that many of the spokespeople and funders of the education reform movement come from the Ivy League and Wall Street and that the movement relies so heavily on standardized test results. Ravitch has publicly sparred with Bill Gates and had a harsh review of Brill's book in a September issue of the The New York Review of Books.

Steven Brill is not the first to call attention to what has been referred to as Washington state's "culture of complacency" when it comes to education. LEV's 2011 Citizens Report Card on Washington State Education, largely compiled from information provided by our state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, demonstrates that we have a poor showing compared to the rest of the nation for many indicators of academic success.

Public education dominated a recent informal conversation among a roomful of some Seattle parents on Halloween, while the kids were out trick-or-treating.  We talked about the confusion surrounding standards-based grading; a parent expressed concern that her daughter, who has had two of the popularly acknowledged worst teachers in the school, is on a downward academic trajectory; some parents complained that their kids don't get enough homework; others were concerned that homework was assigned on Halloween. Everyone expressed frustration with the math curriculum. I doubt many in the room had ever heard of Steven Brill or Diane Ravitch or had a strong opinion when Seattle Public Schools made its controversial decision to bring Teach for America recruits to South End schools.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Nov 9, 6:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Brill is a fraud and a huckster, and he hardly speaks for "earth." The "reforms" he is pimping, along with his book, would have the effect of removing citizen control over our public schools. That the League of Education Voters, a wholly owned and controlled subsidiary of the Gates Foundation, sponsored him, speaks volumes about THEIR credibility.

ivan

Posted Wed, Nov 9, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

The subhead refers to Brill as an "education reformer" but he seems to have no experience in education at all (except writing a book about it). He is a professional political journalist.

spock

Posted Wed, Nov 9, 10:10 a.m. Inappropriate

According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, charter schools contribute to resegregation of students by race and ethnicity. We don't want that in Wash. St.

In Wash. St., people get the K-12 education they vote for, since school boards and the head of OSPI are elected officials.

mbrenman

Posted Wed, Nov 9, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Having been an educator for more than 35 years -- most of them in private education -- I can assure you that citizens hold private schools accountable by paying or not paying tution AND by paying taxes that fund governmental bodies that govern, license, inspect, and audit private schools. I also wonder how anyone can argue that teachers shouldn't be held accountable for their performance.

captpuget

Posted Wed, Nov 9, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Education is like health care in that it gets more top heavy and bureaucratic every year. Race to the top, my district took the 1/2 million dollar bribe for the low school, replaced the principle as required. Of course it wasn't the principle's fault, so the district invented another administrative office position to transfer to. I'm sure the district came out a few bucks ahead, but from where I sit, not enough of the money makes it the disadvantaged students where it is supposed to go.

Posted Wed, Nov 9, 4:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Who is saying teachers shouldn't be held accountable? Could you tell us the source of that information because I have never seen it said or printed.

Ms. Krupnik is right here:
"For parents, it's not a question of education reform versus non-reform. It's a question of what makes sense, and how the decisions made by legislators, administrators, and teachers play out in our homes and impact our kids, today, tonight, and in the future."

And this is exactly what I would advocate - look at national trends, best practices BUT through the lens of what will help our district, our state, our children. I don't care what the cool kids in D.C. are doing - I want what will help our kids find the best academic outcomes.

She's also right about arrogance in the ed reform talk. Why do only big players like Bill Gates and Eli Broad and the Waltons get the media attention? (And I love Bill Gates telling the rest of us that class size doesn't matter but, of course, HIS children are in private schools where they advertise their small class size.) Why do they think they know best?

Why would anyone believe that because TFA handpicks their applicants that they really ARE the "best and brightest"? That UW, the largest public university in our state, has one and only one alternative certification for people who want to become teachers and it's ONLY for TFA recruits, should tell you something is very wrong. (And that while the UW is enduring terrible cuts AND in-state residents have to pay more, that the College of Education is funding an entire program for just 11 TFA recruits. Your tax dollars at work but for what?)

I didn't go hear Mr. Brill because I knew it would be upsetting. If the worse thing he can say about Washington State education is we had a bad Race to the Top application, I'll take that. And maybe no one told him but Washington State voters have had three times to examine and consider charter schools and said no...three times.

Overall, charters do NO better (and even worse) than traditional public schools. So why the push?

westello

Posted Fri, Nov 11, 7:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Ms Krupnik, for these words: "The challenge is to keep the discussions free of vitriol and to resist the temptation to blow with the educational winds of change without full consideration of the impact and clear articulation of the goals."

Some of the elements of the national Education Reform movement are sound. For example, there is great promise in the use of technology and online learning to provide individualized instruction and skill-building if used properly in concert with collaborative work focused on higher level cognitive skills. That doesn't make it wise to adopt online learning however.

Some of the elements of the national Education Reform movement are absurd. The push to compensate or fire people based on measures of "teacher quality" is nothing short of bizarre. They talk about it as if they have already solved the question of how to quantify and measure teacher effectiveness, but no such measure exists. It's like buying plots on the sea floor for farming before you figure out the trick of getting soybeans to grow underwater.

Let's not adopt the whole menu of Education Reform, as Mr. Brill, Mr. Gates, or Secretary Duncan would have us do, but let's not reject the whole menu either. There are some items on it which, used thoughtfully, could bring benefits to children (instead of just bringing benefits to corporations).

coolpapa

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