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.

It’s the academic content, stupid

Some well-known education reformers attended private high schools, wrote Michael Winerip in the New York Times. His list includes Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Teddy Kennedy, Checker Finn, “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim, Jeb Bush,  and others.

In response, ed reformer Whitney Tilson called Winerip “the worst education reporter in America” and a “gutless weasel.” Tilson also lists education reformers who attended public high schools.

In Private School Student, Public School Reformer, Core Knowledge blogger Robert Pondiscio takes a calmer look at the issue. He thinks that well-educated people may take a strong curriculum for granted.

Private and parochial schools tend to have fairly set curricula that describes grade-by-grade content with great specificity. Public schools tend to have “standards” that enumerate the skills kids should demonstrate, while leaving curriculum choices to the teachers.

The difference is significant, Pondiscio argues.

If you assume that what kids learn is basically the same from school to school, you will naturally assume the only thing you can change is teacher quality, accountability, pay structures and funding formulas.  Do students in public schools get poorer meals, fewer resources and lousy teachers compared to their privileged peers?  Some do, some don’t. But the one thing most low-SES children certainly do not get is a well-rounded, academic curriculum.  Tilson himself once told me that a good curriculum “is like mom and apple pie. Everyone is in favor of it.”

But then why are so many children saddled with content-free drivel?

Pondiscio sent his daughter to a Manhattan private school, while he taught at a public school in the South Bronx. Lots of public-schools teachers were stronger than some of the private-school teachers, he writes.

The magic of her school, at least at the elementary school level, was not in the teachers but in the curriculum and a first-rate, purposeful school tone.

I went to public schools in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. We had a mix of excellent, average and lousy teachers. The curriculum was hit-and-miss, especially in elementary school. But we had a first-rate school tone. Our education-centric parents — mostly college educated and Jewish — had moved to the suburbs for good schools. They sent their smart, ambitious kids to public schools. And the schools were good.