The school reform deniers

Steven Brill, author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools), takes on “school reform deniers” on Reuters.  Those who argue that schools are doing fine — or would be with more money — ignore the facts, he asserts.

I thought his take on compensating teachers was interesting. We could afford to pay teachers $65,000 to $165,000 a year, instead of $30,000 to $110,000, by rewriting the standard union contract, he argues.

 Among the ways to do that: 1) substitute standard 401 (k) pension plans for the costly back-loaded pensions that benefit the senior teachers who are most likely to vote in the low-turnout teachers’ union elections (and that now costs major urban school systems $10,000-$20,000 per teacher); 2) allow for slightly larger class size (which would free up $7,000-$20,000 per teacher across the country); eliminate the 10-15 sick or personal days in a 34-38 week work year prevalent across the country (and stop allowing teachers to cash in the days they don’t use); 3) stop paying automatic salary increases (now amounting to $5 billion a year nationally) just because a teacher gets some advanced degree, when all the research now shows zero correlation between those degrees and teacher effectiveness; 4) stop paying automatic seniority-based increases above what would now be the higher starting salaries and use that money to pay the top third or top quarter of performers the highest salaries; 5) stop paying teachers for doing union work or for the two or three years that they remain idle pending tenure-required disciplinary or removal hearings; and 6) allow for distance learning that allows more students to take advanced courses and implement other technology-enabled efficiencies that the unions have resisted.

With the saving generated from this “grand bargain” to revitalize public school teaching – in essence by swapping performance for protection — we could give teachers the kind of status, career paths and compensation that countries with the best public education results offer.

Brill doesn’t want to abolish teachers’ unions, he writes. He wants to persuade or force them to engage in real reforms.  He sees American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten as a potential “Nixon to China” figure.

Brill calls the New York Times review of his book “thoughtful” and Michael Winerip’s hostile column  “near-venemous.”

The book is a “surprise page-turner,” writes Liam Julian.

But Rick Hess calls the book readable, reliable and incomplete, but faults Brill for “with-us-or-agin’-us” dogmatism, which “encourages hubris, overreach, and the enthusiastic embrace of silver bullets (whether charter schooling, value-added, or merit pay).”

Never embrace a bullet, even if it’s silver.

Brill v. Ravitch

Class Warfare author Steven Brill debated Diane Ravitch on C-SPAN. Ravitch blamed poverty for low U.S. scores compared to rival countries, saying affluent U.S. students do as well as Finns and Koreans.

Big deal, responds Matthew Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog. Our best students do as well as the average for all of their students.

No mention of how the very wealthiest schools in America compare to the very wealthiest schools in Finland and South Korea, or that our African-American kids score closer to the average score in Mexico than that in Finland.

The gap between high-scoring and low-scoring U.S. students is wide compared to most of our high-scoring competitors.

Brill’s book gets boffo reviews

Seven Brill’s new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, is “funny, exciting, surprising and deep,” writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

A relative newcomer to education issues, Brill provides “plenty of inside scoops, vivid quotes, extensive reportage, evocative vignettes and telling examples,” writes Checker Finn on Gadfly. After a “rollicking romp,” Brill reaches “a measured set of conclusions that won’t please anyone in particular but deserve serious reflection.”

Brill writes:

“We can be led and inspired by extraordinary men and women….But they 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….”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg should make American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten the schools chancellor, Brill writes. OK, it’s a fantasy. But unions and their leaders are part of the solution. Expecting teachers to work brilliantly for 16 hours a day is not.