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

Steven Brill Credit: 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.

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.

We support innovation. But there’s often a zeal and an arrogance surrounding education reform that can be off-putting, while the attitude undermines reformers’ goals and alienates, frustrates, and confuses parents and teachers. Asking school and district leadership whether a proposed reform has a well-conceived implementation plan can be like asking a teenager why he wants the keys to the car.

The debate over education reform, which some have called the civil rights movement of our time, is not going away anytime soon.  Students from Shanghai, China, ranked first and we ranked in the mid-20’s on the standardized PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That left U.S. education leaders wondering what we are doing wrong and what China is doing right. Communities around the U.S. are struggling to find the best way to measure teacher and student performance, close the academic achievement gap, and increase academic rigor across the board. Some of the reform ideas are laudable, but some are so outlandish you may wonder what planet they came from.

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.

By the way, did you hear they’re using Marsspeak in Shanghai?

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