Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Journalist Steven Brill discusses the battle over public school reform. Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools looks at the people and issues involved, from President Obama’s education reform policies, to activist parents, to billionaire funders, to state capitols, to teachers and teachers unions.


Steven Brill

Comments [44]

S. Kneisel from Wayne, NJ

I am a high school special ed. teacher. I teach 9th and 11th grade English. One of the most serious problems with public education today is the assumption that every student must be prepared for college.

One aspect of this preparedness is critical thinking. The curriculum that demands that students with perceptual or cognitive processing deficits, behavioral issues or other learning impediments must be able to decide whether Macbeth is a good man steered wrong by the Witches and his evil wife, or a bad man made worse by the Witches and his wife, or if Friar Laurence is out-of-bounds in suggesting the sleeping-potion scheme to Juliet.

This is counterproductive nonsense. For many of my students, critical thinking skills with regard to correctly measuring, cutting and soldering copper water pipe, or installing computer network wiring, or diagnosing and correcting a problem in a car engine, or preparing a good salad dressing would be a far greater empowerment for their future economic success and constructive participation in society. Serious vocational-technical training is far more to the point for these young people than preparation for college classes in which very few of them will succeed.

Contrary to the "conventional wisdom" that American public education is hopelessly broken, there is much that works quite well. I have taught in four different suburban NJ districts, all of which graduate and send significant numbers of young people to four-year colleges every year.

However, these districts share the same dismal results for many of their special-needs students, who may account for more than 10% of their graduates. These kids do not go to college, and upon graduation from high school they are largely unprepared to take a meaningful place in society.

We will remain stuck in an endless blame game, focused on lacks and failures, until we invest seriously in equal educational opportunity for all, honoring and accommodating "differences" and "learning styles" across our entire population of young Americans. We must educate not only doctors, lawyers, teachers, computer engineers, and bankers, but also plumbers, mechanics, carpenters, chefs, and boiler operators.

Aug. 23 2011 09:26 PM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

@The Truth from Becky

Parents home school for many reasons.

Personally, we had a great experience home schooling the middle school years. We chose that over attending a failing middle school with all sorts of problems.

My kid is hardly a "... "social retards" and introverts". Perhaps you're talking of your own experience.

Please do your research before you make such a rude and uninformed statement.

Aug. 23 2011 12:53 PM
Lork from Bloomfield, NJ

After five years in a Newark Catholic school with 30 + students per class, earning $28, 000 a year (late 1990s-early 2000's) I left after our exceptional standardized test scores were accidentally published in the papers in 2002 and the school nearly had to close for half a day from the flood of parents and journalists who wanted in. Thrilled to earn $46,000 in an urban NJ state takeover district I jumped at the new job only to find a politically ridden cesspool of no disciplinary enforcement, student ruling indifferent principals who were powerless to even administer dress codes in the name of political corrrectness, rampant violence alllowed to fester and schools that justifiably hadn't made AYP for 7-10 years. No 8th grader could read at 3rd grade level but if you gave them a third grade book YOU were liable to sanctions. The special ed push in teacher that sat in class as my mentor made $95,000 to cut out coupons and never had been witnessed to modify a lesson in the ten years she taught.
Maybe because we in the private school were grateful for our jobs and believed in the moral of the school, we taught it and explained it and taught it and taught it again until everyone got it and accepted what we worked with because it was our vocation to teach- not just from sheer sloth, which was surely the only value that the public school upheld. Every teacher out there recognizes themselves in this post, because the only school reform that is needed is simply called "common sense".

Aug. 23 2011 12:50 PM
MC Hammer from nyc

Charter schools are great businesses.

I see a wonderful subprime type money making machine.

This could really save our economy

Aug. 23 2011 12:48 PM
Mike from Manhattan

"Doug from Manhattan (below) says it all." Protections were put into place to address actual abuses. Without the union and its protections the teachers in NY would look like the civil service under Boss Tweed.

Aug. 23 2011 12:48 PM

I have read repeatedly that about 20% of charter schools do better than their conventional public school counterparts. Can you comment on how that statisic was arrived at, more specifically what it means, and it's validity?

Aug. 23 2011 12:43 PM
David from Brooklyn, NY

Your guest keeps talking about myths - but I think that's unfair, and dishonest. When people say charter schools pick and choose kids, they're not necessarily referring to admissions, but to the power they have to just toss out 'problem' kids whenever they want, which public schools can't do!

Aug. 23 2011 12:42 PM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

I'm not suggesting we use the entire model. But I'm sure there are aspects of it can be implemented. And why not make becoming a teacher as rigorous as being a doctor or lawyer?

Aug. 23 2011 12:42 PM
Mike from Manhattan

Earlier this week, the NY Times ran a story about a principal in the Bronx who was caught, at the UFT Chapter's insistence, changing the Regents Test scores, which allowed the principal at this school to change the student's overall grades from failing to the falsified Regents score for however many years the student had taken that class. This principal was not fired, as a teacher would have been, but given an administrative position at the central board. The history of other principal abuses would indicate that this person will probably be assigned as an assistant principal at another school elsewhere when the scandal has been forgotten. This incident was one of the more benign incidents of principal abuse.

Aug. 23 2011 12:42 PM
Emily from Brooklyn, NY

Charter schools DO pick and choose. They counsel out kids whose behavior or academic abilities make them a poor "fit" for the school.

I know because I used to work at a charter school.

Aug. 23 2011 12:40 PM
Andy B. from New York

Bill Gates has a nasty hidden agenda behind his attack on the education establishment.

He is promoting his lie that Americans are undereducated generally, in order to support his massive use of the H1B, and other visa programs to import cheap, compliant foreign labor for Microsoft and for corporate America.

That is why he is often seen on TV attacking teachers' unions - he wants most labor to be low-paid and subservient.

Aug. 23 2011 12:40 PM
Andy B. from New York

Bill Gates has a nasty hidden agenda behind his attack on the education establishment.

He is promoting his lie that Americans are undereducated generally, in order to support his massive use of the H1B, and other visa programs to import cheap, compliant foreign labor for Microsoft and for corporate America.

That is why he is often seen on TV attacking teachers' unions - he wants most labor to be low-paid and subservient.

Aug. 23 2011 12:39 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

OceanHill-Brownsville politicized schools and was one of the main causes of the decline of one of the great school systems of our nation.

What followed was the fuedalization of each school district, and widespread corruption at the district level.

Schools have been political footballs ever since.

Aug. 23 2011 12:39 PM
Sminker from Brooklyn

I am a former PTA president at a Brooklyn public school. I think that teachers are being scapegoated in the education debate. My thoughts on this subject are:

1) a good principal is critical to having a good school. You can have the best teachers in the world in a school, and if that school has a bad principal, the school will not be very good. A bad principal can undermine the best teachers.

2) good administration above the principal is important, too. There are dysfunctional districts in NYC where there are no good schools, and I believe that you have to look at the district leadership as well.

3) There is not one solution that will work with all schools.

Aug. 23 2011 12:39 PM
deborah heller from maplewood, new jersey

In the recent article in the NY times book review article on the book called report card by Steven Brill it was noted that the founder of KIPP concedes that the program relies on super human talent and the educator sited as a model of reform has quit unexpectedly due to burn out and an unsustainable work load. I would like Mr. Brill to address the issue of moral in light of the ongoing teacher bashing that his book seems to support.

Aug. 23 2011 12:38 PM
Doug from Manhattan

Teachers do not have a job based on "how long they have been breathing".
Teachers are NOW evaluated on student engagement, curriculum, and TEST SCORES - by the school's administrators. (You didn't mention this, Mr. Brill).
Teachers do not want a rubber room or incompetent teachers.
Be absolutely sure that IF there was NO union, that every school faculty would reflect the nepotism of a staff that was ONLY in lockstep with the principal - or if the teacher was LIKED by the principal - otherwise that teacher would be fired.
Teachers with high salaries would not be hired. They would be fired.
Mr. Brill is presented a slanted, anti-union position.

Aug. 23 2011 12:36 PM
The Truth from Becky

Home schooling creates "social retards" and introverts.

Aug. 23 2011 12:36 PM

While agree that using using seniority as the only criterion for teacher compensation is silly, I also suspect that so called "merit-pay" may have it's pitfalls as well.

There are open questions about how to evaluate teacher performace and how "merit-pay" is likely to affect teaching staffs as groups, and schools as institutions in the long run. Try subistuting the word "bonus" for "merit-pay", consider the roll of bonuses in the recent banking crisis, and think it through again.

Aug. 23 2011 12:35 PM
The Truth from Becky

I would think the increasing pressure put upon teachers's to produce results from the new groups of disobedient disrespectful children in the current school system is such an un-surmountable task, some teachers feel forced to cheat to meet the expectations. The new student doesn't want to be there they want to be entertainers or home playing video games..update the curriculum to the 21st century and get the attention of the child back in the classroom.

Aug. 23 2011 12:35 PM

Your guest has condemned New Jersey’s teachers and our unions on the basis of Newark’s performance. It is a school system that is under the oversight of our “reform” minded governor’s department of education. Aren’t New Jersey’s students, on the whole, performing highest, among states, on standardized tests? Yes, I teach in one of our public high schools.

Aug. 23 2011 12:35 PM
Ryan from Brooklyn

Should we maybe mention that the union-busting we're seeing across the country is a Republican lead battle that is politically focused on destroying one of Democrats largest campaign financiers...UNIONS!.
This is just more partisan, political rhetoric that is carelessly using the middle and working class (teachers) as pawns for political gain.

Aug. 23 2011 12:35 PM

Pay based on performance is problematic when the employee can not control all the factors that affect their performance. As you mentioned issue such as poverty and parental involvement have a significant effect on student performance. Also, it is unfair to compare any public school to a charter school since charter school can permanently expel students and public schools cannot. As a firmer NYC high school teacher who worked in a school with severe disciplinary issues, I can attest to the extreme difficulty in tackling the educational issues when there are many disiplinary issues. We had a student who came to school with a gun and for a variety of reasonable was back in school the following month. As a teacher, it often feels like he whole system is against you. I commend those that manage to overcome the burn out and degredation and continue to provide this valuable publics service.

Aug. 23 2011 12:33 PM
Mary from Northport NY

Children and their parents/guardians that seek out charter schools as an alternative to their local public school may be more focused on education and it's quality overall than their public school counterparts. Isn't this a factor that plays into the success of some charter schools? Aren't these families by definition more concerned about the quality of their child's educational experience? Doesn't this negate the theory that poverty/cultural attitudes are not an issue when it comes to the quality of education?

Aug. 23 2011 12:33 PM
fred valentine

Please ask him how he feels about the incredible influx of special needs children in the classroom.

Aug. 23 2011 12:30 PM
Joanne Lockwood from Irvington, NJ

I am an urban middle school teacher and an adjunct in a graduate school of education. I've been a teacher for 36 years. My question is "how do you explain it when my students leave to go to a charter school and one by one they come back because they are asked to leave for one reason or another and end up back in my school?" Let's level the playing field too. We don't go until 4:00 or every other Saturday or weeks in July.

Aug. 23 2011 12:30 PM
Michelle Chen from LIC

Brill has still has not fully addressed the fundamental issue. What is it about unionization that leads directly to poor performance and a lack of accountability? Is this an argument against organized labor in any workplace where there is a premium on quality of performance? Why can't a union coexist with these other reforms you're proposing? There are some unionized charter schools. Also, there are charter schools that "don't take all children" as our public schools do, and have extra resources thanks to private funding, which may have something to do with the students' performance?

Aug. 23 2011 12:30 PM
Estelle Tsantes from Brooklyn

Mr. Brill mentions teachers whose time is wasted away from the classroom. Does he realize how teachers' time is wasted with "building assignments"? I was a high school teacher with a masters degree and 30 additional credits, yet I had to endure building assignments where I phoned parents of truants (usually not home), put away library books, supervised the cafeteria, etc. These assignments took away from my preparation time. Were they the best way to use my talents and expertise?

Aug. 23 2011 12:29 PM
gene from NYC

Mr. Brill is completely suspect. Jane Roth was NOT saying, "Kids come from bad homes so let's not do anything about it." What a crock.

This is the same Brill whose tobacco-ad-filled magazine somehow found everything tobacco had to say about secondhand smoke was true.

Trust him? As far as I can throw him.

Aug. 23 2011 12:29 PM
LB Stanley from Manhattan

Ask Steve Brill why he unleashed Nancy Grace on the world.

Aug. 23 2011 12:28 PM
Chris from Brooklyn

I graduated from high school in Florida. Teachers had to work part-time jobs in the summer to pay mortgages or rents. Jeb Bush refused to take the FCATs (standardized test required to graduate), which, by the way, were administered in 10th grade. What's the point of 11th and 12th grades if the important test was issued to early (I think it was because most students had to retake the tests many times before displaying 10th grade capabilities)? Was Jeb Bush afraid of failing the test he instituted?

Aug. 23 2011 12:27 PM
jp from Berkeley

No child left behind & rote memory learning are killing our children and deadening our nation. The tragedy is we KNOW what works; teaching kids the arts from an early age improves their scholastic output and increases their odds for success in life, so what do we do? The complete *opposite*, we DE-fund the arts in schooling for proven methods that arguably do NOT work - rote memory learning typified by No Child Left Behind.

Unless fundamental issues such as this is addressed, talk about Geoffrey Canada, charter schools and all the rest is dancing around the elephant in the room.

Aug. 23 2011 12:27 PM
Mrs. W

The reason Charter Schools can be successful is because they are NOT required to take ALL students as ordinary public schools are. Any school that has a selection process automatically is different from the ordinary public school which is required to take everyone.

Aug. 23 2011 12:26 PM
Nate G from Madison, Wisconsin

He just mentioned teachers unhappiness with union actions but low turnouts for union voting. The teachers I have talked to feel this way. I see the call to destroy unions as patently anti-democratic. So rather than calling for the unions to be dissolved or functionally weakened as in Wisconsin where I live, why not call for union reform rather than dissolution. And in negotiating why don't school boards and the public focus on those matters which affect education rather than focusing on compensation.

Aug. 23 2011 12:26 PM
Fred Valentine from Queens

Mr. Brill's comments are riddled with untruths. The vast majority of veteran teachers work many more hours than expected, spend their own money for the benefit of their class and classroom and take hours of work home each week and after 20 years perhaps make 75,000.00 Teachers are back in their classrooms two weeks before the school year starts. It's union busting plain and simple. Let's ask him about that.

Aug. 23 2011 12:25 PM
Bob Moore from Manhattan

Please ask about the article regarding Michelle Ree in yesterday's NYT where test scores in DC schools are alleged to have been 'altered' and the performance of charter schools are no better, sometimes worse, than public schools.

Aug. 23 2011 12:25 PM
Rhea from Queens

Let's hear the word "parent" in a context other than what we have to tell parents to do.
If you want accountability, institute 360-degree teacher AND administrator reviews that includes parent and student comments and gives them equal weight to colleagues and principals.

Aug. 23 2011 12:23 PM
john from office

Any union will be protective of each and every member, that is their job. The problem is the lack of balance. What if the union policed itself and removed those deemed unfit to teach.??

Aug. 23 2011 12:22 PM
Wayne Johnson from Brooklyn

Like his New Yorker piece. this is a pro charter anti-union rant. how about someone from the UFT to make the other side

Aug. 23 2011 12:22 PM
Clark from Maplewood, NJ

Does Mr. Brill have any thoughts on the impact of our curriculum and pedagogical approach to K-12 as being the REAL problem with education? I think the issue of teachers is of course important, but there are deeper, more systemic issues around what and how we teach. The work of Dr. Roger Schank and others is pretty interesting in this regard.

Aug. 23 2011 12:22 PM

As a NYC teacher, I dislike the pension system's rigidity that fosters lack of mobility to other jobs, paying 3% for the first 10 yrs and then waiting to retire. I would much prefer to expand the TDA system and have the DOE match my contribution.

Aug. 23 2011 12:19 PM
Sophie from Poughkeepsie, NY

Why not use the Finish model as a starting point? Why does it seem we never look at what is working in other countries.

After all Finland is ranked number one and we are not.

Aug. 23 2011 12:19 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Want to "fix" the K-12 educational system? Get rid of most of the "liberal innovations" of the last 50 years, and restore the system to how it was in 1961!

Restore vocational education and "shop." Stop putting all kids on the "college prep" track!

Give qualified teachers back some POWER! The power to even send kids to a Reform school if necessary. Oh, and bring back Reform schools!

We have stripped qualified teachers of power, and indeed brought in unqualified teachers in their place. Get qualified teachers, including those with industry experience, and give them power. Stop blaming the unions, and place the blame on the Liberal pedagogues who started this whole mess.

Aug. 23 2011 12:17 PM

By Mr. Brill's argument, students in states where unions are weakest, in the south, in Texas, should be exhibiting the highest scholastic achievement in the nation. But the opposite is true.

Aug. 23 2011 12:17 PM
Jane Roth from Brooklyn, NY

Mr. Brill's argument that Unions, which supposedly support poor teachers, are the be all and end all of school problems, is biased and naive. Experienced educators are never brought forth as consultants on what is necessary to make schools function - the answer is the unpalatable palette of social problems which start many students at disadvantages of language, cultural knowledge, support at home from parents who already struggle to keep their families fed, and a cultural disregard for teachers and great devotional gifts they wish to give - education, enlightenment, self-sufficiency, a liberality of mind. As a New York city High school teacher, I have watched students deaden when faced with yet another standardized test. The testing narrows curriculum, ability to experience trial and error, and too often reinforces the sense of failure which pervades these children's lives. Mr. Brill should teach for a year in an urban high school. Then he can perhaps join the dialogues instead of defending the ideologues.

Aug. 23 2011 11:57 AM

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